Holmes Welch and the Study of Buddhism in Twentieth-Century China

A collaborative research project,
annual seminar series, and proposed special journal issue

Workshop meetings to be held at
the Annual Meetings of the American Academy of Religion, 2014-2018


Program Unit Co-Chairs

Erik Hammerstrom, Pacific Lutheran University
Gregory Adam Scott, University of Manchester

Steering Committee

Stefania Travagnin, Groningen University
Eyal Aviv, George Washington University
Rongdao Lai, University of Southern California
Brooks Jessup, Freie Universit├Ąt Berlin
Justin Ritzinger, University of Miami

Project Outline

In the past few decades, Buddhism in the People’s Republic of China has experienced an astonishing revival in popularity and activity. After the liberalization of social and economic policies in the 1980s, Buddhist institutions were again able to operate freely, and what was initially a slow trickle of religious activity quickly erupted into a torrent of ritual performance, ordination, temple construction, and media production. In 1997 it was reported that China was home to more than 13,000 temples and monasteries and more than 200,000 monastics, and these numbers have not stopped growing. Thanks to continued state support and the work of devoted monastics and laypeople, Buddhism in China shows every sign of once again becoming a central pillar of Chinese society and culture. This contemporary revival of Buddhism in China was, however, preceded by another period of revival that spanned the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, a period to which the roots of many of the core aspects of contemporary Buddhism can be traced. In recent years a profusion of cutting-edge scholarship on this period of Chinese Buddhist history has energized the field, yet the bulk of European- and Chinese-language scholarship remains highly indebted to the work of a single scholar: Holmes H. Welch (1924-1981), who published a trilogy of books on the topic: The Practice of Chinese Buddhism: 1900 – 1950 (1967), The Buddhist Revival in China (1968), and Buddhism Under Mao (1972).

Nearly fifty years have passed since Welch conducted his fieldwork and historical research, yet the depth of his inquiry, the breadth of his vision, and the clarity of his analysis have lent his scholarship a timeless quality. It continues to prompt inquires into a wide variety of topics, such as Buddhist publishing, modern seminaries, Chinese Buddhists’ responses to modern science, and their connections with global Buddhist movements. Although Welch’s scholarship has had an indisputable influence, and his intellectual legacy remains important to the field, scholars have since begun to delve into sources and deploy methodologies that were unavailable in Welch’s era. The aim of this seminar is thus to first celebrate Welch’s contributions to our understanding of Chinese Buddhism, and then to explore how we might advance the field beyond the boundaries and scope of his original ideas. Revisiting and expanding Welch’s scholarship is urgently needed, as his work continues to function as both a standard source for specialists, and as an authoritative summary of Chinese Buddhism during this era for non-specialists as well. Recognizing the importance of his contribution while bringing it up to date would greatly help both groups of scholars, and would further work to raise the profile of this important period of Chinese religious history more generally. The end result of our seminar will be to publish a critical volume covering each major aspect of Welch’s work, in which the contributors who were inspired by his publications will update its findings and approaches with their own cutting-edge scholarship. The publication of this volume will be timed to anticipate the upcoming fiftieth anniversaries of the publications of The Practice of Chinese Buddhism and The Buddhist Revival, both marking this significant milestone and pointing the way ahead.

It is our hope that this Seminar will produce a work of collaborative scholarship that will be relevant and useful to those both within and without the field of Modern Chinese Buddhism. As noted above, Welch’s writings remain the standard Anglophone reference works on Chinese Buddhism, for both its modern history and in the technical details of its general praxis. Buddhist scholars focusing on other areas of the world, or the modernization of Buddhism more generally, still rely heavily on Welch’s work and his theories about the modernization of Chinese Buddhism. Historians of China and Asia, as well, generally still draw on his work to fill in information on the role of Buddhism in social and political change in twentieth-century China. The goal of this Seminar is thus not to overturn Welch’s ideas, but rather to cooperate in a critical assessment of his scholarly legacy and, for the benefit of all of the types of people just mentioned, produce an accessible document of that assessment.