With the pivot toward the Pacific in North America and Europe and greater assertion of East Asian cultural identities, scholars in many fields are recognizing the vital importance of studying East Asian religions. Distinctive styles of religiosity, ecclesiastical organization, and ethical orientations shape East Asian societies, even where the state has formally renounced religion. Encouraged by the discovery of new texts, artefacts, and increased opportunities for ethnographic fieldwork, the past decade of scholarship has contributed much to our understanding of both historical and contemporary religious phenomena. Technological advances have, during the same period, allowed specialists to make material accessible in ways hitherto unimaginable. Despite these achievements, however, the study of East Asian religions remains hindered by, on the one hand, the continued privileging of materials deemed to be canonical and, on the other hand, artificial boundaries imposed by geographical borders and academic disciplines. Numerous texts and images, for example, which have played pivotal roles within East Asian religious discourse—past and present—but were never canonized by religious authorities, have either been ignored or understudied, while connections between artefacts and documents remain hidden from view because scholars trained in separate disciplines study them in relative isolation and at a distance from the complex and multilayered contexts of their creation and use.
The barriers that most substantially shape the way we imagine and examine the field of East Asian religions are modern nation-state borders. Anachronistic projections of these boundaries into the past have separated the discipline into subfields of Chinese, Korean, Japanese, and Vietnamese studies. When researchers apply these divisions in their work they often overlook substantial shifts and currents that have long connected—rather than separated—places and people (via byways and roads) across the region. China is typically framed as the “centre,” thereby reducing her neighbors to marginal players on the periphery. The model bolsters the erroneous idea that, for example, Japanese, Korean, or Vietnamese culture (and religion) passively received “essential” influences from China. By assembling material that has circulated throughout East Asia (the area in which, historically, Sinographs were used for most writing), this program will elicit a broader view of regional interactions that does not privilege one locale or one direction of exchange.
To accomplish our goals, a network of scholars from China, Korea, Japan, North America, and Europe will create a new forum for research-intensive interaction through opportunities for enduring cooperation between individuals and institutions. We will bring together scholars from a range of academic disciplines through a multi-institutional partnership to engage in interdisciplinary research on-site in East Asia that should facilitate the type of collaborative work to reveal the interplay and interdependence between disparate texts, images, sites, and media across regions and sub-regions.
The final boundary our project seeks to surmount is the distinction between sources deemed worthy of inclusion in various Daoist and Buddhist canons and those excluded by religious authorities. Regrettably, this division has been exacerbated online through digital resources such as the Zhengtong daozang (Daoist Canon of the Zhengtong Era) and the Taishō shinshū daizōkyō (Taishō Revised Tripiṭaka), insofar as these digitized canons have become authoritative in their own right. Through the creation of a permanent database of these newly available or understudied primary sources and analysis of their significance at international conferences—which will subsequently be published in a fifteen-volume book series—this research program aims to guide the field of East Asian religions toward a “post-canonical” phase by rethinking received textual corpora, seeing multiple canonization processes as continuously affecting East Asian societies throughout the early, premodern, modern and contemporary periods.