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Luis Bernardi Junqueria Wins Award for Best PhD Thesis in Chinese Studies in 2023

8 July 2024

Congratulations to our PhD student, Luis Bernardi Junqueria, who has won the British Association for Chinese Studies Doctoral Award for the best PhD thesis in Chinese studies completed at a British university in 2023!

A young man in glasses smiles at the camera on his PhD graduation day

The Science of the Spirit: Psychical Research, Healthcare and the Revival of the Occult in a Modernising China, 1900–1949

Author: Dr Luis Fernando Bernardi Junqueira
Supervisors: Professor Vivienne Lo and Professor Sonu Shamdasani

How did a new science initially promoted by only a few individuals eventually become a widespread cultural phenomenon practised by thousands of people? My thesis examines the transnational history of psychical research in Republican China (1912-1949), a field dedicated to the scientific investigation of paranormal phenomena such as hypnotism, mediumship and extrasensory perception. Originating in late 19th-century Britain, psychical research captivated the imagination of scientists and intellectuals worldwide, offering the potential to expand the boundaries of science beyond the material world. The field promised to showcase the supremacy of mind over matter, casting exceptional abilities into the domain of science. Amidst the turmoil of imperialism and civil wars, Republican reformers lauded psychical research as a scientific means to enhance the Chinese mind by unlocking hidden psychic powers. They believed this would save China from the grip of Western materialism, leading to a superior ‘spiritual modernity’ rooted in science, tradition and mental reality.

My thesis examines how Republican reformers appropriated psychical research during their modernisation efforts and its impact on Chinese notions of health and religious experience. I argue that China’s engagement with this field reflects the interplay between local interests and global movements that denounced Western modernity as materialistic and dehumanising. Challenging the narrative that science inevitably leads to secularisation, I demonstrate how psychical research rekindled interest among highly-educated Chinese in practices previously deemed ‘superstitious’. My research utilises an unexplored collection of sources and engages with scholarship in eight languages. It examines the dynamics between local and global forces and the rhetorical boundaries between ‘science’ and ‘non-science’ in early 20th-century China. My work upsets prevailing narratives that construe China’s modernity as a derivative of Western standards. It contributes to medical historiography by revealing the pluralistic healing landscape of the Republican era and the creative ways the Chinese appropriated psychological knowledge. It also fills gaps in religious and intellectual history, uncovering vast social networks previously unknown. In short, my thesis reorients how tradition, psychology and transnational movements shaped China’s construction of its own modernity.  

For further details, please visit Luis's website.