Tinker, Tailor, Scholar, Spy: Holmes Welch, Buddhism, and the Cold War

Justin Ritzinger


Drawing on archival research and oral history, this article examines the career of Holmes Welch (1921–1981). Welch is a towering figure in the study of Buddhism whose trilogy on modern Chinese Buddhism stood as the definitive work on the topic for decades and remains a touchstone today. In many ways, Welch appears ahead of its time. Yet an investigation of Welch’s papers makes clear that his work can only be fully understood in the context of the Cold War, for it was not only shaped by but also served the American struggle against Communism. Welch’s formation as a scholar took place less at Harvard, where he earned a master’s, than Hong Kong, where he served as a political officer in the Foreign Service. Afterward, he continued to write and consult in the service of Cold War objectives into the early 1970s. This intertwining of the academic and the political in his work and career suggests the existence of a “hidden transcript” of Buddhist Studies and the Cold War that merits further investigation.


Modern Buddhism; Welch, Holmes; Cold War; World Fellowship of Buddhists; China; Asia Foundation; Buddhist studies; Area studies

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DOI: http://dx.doi.org/10.5281/zenodo.5764599


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