Monks in Motion

Monks in Motion: Buddhism and Modernity across the South China Sea. New York: Oxford University Press, 2020.


Chinese Buddhists have never remained stationary. They have always been on the move. In Monks in Motion, Jack Meng-Tat Chia explores why Buddhist monks migrated from China to Southeast Asia, and how they participated in transregional Buddhist networks across the South China Sea. This book tells the story of three prominent monks—Chuk Mor (1913–2002), Yen Pei (1917–1996), and Ashin Jinarakkhita (1923–2002)—and examines the connected history of Buddhist communities in China and maritime Southeast Asia in the twentieth century.

Monks in Motion is the first book to offer a history of what Chia terms “South China Sea Buddhism,” referring to a Buddhism that emerged from a swirl of correspondence networks, forced exiles, voluntary visits, evangelizing missions, institution-building campaigns, and the organizational efforts of countless Chinese and Chinese diasporic Buddhist monks. Drawing on multilingual research conducted in Indonesia, Malaysia, Singapore, China, Hong Kong, and Taiwan, Chia challenges the conventional categories of “Chinese Buddhism” and “Southeast Asian Buddhism” by focusing on the lesser-known—yet no less significant—Chinese Buddhist communities of maritime Southeast Asia. By crossing the artificial spatial frontier between China and Southeast Asia, Monks in Motion breaks new ground, bringing Southeast Asia into the study of Chinese Buddhism and Chinese Buddhism into the study of Southeast Asia.



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Winner of the 2021 EuroSEAS Humanities Book Prize

“The book is a remarkable study by a young talented researcher. The book is original and innovative as it aims to trace the often overlooked Buddhist connections between China and the western part of maritime Southeast Asia. The author combined archival work with anthropological skills. In doing so he was able to add an important religious dimension to Chinese migration histories. By tracing the lives and roles of the monks, the author reveals aspects of modernity of Mahayana Buddhism in maritime Southeast Asia. Taken together this book represents a new step in the study of religion in Southeast Asia and contributes to a new trend to approach Southeast Asia in a broader global context.” ― 2021 EuroSEAS Humanities Book Prize Committee, European Association for Southeast Asian Studies


“This volume would make an invaluable addition to the library of anyone with an interest in Buddhism: its greatest strength, namely the very formulation of the concept of ‘South China Sea Buddhism,’ poses an excellent and much-needed challenge to the classic notion to how one should conceive Chinese as well as Southeast Asian Buddhism.” ― Joseph Chadwin, Religious Studies Review

“… this book blazes a new trail ‘toward a history of South China Sea Buddhism’.” ― Jessica Zu, Reading Religion

“In my view, this is compulsory reading for scholars with an interest in modern Chinese Buddhism and in the modern religious landscape of Southeast Asia.” ― Ester Bianchi, H-Buddhism

“There is so much in this pioneering book that corrects earlier generalizations. I hope it won’t be long before our textbooks will reflect the overseas Chinese contribution to Buddhism, especially in our region.” ― Wang Gungwu, Tang Prize Laureate in Sinology

“I rarely read a first book that is as clearly argued, seamlessly organized, and elegantly written as Monks in Motion. Chia offers us a close-up perspective on the nineteenth- and twentieth-century development of what he terms ‘South China Sea Buddhism,’ which emerged out of the circulations, networks, missionary efforts, forced and voluntary exiles, institutional-building, and organizing of Chinese and Chinese diasporic Buddhist monks. Without question a significant contribution. I could hardly set it down.” — Anne Hansen, Professor of History, University of Wisconsin-Madison

Monks in Motion is a clearly written, well-researched, and well-organized book that is novel in its subject, fascinating in its content, and professional in its execution. This is not a straight-forward linear history of immigrant communities told with a disingenuous narrative arc artificially placed on it. It is a ‘connected history’ of Buddhist communities in China and maritime Southeast Asia that provides the first real study of three of the most important ‘Chinese’ monks in Southeast Asia: Chuk Mor, Yen Pei, and Ashin Jinarakkhita. Through these three biographies he ends up telling the much broader story of the Chinese migration and spread of Chinese Buddhism to Southeast Asia.” — Justin McDaniel, Professor of Buddhist and Southeast Asian Studies, University of Pennsylvania

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