NYU Shanghai Lecture: Dreaming in Common

China ca. 300 BCE – 700 CE

Robert Campany

Vanderbilt University

Around 500 BCE, the Ionian thinker Heraclitus is supposed to have said: “For those who are awake there is a single, common universe, whereas in sleep each person turns away into his own, private one.” This fragment captures what seems to be an uncontroversial, common-sense observation and a view of dreaming that is dominant in modernity. What I will argue in this talk is that views of dreaming recorded or implied in a wide variety of texts in early and medieval China offer a strong contrast to this view of dreaming as private. There, the very experience of dreaming itself was understood as an encounter with someone or something other than oneself. And the meanings assigned to dreams, arrived at through interpersonal processes, were often not about dreamers themselves at all—and even when they were, they were a function of dreamers’ places in webs of relationships, not of the depths of their psyches. To most of us this is a decidedly unfamiliar notion of dreaming, and it carries, as I will show, some strange implications.

Robert Campany is Professor of Asian Studies and Religious Studies at Vanderbilt University. His primary teaching and research focuses on the history of Chinese religions including: Daoism, Buddhism, Confucianism, and popular religion. Campany also researches the cross-cultural study of religion and thought in early medieval China. He received his PhD in the History of Religions from the University of Chicago. Campany’s most recent book A Garden of Marvels: Tales of Wonder from Early Medieval China was published in 2015 by University of Hawaii Press.

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