Tibeto-Mongolian Buddhist Scholasticism, Science, Humanism and State Socialism
Matthew King is an adjunct associate research scholar at the Weatherhead East Asian Institute and an Associate Professor of Buddhist Studies and Director of Asian Studies at the University of California, Riverside. His research examines the social history of knowledge in Buddhist scholastic networks extending across the Tibeto-Mongolian frontiers of the late Qing empire and its revolutionary ruins. Much of his published work has focused on encounters between Buddhist scholasticism, science, humanism, and state socialism in the 19th and early 20th centuries. His work is also broadly engaged with methodological revision in the study of religion and Buddhist Studies, and in revisionist theoretical projects associated with the critical Asian humanities.
His first book Ocean of Milk, Ocean of Blood: A Mongolian Monk in the Ruins of the Qing Empire (Columbia University Press, 2019), was awarded the American Academy of Religion Excellence in the Study of Religion: Textual Studies book award, the Central Eurasian Studies Society's 2020 Best Book in History and Humanities, and the International Convention of Asia Scholars Book Prize (Specialist Publication). Ocean of Milk illuminates previously unknown religious and intellectual legacies of the Qing long after its political ending. Here, post-imperial “counter-modern” Buddhist thought emerges as a foil for the hegemony of the national-subject and “the modern” in scholarship about early twentieth century Asia.
His most recent book is In the Forest of the Blind: The Eurasian Journey of Faxian's Record of Buddhist Kingdoms (Columbia University Press, 2022). The Record of Buddhist Kingdoms, or Foguo ji 佛國記 is a classic travelogue that records the Chinese monk Faxian’s journey in the early fifth century CE to Buddhist sites in Central and South Asia. This book picks up the story in the nineteenth century, when The Record traveled west to France, becoming in translation the first scholarly book about “Buddhist Asia,” a recent invention of Europe. This text fascinated European academic Orientalists and was avidly studied by Hegel, Schopenhauer, and Nietzsche. The book went on to make a return eastward journey: the French translation and study was reintroduced to Inner Asia in an 1850s translation into Mongolian, after which it was rendered into Tibetan in 1917. Amid decades of upheaval, the text was read and reinterpreted by Siberian, Mongolian, and Tibetan scholars and Buddhist monks. In the Forest of the Blind shows how the text provided European natural philosophers with the conceptual griding with which to invent “Buddhist Asia” as the object of scholarly knowledge, and Inner Asian readers with new historical resources to make sense of their histories as well as their own tumultuous times, in the process developing an Asian historiography independently of Western influence. Reconstructing this circulatory history, In the Forest of the Blind models decolonizing methods and approaches for Buddhist studies and Asian humanities. A complete annotated translation of the Tibetan-and Mongolian-language Record, read against the French and Chinese, is included as an appendix.
King’s current book project is a transdisciplinary experiment at the intersection of Buddhist Studies, the history of science, and environmental history. Focused on overlapping forms of sovereignty that claimed the past buried by the Gobi between the 17th-20th century, this book will contrast practices of working with the material affordances of the desert (such as excavation) among such figures as Buddhist monks, paleontologists, tantric hermits, and Silk Road archaeologists. An experiment in twining Lefebvre’s social production of space with a Chartier and de Certeau-inflected attention to the practices of knowledge production, this history of the Gobi deviates from emerging scholarship on the cultural history of the ecological borderlands of Asia. Thinking with Soja about open-ended processes of making and unmaking “place, location, locality, landscape, environment, home, city, region, territory and geography,” this book looks at how engaging the planes of the Gobi’s very material conditions passed across a “Thirdspace” frontier between present and past. Made by moving dirt, examining rock, and interpreting traces of bones, text, brick, and cloth, this is a book exploring not the spatial or ecological, but the temporal borderlands of modernizing Asia made in, and with, and from underneath, the geographic media of the Gobi Desert.
In addition, King has published widely on related topics in journals including the Journal of the American Academy of Religion, History and Anthropology, The Buddhist Studies Review, and Asiatische Studien-Etudes Asiatiques, as well as in several volumes devoted to Inner Asian Buddhist history.