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The Impact of Buddhism on Chinese Material Culture

The book by John Kieschnick “The Impact of Buddhism on Chinese Material Culture” is devoted to the historical analysis of the material culture pertaining to Buddhism in China, with the scope of the author`s concern reaching as far as to include studies of ritual practices, relics, images, icons, books, architecture, the chair, tea and sugar, and other elements of the Buddhist culture.

At the same time, the persuasion of Kieschnick that plain material objects and everyday practices are very important for the understanding of the society being studied is inevitably transferred to a thoughtful reader for whom the work of John Kieschnick will most probably be a pleasing and in many ways surprising piece of reading. The book consists of an introduction, four chapters, and a conclusion.

The author starts his inquiry by describing the peculiarities and specific qualities inherent to the notion of objects, many of which we have mentioned earlier, in Buddhism, and covers various time spans and different regions, India, Central Asia, East Asia, and of course China among them. Early in the text, Kieschnick points out that the emphasis of the research is to understand what approaches were used during the creation of Buddhist objects, how the objects were used, and what were attitudes of people to those objects.

The first chapter titled “Sacred Power” introduces readers to the concept of `the sacred`, and then progresses to the Chinese examples of how sacred power was connected with mystic and miraculous beginnings. Here, the author argues that the tradition of the worship of remains and images was brought to China by Buddhism as he points out that instrumental in the development of this tradition was “. . . the belief that a power was present in images and relics” (Kieschnick 2003, p. 29).

To the question what it was in the first place that imbued Chinese icons with their power to incite reverence, Kieschnick demonstrates how rulers of China with the help of Buddhist arts sought to link themselves to the sacred sources of power, and, in the second chapter titled “Symbolism”, shows how Buddhist monastic signs, such as gestures, clothing, the rosary, rugs, etc. , obtained importance for lay people, ruling class, and other representatives of the Chinese society of pre-modern times.

As Kieschnick lays out historic evidence, he manages to really impress readers with the demonstration of the capability of human mind to create meaning for objects. The third chapter of the book is devoted to merit, the conception of which belongs to the list of the most influential in the Chinese society Buddhist notions that are surrounded by a number of corresponding material objects and practices. Again, the author argues that this element of religious practice had great social consequences through its influence on the Chinese culture, which before Buddhism did not possess the idea of a religious merit.

In accordance with his inquiring and clear writing style, Kieschnick firstly defines the Buddhist merit as the answer to the question what one has to give, and to whom. With this approach at hand, it becomes possible for the author to analyze how monastic practices created a culture based on merit, when funds were donated for building of temples with the merit given to donators in the form of a karmic reward, when Chinese monks were building bridges to participate in what they viewed as eliciting of blessings (Kieschnick 2003, pp. 199-209), or when books were written and distributed for merit.

In the end, numerous different activities began to be associated with eliciting of merit, and Kieschnick tries to pay a due tribute to this fundamental practice in Buddhist China. In the fourth chapter named “Accidents and Incidentals” Kieschnick gives an amusing account of the arrival from Indian to Chinese monasteries of the chair, and of the ways sugar and tea were produced, which would have a profound influence on Buddhism in China, partially because as tea and sugar production required intensive labor efforts, Buddhist monasteries turned into labor providers.

More generally, in this chapter readers can find a lot of interesting comparisons that help us better appreciate the Chinese world view. For example, the author mentions approaches to the chair`s usage and to sugar production in other cultures, which makes the reading even more interesting. All in all, the book of John Kieschnick is an example of a high quality research that can be recommended for all interested in the complicated history of culture and religion in China.

For one, throughout the book the author refers to a great number of sources from which he draws a lot of suitable evidence, so that it seems that in its field of study this volume is perhaps the most comprehensive one that can currently be found. At the same time, this book avoids being too narrowly focused as many readers might appreciate comparative qualities of this research, which essentially shows how contacts between grand cultures occur.

However, it might be pointed out that in some respects Kieschnick omits topics that could be useful for less advanced readers. For instance, in the part of the book devoted to the sacred power the overview of what the sacred as such means is somewhat sketchy, and many readers would be interested enough by the author to wish that more information were included. Also, speaking so much about the culture and religion, Kieschnick may be accused of not being clear about the division lines between these terms.

In this regard, examining a social environment in which culture and religion are much intertwined, the addition of theoretical considerations on this matter could help. But for readers who seek the specific and focused information about the interplay of religions and material cultures, such qualities of Kieschnick`s writing would instead be advantageous, so the above mentioned remarks cannot be considered as an earnest criticism of Kieschnick`s work.

After all, what can hardly be disputed is that Kieschnick manages to convincingly show that religious objects are not secondary to religious world views, but are equally an integral part of religious traditions on a par with religious doctrines. And, having their own realm of existence, material objects influence and transform lives of people, so the study of different material cultures is a tool of paramount importance for our understanding of their representatives.


Kieschnick, John. The Impact of Buddhism on Chinese Material Culture, Princeton University Press, 2003.

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