By Anthony Meyer
Ann Waltner is a Religious Studies Steering Committee member, Professor of History and of Asian Languages and Literatures, and the Director of the Institute for Advanced Study.
Ann Waltner is a Religious Studies Steering Committee member, Professor of History and of Asian Languages and Literatures, and the Director of the Institute for Advanced Study. Her focus and field of work deals mainly with eastern religions, specifically pertaining to China. At the Institute for Advanced Study (IAS), Ann's goal is to create environments that facilitate faculty research. Often times, this means reaching outside of the box and expanding the usual boundaries of scholarship. This entails the inclusion of undergraduate students, graduate students, and faculty alike. Like the Religious Studies Program as a whole, the Institute for Advanced Study works closely with many fields and disciplines. Ann Waltner and her staff at IAS work hard to foster revolutionary ideas while articulating them in ways that can be readily understood by the educated public.
One such idea is Professor Waltner's personal project dealing with an incredible, albeit little-known, event in Chinese history. During the 16th century in China, a young, charismatic individual rose up to become a religious inspiration to many Chinese people. This person's achievement was complicated by many situations including the preeminence of Confucianism in China during this period and the overall skepticism of the Buddhist and Daoist gods. Not least of this individual's stumbling blocks was the fact that she was a woman.
What could a woman have done to have transcended a patriarchal, Confucianist existence in 16th century China? At the end of her life, this woman, named Tanyangzi, ascended to heaven and achieved immortality. Before dismissing this story as merely another legend, one must note that historical records attest that some 100,000 people were witnesses to this event. In fact, as reported by her disciples - which included her own father and his closest friends - and critics of her "cult" alike, the event's occurrence was not under dispute. What the event meant, however, very much was.
Four men from the prestigious Wong family later attempted to author a biography of Tanyangzi, but this effort was stopped short by the bureaucrats in China who said that it would "seduce men's minds away from Confucianism." This ideological resistance coupled with a later impostor claiming to be Tanyangzi transformed her very public event into a mere urban legend. Ann Waltner has been working diligently to unearth the story of Tanyangzi and to understand her impact on China today. Electrifying the research even further is Professor Waltner's recent discovery of several letters written by Tanyangzi herself. What this new development will mean for the ultimate conclusion of Waltner's piece is yet to be seen. Yet, what is certain is that, whatever the conclusion, the tale of Tanyangzi and her movement that has existed in China as a legend will soon be transformed into history once again. And for this, we have Ann Waltner to thank.