Tobias Benedikt Zürn

Postdoctoral Fellow in East Asian Religions
PhD University of Wisconsin-Madison
research interests:
  • Pre-modern Chinese Religions and Intellectual History
  • Daoist Textual and Visual Cultures
  • Early Chinese Aesthetics
  • Reception History
  • Intertextuality
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  • Washington University
  • CB 1065
  • One Brookings Drive
  • St. Louis, MO 63130-4899
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Dr. Zürn's research and teaching interests include early and pre-modern Chinese religions (including Daoisn), intellectual history, visual cultures, and intertextuality.

Zürn earned his PhD in pre-modern Chinese religions from the University of Wisconsin-Madison in 2016, and taught for seven years at Grinnell College and in the University of Wisconsin system before coming to Wash U.  His research concerns itself with the many ways that religious texts, or scriptures, function in the life of communities, and shows how early Daoists and Buddhists used scriptures not just as philosophical guides, but also as aesthetic and ritual entities that engaged with bodies and other objects in numerous ways.

His teaching interests include life, death, and the afterlife in eastern religious systems, and understandings of sex, the body and gender. His most recent courses include: Daoist Traditions; The Zhuangzi, A Daoist Classic; Confucian Thought; and Anime and Animi: A Popular Cultural Approach to Shinto.

Recent Courses

Sexuality and Gender in East Asian Religions: The Body in Daoism

The Body! There is probably no other phenomenon in the world that is as directly experienceable and tangible as our own physique, yet at the same time disconcerts and remains opaque to us due to its oftentimes unforeseeable and hardly controllable responses. In this course, we won't try to conclusively solve the question about what the corpus truly is. Instead, we will use the diversity of responses our body has triggered throughout human history and engage in conceptualizations of sex, body, and gender that are quite distinct to our modern-day perceptions. In particular, we will explore early and medieval Daoist visions of the corpus as a microreplica of the cosmos and its impact on various practices such as Inner Alchemy, Techniques of the Bed Chamber, Chinese medicine and mountain-and-water paintings. We will use these perspectives as an opportunity to question our own understandings that are mainly influenced by a dichotomy between the body and soul/mind as developed in a Euro-Christian context and its materialization in the modern disciplines of medicine and psychology. In other words, we will delve into Daoist conceptualizations of sex, body, and gender in order to understand the emphases and some of the limitations of our own preconceived notions that are far from being universal or exhaustive, yet, heavily determine our actions.

    Confucian Thought

    This course is designed to introduce students to the history and teachings of one of the world's major religious traditions: Confucianism. We will examine how Confucianism developed in ancient China and afterwards spread throughout East Asia and beyond. In particular, we will pay attention to the issue of ritual and how Confucians attempted to ritualize social interactions and the world at large. In order to do so, we will engage in the writings of Confucius, Mengzi, and Xunzi, three early Chinese writers whose basic ideas about ritual heavily informed myriad cultural practices that are formative for large portions of East Asia today. Hence, this course on ancient thinkers not only introduces thoughts and practices prevalent throughout pre-modern China, Japan, and Korea. It also functions as a catalyst that helps us understand some of the reasons and motivations behind these communities' recent efforts to renegotiate and question "the colonialist flavor" of human rights and democracy.

      Topics in Religious Studies: Anime and Animi: A Popular Cultural Approach to Shinto

      This course will introduce you to Japan's "indigenous" religion by exploring the enchanted universe of Shinto through a popular cultural lens. We will utilize the rich trove of manga and anime as a window into a world full of gods and ghosts that still impacts everyday life and politics in Japan. You will encounter full-length feature movies such as Princess Mononoke, Spirited Away, or Onmyoji, anime series such as Spice and Wolf or Mushi-shi, as well as manga series such as Dream Saga. In so doing, you will playfully learn about the structure and function of temples and their relationship to local communities, the connection between Japan's political elite and kami worship, miko and bodily possessions, the complex relationship between Buddhism and Shinto, and the modern, yet anachronistic construction of Shinto as a "national" religion during the Meiji period (1868-1912). In other words, you will experience in this course an exciting and fun, yet at the same time critical avenue to the history of Shinto and its various religious practices.

        Current Research

        “Writing as Weaving: Intertextuality and the Huainanzi‘s Self-Fashioning as an Embodiment of the Way” (Under Review at Journal of Asian Studies).
        Zhuangzi’s Butterfly-Dream as a Practice of Forgetting: Hanshan Deqing's Buddhist Reading of the “Qiwulun” as a Dhāranī” (For submission to Journal of Chinese Religions).

        Selected Publications

        “Overgrown Courtyards and Tilled Fields: Image-based debates on governance and body-politics in the Mengzi, Zhuangzi, and Huainanzi,” Early China 41 (2018);
        "Yin-Yang," Forthcoming in World Book Encyclopedia (Chicago: World Book Inc.).
        “Seng Qixu 僧契虛 (Monk Attached to Emptiness),” in Tang Dynasty Tales: A Guided Reader, Volume 2. Edited by William H. Nienhauser Jr. (Singapore: World Scientific Publishing Co., 2016), pp. 367-428.