Recent Dissertation on Bio-spiritual Practices and Ritual Theories
With his permission, I post here the abstract of Ori Trevor’s recent UPenn dissertation. I believe that Ori will keep on eye on this post, so please feel free to comment or raise questions.
Embodying the Way: Bio-spiritual Practices and Ritual Theories in Early and Medieval China
Ori Tavor, University of Pennsylvania, East Asian Languages and Civilization
Supervisor: Paul R. Goldin
The recent emergence of Ritual Studies as an interdisciplinary academic field has engendered a renewed interest in ritual practices. In Chinese Studies, this has led to a surge in research devoted to the reconstruction of ancient rituals through textual resources. It has also resulted in the examination of contemporary practices through anthropological field work. Painting a clear picture of the rich history of ritual in China entails more than studying ritual practices using modern methodologies, however; it also involves understanding the ritual theories that helped shape them. My dissertation surveys a variety of texts from the Warring States to the Early Medieval periods that can all be read as attempts to “theorize” ritual. I examine three theories, written by the Confucian philosopher Xunzi, a group of Western Han literati, and the Daoist liturgist Lu Xiujing, against the backdrop of contemporaneous individual self-cultivation practices. I demonstrate that ritual was often depicted as a technology of the body, a technique of self-cultivation that allows man, through the medium of his own body, to assert his influence on the world or even transcend it. By tracing the similarities and transformations in ritual theory over a period of a thousand years, I demonstrate that, despite the evident differences in their sociopolitical and religious agendas, all three ritual theorists shared a common belief in the ultimate efficacy of ritual over the individual self-cultivation techniques advocated by their rivals. I conclude by situating Chinese ritual theory in the broader context of Ritual Studies and demonstrate how the insights I have obtained open up new ways of thinking about ritual, the body, and the relationship between them. I argue that the distinctive philosophical and cosmological assumptions that surfaced in Early and Medieval China have produced ritual theories that are fundamentally different from their Western counterparts. Distilling a Chinese approach to the theorization of ritual can thus offer alternative solutions to the challenges faced by contemporary scholars, such as the role and meaning of ritual in the modern world.