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, intellectual history, visual cultures, and intertextuality.

    Zürn earned his PhD in pre-modern Chinese religions and thought from the University of Wisconsin-Madison in 2016. He taught for seven years as a graduate student at Grinnell College and in the University of Wisconsin system before coming to Wash U. His research concerns itself with various practices of embodiment in East Asia, the construction of powerful scriptures, and ritual theory. In his first monograph, titled Of Fabrics, Forges, and Chariot Wheels: The Huainanzi's Construction as a Wuwei-Performing Scripture of the Way, he explores how the Huainanzi (2nd century BCE) fashions itself as a powerful, textual embodiment of the Way (tidao), challenging standard interpretations that characterize this highly constructed text as an encyclopedic collection of philosophical treatises. Beyond these explorations in the construction of powerful textual artifacts, he investigates the impact of the academic division into philosophy and religion on our understanding of early and early medieval China. In his second book project, he studies the multidisciplinary and multimedia reception history of "Zhuangzi's Butterfly Dream" as a means to critique the tendency in the field of early China to read this famous anecdote almost exclusively through the lens of epistemology, a reading rarely shared in East Asian receptions. He is also the co-founder of the international research project "Global Reception of the Classic Zhuangzi."

    His teaching interests include life, death, and the afterlife in eastern religious systems, the relationship between ritual practice and thought, arts and religiosity, and understandings of sex, the body and gender in East Asia. His most recent courses include: The Body in Daoism; 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

          Zhuangzi’s Butterfly-Dream as a Practice of Forgetting: Hanshan Deqing's Buddhist Reading of the “Qiwulun” as a Dhāranī.”
          “The Images of Recapturing and Erasing Traces (ji 跡) in Early China,” for inclusion in Albert Galvany ed., The Craft of Oblivion: Aspects of Forgetting and Memory in Ancient China (Albany: State University of New York Press).

          Selected Publications

          "The Han Imaginaire of Writing as Weaving," in Journal of Asian Studies 79.2 (2020), forthcoming.
          “Overgrown Courtyards and Tilled Fields: Image-based debates on governance and body-politics in the Mengzi, Zhuangzi, and Huainanzi,” Early China 41 (2018); https://doi.org/10.1017/eac.2018.5.
          "Yin-Yang," World Book Encyclopedia (Chicago: World Book Inc., 2017).
          “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.