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The reception of Chinese books in medieval Zen temples

For Chinese texts to be read and studied within medieval Japanese Zen temples, they first had to be brought over from China. Since the number of books that could be physically transported to Japan was limited, they had to be reproduced locally, which led to the appearance of Japan-made books in Chinese.  

Traditionally, Chinese texts were read using a method known as ‘gloss reading’ (kundoku). In Week 2, we looked at the reading strategies used by aristocratic readers. Medieval Zen monks used a simplified system, which we can still reconstruct from the markings and annotations that we find on the pages of the actual texts that they used (See example below).

Kobunshinpo-Koshu Example pages of markings and annotations by Zen monks in Kobunshinpo-Koshu (Keio Institute of Oriental Classics)
Take a closer look

In order to read texts, readers relied on existing commentaries but also, inevitably, developed their own unique interpretations of them. Because classical Chinese relies so heavily on precedent and allusions to earlier texts, in order to understand a text properly, one must be able to recognize and locate these references. For this reason, reference works such as dictionaries, encyclopedias had been regularly produced in China from early on, and were readily available for consultation.

The next step was to translate the texts into Japanese. Zen commentaries are essentially records of lectures by a master to his students, and therefore they are written in plain, easy-to-understand Japanese.

The end result is thus a multi-stage interpretive process: the starting point was the initial canonical text around which a number of interpretive commentaries developed; portions of the commentaries were then incorporated into the core text next to the original in sections of difficult interpretation; next, a Japanese-language version of the text was produced and, finally, a new commentary combining all these various textual/interpretive layers was made.

Zen monks were also keen authors of poetry in Chinese, which they pursued both as amateur poets and as part of their religious training.  Because they represented the latest in knowledge from China, the poetry collections that these monks published were highly sought after by the military, court, and mercantile elites.

In order to have ready access to useful expressions to use in their poems, poet-monks frequently produced their own compendia of quotes from the classics, organized by topic. Just like the commentaries described above, making these compendia, too, involved taking apart and recomposing existing texts for a specific purpose. In this way, many new texts were created from existing ones.

From Step 3.3 to 3.6, we’ll look into more detail about the Chinese books imported from China and studied in Zen temples. Then, from Step 3.7 to 3.10, let’s take a look at variety of works in Chinese produced by Japanese Zen monks.

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This article is from the free online course:

Sino-Japanese Interactions Through Rare Books

Keio University