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Hualin International Journal of Buddhist Studies 6.2 (2023): 309–317;
(This article belongs to the Special Issue Religion and Local Society)

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Chen, Huaiyu. In the Land of Tigers and Snakes: Living with Animals in Medieval Chinese Religions. Pp. 288. Hardcover, USD $140.00; Paperback USD $35.00

Guo WU 伍國
Allegheny College

Huaiyu Chen’s monograph, In the Land of Tigers and Snakes: Living with Animals in Medieval Chinese Religions, represents a pioneering approach to medieval China. It seamlessly integrates the fields of religious studies and animal studies, offering a unique perspective on how Buddhism adapted to Chinese depictions of animals and modified them. Chen delves into how Sinicised Buddhism incorporated animals, encompassing both predators, herbivores, and birds, as integral elements of Chinese Buddhist monastery life and textual representations. Furthermore, the book sheds light on Buddhism’s competition with Daoism within the diverse landscape of religious beliefs in ancient China. The text unfolds as a captivating cultural history, exploring how ancient Chinese perceptions of animals were influenced by religious faith. This distinct characteristic of the book allows the author to confidently assert that it will appeal not only to scholars of Chinese Buddhism but also to those in the fields of animal studies, Asian studies, and environmental studies. In terms of methodology, the book is undeniably multidisciplinary. Chen explicitly acknowledges that he has harnessed a range of approaches encompassing history, religious studies, literary analysis, and anthropology. Moreover, I feel that, as demonstrated within, the book serves as a valuable work in comparative religion and the sociology of religion by extending its focus beyond Buddhism to examine the Daoist perspective and practice on animals within a seeming ‘market of religions’.

To tackle the main research question about how animals were defined in Chinese religious traditions, Chen adeptly recognises the intricacies inherent in the historical study of Chinese religions, whether they pertain to Buddhism or Daoism. This complexity arises from the existence of two distinct realms: one in the realm of lived experiences, and the other within the realm of textual tradition. In this context, it is important to acknowledge that what is conveyed in the written texts may not always accurately reflect reality, as the written accounts can often be influenced by apologetic rhetoric and ‘ethical principles’ that could be distinct from ‘practical activities’ (8) and ‘daily experiences’ (10). Another issue that Chen keeps in mind is the conflict and reconciliation between the ‘very rich animal culture’ of pre-Buddhist Chinese and the Buddhist ‘idea of the animal realm’ that ‘challenge[s] the Chinese concept’ (5). However, as we delve into the book’s chapters, we will discover that the narrative surrounding animals in the Chinese Buddhist tradition underwent a transformation to become distinctly ‘Chinese’. This transformation is evident in the prevalent utilisation of the tiger image and the widespread presence of accounts detailing Buddhist monks’ encounters with tigers. These stories are often found within the quintessentially Chinese writings of prominent monks’ biographies. The author also gives due consideration to the political dimension of animals’ presence in ancient Chinese society, carefully examining the involvement of both the state and local communities in mitigating the threats posed by tigers and snakes. This exploration highlights the dominant influence wielded by the state during these interventions.


About the Author: Guo Wu earned his Ph.D. in Chinese history from the State University of New York at Albany in 2006. He currently holds the position of Associate Professor of Chinese History at Allegheny College, USA. His research interests include Confucianism, China’s late Qing reform and modern revolution, and the question of ethnic minorities, and he has authored three monographs and one collection of published essays.


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