Given the title of our project, From-the-Ground-Up, it should be clear that on-site investigation plays a critical role in this project. This approach is crucial for locating and cataloguing unknown, otherwise ignored, or little known material because it enables participants to ground our interpretations of sources within broader social, political, economic and religious contexts. Archaeological discoveries have long been catalysts for new insights in the field of East Asian religions. Digitization has made a portion of this immense body of material available to scholars working thousands of miles away. At the same time, isolating sources from their original settings creates the serious risk of misreading or over-reading materials if interpreters are unfamiliar with the contexts within which sources were compiled and circulated. Extra-canonical sources including manuscripts, epigraphy, statuary, other images, family genealogies, and gazetteers of regions, temples, and sacred sites—materials invisible using most current databases—are all necessary to reconsider the mosaic of East Asian religions.
Some of the sources we will be exploring are isolated items, while others are contained within local collections, libraries or even little-known, alternative canons or locally transmitted, extra-canonical material. Over the century since the historic discoveries of caches of texts and images at Dunhuang and other less well-known sites in Northwestern China, new visual and textual materials have continued to come to light, much to the excitement of the academic world. Among these, our team will work with rare manuscripts preserved in Japanese temples. Much of this material is not included in any received printed canons. We will explore the immense body of Chinese-language sources and images from Khara-Khoto (Heishui cheng 黑水城), attending to their specific Xixia contexts of production and circulation. Alongside these comparatively well-known but still understudied collections are a myriad of documents that have come to light more recently: esoteric texts found in Yunnan, for example, and a large number of manuscripts recovered from Buddhist temples and Daoist shrines and families, in village collections, or ensconced within votive statuary. In addition to the Buddhist canon carved into stone outside of Beijing, individual Buddhist and Daoist texts on cliffs or the walls of caves, as well as freestanding inscriptions, are preserved in various parts of China. In Korea and Vietnam there are inscriptions with a great deal to tell us about East Asian religious communities that until now have almost always been deemed marginal, and are almost never included alongside contemporary analysis of Chinese sites, texts, and images.
Exchange across the region along networks of textual and visual sources form the heart of our research program. Like the Silk Road and the trade route this moniker evokes, the multidirectional channels of a multi-sited network of book and manuscript production, distribution, and consumption that was facilitated by, but not limited to, the spread of printing—a “book road”—allowed for cultural interaction that changed reading practices and pushed people to think about real and imagined “textual communities,” often local but also integrated into trans-local structures and traditions. Religious significance was remade by local actors, often producing highly varied traditions and interpretations, which, in turn, reconfigured relationships between texts and authority, the written word and orality. When we seriously take into account the multi-sited context of textual production in East Asia, the shortcomings of conventional interpretations of the region as divided into a “centre” with “peripheries” becomes obvious.
Through a process of examining new sources in tighter contexts, we will pay particular attention to the varied media through which practitioners have encountered and constructed East Asian religious traditions. These include stone, bamboo and wooden slips, ink, print on paper, and images. McLuhan’s (1964) now-famous claim that the medium is the message, though articulated in a very different context, is surely relevant for our exploration of these changing modes of communication. Rather than religious knowledge itself, it may well be that the means by which knowledge has been stored, retrieved, and distributed have been the most powerful mechanisms for social and cultural change—and exchange—in East Asia. By studying the implications of using different media in East Asia, in particular, intimate connections between specific religious communities and specific media (e.g., Buddhists and print on paper), will yield insights relevant to our broader understanding of contemporary narratives concerning the “hypermedia revolution.” In presenting the material online and analyzing its significance there, we will attend as much to context as content. In this respect, this program differs from major database projects that emphasize the content of the predominantly canonical material they disseminate online.