Reading Mahāyāna Scriptures Conference, Sept 25-26, 2021
Dr. Gregory Adam Scott
Senior Lecturer in Chinese Culture and History, Chinese Studies, University of Manchester
‘Reading Mahāyāna Scriptures in Modern China: The Role of Scriptural Presses, Distributors, and Buddhist Bookstores’
Buddhist scriptures have been at the centre of Chinese Mahāyāna traditions since they were first brought into China and translated into Classical Chinese in the early Common Era. Since then, they have had a lively existence, being re-copied, re-translated, inscribed, reprinted, collected, commented upon, indexed, and further transmitted throughout East Asia. From the late nineteenth century and into the early twentieth century, however, the task of getting people to actually read the Buddhist scriptures gained a new urgency. The Taiping War of the 1850s and 60s had destroyed untold numbers of Buddhist texts, and as part of the post-war reconstruction, a new generation of monastic and lay printers worked to produce new editions of Mahāyāna texts and put them into the hands of as many people as possible. The textual production and distribution networks they established were joined in the 1920s and 1930s by specialist Buddhist publishers and bookstores that used cutting-edge technology to produce, distribute, and sell their texts. Without abandoning the scriptural corpus that had helped define Mahāyāna traditions for centuries, they imagined new ways of connecting readers with texts so that both critical understanding and numinous inspiration could result.
My presentation will examine how scriptural presses, scripture distributors, and Buddhist bookstores worked to promote reading and understanding Mahāyāna scriptures in modern China. These institutions and the people who managed them operated during an era of rapid technological and cultural transformation, during which various state authorities were attacking religious culture but promoting education and literacy. The textual world of these printers and publishers drew upon the centuries-old patrimony of Chinese Buddhist textual culture, but also attempted to embrace the promises and opportunities of the modern era in order to address the challenges they faced. As such it provides a window not only into how Chinese Buddhist leaders creatively adapted to changing circumstances, but also more generally how religious culture throughout modernizing East Asia introduced innovation into scriptural reading practices.