Department Chair; Professor of Chinese Buddhism
I work on the history of religion in China, with a particular focus on Buddhism. My recent research has centered on two transformational historical eras—the late ninth through the early eleventh centuries and the twentieth century—in an attempt to better understand the relationships between social, cultural, and political change and the development of religious doctrines and practices. My first book, Patrons and Patriarchs: Regional Rulers and Chan Monks during the Five Dynasties and Ten Kingdoms (University of Hawai’i Press, 2015), examined the tumultuous century that spanned the collapse of the Tang dynasty (618–907) and the consolidation of the Northern Song dynasty (960–1127). I attempted to resolve two closely related issues in the field of Chinese Buddhist studies. The first is how Chan (a.k.a. Zen) clerics, who represented a relatively minor undercurrent in mainstream Buddhism during the Tang dynasty, rose to become some of the most culturally and politically significant clerics of the Northern Song. The second is the extent to which the Chan institutions and traditions of the early Northern Song—which were later transmitted to Japan, Korea, and Vietnam—derived from developments in southeastern China during the Five Dynasties and Ten Kingdoms.
I have explored other facets of Chinese Buddhism during the Five Dynasties and Ten Kingdoms in a series of articles. “Crossing Ten-Thousand Li of Waves” (Journal of the International Association of Buddhist Studies, 2008) examines the loss and recovery of an important corpus of Tiantai Buddhist texts against the backdrop of pilgrimage and the circulation of material culture in China, Korea, and Japan. “Credulous Kings and Immoral Monks” (Asia Major, 2014) reevaluates the state of the Buddhist clergy in China after the fall of the Tang dynasty in light of polemical accounts written by later generations of Chinese scholar-officials. “Disorienting Medicine” (Journal of Chinese Buddhist Studies, 2015) is a study and annotated translation of a leading tenth-century cleric’s critique of the Chan monks of his generation. Finally, a detailed overview of regional Buddhist cultures of the Five Dynasties and Ten Kingdoms will be included in the fourth volume of Brill’s Encyclopedia of Buddhism.
Xuanzang and the Journey to the West
My recent research considers the life and legacy of the famous Tang-dynasty monk cleric, pilgrim, and scholar Xuanzang 玄奘 (600/602–664). A monograph on the historical Xuanzang prepared for Shambhala’s Lives of the Masters series is forthcoming in early 2021. A second book, provisionally titled Embodying Xuanzang: A Medieval Monk in the Modern Imagination, examines the later deification of Xuanzang and the ritual uses of the Journey to the West (Xiyou ji 西遊記) narrative primarily in mainland China but also in Taiwan, Korea, and Japan.
Published work related to Xuanzang’s legacies and the Journey to the West story-cycle include “Resurrecting Xuanzang: The Modern Travels of a Medieval Monk” (in Recovering Buddhism in Modern China, 2016), an account of the rediscovery, division, and distribution of Xuanzang’s relics in the twentieth century; “The Pig and the Prostitute: The Cult of Zhu Bajie in Modern Taiwan” (Journal of Chinese Religions, 2018), an examination of ritual traditions centered on Zhu Bajie, Xuanzang’s pig companion in the Journey to the West narrative; and “Taming the Monkey: Reinterpreting the Xi you ji in the Early Twentieth Century” (Monumenta Serica, 2020), which demonstrates that the famous “novel” played important ritual and liturgical functions before and after it was reconceived as a work of secular literature.
Chinese Buddhism during the late Qing Dynasty and Republican Era
Another long-standing interest involves the Buddhist renaissance in China that spanned the first half of the twentieth century. Initial research in this area is presented in “Laiguo Miaoshu (1881–1953): The Making of a Modern Chan Master,” a study of a celebrated Republican era Chan monk’s autobiography and lectures. This essay, written for the collaborative project “Individuals and their Inner Worlds in Chinese Religious Life,” will be published in an edited volume currently in preparation.
This research has been generously supported by the Fulbright Foundation, the American Council of Learned Societies, the Alexander von Humboldt Foundation, the Robert H. N. Ho Family Foundation, the Chiang Ching-kuo Foundation, the Lieberthal-Rogel Center for Chinese Studies, and the Center for Japanese Studies at the University of Michigan.
At Michigan, I teach a range of courses at both the undergraduate and graduate levels. My regular course offerings include “Zen Buddhism: History, Culture, and Critique,” “Gods, Ghosts, and Gangsters: Popular Religion in China,” “Buddhism and Death,” and “Zen Masters, Dharma Bums, and Drag Queens: Buddhism in America.” I also teach courses on the reinvention of religion in modern Asia, Qing dynasty and Republican era Buddhism in China, reading Buddhist texts (in Chinese), and systems of self-cultivation in China.