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date: 03 December 2022

Chan Literaturelocked

Chan Literaturelocked

  • Jeffrey L. BroughtonJeffrey L. BroughtonCalifornia State University, Long Beach


An extensive printed Chan literature came into wide circulation during the Song dynasty (960–1279). This Song corpus included more-or-less intact texts from the Tang (618–907) and Five Dynasties (907–960), Tang and Five-Dynasties texts heavily reworked by Song editors, and a vast newly created set of Song Chan texts. This printed Chan literature spread among the educated elite during the Song period. In total, several hundred woodblock-printed texts from the Song and Yuan (1271–1368) periods, the classic age of Chan textual production, still exist, but many editions from the Ming (1368–1644) and later have also been preserved. In addition, Chan texts can be found within the Dunhuang-manuscript corpus. There are eight major Chan genres (omitting “rules of purity” or qinggui as too technical): yulu (collections of sayings of individual masters); flame-of-the-lamp records (biographical material and sayings of masters arranged as a series of inheritors of the flame of the lamp); poetry (both prosaic religious verse and highly allusive classical shi poetry); “standards” with attached poetry/prose comments (often called by Western scholars “gong’an/kōan collections”); compendia; collections of letters by Chan masters to scholar-officials, students, and peers; pretend dialogues; and glossary material. The language of the Chan records is a hybrid, a mixture of the written elegant language (wenyan) and a type of written Chinese based on spoken language. In time, the language of the Chan records became a sacerdotal language for Chan insiders, not only in China but in Korea and Japan as well. The language patterns of Chan literature—for instance, its proclivity for using everyday words and phrases as stand-ins for more imposing Buddhist-sounding equivalents—account for a great deal of its power and beauty. However, those language patterns also constitute serious obstacles for the modern reader. In short, the texts are very difficult to read because they are not simply “classical Chinese” nor are they modern vernacular. A stylistic convergence of the Chan records and classical Chinese poetry can be seen, particularly in the context of jueju quatrains of seven or five syllables. The sayings of the records often embody aesthetic ideals of Chinese poetry: lexical economy, emphasis on the imagistic, and minimal use of nonimagistic or abstract words.


  • Buddhism

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