Empire in Asia

A New Global History

Praying for Power

Book Cover

Book Title

Praying for Power: Buddhism and the Formation of Gentry Society in Late-Ming China. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1993


Brook, Timothy


The book is a developed version of a doctoral dissertation by the author. By examining steles that are from the late-Ming period, the book attempts to uncover the system of patronage at the time, and the social structure that is able to be understood through the gentry or elites. Whilst it is assumed that Buddhist practices were despised by orthodox Confucians, this provides the motive for the book: why were the gentry in this period supporting religious institutions they were taught to be antagonistic towards?

The complexity of everyday life contributes to the existence of religious institutions- for they are the expression of a cultural significance. By studying patronage, we see how the gentry in the late- Ming period had invested wealth into physical structures such as monasteries- also indicating a growth of commercialization and social change. The book does not study religion in particular, but looks at the social implications of the revival of religion in the period- the gentry had contributed the context for such a revival.

By rejecting Communist historiography for portraying the West as responsible for China’s inability to adapt in the 19th and 20th centuries, the book assesses economic and social thought, as well as how gentry studies had developed over time. This contributes to the understanding of status and hierarchy, through understanding monastic patronage as “a unique cultural signification”.

The book contributes to a cultural but also economic perspective to the late-Ming period that gives us an insight into power, its forms and shifts from the national to local level, and what this power meant in the context of the time.

Scope (Topics Covered, Time Period)

By focusing on the prestigious Si or monasteries, the book explores the different ends to which patronage was extended. By focusing on how Buddhism featured in the culture of the time, more specifically to the gentry, the book gives a good introduction to the systems of cultural significance in the late- Ming period (answering questions about the how and why of gentry patronage). By reading sources and terminology that emerged in the period, especially during the Wanli era, the book shows how the gentry had become localized- through terms such as “county gentry”, it is able to coherently display how cultural mechanisms worked at the time.

The topic is apt because, as the author puts forth, gentry society is particular to the late- Ming. Paralleling Habermas’ concept of the public sphere in Europe, (whilst also modifying it) the book looks at how the growth of commerce can be related to the emergence of a local social elite, but must be differentiated from Europe due to the particular cultural systems and nature of the state. The book can be read as a critical examination of the aspects of late-Ming China through the lens of patronage.

Argument (Methodology, Significance)

The availability of sources provide a context for Brook to examine monasteries singularly- they allow him to examine the patronage as an important indicator of the orientation of the society in the late-Ming period “toward autonomy”. Thus, the gentry are presented as the social elite that could mobilize resources on a local level, and the ability to manipulate cultural commodities showed and legitimized the gentry’s social dominance.

By understanding the gentry’s position to be at once both encompassing the sphere of the state and outside it, the gentry could be seen as distinct from the European public sphere as it excluded non-elites. Whilst the gentry was comprised of private individuals, they were shifting towards a public realm that symbolized a growing autonomy from the state.
Before the Ming, power was a concept that did not really relate to monastic patronage- but the shift to significance is a context for the study. The study is significant in that this was not about isolated and disparate cases but a substantial growth of gentry support for such institutions can be read as a social phenomenon. Being indeed a very specific and detailed study, it is a rich account of the period, showing how both philosophically and also materially, gentry society must be seen in relation to their patronage- as this defines them as a group.

Annotated by Sandeep Singh