Past events
Book Workshop: Buddhisms in Modern China


14.05.14 - 16.05.14


14.05.14 16:00
Akademie Waldschlösschen, Göttingen

Book Workshop


14-16 May 2014, University of Göttingen.


  • Axel Schneider  (Director, Centre for Modern East Asian Studies, University of Göttingen)
  • Dan Smyer Yu (Research Group Leader, Max Planck Institute for the Study of Religious and Ethnic Diversity, Göttingen)


Program brochure

About the workshop

In the past two decades the religious landscape of (Greater) China has changed dramatically. In mainland China after decades of suppression, “traditional” religion was allowed to grow again, by now reaching levels of revival far beyond anything one could have imagined twenty years ago. On Taiwan, religious cults and movements, never fully suppressed during the period of martial law, gained additional strength and influence in the context of democratization developing into one of the main social forces of the island. This return of the religious coincides in China with a period of rapid economic and social modernization, thus seemingly contradicting and falsifying the expectations of western mainstream theories of modern social and cultural development. However, is it really that clear-cut? Focusing on the reappearance of Buddhism, we find -- next to attempts at carefully modernizing Buddhism so as to suit the framework and needs of modern society -- forms of Buddhist practice that adopt a fundamentally critical position vis-à-vis modernity or, on the other side of the spectrum, that go far beyond inherited Buddhist denominations, doctrinal positions and practice.

This workshop is part of a larger inquiry into the nature of the current Buddhist “revival”, its historical origins, socio-economic roots, religious aspirations and political entanglements, while paying close attention to the context of transregional and global processes of interaction, influence, rejection and conflict.

The book resulting from the workshop will be a critical study of transformative changes in Buddhist practices since the late nineteenth century when China began its unprecedented encounters with global forces of change from Europe, Japan, and North America. In the context of recent developments at Göttingen University (i.e. the initiative of “The Politics of Secularism and the Emergence of New Religiosities” at CETREN), we locate our researchon modern Chinese Buddhism within the context of studies of new forms of religiosity and forces of resistance against these. These new forms are emerging from processes of secularization, scientistic and utopian visions of the future, inter-ethnic encounters and their concomitant nationalist re/actions, as well as of the ongoing globalization of religions, and growing New Age Spirituality within contemporary China.

The transnational and transregional emphasis of our project is premised on the historical fact that modern China inherits the legacy of an imperial past: a multiethnic empire, the expansion and subsequent rule of which took place not only among emperors of Han Chinese origin but also among those of Mongolian and Manchurian origin. The transregional and transnational passages of religions through trading routes and between the imperial court and its suzerainties laid the groundwork for more frequent and larger-scale encounters of traditional religious practices with global forces of change during the 20th century, including political ideologies, modern science and technology, and economic globalization. “Transregional” and “transnational” in the context of modern China thus suggest not only historically recognized inter-ethnic religious exchanges but also a series of local-global engagements of traditional religious constituencies with a flux of new secular ideas and practices emerging primarily, but not exclusively, from the West.

Situated in this context, we engage in a study of modern Chinese Buddhism that recognizes what we call “a modernizing trend” of new forms of religiosity and spirituality. This trend emerges from different Buddhist constituencies in their encounters, interactions, or counteractions with secular ideas of human flourishing, social equality, religiosity of political ideologies, and perceived soteriological motives of modern science and technology. At the same time, we do pay attention to the fact that these new trends were from the very beginning facing opposition from religious activists who were fundamentally critical of many core aspects of modernity.

Seen from this angle, the history of Buddhist traditions in early modern China is laden with millennarianist passions, utopian visions, nationalist fervor, secularist iconoclasm, progressive radicalism, and various types of counter-forces resisting these new developments. Buddhism, like other traditional religions in China, experienced a crisis at the hands of overwhelmingly multifarious historical events, ideological turning points, and Chinese geopolitical clashes with other nations. The transformative changes to Buddhism did not stop with the arrival of modernity but continue into the present day to experience more upheaval, destructive encounters, and rejuvenation. It is not exaggerating to say that Buddhism in modern Chinese history has had multiple lives: it has perished and been reborn into different forms, and it continues to undergo cycles of commotion and rebirth in contemporary China. It is a soteriological instrument but its “life history” is subject to the changing social conditions of China’s modernity and modernization.

Continuing the existing scholarly discourses centered on the modernization of Buddhism (Goldfuss 2001, Heine and Prebish 2003), the political influence of Buddhist thought (Chan 1985),humanistic Buddhism (Guruge 2003; Seager 2006), Buddhism in the making of modern China (Tuttle 2005), Buddhist nationalisms (Yu 2005), Buddhist secularization in the post-Mao era (Zhe 2008),the commodification of Buddhism (Jing Yin 2006), Buddhism in ethnic identity discourses (Smyer Yu 2011), scientific Buddhism (McMahan 2008, Hammerstrom 2010) but lately also Buddhist inspired critiques of modernity (Murthy 2011, Meynard 2011), we ask ourselves the following questions when we investigate the development of Buddhisms in modern China:

If Buddhism fundamentally emphasizes freedom from suffering, why would modern Buddhists propose “humanistic Buddhism” (Taixu 1980) and “applied Buddhism” (Liang 1992), suggesting traditional Buddhist practices were disengaged from human society? How did the patriotism/nationalism of many leading Buddhist intellectuals affect the ways in which they reinterpreted Buddhist canonic teachings in their modern context? Why would later generations of “humanistic Buddhists” increasingly incorporate modern scientific terms into their discourse on Buddhism’s compatibility with modern society? While reconstruction of monasteries and an increasing number of visitors to them indicate the rapid revitalization of Buddhism in China, why do many Buddhist practitioners choose to congregate in private spaces instead of in monasteries? Under what circumstances are many of them embracing non-Chinese Buddhist traditions such as Tibetan Buddhism? While traditional forms of Buddhism are moving abroad, how are new forms of Buddhism, especially from the West, travelling to China and finding popularity there? Since the boundaries of the religious and the secular are increasingly found to be blurry and porous in the case of modern Buddhist practices, how relevant is it if we regard modern Buddhism in the plural sense as a product of the post-secular age as proposed by contemporary scholars? How did modern Chinese Buddhists and intellectuals inspired by Buddhism resist these developments and what does the nature and alleged failure of these cases of resistance tell us about China‘s engagement with secular modernity in general and the aforementioned new forms of Buddhist religiosity in particular.

We envision the outcome of this workshop as a volume of critical studies of Chinese Buddhism in two historical periods, namely the late Qing-Republic era, and contemporary China, which are commonly agreed historical time frames of China’s global encounters with other nations and its own internal transformations. By focusing on both periods and on both sides of the Taiwan straits, this volume will also help drawing connections between the pre- and post-49 history of modern Chinese Buddhism thus overcoming the artificial separation of 20th century Chinese Buddhism into two clearly separated periods and two seemingly unrelated Chinese territories.

For both periods, we encourage our contributors to focus on a) what we call “new religiosities” of Buddhism, and b) Buddhist inspired critique of modernity. These forces concur with social movements and cultural projects, such as the New Policy period of the 1900s, the New Culture Movement of the early 1910s and 20s, the movement re-emphasizing Chinese cultural subjectivity of the 1930s, whilst in the context of the ongoing globalization of China’s economy. To generate critical comparative implications of our intended volume, we ask our contributors adopt a transregional perspective informing our readers with a global context of changes in Buddhist worlds across the globe, such as Taiwan, Vietnam, Tibet, North America, and Europe, in consideration of these long lasting key phrases in modern Buddhist studies – “Protestant Buddhism,” “socially engaged Buddhism,” “humanistic Buddhism,” and “modern Buddhism”. Qualitatively, these phrases find their corresponding social realities in China but in a divergent political context. Buddhism in modern China in this regard is undoubtedly plural in nature.

The last but the most important element of our book project is every contributor’s concerted effort to connect dots and draw lines between leading monastic scholars/activists and lay public intellectuals for the purpose of identifying the critical roles that they have played in the historical projects of nation-building, religion-science dialogue, and claiming a Buddhist moral superiority in the secular realm of China. We are all compelled to re-read and re-think their biographies and philosophical and often politically engaging treatises as embodiments of modern Buddhist history in China. Our goal is to share with our readers our critical interpretations of Buddhist modernity or modern Buddhisms in the making in the China context.

Dan Smyer Yü and Axel Schneider


T: +49 551 39 21286
F: +49 551 39 21284


Georg-Universität-Universität Göttingen
Heinrich-Düker-Weg 14
37073 Göttingen