Religion professor Chris Parr to take students on Silk Road route


Religious studies professor Chris Parr is preparing for a journey to the Silk Road in China this summer. This trip is a “test” — he will take students along the route next summer.

Parr is a recipient of the Messing Faculty Award, funded by the provost’s office / Photo by Josh Tyler

The Silk Road is an ancient trade route that connects China with central Asia, west Asia and Europe. The name is derived from the dominant trade of Chinese silk along the route since around 207 B.C. Supported by the Messing Faculty Award, Parr will travel alone for about three weeks from late June to mid-July.

Established in 1977, the annual Messing Faculty Award is granted to a full-time faculty member in order to improve teaching or enrich classroom experience. The award offers a $4,500 stipend for international travel and other expenses during the summer.

“I am really delighted and grateful for the Messing Award making this opportunity possible,” Parr said. “The plan is now an action.”

Provost Julian Schuster said the Messing Faculty Award is not only helping Parr to continue his work, but also enabling students to have opportunities for global education.

“This is a prime example of how individual achievement of a professor can lead actually to reinforcing the mission of our university: to become a truly global university,” Schuster said. “[Parr] is an excellent candidate to be the recipient of the Messing Award. Chris is a dedicated teacher. He gives 101 percent to his students, and he is always accessible. There is a passion that he has about the subject that he teaches.”

Having taught about Chinese religions at Webster for 25 years, Parr decided it is time for him to go see them in their original culture.

“I want to learn about and understand the history of Buddhism coming into China along the Silk Road with all the complexity it involved, in a way that also reflects other religions and ideas and products that traveled the same road,” Parr said. “A lot of that is about seeing it with my own eyes and the whole sensory experience of encountering the Silk Road, the distances, the smells, the dustiness, all of those things.”

Parr recently taught the classes Early Buddhism and China’s Silk Road Religions. He will be teaching Buddhism in China and Early Sources of Chinese Civilization next year, but he feels this is not enough context for students.

“Maybe the best way of doing this would actually be taking a class of students there to explore the art, the history and culture, also the aspect of then and now,” Parr said.

By visiting the well-preserved art treasures in grottoes and caves and learning about religions and history, Parr said he wants to provide students a multidisciplinary learning experience — something they cannot get from reading books and reports.

Parr invited Jeff Hughes, a professor from the art department, to co-teach the class for next summer. Hughes has studied and taught the history of Asian art and visited China just last year. He said he is very interested in the plan. Hughes said the Silk Road is a great choice for Parr’s research and teaching because the Silk Road allowed a great deal of intercultural exchange where numerous religions came together.

“In essence, it was a very tangible manifestation of what we often call globalism today,” Hughes said.

For the art aspect, Hughes said his focus will be the development of Buddhist art in China and broader issues of cultural transmission. Hughes said he believes art students will certainly benefit from the experience.

“They would be exposed to several centuries, even millennia, of art,” Hughes said.

Parr said the journey will not be easy. He is well aware of the difficulties he will very likely encounter on the road: language, transportation, dry heat in the desert and other, more unexpected ones. Nevertheless, he said difficulties will not be barriers to stop him.

“You are much better to go with an attitude that you are going to get outside of your comfort zone, and you are going to be challenged to stretch your possibilities,” Parr said.

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