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





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


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.

Author Biography

Justin Ritzinger, University of Miami

Justin R. Ritzinger is associate professor of Religious Studies at the University of Miami. A scholar of modern and contemporary Buddhism in China and Taiwan, he studies the development and articulation of Buddhist modernism in the Chinese-speaking world, excavating the role played by seemingly non-modern ideas and practices in that movement. He is the author of Anarchy in the Pure Land: Reinventing the Cult of Maitreya in Modern Chinese Buddhism (Oxford University Press, 2017) and has published on topics including Buddhist eschatology, engagements with anarchism and evolutionary theory, and the dynamics of Buddhist tourism development in contemporary China. He is currently working on an ethnographic study of a blue-collar lay Buddhist organization in Taiwan.




How to Cite

Ritzinger, Justin. 2022. “Tinker, Tailor, Scholar, Spy: Holmes Welch, Buddhism, and the Cold War”. Journal of Global Buddhism 22 (2):421-41. https://doi.org/10.5281/zenodo.5764599.