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 Powerful Scriptures in Early China: The Huainanzi's Construction as an Embodiment 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: Buddhist Traditions: A Material Cultural Approach; 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

    Buddhist Traditions: A Material Cultural Approach

    The ritual act of taking refuge plays an important role throughout various Buddhist traditions. In this class, we will use this idea as a helpful framework to examine Buddhist doctrines, ideas, theories, and practices. We will attempt to understand what role various forms of media and their ritualistic appropriations played in Buddhist responses to the question of "how can we end human suffering?"

      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 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.

        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.

          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.

            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: Intertextuality and the Huainanzi's Self-Fashioning as an Embodiment of the Way," in Journal of Asian Studies 79.2 (2020), pp. 367-402,
            “Overgrown Courtyards and Tilled Fields: Image-based debates on governance and body-politics in the Mengzi, Zhuangzi, and Huainanzi,” Early China 41 (2018), pp. 297-332,
            "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.