Monks in Motion

Buddhism and Modernity Across the South China Sea

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Jack Meng-Tat Chia
AAR Academy Series
  • Oxford: 
    Oxford University Press
    , September
     288 pages.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.


Jack Meng-Tat Chia’s Monks in Motion examines how Buddhism spread in the South China Sea during the 20th century. It showcases a connected history that both reflected and was enabled by broader Chinese migration patterns and networks. In so doing, this book blazes a new trail “toward a history of South China Sea Buddhism” (1). This new term, “South China Sea Buddhism,” not only upends long-established categories of Chinese Buddhism, Southeast Asian Buddhism, Mahāyāna Buddhism, and Theravāda Buddhism, but also offers a fresh perspective to look beyond these categories and to look for connectivity and monastic networks.

Connectivity and monastic networks provide the organizing principles of the four substantive chapters. Chapter 1 sketches out the relevant history of Chinese migration and maritime networks in the South China Sea from the 19th century up to the 1940s. As convincingly demonstrated by Chia, different migration networks and migration patterns engendered new kinds of Buddhist mobility, such as temple building, migration of missionary monks, and transference of Buddhist knowledge.

Among these diverse migration patterns, the two most important modes of connectivity are central for an accurate understanding of the making and continual transformation of South China Sea Buddhism: the preinstitutional temples and institutionalized Buddhism. Before the late 19th century, preinstitutional temples were the dominant form of Buddhism. They were supported by businessmen and served as communal centers for the Chinese diaspora. Only in the last decade of the 19th century, with the arrival of missionary monks and the building of Buddhist monasteries, did Buddhism start to become institutionalized. Chapters 2–4 showcase three different modes of monastic networks that brought forth diverse forms of Buddhism uniquely adapted to each locality yet together provide a well-rounded picture of South China Sea Buddhism. Unified under the umbrella of South China Sea Buddhism, each chapter nonetheless comes with its unique nuggets of knowledge.

Chapter 2 focuses on the career and travels of Chuk Mor (Zhumo 竺摩, 1913–2002), widely recognized as the leading figure in bringing forth Malaysia Buddhism as we know it today. The central argument in this chapter, as indicated in its title, “Scripting Malaysia’s Chinese Buddhism,” is that, instead of the discourses of revival or revitalization, Chuk Mor displaced existing forms of Chinese religions with a Buddhist modernism—namely human life Buddhism (rensheng fojiao 人生佛教), first launched by the Chinese monk Taixu (1890–1947). To displace earlier forms of religious practices that mixed together Buddhist, Taoist, and popular religious rituals and associated Buddhism with funerary rites, Chuk Mor scripted an “orthodox” Buddhism based on the principles of “pragmaticization of human life (xianshi shenghuo hua 現實生活化), massification (qunzhong hua 群眾化), and scientization (kexue hua 科學化)” (66).

Chapter 3 analyzes Yen Pei’s (Yanpei 演培, 1917–1996) scholarship and activism as well as his central role in shaping Singapore Buddhism. Respected as a scholar and an activist, Yen Pei advanced another Buddhist modernist movement—that is, humanistic Buddhism (renjian fojiao 人間佛教), which was first launched by another renowned Chinese scholar-monk, Yinshun (印順, 1906–2005). According to Chia, Yen Pei’s life and career sheds light on a common trajectory of how he and other eminent monks who fled mainland China after 1949 spread Chinese Buddhism to formerly peripheral regions, such as Hong Kong, Taiwan, and Southeast Asian countries. After he settled down in Singapore in 1964 and after Singapore separated from Malaysia in 1965, Yen Pei systematically promoted Buddhist education by building Leng Foong Prajñā Auditorium and by holding a series of Dharma lectures and group practices in this new space. In the 1980s, when the state’s modernization policy produced large economic inequality and disenfranchised many low-income groups, Yen Pei took on the role of an activist. However, due to the restrictive Singaporean laws with regard to political and social movements, Yen Pei’s social engagements focused on noncontroversial issues such as promoting organ donation, reducing drug abuse, and promoting filial piety to deal with an aging population.

Unlike chapters 2 and 3, which examine missionary monks from China, chapter 4 studies the career and activities of a peripatetic monk, Ashin Jinarakkhita, who was ethnic Chinese (Peranakan Chinese) but born in Indonesia. To ensure the survival of a minority religion in Islamic Indonesia, Ashin Jinarakkhita’s Buddhayāna movement decentered Chinese culture and indigenized Buddhism as Indonesian Buddhism (agama Buddha Indonesia). One of Ashin Jinarakkhita’s central strategies in indigenizing Buddhism was to hark back to Javanese sources and cement the doctrines onto historical claims. In action, he initiated the Vesak celebration at Borobudur in 1955. In preaching, when introducing the deity Sang Hyang Ādi-Buddha, Ashin Jinarakkhita linked it to the Kawi language Sang Hyang Kamahāyānikan and the 1356 inscription of King Adityawarman of Malayapura (a state in central Sumatra). To decenter Chinese culture, Ashin Jinarakkhita went on many Dharma tours and tried to covert non-Muslim Indonesian natives. Although Ashin Jinarakkhita’s movement was disparaged by some Theravāda Buddhists as “theistic Buddhism,” Chia tells a compelling story of how he weaved Mahāyāna, Theravāda, and ancient Indonesian traditions in to a new tapestry of Indonesian Buddhism.

South China Sea Buddhism establishes a promising field with much more multidisciplinary research to be pursued. Chia maps out three future research trajectories for historians of Buddhism, namely, the connected histories of Buddhism in Burma, Cambodia, Laos, Thailand, and Vietnam; the relations between modernist Buddhists and preinstitutional temples in maritime Southeast Asia; and Buddhism’s relation to countercommunist activities. For scholars interested in translation studies, this book highlights many fascinating moments of translation and mistranslation that shaped the forms of local Buddhism. For scholars interested in gender studies, Chia’s work mentions in passing some interesting gender dynamics in these Chinese diaspora communities, such as Ashin Jinarakkhita’s advocacy for gender equality and his support for full ordination of nuns. While this monograph is written in a style accessible to scholars outside Buddhist studies and will work well in graduate and upper-level undergraduate courses of Buddhism, chapter 4 will be a fascinating read for anyone who wishes to explore Buddhist practices beyond the labels of Theravāda and Mahāyāna Buddhism.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Jessica Xiaomin Zu is an assistant professor of religion at University of Southern California Dornsife.

Date of Review: 
April 18, 2021
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Jack Meng-Tat Chia is assistant professor of history and religious studies at the National University of Singapore.


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