Buddhist Pilgrim-Monks as Agents of Cultural and Artistic Transmission: The International Buddhist Art Style in East Asia, ca. 645-770, Dorothy C Wong (NUS Press, July 2018)
Buddhist Pilgrim-Monks as Agents of Cultural and Artistic Transmission: The International Buddhist Art Style in East Asia, ca. 645-770, Dorothy C Wong (NUS Press, July 2018)

The period ca. 645-770 marked an extraordinary era in the development of East Asian Buddhism and Buddhist art. Increased contacts between China and regions to both its west and east facilitated exchanges and the circulation of ideas, practices and art forms, giving rise to a synthetic art style uniform in both iconography and formal characteristics. The formulation of this new Buddhist art style occurred in China in the latter part of the seventh century, and from there it became widely disseminated and copied throughout East Asia, and to some extent in Central Asia, in the eighth century.

“Over the past two years Chinese communists have devoted increasing attention to extending their influence in the Buddhist countries of Southeast Asia,” reads an United States government report from 1957. To counter that influence, Eugene Ford writes in Cold War Monks, the US developed a strategy of “considerable guile, sophistication, and determination”, a funneling of significant funds through a front organization to help the Buddhist faith retain its hold on local populations and its leadership aligned with Western interests.

The Souls of China: The Return of Religion After Mao, by journalist Ian Johnson, is an infectious, celebratory book about the state of religion in mainland China since the 1980s. Framed around the lives of various religious devotees in China—ranging from solitary seekers to associations to experts —Johnson explores different aspects of Chinese religion and spirituality, as well as the “import” religion of Christianity, as living practices in China today. He wants to understand what motivates religious believers in a time of greater material comforts, and what their beliefs mean to them.

How does one quantify something as ephemeral as faith? We have become familiar with accounts of China which predicate their analysis on statistics—hard numbers seeming one of the few means of offering an objective view of the scale and complexity of the country. And certainly when it comes to faith in modern China the numbers are striking: 300 million people, or thereabouts, now consider themselves a follower of a faith of some kind—almost a quarter of the country.

Jack Weatherford has a clutch of informed, and impassioned, books on the Mongols to his credit. In Genghis Khan and the Making of the Modern World, he argued that the Mongols were the precursors of modern economic globalization:

 

The Mongols displayed a devoutly and persistently internationalist zeal in their political, economic, and intellectual endeavors. They sought not merely to conquer the world but to institute a global order based on free trade, a single international law, and a universal alphabet.

 

He credits them with universal paper money, primary school education and a unified calendar.