Professor of Asian Studies
I research Chinese religious history ca. 300 B.C.E. to 600 C.E. as well as the comparative, cross-cultural study of religion. I teach courses on the history of Chinese religions, Daoism, and East Asian Buddhism, as well as thematic comparative courses (e.g. religion and food, holy persons in comparative perspective, the living and the dead) touching on many religious traditions, cultures, and periods. In all of my research and writing and most of my teaching I juxtapose two sets of things: on the one hand, textual materials relevant to the history of religions in China; on the other hand, questions, approaches, and problems stemming from the comparative study of religions, an enterprise I see as inherently interdisciplinary and methodologically eclectic. The resulting conversations often teach us surprising things about the history of Chinese religions as well as about how to study and understand religion.
My research focuses on late classical and early medieval China (ca. 300 B.C.E.-650 C.E.). These were religiously formative centuries in which Buddhist texts and teachings were first introduced to China and in which new Daoist religions also arose. I have tried to develop ways of reading religious narratives and ways of thinking about what religions are and how they work that allow us to see this exciting period from new perspectives. In Strange Writing: Anomaly Accounts in Early Medieval China (State University of New York Press, 1996) I offered a revisionist account of texts known as "accounts of anomalies," arguing that they are best seen as vehicles for cosmological and religious argumentation. To Live as Long as Heaven and Earth: A Translation and Study of Ge Hong's Traditions of Divine Transcendents (University of California Press, 2002) made available the first complete English translation and detailed interpretation of the most important early medieval hagiographic collection concerning a type of Daoist holy person known as "transcendents" while also providing a systematic account of the religion that underlay the hagiographies.Making Transcendents: Ascetics and Social Memory in Early Medieval China (University of Hawai'i Press, 2009) painted a revisionist portrait of these same figures based on an eclectic set of questions and guiding principles I developed for reading hagiographic narratives as evidence for religious history. This book won the American Academy of Religion's Award for Excellence in the Study of Religion (Historical Studies category) in 2010, and won Honorable Mention in the Association for Asian Studies' Joseph Levenson Prize competition in 2011.