Dr. Elena Valussi Joins International Research Project
Dr. Elena Valussi will be joining the "Fate, Freedom and Prognostication" project at the University of Erlangen-Nuremberg in 2017-18. Dr. Valussi teaches courses at Loyola in modern East Asian and Chinese history. She has written on Chinese gender, religious and intellectual history. She is also a fellow with the "Critical Concepts and Methods for the Study of Religion in Modern China at the University of Groningen. Public Media Assistant Marie Pellissier asked her a few questions about this project and her upcoming time in Germany. Congratulations, Dr. Valussi!
MP: What specifically are you going to be working on while you're with the project? How does this fit with the project's larger goals?
EV: My project will deal with the phenomenon of spirit writing in late imperial China (approximately 1700-1900); spirit writing part of a larger context of ‘divine revelations’, which have a long history in Chinese religions. Specifically, it is a popular religious practice that connects a person, or more often a community, gathered around an altar, to a specific divinity, in an effort to respond to personal requests, to seek future positive outcomes, and for general moral guidance. The divinity responds by dictating scriptures through the body of a medium, who writes these responses on a sand tray. Responses may consist of a few phrases, but are often longer scriptures which are transcribed, printed, and then distributed to the individuals and/or the whole community. Traditionally, money was gathered to carve woodblocks for printing the words of the divinity. Nowadays, where the practice still exists in Taiwan and southern China, the responses are generally edited on a computer screen, printed out, and distributed immediately, free of charge. The printing and dissemination of the scriptures is also a religious practice, which provides merit, and therefore the possibility of spiritual advancement, to the people responsible for it. This form of communication between the earthly and divine worlds speaks to fundamental issues of religious culture like prognostication, eschatology, and soteriology, and also connects with questions of textual authorship, formation and transmission, thus is sits at the core of religious studies research. My research connects in a fundamental way to the larger project on ‘Fate, Freedom and Prognostication’ because, like that project, it too seeks to 'uncover the historical foundations of prognostication, with their impact on our immediate present and our way of coping with the future' by looking at practices through which communities seek answers about their present and future. It also seeks to understand 'different views on fate and strategies of coping with destiny in Chinese modernity', in comparison to Western modernity.
MP: What drew you to this topic/this research project? How does it align with your interests?
EV: I have been interested in this religious practice since my Ph.D. thesis, which used, as primary materials, texts resulting from spirit writing sessions. I have attempted to understand the social and religious context of this textual production, the background and goals of the communities gathering around these altars ever since, and I have become part of a group of scholars who have attempted to reveal the centrality of spirit writing to the development of religious culture in the late imperial period, its ubiquitousness and multifariousness. A number of religious canons, received by spirit writing during the eighteenth and nineteenth century, have recently been discovered in archives and are being studied, and they provide a very different perspective on late imperial religious culture, which had been described as in serious decline. It is now clear that late imperial religious culture in China was vibrant, innovative, and diffused, as well as strongly localized. Thus the study of spirit writing is not only important per se, to understand a specific expression of religious belief and practice, but also a means to uncover a religious culture that had been obscured by the absence of sources, and by a narrative of decline.
MP: What are you most looking forward to with regards to this project and your upcoming time in Germany?
EV: At Erlangen, I look forward to collaborating and communicating with a really diverse group of scholars from different backgrounds: scholars of China from different eras and disciplines, and scholars of Medieval Europe, all coming from different parts of Europe and of the world for shorter or longer stays. The center holds weekly talks and presentations by its members, organizes conferences, workshops and lectures, so I will be exposed to a variety of perspectives and ideas which will definitely inform my own research and methodology. I will also be able to share my own research and receive valuable feedback. While I am already involved with international research projects, while in Erlangen, I also look forward to deepening my connections to other European institutions and scholars, hopefully the basis for future collaborations.
Congratulations, Dr. Valussi!