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.



Screen Shot 2020-12-16 at 2.18.29 AM

Screen Shot 2021-08-23 at 1.49.50 PM

Winner of the 2021 EuroSEAS Humanities Book Prize

Shortlist for the 2023 Friedrich Weller 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


“Chia’s work compels us to take another look at the received cartography and taxonomy of our disciplinary home, Buddhist studies. In other words, one who is not interested in Southeast Asia per se but is concerned about the constitutive logic and practical implications of border markers such as ‘Chinese Buddhism,’ ‘Southeast Asian Buddhism,’ ‘Mahāyāna Buddhism,’ ‘Theravāda Buddhism’ and so on will nonetheless find much food for thought in this slender volume.” ― Lei Ying, Studies in Chinese Religions

“… Monks in Motion is an excellent piece of work for scholars and graduate students in Buddhist Studies, religious history, and area studies with a specialization in Southeast Asia.” ― Tan Lee Ooi, SOJOURN: Journal of Social Issues in Southeast Asia  

“Chia applies his admirable linguistic acumen and cultural expertise to a wide range of material, including videos, songs, websites, liturgies, epigraphic texts, and the collected works of his subjects. He also conducted multiple interviews, in several languages. This book is not an ethnography, but it successfully combines interview data with other source materials to bring the pictures of Chuk Mor, Yen Pei, and Ashin into sharper focus.” ― Erik Hammerstrom, History of Religions

“… Monks in Motion is a must-read for historians and for scholars in Buddhist studies, Chinese diaspora studies, and transnational studies to delve deeper into the connected histories of Buddhist communities. It will inspire scholars to rethink the development of Chinese Buddhism beyond the Mahāyāna territories.” ― Tzu-Lung Chiu, Journal of Asian Studies 

“… Jack Chia’s pioneering work featured the maritime countries of Southeast Asia – Malaysia, Singapore, and Indonesia – where the main Buddhist tradition is Mahayana.” ― Benny Liow Woon Khin, Eastern Horizon

Monks in Motion succeeds admirably in tying together lesser-known spheres of Buddhist influence to form a persuasive narrative about the development and contribution of Chinese Buddhism to the spiritual milieu of Southeast Asia. Thanks to studies like this one, an increasingly comprehensive history of Southeast Asian Buddhism has never been more accessible.” ― Raymond Lam, Buddhistdoor Global

“Chia makes valuable inroads in the study of both Southeast Asian religion and Buddhist modernism in this meticulous exploration of what he calls ‘South China Sea Buddhism.’ Chia brings to light the neglected history of 20th-century exchanges between China and maritime Southeast Asia in the modern revival, reformation, and establishment of Buddhism in Indonesia, Singapore, and Malaysia.” ― Maria Heim, Choice

“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

Discount Code: Order online at Oxford University Press with promo code AAFLYG6 to save 30%.