So Long, Farewell: A Chat with Recent Graduate Tianxin Chen ’21

Tianxi Chen ’21

From Beijing, China, Tianxin Chen ’21 double majored in College of Letters and Religion. He described “critical analysis”, what he has learned through his undergraduate study at Wes, as a challenge for inclusiveness, emphasizing understanding, emotions, feelings and communication, and embracing differences. He adheres to the beliefs of maintaining creativity, vitality, and imagination in the process of continuous questioning and thinking, and embraces true self while exploring the value and meaning of life. After a gap year, Tianxin plan to pursue a master degree in religious studies at University of Chicago.

What did you study at Wesleyan? How did you choose your majors?

I graduated from Wesleyan with a double major in the College of Letters and Religion. The choice of these two majors is directly related to the courses I took in my freshman year.

I took an introductory course in religious studies in the first semester. At that time, we did not study the so-called “world religions,” but used different approaches such as phenomenology, history, documentary, psychology, anthropology, etc., to investigate the intersection of religion and gender, law, race, mass media, government and other topics through case studies. I immediately felt very intrigued, and at the same time my own way of thinking was challenged. The study of religion requires me to explore the world of many “others” and the logic behind their praxis, to understand how traditions, innovations, and transgressions are intertwined into the way people exist individually and collectively.

For religious studies as a social science, what matters is not whether there are gods or ghosts, but how answers to these questions constitute and shape people’s lives and ways of existence. It is a very humanistic subject to me. It asks us to understand different worlds and behaviors, and at the same time it challenge our own limits of empathy and understanding——Can you really understand or purport to penetrate the things you study? Do you always agree with them? You don’t always have to and there is no definitive answer, but to respond to this challenge, a scholar must maintain a critical perspective to reflect on the dynamic relationship between herself and the research object. Regarding this, the religion department at Wesleyan provides a great platform for engaging the same topic of religion through different academic approaches and invites critical insights into what some may consider as the “sacred.” Whether it is religious belief or personal orientation, nothing is essential, immutable, or indisputable. More often than not, belief and the value of life are porous and fluid things. It is in the process of constantly trying to cope with and resolve doubts constitutes our self and life experience.

With COL faculty and students

My second major is the College of Letters. When I was a freshman, I took two 15-person seminars that gave me a taste of the COL learning experience. One course mainly read Kafka’s works, and the other mainly read Nabokov’s works. I really liked the student-led open discussion, and it was an incredible experience to fully immerse myself in an author’s literary world. Literary studies and religious studies both attracted me because they both invite us into the world of others. What COL emphasizes is that we must return to the original text to form our understanding of primary sources while keeping in mind that we’re always reading edited/translated version of the text in a contemporary Western context, rather than just projecting one’s own opinions or certain theories onto a few fragmented sentences or words. For me, COL allows people to gradually form self-view and self-awareness by interacting with works of different time and space. Then, you can notice the interaction and intertextuality between different authors and works, and discover the dynamic collision between creation and tradition. A great metaphor we talked about in the COL is to treat a text as a mirror, and reading is like looking in a mirror, but what you see is not just your own repeated reflection, but more like a kaleidoscope or a prism. Your self is constantly refracting and reflecting into different worlds along with the interaction of texts. This process is quite open and inclusive, just like my learning experience at Wesleyan.

Tell us more about your thesis project.

The title of my graduation thesis is What If the Chinese Were Magical?: A Close Reading of The Poppy War Trilogy. The main theoretical framework of this thesis is based on the scholarship of secularization, secularism and magic in the field of religion, and the close reading of the text is indebted to COL’s training over the past three years. Although magic has been degraded and marginalized since the beginning of a modern “secular age,” its influence and popular revival also provide new possibilities for reflection on science, modernization, colonialism, and secularized religion. Based on these theories, my senior essay takes as an example the magical reimagination of China’s modernization and secularization in the popular fantasy novel The Poppy War by RF Kuang, a Chinese American writer. In my reading, I explore how popular fantasy literature can incorporate Non-Christian “magical” practices to provide space and narratives for reflecting on modern secularism and imagining social relations outside of secular rationality.

What were your most interesting/rewarding experiences?

Meeting professors during office hour was a lot of fun. It was not just about the academic work. Maybe we would slowly start from Plato’s symposium and then transit to my observation of hookup culture on campus (Writing Love taught by Prof. Poncé is recommended here); or it might just be a chat about genre literature, Netflix’s popular culture production, and what kind of cultural subconsciousness was spread by some media that seems very “junk” but flooding everyone’s life (for this kind of topic, you can find Prof. Fitzpatrick); When I went through a rough time for some socio-political causes, some professors also gave me great comforts and advice. The professors I met were very considerate and sometimes shared their own life stories with me. In the sense of job hunting or a more standard understanding of “success,” these exchanges may not bring me anywhere, but these exchanges were very sincere. For an international student who left home to study like me, these exchanges established my initial sense of belonging to the Wesleyan campus.

I also met some very imaginative and creative friends at Wesleyan. I often joked that the four years of university made me “anti-intellectual” because academic studies sometimes were all about critical thinking, doubting everything, and analyzing everything, but I wonder what is left in life after these deconstructions? Many people on Wesleyan’s campus have inspired me and reminded me to use my own imagination and creativity to create a life of my own.

Wesleyan also helped me to live better in a world that is woven by the network of relationships between individuals and others. Because our campus is small, but the composition of students is very diverse, equal two-way communication is particularly important. I still remember the discussion of Chinese identities and the panel organized by Hong Kong students very deeply. While attending to conversations on campus between different groups, I always try my best to understand, but I also find that it is impossible for me to support or appreciate every position involved. But it doesn’t matter if everyone’s narrative is not perfectly consistent, because the most important thing is not whether these different voices and perspectives are absolutely “correct” or “true,” but how they shape different lives, build different individuals, and ultimately make us a group. And Wesleyan provides a friendly environment where I can wave my own narrative while learning to listen to others’ stories, open myself to my peers’ worlds even when I know each of them lives a life that holds more than what I can ever see, and in so doing enrich the possibilities for my own life.

As we know, you chose to study abroad in Pairs for a summer. What was the experience like?

With Wes friends in Paris

In the summer of 2019, I attended the summer program of Sciences Po Paris. The summer school has two tracks, one is social science and the other is French. Each student can choose which social science class/French class to participate in. I personally recommend students whose French level is about A2-B1 to participate in the two-month language course in this summer school. Although the language training at Sciences Po does not seem to be super intense, the immersive learning experience in Paris is irreplaceable and can promote personal enthusiasm for French learning. Wesleyan students generally are great with French grammars, but French oral comprehension can only be improved with enough input, and Paris is the place to be. Other than language classes, I took a class that studied the history of World War II through soldier’s personal letters and diaries. The class offered me a great opportunity to study French history and culture closely. When we were studying the topic of French nationalism, the professor directly took us to the 79th commemoration of De Gaulle’s famous speech “Appeal of 18 June” during which President Macron also delivered a speech. Since I was not familiar with French history before, this experience taught me about the significance of nationalism in French Republicanism and pushed me to think comparatively about French Republicanism and Chinese nationalism’s purported goals. It was very eye-opening to immerse myself in the cultural atmosphere of Paris as well.

Although Paris is far more vibrant and culturally influential than Middletown in so many ways, the life in the big city also made me cherish Wesleyan very much. Wesleyan’s environment is small but well-equipped, people are close to each other, professors are more willing to spend time with students, and there are less distracting temptation. Wesleyan is just more suitable for concentrated learning for me. In contrast, taking the metro to commute to Sciences Po, which is located in a central area in ​​Paris, is more of a modern urban life. Parisian life and lifestyle are awesome but at the same time it makes people feel alienated. The learning experience was also not particularly continuous because there are so many things you can do in Paris! I don’t intend to say that Paris is inferior to Middletown, but some unique charms of Wesleyan’s small campus became obvious to me after my study abroad experience as well.

What will you do after graduation?

This spring I was admitted to the Master program at the University of Chicago Divinity School for religious studies with a scholarship, but I decided to defer the admission and took a gap year in China. In general, there are two types of things on my list: one is more “Wesleyan,” such as learning dance, exploring my body, participating in my friends’ art projects, and training my writing skills; and regarding the more “practical” aspect, I plan to improve my language skills, learn some hard skills about marketing and visualization, and I want to get more working experience.

If I return to Chicago to continue academic studies on religion after the gap year, I hope to explore more in the field of anthropology of religion, and specifically, I hope to study religious revival and the practice of “superstition” in the secular world. I am also interested in studying religion and popular media. Generally speaking, my academic interest and my emphasis on communication, relationships, and imagination are two sides of the same coin. The fields I am interested in require solid field experience, excellent empathy and a certain degree of sensitivity. In the longer-term future, I don’t want to be the type of scholar whose words not many can understand. I hope that I can try my best to remain creative and vigorous in transcending and connecting with the larger world. So no matter what my future career is, I want to accumulate more social experience and skills in my free time this year.