Date of Award

Summer 8-15-2019

Author's School

Graduate School of Arts and Sciences

Author's Department


Degree Name

Doctor of Philosophy (PhD)

Degree Type



This dissertation relies on about 600 legal cases from the Ba County Archive that survive from the first three-quarters of the nineteenth century to investigate the social life of ordinary Buddhist monks and nuns. Although they played a crucial in maintaining the survival and proper functioning of Buddhism at the local level, they have remained significantly understudied. This dissertation adopts a bottom-up approach to investigate ordinary monastics’ involvement in various socioeconomic activities. By shifting the analytical focus from elite monks to their more mundane counterparts, this study illuminates how deeply ordinary monastics were embedded in their communities. The shift also broadens our understanding of clerics as more than liturgical specialists and appreciates the multiple roles played by them in their everyday interaction with community members. Instead of ascribing to the dominant view of lower-class clerics as marginalized in late imperial China, this work argues that they played a vital role in a migrant society like Qing Ba County. In order to demonstrate the complexity of ordinary monastics’ social embeddedness and take advantage of the rich archival materials, the present work has been organized around four thematic arteries. Chapter One analyzes the continued interaction between local monastics and their natal family members in a wide array of arenas, emotionally, socially, and economically. Instead of being antithetical to each other, the monastic and family regimes worked together to achieve mutual survival and reproduction. Chapter Two enlarges on the importance of Buddhist temples in the economic sphere. It reveals how temples per se evolved into a valuable commodity frequently bought and sold among monastics, pointing to a high degree of the commodification of Buddhism in local society. It goes on to analyze two major sources of land-generated income, one deriving from the agricultural tenancy and the other the lease of coal mountains. Both categories of income not only stabilized the economic foundation of local temples, but also undergirded the powerful positions of monastics in rural areas. The following two chapters concentrate on clerical sexual activities, one of the most notorious issues of Chinese Buddhism. Instead of interpreting them as signs of the decline of monastic discipline and the corruption of the lower-class clergy, this dissertation contextualizes these activities by revealing various socioeconomic factors contributing to their occurrence and unveiling local residents’ attitudes toward sexually misbehaving monks and nuns. Chapter Three argues that three factors facilitated the occurrence of clerical sexual affairs and conditioned the local community’s tacit tolerance of such affairs, that is, the monk’s social embeddedness, the continued monastic-familial interaction, and the monk’s economic strength. Taken together, local monks and their lay community members redefined normative clerical behavior on their own terms. The last chapter turns attention to nuns’ involvement in sexual activities, and foregrounds that gender was constitutive of female monastics’ experience of sexuality. Nuns were not only more vulnerable than monks to see their sexual affairs exposed to the public, they also suffered from gender-biased anticlerical rhetoric. Nevertheless, we should notice that nuns sometimes employed the discourse of female vulnerability to enlist more lenient treatment from the magistrate. Together, this dissertation provides a vivid picture of the discordant and disjointed side of Chinese Buddhism and foregrounds the importance of sociality in the lives of ordinary monks and nuns in local society. By doing so, we gain a more balanced and nuanced understanding of Chinese Buddhism and Chinese society.


English (en)

Chair and Committee

Steven B. Miles

Committee Members

Daniel Bornstein, Beata Grant, Robert Hegel, Lori Watt,


Permanent Url: https://doi.org/10.7936/zp73-z975