Buddhist practice transformed the religious landscape in China, introducing new forms of mental cultivation and new ritual technologies within an altered cosmology of spiritual goals. Buddhist practice was carried out by individuals, but was equally as often a communal activity. A basic unit of religious practice was the family; Buddhist cultivation was also carried out by communities of practice at monasteries, which were also sites of large-scale rituals. Forms of religious practice included meditation, oral recitation, ritual performances including confession and vow making, and merit-making activities. Meditation encompassed following breath and exercises that recreated Buddhist images in the practitioner’s mind. Meditation could be carried out while sitting, or while walking, and might also incorporate recitation of scriptures, names of the Buddhas, and dhāraṇī. Indeed, meditation practices were most often embedded in liturgical sequences that included confession, vows, and merit dedication. The goal of these religious practices might be personal spiritual development; through the concept of merit transference, religious activities also worked to benefit others, especially the dead. The fundamental of components of Buddhist practice were present very early in the tradition’s history in China, and over time these elements were combined in new ways, and with reference to changing objects of devotion. The four major bodhisattvas of Mañjuśrī (Wenshu 文殊), Samantabhadra (Puxian 普賢), Kṣitigarbha (Dizang 地藏), and Avalokiteśvara (Guanyin 觀音) were especially important as objects of devotion, and also were emplaced in the Chinese landscape, where they were incorporated into pilgrimages.
Paul A. Van Dyke
In 1684, China reopened its doors to trade with the outside world, which had a huge impact on the development of global commerce. Canton quickly emerged as one of the few ports in the world where everyone was welcomed and where everyone (except Japanese and Russians) had access to everything including tea, silk, and porcelain. Unlike other ports, individual traders in Canton could buy and sell the same high-quality products as those handled by the East India companies. As the Canton trade grew, international networks became more sophisticated; as more ships went to China, new forms of remittance such as Letters of Credit and Bills of Exchange became standard, which streamlined international finance; as more money flowed into Canton, more goods were distributed worldwide, which gave rise to globalization; as economies in both the eastern and western hemispheres became more integrated with the Chinese market, there was a parallel decline in the risks of conducting trade, which encouraged the advancement of private enterprise. One by one the large East India companies found it increasingly more difficult to compete and went broke.
However, the success of the Canton trade was also its weakness. Because the legal trade was so dependent on silver collected from opium sales, and because a decline in opium sales would likely lead to a decline in rice imports, only minimal efforts were made by local officials to stop the smuggling. Foreigners were eventually able to overcome the system with the outbreak of war in the late 1830s, but this happened because the system had already defeated itself.
In terms of jurisdiction and punishment, the border between civil and criminal laws in imperial China is not clear cut. The same officials can handle both civil and criminal cases, and lawfully impose the same punishment, such as the death penalty, on unfilial sons and traitors alike. In terms of the sphere of interests, however, the officials know very well that some violations are more concerned with private interests than public interests. For example, they will settle loan disputes in accordance with the original private contract between the money lenders and borrowers, unless the interest rate is so exorbitant that it necessitates government intervention. Consequently, the imperial Chinese and modern Western civil laws are roughly common in their coverage of marriage, divorce, succession, disinheritance, property matters, and so on. And, like the Western laws, the Chinese laws have experienced historical changes, many of the most important of which occurred during the Song dynasty (960–1279) or the “Tang-Song transformation,” so called to highlight the tremendous progress of China from the medieval to the early modern stages. Against the principle of filial piety, both sons and daughters are now allowed to sue their parents without fear of the death penalty if their accusations are true. Against the principle of communal family, both sons and daughters can possess privately earned properties not to be shared by their parents and siblings. Against the principle of patrilineal succession, unmarried daughters have their inheritance rights increased at the expense of the sons, reaching the ratio of two shares for a son and one share for a daughter. Against the principle of different rights according to different status, a formal concubine can inherit the spousal patrimony and establish an heir when the wife is absent. These changes reflect that the legislative principles, though still far from enshrining equality before the law, are paying increasing attention to the balance of duties and rights with decreasing regard to family relation, gender, or status. As to the judicial practices, they are nearing the rule of law and becoming more predictable instead of inconsistent. These are the less-known or even misunderstood aspects of the civil law in imperial China.
Throughout the course of premodern China’s history, the planning and performance of religious ritual has been a primary concern. These offerings of bloody victuals, drink, and, later, incense to gods and ancestors seek to ensure the ongoing vitality and prosperity of the living and the peaceful security and well-being of the ancestral dead. Sacrifices were understood as food, sustenance for the occupants of the other world, who would, in return, imbue the sacrificed provender with blessings (fu福), which the sacrificer and family could share by consuming the food. This sacrificial ritual is at the heart of a diffuse, indigenous religion that encompasses people of all social classes, from the poorest peasant to the ruler and his representatives. It was never named, but scholars sometimes isolate segments and discuss them as “folk religion,” “state religion,” “Confucianism,” or “Daoism.” C. K. Yang dubbed the complex “shenism” based on the Chinese word for god (shen神), but this ignores the closely parallel practices directed toward the ancestors. Here we will use the term Chinese popular religion to refer to this complex of beliefs and practices.
Daoism (previously Taoism) is a vexed word that has been used to stand for several distinct terms in Chinese. Here it will refer to China’s indigenous organized religion, a faith founded upon a revelation in 142
Famines have played an important role in China’s history. Because the Confucian classics interpreted natural disasters as warnings from Heaven, in ancient and imperial China feeding the people in times of crisis was viewed as an essential part of retaining the mandate to rule. Formative famine-relief measures were codified in China’s first imperial dynasty, the Qin (221–206
After the fall of the Qing dynasty in 1912, famines continued to be a test of state legitimacy. But Chinese modernizers largely rejected Confucian interpretations of famine in favor of the claim that modern science and technology would provide the best defense against disasters. By the 1940s, both the Chinese Nationalists and their Communist rivals called on people to sacrifice for the nation even during famine times. The Chinese Communist Party came to power in 1949 promising that under Communist rule “not one person would starve to death,” but within a decade it presided over the most lethal famine in Chinese and world history. The horrors of the Great Leap Famine of 1958–1962 forced Chinese Communist Party leaders to make changes that ultimately paved the way for the rural reforms of the 1980s.
Steven B. Miles
Before the end of the Tang dynasty, cultural production was largely a court-centered activity. This began to change as the nature of China’s political, social, and cultural elite, the literati (shi), was transformed by the Southern Song dynasty. Henceforth, the elite of China was primarily a local elite, occasionally producing holders of high office but primarily focusing on activities in their home areas to achieve and maintain their status. One important activity was scholarship, which involved such activities as establishing private academies (shuyuan) and the production of texts such as gazetteers and anthologies, many of which were concerned with the locales in which they were produced. The late imperial period, beginning in the Song, witnessed alternating periods of statist and localist turns, as the initiative in scholarly production shifted between the imperial court and local elites. Intellectual movements such as Neo-Confucianism and evidential research (kaozheng) fed into the production of localist texts and the formation of regional or local schools of scholarship.
Although popular literature circulated in manuscript from very early in Chinese history, the invention of woodblock printing or xylography in the 7th century greatly facilitated the dissemination of popular texts. The lively urban culture of the 11th through the 14th centuries stimulated the production of performance literature, prose or prosimetric narratives in simple classical and vernacular Chinese. Commercial publishers in the cities and Jianyang, Fujian, took advantage of the growing demand for texts among readers of modest literacy and produced ballads and “plain tales” for this audience.
The publishing boom of the 16th century greatly accelerated this trend, as publishers in the cities of the lower Yangzi delta (Jiangnan), and most particularly Jianyang (in northern Fujian), began crafting texts explicitly designed to meet the needs of non-elite readers: literacy primers, vernacular explanations of the Classics, historical fictions and adventure tales, and popular encyclopedias for daily use, all in a language accessible to readers of limited education.
At the same time literati authors mined the popular literature of earlier centuries for stories that they transformed into literary masterpieces—although in the process they often reversed the subversive messages and smoothed out the vigorous “vulgar” language of the originals. But their greatest achievements, dramas like The Lute Song and the novels Romance of the Three Kingdoms, Water Margin, and Journey to the West, remain among the most universally admired works of Chinese fiction. These latter texts presage, too, the development of the vernacular novel as one of the literary glories of the late imperial period.
By the 18th century, the population increase and growing demand for texts—and the spread of woodblock printing to the interior and hinterland—ensured the dissemination of a common core of universally popular fictional works throughout China Proper. It was not, however, until the early 20th century and the widespread adoption of mechanized printing, that a true mass readership developed. By that time, the introduction of new genres of literature—the modern short story and novel—had transformed the nature of popular literature.
From the consolidation of the Han empire (206