From childhood fascination to Buddhist diplomacy: A conversation with 2020 Social Science and Humanities Research Fellow Dr Jack Chia

Mention the study of Buddhism and Chinese religions and the clichéd image of a reclusive elderly scholar poring over musty religious texts springs to mind. Not so when you meet Dr Jack Chia, an assistant professor of history and religious studies at the NUS Faculty of Arts and Social Sciences (FASS) Department of History. The amiable, youthful historian waxes lyrical when sharing his fascination for the subject; an interest borne from the seminal role his Buddhist grandmother played in his childhood, and a reading of the comic version of the classic Chinese novel Journey to the West.

What started as keen interest for Buddhism and local history developed further in adolescence as Dr Chia chanced on Shi Chuanfa’s A History of the Development of Buddhism in Singapore. His desire to understand Buddhism and Asian history sharpened as an NUS history major, and this eventually led to the pursuit of graduate studies in Harvard University and Cornell University – the “Mecca of Southeast Asian studies”.

Now back at his alma mater, Dr Chia has been awarded the 2020 Social Science and Humanities Research Fellowship by the Social Science Research Council (SSRC) for his project ‘Diplomatic Dharma: Buddhist Diplomacy in Modern Asia, 1950s–Present’. The Fellowship was established by SSRC as part of efforts to nurture promising local social science and humanities researchers. Recently, Dr Chia also won the 2021 EuroSEAS Humanities Book Prize for Monks in Motion: Buddhism and Modernity Across the South China Sea, published by Oxford University Press last year.

In an in-depth interview, the up-and-coming historian of Buddhism shared how the Fellowship would promote interfaith and mutual understanding in multi-religious Singapore and his personal research journey. His disarming charm was apparent with an anecdote on how he was left starstruck by actor Adrian Pang while filming for a television documentary series on local history.

Tell us more about your interest in Buddhism and Chinese religions. 
Dr Chia: When I was little, both my parents left me in the care of my grandmother, which proved to be an important experience in learning about Chinese religious practices. She was a “Buddhist” who prayed to Buddhas and Bodhisattvas, but also worshipped Chinese deities such as Tua Pek Kong and Mazu. She often brought me to temples to participate in religious festivals and rituals. I learned a lot about Buddhism and Chinese popular religion, as well as Hokkien from her. When I was about six, she gave me a comic version of Journey to the West. I remember I was greatly intrigued by the magical power and bureaucratic hierarchy of Buddhist saints and Taoist deities depicted. In junior college, I chanced on Shi Chuanfa’s A History of the Development of Buddhism in Singapore and was deeply fascinated by how Chinese migration contributed to the spread of Buddhism from China to Singapore.

While writing my Honours and Master theses at NUS, I grew convinced that understanding the history and religion of this region required positioning it in a broader transregional framework. The Singaporean in me told me to focus on Buddhism in my home region – Southeast Asia. My graduate school and postdoctoral experiences at Harvard, Cornell and the University of California, Berkeley – institutions known for their embrace of comparative and transnational approaches to Asian Studies and Buddhist Studies – have further nurtured my approach to research and teaching.

Any significant research milestones or interesting anecdotes to share?

Dr Chia: A key milestone was probably receiving Cornell’s Lauriston Sharp Prize for my PhD dissertation on the connected history of Buddhist communities between China and maritime Southeast Asia. The Prize is awarded annually to those whose dissertation research and community engagement represent an outstanding contribution to the study of Southeast Asia and to the community life of the Cornell Southeast Asia Program.

My proudest moment is winning the 2021 EuroSEAS Humanities Book Prize for my book, Monks in Motion: Buddhism and Modernity Across the South China Sea. Monks in Motion is the first book to offer a history of what I term “South China Sea Buddhism”, referring to a Buddhism that emerged from a swirl of correspondence networks, forced exiles, voluntary visits, evangelising missions, institution-building campaigns, and the organisational efforts of countless Chinese and Chinese diasporic Buddhist monks. I was humbled when the prize committee commended the book’s “original and innovative” research, and commented that it represented a new step in the study of religion in Southeast Asia and contributed to a new trend to approach Southeast Asia in a broader global context.

One memorable experience that demonstrated the impact of my research beyond academia was how I was recently featured on “History Mysteries”, a Mediacorp documentary series hosted by Adrian Pang. I was interviewed on the history of the long lost One Thousand Buddha Hilltop Temple in Singapore and was starstruck by Adrian. He is one of my favourite local actors! 

What do you hope to achieve with the “Diplomatic Dharma: Buddhist Diplomacy in Modern Asia, 1950s–Present” project?

Dr Chia: This project will be the first large-scale study to provide empirical evidence on the lesser-known relationship between Buddhism and international relations in modern Asia. It will explore Buddhist diplomacy in two East Asian countries (China and Japan) and two Southeast Asian countries (Myanmar and Singapore) with a Buddhist majority population, as well as India, which is home to Buddhist sacred sites.

It reorients common assumptions that Buddhism is politically inert and, therefore, a quiescent entity in foreign relations, seeking to offer comparative insights on the use of Buddhism as a soft power tool to promote cultural, economic and social relations in secular Asian countries during the Cold War and the post-Cold War period. I also hope to inform policymakers on religious exchanges and dialogue and identify ways to prevent negative foreign influence that might affect religious harmony and social cohesion in the region. I think turning the attention to the role of religion in international relations can lead to better understanding of how cultural exchanges, interfaith dialogues and regional engagements can be better attained.

Also, I have had many inspiring mentors that I drew inspiration from throughout my research journey, and I am truly delighted that the Fellowship will allow me to recruit and mentor younger researchers in my field. 

What does the Fellowship, and by extension, research in this field, mean for Singapore?

Dr Chia: My research aims to add another dimension to understanding Singapore’s strategic interest, by shifting the attention from preventing foreign influence that affects religious harmony to investigating the role of religion in international relations and confidence building. It complements burgeoning local research on religious diversity and harmony, which tends to focus on contemporary local issues, as opposed to the use of religion in the promotion of cultural diplomacy and exchanges in the region. The Fellowship will allow me to explore how Buddhism was and continues to be used as a soft power tool in the Asia-Pacific region, and examine the role of religion in international relations, by investigating the relationship between Buddhists, non-Buddhists, and state actors in these cultural exchanges.

One way to promote interfaith and mutual understanding in a multi-religious society like Singapore is through the academic study of religion. I hope my research will help expand Singapore’s capability as a hub for the academic study of religion in the region, not just on the basis of research and producing academic publications, but also as a venue for scholars, policymakers, community leaders, and religious leaders to bolster intercultural understanding and interfaith dialogue. To augment such efforts, I recently helped establish an endowed lecture series in Buddhist studies at FASS and have been invited to give lectures and talks at various Buddhist organisations in Singapore and overseas.

Last but not least, I see myself as a scholar-teacher and my research and teaching both inform each other. I believe my project will make me a better educator by offering new perspectives in my courses and using my research findings to further inspire and educate the younger generation of Singaporeans.