Buddhist Economics

“Chinese Monasteries and their Function in the Chinese Markets between 1600 and 1900”

(PhD-project of Tobias Wissler, Tobias.Wissler@Ugent.be)

Our project concerns the role of the Chinese Buddhist monasteries within the economical centres of Late Imperial China. The Buddhist monasteries had a broad network going from the smallest level of the village to the capital city of Beijing. They constituted an important economic power. In our research, we investigate which economic functions the monasteries exactly took upon them, and to what extent. As land owners, they possessed and traded in agricultural land, employed workmen, and collected rent from their tenants. As private banking institutions, they gave loans (mostly to farmers) sometimes at high rates. And they tried to influence the mechanism of supply and demand. As religious institutions they organized many ceremonies, such as funerals. Other monasteries became rich centres of pilgrimage. It is hereby essential to trace at which level (from the village community to the big city centres) the monasteries exerted which influence, and how important this was. Equally important is the relationship of the monasteries with the financial institutions of the Chinese state. Finally, we have to take into account regional as well as time differences: were the monasteries prominent throughout the whole period of 1600 to 1900 or do we see an important evolution? And is this potential evolution regional or national?

Until now, there has not been done a lot of research into the role of the Buddhist monasteries in the Chinese economy of Late Imperial China. The most important work on the economic position of monasteries still is Jacques Gernet's Les aspects économiques du bouddhisme dans la société chinoise du Vième au Xième siècle, Saigon, Ecole Francaise d'Extrême-Orient, 1956. The book concerns the period between the fifth and the tenth centuries, but does not contain any research on later periods. However, these later periods are essential in the making of the so-called 'Modern China'. Certainly between 1600 and 1900 did China undergo an important economic change, with growing interregional and international developments. The role of the monasteries in these developments is still largely unknown. There is, however, an interesting description (with the help of monks as living witnesses) of the economic power of the monasteries just after the fall of the Chinese Empire: Holmes Welch, The Practice of Chinese Buddhism 1900-1950, Harvard University Press, 1967. This work shows how the monasteries had specialised in specific economic activities: as land owners, as pilgrim centres, or as providers of funeral ceremonies. The book equally describes a sharp process of impoverishment of the monasteries during the first half of the twentieth century. How the specialisation of the monasteries went its way, and how rich they exactly were during the last centuries of the Empire still needs to be thoroughly researched. We hope that through the study of the extensive archival material at the disposal of the project, we finally can point out the role of the Chinese Buddhist monasteries within the economical centres of Late Imperial China.