An Encyclopaedia on Chinese History and Literature

Shensengzhuan 神僧傳

Mar 17, 2012 © Ulrich Theobald

Shensengzhuan Shensengzhuan 神僧傳 "Biographies of divine monks" is a collection of biographies of eminent monks compiled by Zhu Di 朱棣 (1360-1424), Emperor Chengzu 明成祖 (r. 1402-1424) of the Ming dynasty 明 (1368-1644) and known with his reign motto as the Yongle Emperor 永樂. One of his most important advisors was the Buddhist monk Daoyan 道衍 (personal name Yao Guangxiao 姚廣孝), so that Zhu Di felt more or less obliged to display gratefulness to Buddhism in the shape of this 9 juan "scrolls" long collection and one thousand poems of his collection Foqu 佛曲.
The Shensengzhuan includes the biographies of 208 Buddhist monks through history and describes their conversion and enlightenment. The oldest monk is the Indian 迦葉摩騰 (shortly called Moteng 摩騰) who came to China during the Eastern Han period 東漢 (25-220 CE) , and the last is the Tibetan monk 膽巴 (original name 慶喜稱) who lived in the late 13th century. The biographies are not consistently arranged in a chronological manner, so that Jin period 晉 (265-420) persons are listed after those of the Southern Dynasties period 南朝 (420~589) and Sui period 隋 (581-618) persons after the Tang 唐 (618-907) . The text of the biographies is both historiographically and hagiographically. It praises the virtue and devotion of the saints and is therefore not in all points reliable. Ming period editions of the Shensengzhuan were quite popular, but published in a quite confuse way, without indicating the date of publication or the publisher. The compilers of the imperial reprint series Siku quanshu 四庫全書 (late 18th century) described the book and provided an index, but did not include the text in the series itself.

There is another book with the same title and the same size, but the name of the compiler and the date of compilation are unknown. It includes the biographies of 208 monks, beginning with the Indians Kāśyapa mātaṅga (Chinese transcription Jiaye moteng 迦葉摩騰 or She moteng 攝摩騰) and Falan 法蘭 (or Zhu Falan 竺法蘭) who came to China during the reign of Emperor Ming 漢明帝 (r. 75-88) of the Eastern Han and ending with 派克巴 who was 國師 under Qubilai Khan, the first ruler of the Yuan dynasty 元 (1279-1368). Strangely enough, there are only 16 persons from the Song period 宋 (960-1279), of which only 3 lived during the Southern Song 南宋 (1127-1279). A lot of stories include supernatural elements, which led to the title of the book, in this case meaning "Biographies of supernatural monks". The text of the book seems to be lost, but it was listed among the book described by the compilers of the Siku quanshu.

A third book with the title Shensengzhuan is a novelistic biography of the monk Futu Cheng 佛圖澄 that was attributed to the Eastern Jin period 東晉 (317-420) monk Faxian 法顯 (see Shensengzhuan 神僧傳).

Li Xueqin 李學勤, Lü Wenyu 呂文鬰, eds. (1996). Siku da cidian 四庫大辭典 (Changchun: Jilin daxue chubanshe), Vol. 2, 2263.
Su Jinren 蘇晉仁 (1988). "Zhongguo fojiao zhuanji 中國佛教傳記", in Zhongguo da baike quanshu 中國大百科全書, part Zongjiao 宗教 (Beijing/Shanghai: Zhongguo da baike quanshu chubanshe), 541.