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Zanning (Tonghui dashi, 919–1001) was a Buddhist scholar-official renowned for his knowledge of Buddhist history and institutions in China, although his knowledge extended beyond Buddhism to Confucian matters and details of Chinese history and culture. As an official and scholar, Zanning played a critical role in explaining and defining Buddhism for Song officials. Biographical records indicate that Zanning rose from humble beginnings and embarked on a monastic career at a young age, probably in 929 or 930. He received full ordination on Mount Tiantai while still in his teens and distinguished himself as a master of the vinaya tradition. He became a leader of literary (wen) studies in his native Wuyue region (present-day Zhejiang province), and served in key government positions in Wuyue. Zanning also played a key role as the Wuyue representative in the return of the Wuyue region to Song control in 978.

Zanning reportedly made a great initial impression on the Song emperor Taizong (r. 976–997), who awarded him a high rank, an honorific robe, and a title. Buddhist sources report that Zanning was appointed to the prestigious Hanlin Academy of academicians, an extremely rare honor for a Buddhist, but this cannot be confirmed in non-Buddhist accounts. Zanning was also a member of the Society of Nine Elders, an elite group of literati-officials at the Song court responsible for managing imperially sponsored editorial projects. Among the surviving Buddhist works compiled by Zanning, two are of great interest to contemporary scholars: the Song gaoseng zhuan (Song Biographies of Eminent Monks) and the Seng shilue (Historical Digest of the Buddhist Order). As an official at the Song court, Zanning became the leading Buddhist cleric of the Song empire, first through appointment as chief lecturer on Buddhist sūtras and ultimately as Buddhist registrar of the right and left precincts of the capital, the leading position in the administration of Buddhist affairs.

See also:Biographies of Eminent Monks (Gaoseng Zhuan); China


Dahlia, Albert. "The 'Political' Career of the Buddhist Historian Tsan-ning." In Buddhist and Taoist Practice in Medieval Chinese Society, ed. David Chappell. Honolulu: University of Hawaii Press, 1987.

Welter, Albert. "Zanning and Chan: The Changing Nature of Buddhism in Early Song China." Journal of Chinese Religions 23 (1995): 105–140.

Welter, Albert. "A Buddhist Response to the Confucian Revival: Tsan-ning and the Debate Over Wen in the Early Sung." In Buddhism in the Sung, ed. Peter N. Gregory and Daniel A. Getz, Jr. Honolulu: University of Hawaii Press, 1999.

Albert Welter