Challenging the reigning emperor for success: Hanshan Deqing [??] 1546-1623 and late ming court politics.

Author:Zhang, Dewei

Beginning in the second half of the sixteenth century, China saw an intensive Buddhist movement that profoundly affected the contours of Chinese Buddhism. This phenomenon has been described by modern scholars as the "late Ming Buddhist renewal." But as the term "renewal" implies, what took place in the movement was an upward turn of the previous course of Chinese Buddhism. This discontinuity in development becomes even clearer if we consider that this renewal was preceded by the serious discrimination that Emperor Jiajing (r. 1522-1566) pursued against Buddhism over a period as long as four decades. (1) In order to fully understand the phenomenon of late Ming Buddhist renewal and its significance in the history of Chinese Buddhism, scholars are challenged not only to describe what happened in the movement but, more importantly, to explain the reasons behind it. (2) Thus far they have paid great attention to eminent Buddhist clerics who exerted tremendous influence within the samgha and beyond. But the focus has essentially been on their life and thought, and little effort has been made to understand significant issues such as why these clerics stood out from other monks, how they obtained their success, and how and to what extent fluctuations in their lives reflected the state of Buddhism in genera1. (3)

Hanshan Deqing [??] (1546-1623) was an important Buddhist master who profoundly shaped the late Ming Buddhist renewal, but how he exerted his influence is still a mystery in some significant areas. (4) Acclaimed by later generations as one of the "Four Great Buddhist Masters" of his time, Deqing's tremendous influence--especially in the second half of his life--is well attested. For example, in Wanli 45 (1617) when he returned to the Jiangnan region, Shen Defu Nit [??] (1578-1642), a knowledgeable and reliable contemporary observer, described in vivid detail the enthusiasm Deqing aroused there: "The talented young would feel fortunate if given the chance to hold his sanitary vessels and to wash his urine container. The wife and daughter of respectable families made donations, but weeping and requesting salvation they were unable to obtain a few words"--[??] (5) This kind of striking popularity that Deqing enjoyed was unusual, however. Deqing was native of Quanjiao [??] (today's Quanjiao, Anhui) and spent fourteen years as a monk in the Great Baoen monastery [??] in Nanjing, but he did not leave any lasting trace there in his youth before he left for Beijing at age twenty-six. The following forty-five years he spent away from Jiangnan, with the exception of about one month in Wanli 17 (1589). Furthermore, he spent eleven years, from Wanli 23 to 34 (1595-1606), as an exile in the Yue region (today's Guangdong). Being exiled was a serious penalty the government imposed on a criminal, and a Buddhist monk was supposed to avoid the secular world. This episode not only raises the question of why Deqing was exiled in the first place but, more importantly for our purposes, it also presses us to ask how an officially punished monk could still be so popular in the secular world, and to what extent his reputation and status were connected to this punishment. During the late Ming period, we can find many similar cases within the Buddhist community and beyond, in which receiving official punishment enhanced rather than impaired the reputation of the people involved. From a broader perspective, then, we can also ask why the state and society were so frequently in disagreement at the time, as we find exemplified in Deqing's successes and setbacks over the course of his life.

With these questions in mind, this paper revisits Deqing's involvement in a Dharma assembly held at Mount Wutai around Wanli 10 (1582) in hope of disclosing strategies that Deqing employed for self-promotion as well as the efforts that he and later generations of people took to shape his image. This event has long been believed to be a courageous act that finally led to Deqing's exile and therefore has been treated as crucial to Deqing's life and religious career. Although I agree with the importance assigned to the event, I view it more as a deliberate plan intended to link Deqing with the inner court, and it was the strategy revealed in the event rather than the event itself that was what led to his tragedy. This paper unfolds along the following lines: first, through a careful textual analysis, it corrects an ingrained misreading of Deqing's role in the Dharma assembly. Then it proceeds to uncover possible motivations underlying Deqing's active engagement in the event by relating it to key features of his personal and religious life. Finally, it turns to contemporary religious and political landscapes in order to reassess the strength and weakness of the late Ming Buddhist revival under the pressure of court politics. This paper exposes some interesting issues concerning Deqing's life and religious career, and in light of Deqing's representativeness and influence in the Buddhist community, it also sheds new light on the origins of the late Ming Buddhist renewal and on the dynamics that fostered it.

  1. TEXTS

    An unambiguous connection between Deqing's life and late Ming court politics has been established by certain authoritative materials for centuries. In his annotation to the Hanshan laoren zhixu nianpu shilu [??]. Deqing's annalistic autobiography (cited as nianpu hereafter), Fuzheng [??] (1590-1665; jinshi, 1628) has a general comment on the life of his master under the Wanli 10 entry: (6)

    During the reign of Emperor Shenzong (i.e., the Wanli emperor) ... the debates over the imperial heir carried the biggest weight. Regarding Patriarch Han[shan]'s presence in the secular world, things related to the imperial heir were of the greatest significance. His contribution lay in the fact that he was the first person to advocate installing the imperial heir in compliance with public opinion, and he was planning for the benefit of the state. It was not that he was [someone whoj followed others' discussions of the Secession Issue to initiate disastrous court factionalism. [??] (7) The Succession Issue mentioned here was the political event that dominated the Wanli court. The Wanli emperor married Empress Wang (1565-1620) in Wanli 6 (1578). According to the regulations that were established by early Ming emperors and remained effective in the subsequent years, the oldest son by an empress had the undisputable prerogative to succeed to the throne. In Wanli's case, however, Empress Wang gave birth only to a girl. According to the regulation established by the founding emperor Zhu Yuanzhang [??] (r. 1368-1398), if an emperor had no son by his empress, his oldest son by another woman would have priority in succeeding to the throne. (8) Therefore, Zhu Changluo [??](1583-1620), Wanli's first son, automatically became the candidate for crown prince due to his seniority among his brothers. But Wanli's preference was given to Zhu Changxun [??] (1586-1641), his third son born by his favorite courtesan. Wanli lacked the courage to resolve the dilemma by challenging the established rules as well as the officials standing for them, but he was stubborn enough to postpone the solution of the problem with multiple excuses. As a consequence, during a period as long as three decades, beginning in Wanli 14 (1586), two groups formed on opposite sides of the Succession Issue. Factionalism thrived at the court, a series of serious political crises broke out, and the operation of government was paralyzed, events that would in turn finally seal the fate of the dynasty. (??)

    Before we delve into the details of Fuzheng's comments, let us first consider their nature. The nianpu was completed on the basis of Deqing's dictation in 1622, one year before his death. Fuzheng was born in a powerful family in Jiaxing [??] and obtained the jinshi degree in 1628. Fuzheng had studied as a disciple under Deqing from 1617, and the fact that he spent so much time with Deqing during the latter's last few years gave him the position of annotating the nianpu. (10) Since he was a charismatic figure, Deqing's sincerity in the nianpu has never been seriously challenged. Moreover, Fuzheng reveals in the nianpu that he was aware of the importance of maintaining objectivity and accuracy while annotating the auto-biography. (11) All of these factors give credence to the two texts, supporting their reputation as rare, authoritative, and reliable sources. Contemporary and modern scholars believe that these texts offer the best way to approach Deqing's life and spiritual experiences, as well as giving us a close look at the Buddhist world during the mid and late Ming.(12)

    In the passage cited above, it is clear that Fuzheng intended to attribute moral and political rectitude to Deqing by presenting him as an insightful, courageous hero fighting for the sake of the state. To support his claim, Fuzheng constantly calls our attention to two specific events that involved Deqing in court strife, saying that "copying the Buddhist sutra with blood and holding the 'Great Equal Assembly' (Skt. pancavarsika) were the original cause of the prayer for the royal heir" [??] Deqing himself provides us with more details about these two events. The nianpu states:

    Previously, Master Miao[feng] had also copied the Huayan jing with blood drawn from his body. and shared with me a desire to hold the Great Equal Assembly to celebrate once the prqject was completed. The food and money he had collected all arrived, and five hundred masters of great virtue were invited from the imperial capital. making it ready tbr the assembly. As it happened. the emperor issued an edict praying for the birth of the imperial heir. He sent officials to Mount Wudang, while the Holy Mother dispatched officials to our monastery on Mount Wutai. considered that whatever Buddhist services monks (Skt.rainazas) perform are intended to benefit the...

To continue reading