It’s one thing to study the materials used in religious or ritual practices, but it’s another thing to study the material that makes up those items. That’s exactly what Arizona State University religious studies PhD candidate Beiyin Deng is researching for her dissertation.
Deng is studying the circulation, transportation and trade of marble from Myanmar used to create Buddhist images. She focuses on the trade from Myanmar to China from the 1890s to the present day.
After earning her bachelor’s degree in philosophy from Fudan University in Shanghai and her master’s degree in religious studies from New York University, Deng spent three years away from academia and worked as a project assistant for interfaith projects, traveling across Southeast Asia and returning to China to work in the outbound tourism industry.
During her travels as an exchange student in Taiwan, her observation of and participation in many Buddhist activities made her curious about the engagement of religion with modernity and secularity in different cultural and social settings.
But it was during a trip to Myanmar in 2014 that really got her interested in the everyday practices of Buddhism and the interactions between Buddhism and politics in Myanmar society.
“From my perspective, these transnational, transcultural Buddhist material transactions challenge a lot of long-entrenched presumptions in Buddhist studies and area studies as they have fostered Buddhist connections that transcends many different identity vectors, including ethnicity, nationality and, most importantly, sectarian affiliation,” Deng said.
Knowing that Juliane Schober, director of the Center for Asian Research and professor of religious studies in ASU’s School of Historical, Philosophical and Religious Studies, is a scholar of topics that interested her, Deng applied to the religious studies doctoral program at ASU.
“(Deng’s) work is innovative because it crosses many boundaries, disciplinary ones between religious studies, anthropology and history; regional ones between Southeast and East Asia; religious ones between Theravada and Mahayana Buddhism; and ethnic ones between Myanmar and China,” said Schober, who is the chair for Deng’s dissertation. “I'm sure it will receive a lot of scholarly attention once the dissertation is completed.”
Since joining the doctoral program in 2016, Deng has traveled to the Chinese cities of Sichuan, Chongqing, Beijing, Shanghai, Zhejiang, Fujian, Yunnan and now Ruili to conduct field research.
“The initial goal of these travels was, firstly, to locate the marble Buddha images that were conveyed by Chinese monastics from Myanmar to China between the 1890s and 1930s based on my previous archival research and, secondly, to observe their status of preservation at museums and Buddhist temples and sacred mountains and to collect materials about their biographies,” Deng said.
During her travels, she learned about the popular practice of donating marble Buddhist images from Myanmar to Buddhist temples across China from the 1980s to the early 2000s. She was also able to visit marble mines in Beijing, Hebei, and Sichuan in China, and the famous Chinese Buddhist image carving centers in Quyang and Hui’an.
“I chatted with Chinese marble quarry owners and workshop owners, observed the various properties of marble stones excavated from different locations and listened to people’s interpretations of these properties and their differences,” Deng said. “These experiences have enriched my knowledge of the Buddhist image market in China, enabled me to compare the raw materials with those from Myanmar and deepened my understanding of the enchantment that Burmese marble provokes among Chinese Buddhists.”
Deng is currently conducting field research in Ruili, China, which opened its borders in early June of this year.
“I had waited for this opportunity since I arrived in China last August,” Deng said. “I am really excited to return to the neighborhood that I used to conduct research on before the pandemic."
After completing this stage of her fieldwork, she plans to visit Beijing for additional archival research before returning to the U.S. to finish writing her dissertation.
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