Winner of the Stanislas Julien Prize
Winner of the Joseph Levenson Prize for Scholarship on Pre-1900 China
Dreaming is a near-universal human experience, but there is no consensus on why we dream or what dreams should be taken to mean. In this book, Robert Ford Campany investigates what people in late classical and early medieval China thought of dreams. He maps a common dreamscape—an array of ideas about what dreams are and what responses they should provoke—that underlies texts of diverse persuasions and genres over several centuries. These writings include manuals of dream interpretation, scriptural instructions, essays, treatises, poems, recovered manuscripts, histories, and anecdotes of successful dream-based predictions.
In these many sources, we find culturally distinctive answers to questions peoples the world over have asked for millennia: What happens when we dream? Do dreams foretell future events? If so, how might their imagistic code be unlocked to yield predictions? Could dreams enable direct communication between the living and the dead, or between humans and nonhuman animals? The Chinese Dreamscape, 300 BCE–800 CE sheds light on how people in a distant age negotiated these mysteries and brings Chinese notions of dreaming into conversation with studies of dreams in other cultures, ancient and contemporary. Taking stock of how Chinese people wrestled with—and celebrated—the strangeness of dreams, Campany asks us to reflect on how we might reconsider our own notions of dreaming.
While the book is written for an academic audience, the writing is wonderfully engaging. In the end, it challenges us to revisit our assumptions about dreams: what can and cannot be known about them and how much is a product of cultural context.
[Campany’s] approach to the study of Chinese dreams and dreaming is expansive without falling into the comfortable universals afforded by the perennialism that often creeps into modern studies on dreams. In fact, Campany takes issue with all ‘isms.’ According to Campany, the reification of traditions into monolithic belief systems (e.g., ‘Buddhism’ and ‘Daoism’) only muddies our understanding of these traditions, diverting our attention away from the plurality of information that makes up complex cultural phenomena such as dreams and beliefs. While the book sometimes dwells too long on the critical theory underpinning it, these theoretical forays are for the most part done to great effect. This book is a big and much-needed step forward not only in the study of dreams and dreaming in China but also, more generally, in the fields of religious studies and social history.
[The Chinese Dreamscape] delivers an admirable synthesis of past and present oneirological research, in the Chinese context and cross-culturally, while also presenting a compelling new application of the analytical toolkit that Campany has been honing over his last 25 years of scholarship (such as notions of cosmography, discourse communities, and the performative and semiotic functions of storytelling). Moreover, the author’s recognition of dreaming as an embodied process, and of the complex, recursive interactions between dreams, bodies, and cultures, clearly informed his decision to cite relevant theories and examples from across the social scientific corpus (e.g. anthropology, history, psychology). This resulted in a laudably interdisciplinary study, equally relevant to sinologists and oneirologists.
Dreamscape makes major contributions to the field…[It] provides an unparalleled assortment of many facets of dream life; we see sophisticated taxonomies, dream analyses (based variously on wordplay, spoken and written; hexagrams from the Book of Changes; and Chinese medicine), and extensive translations of biographies of elite diviners…‘Seminal’ long ago became an overused characterization in academic book reviews, but one can easily see this work, the product of many years of research, inspiring many future studies to further investigate this fascinating, vital subject.
Campany’s sixth book, The Chinese Dreamscape, 300 BCE–800 CE, builds on materials, themes, and arguments that Campany has been exploring over his previous five in expanding our understanding of early medieval Chinese religious worlds. Chinese Dreamscape is just as generously spirited, combing through scholarship external to Sinology and religious studies for relevant comparative cases and methodological insights, and then devising novel frameworks for his readers to better elucidate phenomena in their own fields of study, Asian religious traditions or otherwise. It is always pleasurable to consume Campany’s unique scholarly voice—at turns cautiously exhaustive, insistently clear, and playfully poetic—for the space of another book. And Chinese Dreamscape might also represent Campany at an especially self-reflexive moment, as the uncanny nature of dreams themselves continually challenge human attempts to render them sensible. We witness the author in the act of growing and reshuffling his theoretical repertoire to better capture the foreignness of the beings early Chinese people met when they were asleep.
Should prove invaluable to scholars interested in traditional Chinese literature and culture as well as comparative studies as diverse as psychology, theology, and literature.
- 2022, Winner of the Joseph Levenson Book Prize
- 2022, Winner of the Stanislas Julien Prize
- 282 pages
- 6 x 9 inches
- Harvard University Asia Center
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