Featured Student | Xiao(Anne) Liu

Xiao(Anne) Liu is a senior student majoring in Media and Arts in the Art History track. Starting from the Summer of 2020, Ben Van Overmeire, Assistant Professor of Religious Studies at DKU, proposed a research project titled Zen and the Art of Detection. With funding obtained firstly from the UG Office and later from the CSCC, and under the guidance of Professor Van Overmeire, Anne Liu and Yuan Li, two freshmen students back then, analyzed a host of Chinese-language novels, looking for traces of Zen and detective tropes. Starting with the modern Chinese-language detective novels, the project later shifted its focus to the entire corpus of Janwillem van de Wetering’s (1931-2008) detective fiction, which the research team has developed into an academic article. The article has been accepted by Japan Studies Review with minor revisions.

Anne actually has a close-knit relationship with the CSCC. For the past three years, Anne worked for the center as an excellent student assistant, helping organize events and activities, taking event photos, and performing retouching and image adjustments after shoots. This time, CSCC sat down with Anne, with attention placed upon her active engagement in student research, insights gained from this specific area of study, experience working directly with professors, and pieces of advice for fellow college students.

Can you tell us about the connection between detective novels and Zen Buddhism? It seems that they have nothing to do with each other.

To avoid overgeneralization, it would be more accurate for me to talk about the connection between Janwillem van de Wetering’s detective novels and Zen Buddhism. We (Professor Ben van Overmeire, Yuan Li, and I) argue that the Zen Buddhist idea of “emptiness” illustrates and explains the Zen elements appearing in his novels. Emptiness means that nothing has an enduring essence because everything is constantly changing. In his novels, for example, the characters often discuss “emptiness” and “nothingness.” More importantly, Van de Wetering organized the plots around the idea of emptiness, because when reading the books, one finds that nothing much happened and that the crimes were solved without much detective effort—it’s more like solving the crimes through coincidences. Interestingly, some characters in the novels resemble aspects of Van de Wetering himself, through which he demonstrates that the self is empty and essentially there is no self. Moreover, Zen koans are also visible in his novels, especially “Joshu’s Mu”. These connections with Zen Buddhism are related to the author’s personal experiences with the religion and his understanding of Buddhist ideas.

In this project, you are responsible for reading detective novels written by Janwillem van de Wetering. What did you find particularly interesting?

To be honest, what stands out the most to me is that detective novels are surprisingly boring to read. I hardly find any exciting moments or even detective plots in the novels: the detectives are doing things seemingly unrelated to the crimes; most criminals are not brought to justice in the end; sometimes it is not even clear how the detectives solve the crimes. Nothing much happens. I sometimes wonder what the point is. In our co-authored article, we argue that this is because Van de Wetering organizes his books around the Zen Buddhist idea of emptiness, where the novels lack specific essence. I have talked about emptiness in his novels in more detail in the previous question.

Through analyzing Zen Buddhism and detective novels, have you acquired a deeper understanding of the cultural exchange between the east and the west? Do you think the influence of Zen on detective novels is more religious or cultural?

In some sense, I have. But I think it is more about the Western appropriation of Zen Buddhism rather than “the cultural exchange between the east and the west.” Van de Wetering discovered Zen Buddhism in London and went to Kyoto and studied it for one year. He did not get the Zen insights that he had expected to receive, but he continued to be interested in it. His personal experiences are interesting because they are Orientalist to some extent—he, as a Westerner, believed that he knew what Zen was about and that it was what he needed. But only when he really came to Japan did he realize that his previous fantasy was little more than his imagination of Zen rather than what it really is. Whether consciously or not, his experiences and interactions with Zen influenced his novels. I think van de Wetering’s detective novels are his appropriation of Zen Buddhist ideas. Therefore, it is hard to generalize whether the influence of Zen on detective novels is more religious or cultural, because it is different case by case. Regarding Van de Wetering, it might actually be more philosophical, since he encountered Zen when studying philosophy to seek answers to his existential questions. His engagement with Zen Buddhist ideas in his novels is also on a more philosophical level, rather than focusing on specific religious or cultural aspects. This is a complex question, and I think it not only requires us to examine case by case, but also encourages us to specify the definitions of being religious, cultural, or philosophical.

How do you collect important information accurately and quickly while doing the literature review? Would you like to share some of the skills that you have learned through participating in this project?

The first is to be clear about what I am looking for. Then, when collecting scholarly articles for literature review, I use filters in the library search function to locate the articles more accurately. I usually read the abstracts first to have a general idea of what the papers are about, after which I classify them into “must read,” “somewhat related (which aspects),” and “unrelated.” The next step is close reading, where I pay special attention to the authors’ arguments, sources, methodologies, and bibliographies. I then put down the parts that I think are significant as well as aspects that I/we could further work on.

Collecting information accurately and quickly is definitely one of the most important skills I gained through this project. We need to read a lot, which means that we can not read word by word. I also learned how to prepare for the project. For instance, what materials do we need? What background knowledge should we learn about? What is the workflow? Moreover, sorting and analyzing the information is equally essential. I learned to classify information into different categories and add analysis accordingly. For example, how do I interpret it? How does it relate to our research topics? What is special about it? Another critical skill is to tie everything together. The classification and analysis would offer us some patterns, and we think about how to make connections among them and rationalize them. During this process, we sometimes need to find more secondary sources.

How did you find your interest in art history? How do you think this project will help you in your future study of art history or East Asian cultural studies?

I painted when I was a child—that might be the beginning of my interest. I grew up visiting museums and galleries, and I have always been fascinated with artifacts and visual arts, as well as their stories and histories. After reading more books and taking relevant courses at DKU, I systematically learned about art history as a discipline, which fueled my interest in it. Yet, during my research, both my own projects and my professors’, I found that I am more interested in the history behind art rather than the art itself. Therefore, I now focus more on historical research, but still use art history and material culture as an approach to answer my research questions.

This project with Professor Van Overmeire not only helps me gain the basics of Buddhist ideas and theology, but also lays the foundation for my research skills that are essential for my academic career. My understanding of Buddhist concepts is undoubtedly beneficial for my future study of art history, because a lot of artworks, especially those on the Silk Road (which are my research interest), are related to Buddhism. Sometimes it would be difficult to analyze the artworks if I were not familiar with Buddhist ideas and stories. As one of the major religions in East Asia, Buddhism is something that one can hardly circumvent. Knowing Buddhism would make it a lot easier when doing research on East Asian-related topics, because it offers us a larger ideological and religious background. I have touched upon most of the research skills that I have learned from this project in the previous questions. There is no exaggeration to say that Professor Van Overmeire and his project have taught me almost all the basics of research.

Can you tell us how you got involved in this project? Many first-year and sophomore students really want to participate in research projects but do not know how.

I joined this project during the summer of my freshman year. Professor Van Overmeire contacted me and asked whether I would be interested in participating in it. Back then I was taking his course, and we had conversations both inside and outside class. We thus got to know more about each other, and he offered me the research scholar position when opportunities arose.

My suggestions for those who hope to participate in research would be the following:

  1. know yourself: what type of research are you interested in? Why are you interested in doing this type of research? You need to keep in mind that the primary purpose of doing research is not to write it on your CV. I also do not think it is reasonable to involve in research projects simply because everyone else is doing that. Research experiences are not a must for everyone. It should in some ways contribute to your long-term goals and career objectives.
  2. Learn about professors and their projects, and COMMUNICATE with them: after knowing what you want, you can start keeping an eye on the research opportunities available to you. Schedule an office hour appointment with your professors, tell them about your academic interests, and ask whether they have or know of any research opportunities available. Most professors would keep your interests in mind, and would introduce you to opportunities in the future. The key is communication—just let the professors know!
  3. Be prepared: at the same time, you should also make preparations yourself. These “preparations” are as basic as submitting assignments on time, participating in class discussions, genuinely engaging with course materials, etc. Also, you could read and learn more about the field that you are interested in, so that when opportunities come, you are prepared to take them.