The First Chinese Materialist, part one
I've decided to follow the lead of one or two blogs that I like, such as Far Outliers, and post a series of extracts from a book that interests me.
The piece in question is an essay by Etienne Balazs, the brilliant Hungarian historian of China who was born a century ago this year. It is entitled 'The First Chinese Materialist' and was originally written in 1932, not long after he had completed his doctorate. It forms one chapter in the collection of his articles entitled Chinese Civilization and Bureaucracy, published in 1964, the year after his death. The subject of this essay is one where a number of my personal interests intersect: East Asian history, materialist philosophy, Buddhism and, to an extent, twentieth century historiography of the 'East'. One interesting fact to bear in mind is that Balazs was clearly a great materialist historian himself, having written the first Western work on Chinese economic history and drawing much inspiration from Marx and Weber.
The First Chinese Materialist
The history of Buddhist thought has made remarkable advances during the last two centuries. There has been a fundamental change of view on the importance of the Mahāyāna, and the outlines of Chinese Buddhism are gradually becoming clearer. But the interconnections are lost because the total picture still exists in a vacuum. Buddhism is still regarded as an isolated phenomenon, a thing in itself detached from the historical circumstances in which it arose and unrelated to outside events. At the most, cursory treatment is given to its inner development, to questions such as the proliferation of sects and the increasing sophistication of basic tenets. Yet if historical circumstances are not taken into account, the beginnings of Indian Buddhism are as incomprehensible as are its spread and further development on Chinese soil. And when I urge that “history” should be taken into account, I do not mean a mere listing of names, bibliographies, translations, and commentaries. Unless it is recognised that a struggle was taking place between the upholders of two opposing world views, the ideas of the protagonists will remain colourless and devoid of significance.
The fifth century was decisively important for the spread of Buddhism in China: China was at that time not only partitioned, but also torn by social contradictions and innumerable and unbridgeable differences of opinion, and full of a desperate longing for salvation. There were two centres of Buddhism, which were at the same time the two political centres of the country, divided as it was between the Northern and the Southern dynasties, and they had an ever-widening circle of influence, like two stones dropped into the waters of the Chinese sea of thought. This was a period of adaptation. The foreign words were feverishly transcribed, and the unfamiliar thoughts busily assimilated to Chinese traditional ways of thinking. When Buddhist ideas were expressed, they were larded with thousands of quotations from the classics and steeped in analogies, in order to make them more palatable to minds brought up on a mixture of Confucianism and Taoism. But it was also a period of ideological battles and terminological disputes, of endless discussions and debates. The propaganda activities of Indian missionaries and Chinese monks brought a breath of fresh air into Chinese ways of thinking, and in the fight against this new world view, Chinese minds became more agile, more flexible, more elastic.
Behind these lively intellectual battles can be discerned the emerging campaign conducted by the Chinese bureaucracy – mainly Confucianist – against monasticism and the growing temporal power of the church. Ever louder became the accusations made against Buddhism: that it was antisocial, unproductive and parasitical, and prevented the people from carrying out their economic tasks. The condition of the peasantry and the political power of the state were the issues at stake.It was this hostile attitude toward Buddhism that gave rise to one of the most interesting works produced by medieval Chinese philosophy: the materialist tract Shen-mieh lun, the complete text of which is preserved in the biography of Fan Chen in the annals of the Liang dynasty.
 To cite one example among many, in Wei, in 506, the Censor Yang Ku wrote a memorial saying that vague and fruitless theoretical discussions about agriculture must cease, and unprofitable expenditure on Buddhist monks must be curtailed; see Tzu-chih t’ung-chien 146.7b.
Source: Etienne Balazs, Chinese Civilization and Bureaucracy, (Yale university Press, 1964) pp255-6.