2011 Student-Faculty Fellows: Carleton College
Mentor: Hong Zeng
Students: Josiah Burns, Nora Driscoll, Rose Hyson, Yer Yang, Herman Zheng
Individual Student Research Projects in the city of Chengdu and in Yunnan Province
This group of Carleton College students proposed to independently study a broad range of research topics (see below). To facilitate their explorations, the group travelled to Chengdu, Sichuan and then to Yunnan Province to be introduced to a diverse range of religious beliefs including Mahayana and Theravada Buddhism in Kunming, Chan Buddhism in Chengdu and Kunming, and Tibetan Buddhism in Kunming and Shangri La. We also visited sacred sites of popular Daoism and Literati Daoism. Another site visit was made to a Miao village comprised of Christian believers who were converted to Christianity by German missionaries over 100 years ago. As we visited Chinese religious sites we were struck by the variations of the styles of temples and fine arts embodied in the different Buddhist sects.
My research focused upon the study of filmmaking in the context of contemporary Chinese cinema and on making a 15-minute experimental documentary exploring Buddhist and Daoist visual cultures in Sichuan and Yunnan Provinces. I regard the film as an “expressive documentary” which explores experimental visual structures. It intersperses footage with verses from Buddhist and Daoist sacred texts. A friend is preparing a film score to accompany the film. The score will be mastered with a voice over narration (in Chinese with Chinese intertitles and corresponding English subtitles). I plan to screen my film on the Carleton campus and also submit it to film festivals. I also plan to set up a website as an additional distribution platform.
The primary intent of my research in China was to deepen my understanding of Chinese perspectives towards Buddhism and Daoism. In our visits to Tibetan, Chan and other Buddhist sites my focus was upon Buddhist tanka painting and the general architectural layout of religious sites. However, the actual focus of the research paper that has spun out of this China experience is to consider the impact of religion on two Chinese films, “Still Life” and “The Cup.” “Still Life” follows the adventures of two people in the Three Gorges area while the Three Gorges dam is being built. The film explores themes of destruction as a price for progress. This ties the film to Chan Buddhist and Daoist philosophy which investigates the connection between destruction and creation. “The Cup” tells a story about young Tibetan boys struggling between their religious commitment and their ties to the modern world. Like Tibetan Buddhism, these boys face the challenges presented by the collision between the modern world and ancient tradition.
During the past three years, I have spent a great deal of time in Yunnan Province and in Chengdu. During this past summer as part of this research team, I independently conducted three important interviews, including one with Lama Lobsang Khedup, and deepened my study of Buddhist tanka in order to complete a research paper entitled “Tanka: A Portable Sacred Space.” The paper is an introduction to tanka painting and its use in Tantric Buddhism and considers the role that tanka play in allowing religious practitioners through a visualization process to enter the world of Buddhist deities, whether or not they are in a temple or other religious space.
I initially intended during this summer research experience to study ethnic minorities in southwest China and more particularly the practice of shamanism among them. However, I failed to make the essential connections with shaman needed to complete such a study. Nonetheless, during my time in China, I visited several pivotal religious sites (Buddhist and Daoist), as well as a Miao community in Shangri La that converted to Christianity several generations ago. We also visited the San Xing Dui museum near Chengdu to study this ancient culture and the role of shaman in this society. My research is now focused upon how China’s growing economy is influencing the way people practice religion and how the abject poverty of many Chinese lead them to seek salvation or comfort through God, Buddha, or nature.
My research project, derived in part from my recent experience in Sichuan and Yunnan Provinces, will be to study and write about the Chinese heritage of Chan (Zen) Buddhism and Chan Buddhist links to other Chinese religions such as Daoism and Pure Land Buddhism. I also plan to explore Chan Buddhist influence on Chinese poetry and poetry’s influence on Chan. Too often in the West, Chan is connected to Japan because it filtered to the West through Japan, and to a certain extent, the Japanese writer Daisetz Teitaro Suzuki. My study will trace the evolution of Chan throughout Chinese history culminating in an analysis of how Chan is viewed in contemporary Chinese society.