Chinese Buddhist poetry and literature remains largely unstudied in Western academia. The study of Buddhist poetry requires facility with the disparate fields of Chinese literature and Buddhist studies. These demands are a formidable challenge even for native speakers of East Asian languages. Nonetheless, several generations of East Asian scholars have made significant inroads into this field of inquiry. In this two-part essay, I will briefly outline two important academic lineages in Taiwan and their contributions to the study of Chinese Buddhist poetry.
Thanks to the generosity of Fulbright Taiwan, this past year I have had the honor of working at Academia Sinica’s Institute of Chinese Literature and Philosophy (ICLP) under the supervision of Professor Liao Chao-heng (廖肇亨). My interest in the intersections of Chinese Buddhism and literature has been nurtured by the large and active community of scholars at Academia Sinica.
When I had the opportunity to participate in conferences, attend lectures, or visit campuses and Buddhist temples, I was impressed by the breadth and depth of scholarship around Taiwan. The island, with its close connections to Japan and the West, is particularly well-suited to scholarship on Buddhist literature. Taiwan’s academic legacy lies at the nexus between traditional Chinese readership, modern Japanese textual analysis, and contemporary Western theory.
In Taiwan, scholarship on Buddhist poetry displays considerable variation and is necessarily an interdisciplinary pursuit. Some scholarship borrows methods from traditional literary studies to perform close-readings of texts and analyses of form, while other studies are more influenced by Buddhist studies and reveal expressions of religious ideals and philosophical principles within poetry. In general, most scholarship has focused on defining and exploring a canon of Buddhist poetry. Like other academic fields, studies of Buddhist poetry have focused on the so-called golden age of China’s Tang and Song dynasties. Finally, most inquiries have focused on the poetry connected to Chan (禪宗) in particular, neglecting other schools and traditions of Chinese Buddhism.
After discussions with professors and observations from conferences, I have concluded that there are two main schools of scholarship on Buddhist literature in Taiwan today. Members of these two schools of thought interact and collaborate with each other and there is neither rivalry nor animosity. Yet academic lineages are well-defined in East Asia, and Taiwan is not an exception.
A majority of contemporary scholars belong to the academic lineage traced to National Chengchi University’s (NCCU) Department of Chinese Literature (中國文學系). This lineage developed from a tradition of Chinese literary studies, not Buddhist studies per se. Wang Meng’ou (王夢鷗) lived from 1907 to 2002, and he was instrumental in founding the Chengchi Chinese Literature department. Originally from Fujian, Wang did his graduate study at Waseda University (早稻田大學) in Tokyo before returning to the Republic of China. He soon came to Taiwan, where he was a decorated cultural figure. Wang and his work are still celebrated in Taiwan, especially his monumental publications concerning Tang xiaoshuo (小説). Wang is remembered fondly by his students as an excellent teacher with exacting standards, and the Chinese department at NCCU is said to be inflected with the spirit of his personality.
Wang’s student, Luo Zongtao (羅宗濤), became an important colleague through his contributions to the development of the department at Chengchi University. Perhaps best remembered for his work on bianwen (變文) and other aspects of Dunhuang (敦煌) studies, Luo’s specializations also include Tang and Song literature as well as Buddhism. Luo’s research on the Dunhuang Buddhist materials has been significant to the development of this academic lineage. He has been able to advise students on topics in many areas of Buddhist literature. Luo is now affiliated with the Chinese Department at Hsuan Chuang University (玄奘大學). (Buddhist universities in Taiwan frequently hire mature scholars.)
Luo trained many successful students during his tenure at NCCU. Perhaps most famous among them is Li Fengmao (李豐楙), who has written extensively on Chinese religions and literature. Li is world-famous for his work on Daoism. He also oversaw dissertations focused on Chinese religions and Buddhist literary studies during his decade-long tenure at Chengchi University. Professor Li has continued his illustrious career as a member of the ICLP faculty at Academia Sinica since 1992.
Another prominent student of Professor Luo, Ding Min (丁敏), also did her graduate training at NCCU. She has written voluminously about Buddhism and Chinese literature. She returned to her alma mater, the NCCU Department of Chinese Literature, where she was given tenure.
Professor Ts’ai Jung-t’ing (蔡榮婷) is another well-respected member of the NCCU lineage. She worked under both Luo and Li to earn her bachelor’s, master’s, and doctoral degrees all from the NCCU Chinese department. Professor Ts’ai has taught at Chung Cheng University (國立中正大學) since 1993, and she has been a visiting researcher at Kyoto University many times. She is renowned for her rigorous style, and her numerous articles focused on Tang and Song Buddhist poetry and literature are read across East Asia. Her most recent monograph, Zutangji: Chanzong Shiji Yanjiu (祖堂集 : 禪宗詩偈研究), was published in 2004 and includes large sections of formal analysis as well as charts of prosody, meter, and rhyme—all contextualized within a Japanese-style Buddhist studies framework. Professor Ts’ai uses traditional categories to organize her analysis and engages her Japanese contemporaries in dialogue.
The Chengchi school of thought could be seen as combining traditional Sinological methods, examination of the canon, and engagement with Japanese scholarship. Many scholars in Taiwan are influenced by this style of scholarship. This academic lineage today is found mostly in universities in the south of Taiwan, even though it grew out of the NCCU Department of Chinese Literature. One factor in this shift may be the growth of the NCCU Center for the Study of Religion (宗教研究中心), founded in 1996 and known as the Graduate Institute for Religious Studies (宗教研究所) since 2000. Many Buddhist studies graduate students at NCCU today are affiliated with this center. Students of Chinese Buddhism that I have encountered are interested in intellectual history and the philosophical aspects of Buddhism. Without a strong Chinese literature education, it seems that the interest of graduate students at NCCU has shifted away from Buddhist literature.
In the second part of this two-part essay, I will examine the scholarship that developed at National Taiwan University and National Taiwan Normal University. After surveying the lineage, I will focus on three prominent scholars who are active today. I will offer more detail and a summary of their work. I will include Academia Sinica’s Professor Liao Chao-heng in that academic lineage, even though he completed his doctoral work at Tokyo University in Japan. Professor Liao, perhaps in part because of his unique background in both Chinese literature and Buddhism, has provoked a great deal of interest in his many works. I will conclude with an example of a scholar from mainland China who is well-read in Taiwan.
Jason Protass is a Ph.D. candidate in religious studies at Stanford University. During his grant, he conducted research on Buddhist literature and Chinese religiosity.