Fan Bai: Chinese Buddhist Monastic Chants

By Tan, Hwee-San | Notes, March 2012 | Go to article overview

Fan Bai: Chinese Buddhist Monastic Chants


Tan, Hwee-San, Notes


CHINESE BUDDHIST CHANT Fan Bai: Chinese Buddhist Monastic Chants. Edited by Pi-Yen Chen. (Recent Researches in the Oral Traditions of Music, 8.) Middleton, WI: A-R Editions, 2010. [Figs., p. vii; CD tracks, p. viii; pref., p. ix-x; hist. & comment., p. 1-42; plates & transcriptions, p. 43-88; facsim., p. 88-154; notes, p. 155-57; glossaries, p. 158-62; bibliog. refs., p. 163-65. Compact disc. ISBN-10 0895796724, ISBN-13 9780895796721. $150.]

Buddhism in China has a long history, dating back to around the first century of the Common Era. For over two millennia this foreign religion from India via Central Asia has laid down roots in its adopted land, and continuously evolved to develop into a uniquely Chinese Mahayana Buddhism that has infiltrated a wide spectrum of Chinese society up to the present day. There is no lack of historiography of Buddhism in China. Writings in English on music and ritual in Chinese Buddhism are, however, still sparse. Despite being an intrinsic part of the religion, liturgy and its musical expression are often neglected or treated as peripheral to other aspects of Buddhism. Pi-Yen Chen's volume on monastic chants, complete with a compact disc and musical transcriptions, is therefore a welcome addition to the limited body of studies in Chinese Buddhist music and ritual.

The first half of the volume consists of three chapters. The first is a forage into the history and background of Chinese Buddhist chants, following the development of contemporary liturgies and Buddhist music; this is followed by discussions on the types of chants, and analysis of their musical styles; the third chapter then focuses on an examination of the daily liturgies in the monastery. The book's second half consists of musical transcriptions in Western notation (presumably by Chen herself) of a selection of different categories of chant alongside their Chinese chant texts. A facsimile of the complete liturgy of the daily service follows the transcriptions. The first three chapters and the musical transcriptions should be of much interest to music scholars.

The long history of the religion's development in China makes it no easy task to present a full picture of the evolution of Buddhist chants in its adopted land; it is a subject that deserves a separate book altogether. Information on Chinese Buddhist liturgical chant and its performance can be gleaned from canonical Buddhist literature dating from around the sixth to the eighth centuries; references to the origin of Chinese Buddhist fanbai (referring to the singing of hymns and praises), descriptions of musically adept preachers and hymnodists, and accounts of rituals and ceremonies can all be found. Chen's historical account in chapter 1 omits the early history, focusing instead on the development of chant within the various Buddhist schools that emerged after the Tang dynasty (618-907). The establishment of large public monasteries during the Song dynasty (960-1279), she points out, was a "watershed in the development of Chinese Buddhist chants," noting that "most monastic liturgies practised today were composed during and after the Song dynasty" (p. 1). Chen attributes the continued prevalence of chant practice from the Song period to "the fact that the public Chan (Zen) monasteries became the major Buddhist institutions in China during the Song dynasty, and their monastic regulations ensured the perpetuation of fundamental rituals" (p. 2). Two other schools of Buddhism singled out by Chen as having played important roles in shaping liturgies and chants extant today are the Tiantai and Mi/Zhenyan Esoteric schools. The influence of the Pure Land ( Jingtu) school, however, is no less than the other two schools; Chen fails to draw attention to this fact in this section but mentions it a few pages later when discussing the nianfo practice (pp. 5-6), and also in chapter 3 (pp. 37-41) when discussing the evening service, whose aim "is to direct the participants to the Pure Land" (p. …

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