UCL History chats to PhD student Luis Fernando Bernardi Junqueira

29 July 2021

We were delighted to catch up with PhD student Luis Fernando Bernardi Junqueira, who has just published his article 'Revealing Secrets: Talismans, Healthcare and the Market of the Occult in Early Twentieth-century China' in the journal Social History of Medicine.

luis bernardi

Hi Luis, thank you so much for taking the time to talk to us! Can you tell us a little about you and how you came to be at UCL? 

I believe that my trajectory is quite atypical, as I have never imagined I would be here one day. I am the first – and so far, the only – member of my larger family to have obtained a college degree, attended a public university, travelled abroad and learned a language other than Portuguese. I was born in the countryside of Brazil, a small town close to Argentina, and at the age of 16, I left the countryside to live alone in a big city far away from home (over ten hours by car). In my second year at the Federal University of Santa Catarina, I became deeply interested in Chinese medical history thanks to two wonderful supervisors from the History Department and Medical School. At that time, I could only speak Portuguese and Spanish, so I did some part-time work in a local bookstore to pay for private classes of Chinese. In 2013, I applied for the Chinese Government Scholarship (CGS) to pursue a master’s degree in Chinese history at Fudan University (Shanghai), gaining one extra year to study Mandarin and Classical Chinese at Nanjing Normal University. The time I spent in China (2014–2019) shaped most of what I am today, and I would never have been able to study there had I not receive the CGS. As I did not have the financial means to learn foreign languages in Brazil, I also learned English through Chinese while living in China. I think it is paramount to emphasise this financial aspect as quite a few students feel embarrassed to mention in public that their families cannot support their studies, either at home or abroad. I would have never been able to leave the Brazilian countryside had I not received funding from governments and charitable institutions, and the only reason I am pursuing a PhD at UCL today is that the Wellcome Trust has granted me research funding, for which I am immensely grateful. I sincerely hope that one day students will be able to pursue their desire programme without worrying about financial constraints.   

You’re a second year PhD student in the department – can you tell us a bit about your research project?

I am working on the history of psychical research in early twentieth-century China, and how it impacted the Chinese understandings of body and mind, life and death, tradition and modernity. Psychical research is a field of study that emerged in the UK in the late nineteenth century and soon spread worldwide. Psychical researchers were concerned with the scientific study of the mind and paranormal phenomena like telepathy, clairvoyance and mediumship, which they believed had the potential to expand the boundaries of conventional science. I argue that the Chinese experience with psychical research – which they called ‘Spiritual Science’ (xinling kexue 心靈科學) – cannot be properly understood if we do not take a transnational perspective into account.

Sounds great! You recently had a paper published in the journal Social History of Medicine – can you tell us a bit about this article?

This paper is part of my PhD project with the Wellcome Trust on the history of psychology, psychical research and the occult in Republican China (1912–1949). Titled ‘Revealing Secrets: Talismans, Healthcare and the Market of the Occult in Early Twentieth-century China’ (https://doi.org/10.1093/shm/hkab035), it looks at how transnational psychical research, supported by Shanghai’s booming print culture, gave a new lease of life to Chinese occultism (like astrology, divination, spirit-writing etc.). Past studies in Chinese medical history tended to focus too much on the spread of biomedicine and the invention of Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM), assuming that occult arts declined or simply disappeared as China followed the ‘path to modernisation’. What I have found, however, is quite the opposite, which brings into question the very idea of what ‘modernity’ means in the Chinese context. To illustrate my point, I consulted lots of newspaper advertisements and manuals of talismanic healing, most of which I obtained while doing fieldwork with Chinese talismanic healers in Shanghai and Hong Kong between 2014 and 2019. 

To those interested in Chinese talismanic culture yet unable to travel to East Asia, I strongly recommend you take a look at the Wellcome (https://wellcomecollection.org/) and Science Museum (https://collection.sciencemuseumgroup.org.uk/) collections. You will find a lot of fascinating stuff there!

What advice would you give to anyone thinking about pursuing a PhD?

I think the main question one should ask oneself before applying for a PhD is ‘why do I need a PhD’? If you’d like to work in academia, it would be good to do some research beforehand to understand how the academic environment is, like politics, funding, job prospects and so forth. If you are doing a PhD for fun, then that’s another matter and you may not feel so much pressure. Although I love my research topic and am blessed with great supervisors, I still find the PhD life rather arduous and challenging. I often say to my friends that doing a PhD is like self-therapy. You will learn a lot about yourself – both your positive and most negative aspects – and this can be scary sometimes. I don’t know how many times I have thought about quitting my PhD. The last time was during an anxiety attack I had between December and January, and if I am still here is only thanks to the support of my husband and friends. To summarise, I think the best way is to talk with current PhD students (in person and on online forums) and learn about their achievements and struggles, as each student has a unique trajectory and might have gone through radically different experiences in academia.