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Mingjun Lu

SSHRC William E. Taylor Fellowship

The way Mingjun Lu sees things, nothing is ever really forgotten. Memories are never erased, though they may fold over each other and disappear for a while. But they can unfold again, too, she says, and memories that were temporarily hidden can come back into the light.

Lu is the 2006 winner of SSHRC’s William E. Taylor Fellowship, given annually to the most outstanding recipient of a SSHRC doctoral award.

Her award is just the latest chapter in a life-long love affair with literature. A native of China, Lu’s passion for the written word has taken her from teaching English in a rural high school to become a rising star in the English department at the University of Toronto. 

When Lu talks about memory folds, she’s referring to a theory of memory first articulated by philosopher Gottfried Leibniz in the 17th century. For Leibniz, the memory fold formed the core of his metaphysics, and from there, a foundation for his ethical thinking. For Lu, the fold is the starting point for a dissertation that will range forward and backward in history, cross continents and leap over cultural and disciplinary boundaries.

Leibniz’ later work and his conception of the fold in particular, explains Lu, was deeply influenced by Chinese philosophy. In the 17th century, Jesuit missionaries were just beginning to report back to Europe about China’s ancient culture and its sophisticated systems of thought. Leibniz’s “memory fold,” says Lu, is a synthesis of ideas with roots in Aristotle, Plato and Augustine on one side, and Lao Tzu and Zhu Xi on the other.

Lu’s thesis will trace the idea forward in time through Nietzsche, Heidegger and the post-modernist Gilles Deleuze. Using a different lens, she will reveal it in literary works by such figures as Shakespeare, Donne, Milton and Spenser.

Lu’s work will illuminate the continuing impact of an early and highly significant exchange between Chinese and Western thought. It will also reveal a 17th-century China that—contrary to the commonly held view—was far more than just a passive receiver of European ideas.

In the end, says Mingjun Lu, her work will “unfold” cultural memories that have remained hidden but influential for centuries—and in the process uncover ties that bind East and West together more closely than either may have thought.