The Publishing of Buddhist Books for Beginners in Modern China from Yang Wenhui to Master Sheng Yen

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Printed books have occupied a central place in East Asian
Buddhist culture for centuries, venerated as vessels of the dharma
and as sacred objects in their own right. Indeed the act of publishing
s?tra texts was often portrayed as generating immeasurable
amounts of merit. Yet the language and style of the scriptures is not
one that is immediately accessible without specialized instruction,
and thus commentaries, discourses, lectures and other didactic
devices proliferated alongside the s?tra texts. One genre of didactic
text that has played a crucial role in the personal religious histories
of many Chinese Buddhists is the introductory text or book for
beginners (chuxue ?? or rumen ??). Dozens of such texts were
produced from the late nineteenth century onwards, and continue
to occupy bookstore shelves today. Books of this type enable the
curious to learn about Buddhist teachings in an easily-accessible
format, without the need for an immediate investment of time or
personal commitment.
This presentation will focus on three authors of such Buddhist
introductory texts, each of whom lived in very different historical
circumstances and thus produced markedly different types of
books: Yang Wenhui ??? (1837-1911), who resurrected
Buddhist publishing in the decades following the Taiping Rebellion
and who wrote Textbook for Beginning Buddhism ??????;
Ding Fubao ??? (1874-1952), the editor of the massive Great
Dictionary of Buddhism ????? as well as a series of eight
introductions to Buddhism; and Master Shengyen ???? (1930-
2009), whose books are some of the most popular introductory
texts to Buddhism in the English-reading world.
The major argument of this article is that introductory texts
are much more complex and significant than their elementary
nature might suggest. They represent distillations of a multitude
of traditions into a stable and accessible framework, and serve as
textual embodiments of the authors? pedagogical methods. Books
for beginners constitute a unique category of Buddhist print culture,
one which sought both to rewrite the past and to re
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)51-107
Number of pages57
JournalShengyan yanjiu 聖嚴研究 (Sheng Yen Studies)
Publication statusPublished - Jun 2014


  • buddhism
  • print culture
  • religious primers


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