There's a disconnect.
Chinese Buddhism was effectively decapitated by the communist insurrection on the mainland. Refugees fled to frontier areas of the Chinese diaspora, such as Taiwan and elsewhere, but I believe a lot of the artistic traditions were not passed on to a new generation, so while you have intellectuals who read the classical texts as well as progressive thinkers, the rest of Chinese Buddhism was largely lost, which helps to explain the sheer lack of old aesthetics (or any aesthetics sometimes) in Chinese temples.
Now, granted, China is now reviving old architecture and art traditions, but from what I can tell it is more of getting the superficial gist of things rather than the real traditions of the past.
I think to some degree the intellectual traditions took a serious hit, too.
Humanistic Buddhism for example doesn't really focus on actual meditation or the horrid realities of saṃsāra. They talk more about being socially active, generating merit and benefiting beings. I think part of the reason for such shifts is because a lot of people don't really believe in saṃsāra any longer. They acknowledge it, sure, but it isn't regarded as a pressing concern any longer. What really matters is turning the world into a utopia one mind at a time (i.e., building a pure land on earth).
However, as a historian, haven't you read about the different political and social upheavals that lead to the persecution of the Chinese Buddhist tradition in the past? Hasn't the Chinese tradition resurfaced again and again, despite repeated purges? I'm not asking rhetorically - I genuinely want to know.
There's no single Chinese tradition really. That's why the frontier Buddhism that you find in Singapore from a century ago is rather different from what Hongyi or Taixu were promoting. There was a great deal of variance and there still arguably is, though more and more Chinese Buddhism is either Pure Land or Humanistic Buddhism.
In any case, Chinese traditions live on in Korea and Japan. Nationalistic sentiments aside, most forms of Japanese Buddhism are really archaic forms of Buddhism found on the mainland centuries ago.
Has the tradition become more fragmented and diluted with every upheaval?
No, it has just changed a lot. A lot of the reforms post-WWII often strike me as idealistic and even non-Buddhist.
Instead of lamenting about the chasm between the Buddhism of then and now, why not invigorate the present tradition with knowledge from the past?
I basically concluded I'd never survive in a Chinese Buddhist institution as a monk. I tend to be outspoken, critical, slothful and independent, all of which are qualities that are intolerable in most Chinese traditions.
In any case, I'm just an observer and not a serious participant. As a scholar of classical East Asian Buddhism, I can just look at these reformed models and acknowledge how detached they are from what used to exist.
The form of Buddhism that is taking root in Taiwan could be helped along by people like you, who possess a broader historical perspective, who can refer the tradition back to its earlier days, when important founding precedents (in art, the pantheon, practices, architecture) had not been lost.
To get enough influence to be taken seriously as a white monk would require many years of towing the party line and exercising absolute obedience to authorities.
According to my natal chart, that's the exact opposite of what I am likely to do in life.
Nope, no gilded cages for me.
But when the integrity of the Chinese Buddhist tradition is at stake, for example, we may feel that it's not our personal responsibility to resuscitate it.
I don't really like ethnic associations with Buddhism. The whole "Chinese Buddhism" movement of the modern times is a product of misguided nationalism at any rate, and I'm not part of that club and never will be.