Buddhism and Modernity Across the South China Sea – Buddhistdoor Global

Professor Jack Chia with Monks on the move: Buddhism and modernity across the South China Sea. At fass.nus.edu.sg

The study of maritime Buddhism along the coastal poles of Asia is experiencing a revival of scholarship. There is one essential element that distinguishes the coastal design of Buddhist diffusion from the more familiar terrestrial paradigm of the Silk Road (which over the decades has benefited from greater public awareness and cultural interest, media and popular literature). In the Chinese Buddhist experience, the importance of sea routes endured far beyond the lifespan of the overland Silk Road, which was more or less closed by the Ming Dynasty (1368-1644). In contrast, the maritime silk routes have played a vital role in shaping the religious, social and cultural landscapes of today’s Southeast Asia. Events there spilled over into China, in turn influencing Buddhist developments on the Chinese mainland.

Professor Jack Chia’s first book, Monks on the move: Buddhism and modernity across the South China Sea (2020), is among the most recent monographs to contribute to this rebalancing of academic coverage. I had the pleasure of meeting Professor Chia in Vancouver in 2016, before he took up his current position as Assistant Professor of History and Religious Studies at the National University of Singapore (NUS). He obtained his BA and MA from NUS, then a second MA from Harvard. He earned his doctorate at Cornell, his doctoral dissertation winning the Lauriston Sharp Prize. His research focuses on “Chinese Folk Religion, Buddhism in Maritime Southeast Asia, Transnational Buddhism, and Sino-South Asian Interactions”. (National University of Singapore)

Professor Chia’s book demonstrates that the circulation of Buddhism along the nodes of the South China Sea shaped different modes of “Buddhist modernity” in postcolonial Southeast Asia. This gives the story of maritime Buddhism a contemporary relevance that is simply not available for the Silk Road land circuit. It is one of the only books on Buddhism to have won the EuroSEAS Humanities Book Prize 2021, an award given to the best scholarly study of Southeast Asia published in the humanities. Moreover, beyond this innovative book, Professor Chia is also working on two other monographs: Beyond Borobudur: Buddhism in postcolonial Indonesia and Diplomatic Dharma: Buddhist Diplomacy in Modern Asia.

monks on the move is divided into four main chapters: “Migrants, Monks and Monasteries”, “Chuk Mor: Scripting Malaysia’s Chinese Buddhism”, “Yen Pei: Humanistic Buddhism in the Chinese Diaspora” and “Ashin Jinarakkhita: Neither Mahāyāna nor Theravāda”. The South China Sea is the shared coastal core of many different countries which, taken together, have shaped what might be called the Buddhist modernity of Southeast Asia. The countries Professor Chia focuses on are the modern nations of Malaysia, Singapore and Indonesia, with frequent references to the Chinese mainland. He proposes to rethink what “Southeast Asian Buddhism” means from the following angles:

1. Chinese migration and the spread of Chinese Buddhism in Southeast Asia,
2. the participation of Chinese monks in the transnational circulations of people, information and resources in the South China Sea,
3. the role of diasporic monks in advancing Buddhist modernism in Maritime Southeast Asia, and
4. the rise of Maritime Southeast Asia as a center of Chinese Buddhism in the Chinese periphery following the establishment of the Communist People’s Republic of China on the mainland


As this list suggests, Professor Chia challenges a dominant mode of thought that privileged Theravada Buddhism, maritime Islam and Catholicism in the historiography of Southeast Asia. Rather, it attempts to shed light on how Chinese migration and subsequent Buddhist communities in maritime Southeast Asia developed their own sense of religious modernity. (9) In other words, he hopes to open a new front in the study of this region, rather than just the dominant Chinese-centric or Theravada/Muslim-Christian viewpoints:

Just as the current literature on modern Chinese Buddhism says little about Chinese Buddhism beyond China, most studies of Buddhism in Southeast Asian history and society are shaped by a teleology leading to the formation of Buddhist-majority nation-states. The purpose of such a narrative is usually to present the intertwined relationships between Theravāda Buddhism, nationalism and nation-building in mainland Southeast Asia. Consequently, the dichotomous framing of continental Theravāda Buddhism/maritime Islam and Catholicism has become a common trope for conceptualizing the religious diversity of Southeast Asia as a region.


Professor Chia calls this proposed new front “South China Sea Buddhism,” given the connection of Buddhist communities between Buddhist China and Southeast Asia. Early on, Prof. Chia touches on some relatively well-known information about the transmission of Chinese spiritual beliefs, particularly folklore and syncretic beliefs involving Taoism. (19-24) But the course of institutional Buddhism is, in my view, a much lesser known aspect of the religious development of Southeast Asia in the twentieth century. (24–30)

The three monks who are the main protagonists of Professor Chia (Chuk Mor, Yen Pei and Jinarakkhita) were extremely important characters. Chuk Mor, the first president of the Malaysian Buddhist Association (Malaysia’s first Buddhist body, founded in 1959), proposed a form of Buddhist modernism that redefined the idea of ​​being a Buddhist, based on Taixu’s ideas about the “Buddhism of human life”. ” (157) Yen Pei, who came to Singapore from Taiwan (once from 1964 to 1979, then from 1980 until his death in 1996), based his modern Buddhist vision of Singapore on “evangelism and education” . This meant the establishment of schools as well as social work, such as poverty alleviation and help for the elderly, the possibility of organ donations and transplants, as well as prevention and rehabilitation programs in terms of substance addiction. (158) And finally, Jinarakkhita was essentially the father of “modern Indonesian Buddhism”, which he called the Buddhayāna movement, having developed it in accordance with the perceived needs of the modern Indonesian state. This new Buddhist movement was compatible with the national discourse of Pancasila, or “Unity in Diversity”. (159) He also took the great doctrinal risk of proposing the Sang Hyang Adi-Buddha and the notion of “theistic Buddhism” to ensure the survival of Buddhism under the Suharto regime, much to the chagrin of Theravada Buddhists.

Professor Chia describes how Chinese migrants, through numerous historical incidents and trends, shaped expressions of Chinese Buddhist modernity: this sense of modernity was characterized by, as Professor Chia notes, “scriptural authority and historical legitimacy, but also the contingency of action and monastic intentions. Opposing pre-institutional Chinese Buddhism, Buddhist modernism in Maritime Southeast Asia incorporated notions of orthodoxy from the ideas of Buddhist reform movements in China and Taiwan and the concerns of modern nation states. (159)

At the end of his book, Professor Chia asks, “To what extent, if any, has the presence of Chinese modernist monks in mainland Southeast Asia helped to influence and inspire modernist Buddhist movements in continental Southeast Asia during the second half of the 20th century? century? What kind of missionary impulses and modernizing sensibilities did these monks share? (160) These questions are not easy to answer. Perhaps the next step, therefore, would be an ambitious examination of the multifaceted networks and interactions between the monks of Greater China and Southeast Asia. This would require a scholarship capable of reading sources in Burmese, Khmer, Lao, Thai and Vietnamese. The dynamics, whether collaborative or adversarial, between the pre-institutional Buddhist community and the modernist monastic community deserve further exploration. Finally, Professor Chia offers to open a conversation about how Chinese monks participated in anti-communist activities during the height of the Cold War in Asia and deployed Buddhist networks from the South China Sea to connect with militants. , state actors and ideologically aligned Buddhists.

This book has an ambitious scope, covering diverse and complex Asian societies that have taken divergent paths from Buddhist modernity. monks on the move admirably succeeds in tying together lesser-known spheres of Buddhist influence to form a compelling narrative of the development and contribution of Chinese Buddhism to the spiritual milieu of Southeast Asia. Thanks to studies like this, an increasingly comprehensive history of Southeast Asian Buddhism has never been more accessible. Gone are the days when schools of Buddhism in Southeast Asia were studied in thematic or denominational silos, or when entire periods such as the postcolonial era were ignored due to a lack of scholarship. Although there is still a lot of work to be done, as Professor Chia notes, the ball has started to roll, and scholars like him are sure to keep the momentum going.


Chia, Jack Meng-Tat. 2020. Monks on the move: Buddhism and modernity across the South China Sea. New York: Oxford University Press.

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NUS Assistant Professor of History Jack Chia wins EuroSEAS Humanities Book Prize 2021 (National University of Singapore)

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