Inter-area/Border Crossing

Organized Panel Session

3 - Fasting as Culture Shock in Fourth- through Sixth-Century China

Saturday, July 7
2:40 PM - 4:10 PM
Location: Jacaranda II, First Floor

This paper examines the trope of fasting as a Buddhist ritual practice with Indic origins in the early medieval Chinese cultural imaginaire. Periods of fasting, with prescriptions for appropriate kinds of foods and sanctioned times for eating, were an important cornerstone of Buddhist monastic life. In particular, we can trace the practice of holding “fasting ceremonies,” which joined together monastic and lay communities through prolonged periods of collective, ritual observance on six days of each lunar month, from its appearance in Buddhist sutras from southeast Asia into Chinese poetry, miracle tales, and polemical essays in the fourth through sixth centuries. As scholars have shown, the fasting ceremony was one of the primary forms of interaction between monastics and lay elites during the period of Buddhist integration into elite society in south China. However, as monks were supposed to beg for food from others outside the monastic community, the fasting ceremony was also a source of culture shock in its Chinese environment, where begging was traditionally looked down upon as evidence of one’s alienation from kinship groups. In my paper, I argue that the potential to create misunderstandings and to pique curiosity for those outside the monastic community made fasting a powerful motif in fourth- through sixth-century Chinese literature. By contextualizing and analyzing the use of this motif across a range of different genres, I hope to contribute to our understanding of how Buddhism as a diverse complex of “foreign” elements was made to map onto Chinese literary and cultural forms.


Graham Chamness

Harvard University, United States

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