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Sacred Economies: Buddhist Monasticism and Territoriality in Medieval China

Author(s):Walsh, Michael J.
Reviewer(s):Tollison, Robert D.

Published by EH.NET (April 2010)

Michael J. Walsh, Sacred Economies: Buddhist Monasticism and Territoriality in Medieval China. New York: Columbia University Press, 2010. xiv + 237 pp. $50 (hardcover), ISBN: 978-0-231-14832-0.

Reviewed for EH.NET by Robert D. Tollison, Department of Economics, Clemson University.

Sacred Economies is by Michael J. Walsh, an associate professor of Religion and Asian Studies at Vassar College. The book can be characterized as a case study of a long standing Buddhist monastery in southeast China called Tiantong. (Other monasteries and their land holdings are brought into the discussion, but Tiantong is the focus.) The central question that Walsh addresses is how did these spiritual centers took hold, gained ground, and mostly survived in medieval China. His findings are threefold. The occupants of the monasteries were devout Buddhists, who created an esteemed and valued religious product. (Walsh refers to this process as creating ?spaces? in which to pursue a meaningful existence.) The leaders of the monasteries simultaneously pursued an economic agenda, which entailed the production and sale of physical goods and services (grain mills, oil presses, silk, medicines, and so on), money lending, and the exchange of religious services (prayers, better karma, salvation, long life, happiness, liberation, and so on) for the economic support of the monastery. The form of the latter transactions was generally land donations for certain religious services. (Walsh refers to these services as ?merit.?) Basically, then, medieval Buddhism had a commercial side which was used to further its religious activities. Walsh also analyzes the nature of the religious ?product? provided by the monasteries in exchange for donations of land. That is, what were individuals buying in these cases (more below)?

There are many attractive aspects of Sacred Economies. Perhaps the main attraction is the approach of the author, who more or less immersed himself in his subject. By this I mean that he visited the Tiantong monastery and its surrounding property (in an earlier period). This is what might be termed ?Marco Polo? economics, and the personal familiarity of the author with his project rings true throughout the book. Other attractive features of the book include the emphasis on survival and organizational behavior. In a sense Sacred Economies can be seen as a case study in organizational economics.

There are also many parallels in Walsh?s account of the medieval Buddhist monasteries with the development of the medieval Catholic Church in Western Europe at approximately the same time. Both organizations had to coexist with and even co-opt civil authorities, both had to finance the operations of their churches and related activities, both were dominant landowners, both linked their religious products to revenue streams (?merit? and ?purgatory?), and so on in many other ways.

The book is also attractive in that it represents an effort to analyze the activities of an early religion from an (mostly) economic perspective. This is a growing area of inquiry, and Walsh?s book fits within this approach, although he seems unaware of this work.

That said Walsh?s use of economics is problematical. For reasons that escape me, he chooses to apply Marx?s labor theory of value (see especially Chapter 1) to discuss the nature of the exchange relationship between the monastery and the land donor. This makes for tortuous reading and reasoning, and it adds nothing of value to the analysis. What we end up with is some wooly concept of this exchange process that appears intended to elevate the purity of the motives of the participants to a higher plane rather than simply calling it capitalism, self-interest, positive-sum trade, or whatever. Indeed, the labor theory of value has no explanatory power at all, especially in the case of unimproved mountainous land (the main type of land accumulated by monasteries).

What does the Marxian (il)logic contribute to the analysis? Why not analyze exchange for what it was? Both parties found it in their self interest to exchange ?merit? for land. The monastery gained a revenue stream with which to generate more ?merit,? and the land donor received various religious services. The monastery also increased its political clout as its economic base grew larger. Real economics and real politics were in play here. There is no need to try to whitewash the process with Marxian rhetoric.

The medieval Buddhist monasteries were economic as well as religious organizations. Both types of output were valuable in the marketplace. The parallel to the medieval Catholic Church is again clear. The fact that a good is spiritual does not mean that it has no economic value or that the laws of supply and demand do not apply to it. The receipt of land in exchange for a more favored place in the hereafter is a transaction that routinely took place in Western Europe in, say, 1200. Standard economic analysis has been used to explain this type of transaction, and such analysis can be used in the case of the early Buddhists. Why muddy the water with the labor theory of value?

A related point is that the book introduces a large amount of Marxian jargon, which at times confuses things. For example, ?Here Marx is dealing explicitly with the product of the capitalist whose aim is to produce surplus-value. I am not calling the Buddhist monks in China capitalists; I am saying that with them, as with any institutionalized group, exchange was the rule, both use-value and surplus value were present, and economics worked hand in hand with salvation? (p. 20). The last statement is fine (hand in hand); those leading up to it are either contradictory (the monks were not capitalists) or inexplicable. At a minimum such language makes the book hard to read in places.

I do not want to overdo these critical points. I think that Walsh is correct that religious exchange processes are complex, and involve transactions that economists have rarely studied. Maybe we need some new descriptors. At the same time we need a common language in which to communicate so as not to miss real contributions that are obscured by the way in which they are presented.

The book is a good read. It has photographs of the Tiantong monastery and other illustrations, several appendices detailing land holdings by various monasteries and a floor plan of Tiantong, a glossary in both English and Chinese, copious footnotes, and a valuable bibliography.

In all, I came away from reading Sacred Economies with more questions than answers, and this is a compliment to the author.

Robert D. Tollison is the J. Wilson Newman Professor of Economics at Clemson University. He has published numerous books and papers in various areas of economics, and is currently working on a study of the determinants of secularism. Email:

Subject(s):Social and Cultural History, including Race, Ethnicity and Gender
Geographic Area(s):Asia
Time Period(s):Medieval