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Associate professor wins American Academy of Religion book award

Author: Omar Shamout
November 9, 2020

UCR religious studies scholar Matthew King has won a 2020 Award of Excellence from the American Academy of Religion, or AAR, for his first book, “Ocean of Milk, Ocean of Blood.”

Matthew King

The AAR is the largest scholarly society dedicated to the academic study of religion, with more than 8,000 members worldwide. Awards for  Excellence are given in four categories: analytical-descriptive, constructive-reflective, historical, and the category King won — textual studies. The AAR also gives out the Best First Book in the History of Religions Award and the Religion and the Arts Book Award.

book cover

“Ocean of Milk, Ocean of Blood,” published by Columbia University Press in 2019, tells the story of Zava Damdin, a Mongolian Buddhist monk whose life stretched from the end of China’s Qing Dynasty through its socialist aftermath, offering a view of Buddhist life and thought in this revolutionary period. The book represents 10 years of research for King, much of which took place during his doctoral studies at the University of Toronto. King joined UC Riverside in 2014 after earning his Ph.D. 

The jury commended King for his “compelling prose,” noting the book sheds light on the underrepresented field of Mongolian studies, and also “reorients the study of texts for Buddhist studies, and religious studies more generally.”

King, an associate professor of religious studies, said he was left “speechless” by the major honor, particularly given it was his first published book.

“My highest hope was that it would get considered or shortlisted,” said King, who also serves as UCR’s director of Asian Studies. “This was just so far off the map. That they said it was readable and literary — that was the best accolade I could have.”

Melissa Wilcox, chair of the Department of Religious Studies and Professor and Holstein Family and Community Chair, congratulated King on his achievement.

“This book award is a huge deal,” Wilcox said. “The odds of receiving such an award are quite low, and even lower for a first book, which competes for most of these awards with experienced senior scholars.”

"Ocean of Milk, Ocean of Blood" also won a 2020 Central Eurasian Studies Society Book Award in October.

King recently wrapped up work on his second book, which focuses on the first European academic to formally study China and his 19th century translation of the fourth century writings of a Buddhist monk. It explores how that translation became the prism through which the Western world learned about Buddhism, as well as a text repurposed to support Tibetan nationalism.