Dr Dimitri Drettas is currently a Senior Research Associate at the Department of Religion and Philosophy in Hong Kong Baptist University. He is also a research fellow at the International Consortium for Research in the Humanities (IKGF) and an Associate Researcher at the Research Centre for East Asian Civilisations. He received his PhD in Chinese Studies from the École Pratique des Hautes Études (Paris) in 2007, and holds a qualification for the function of 'Maître de conférences' in Chinese Language and Literature. His research interests include Chinese intellectual history, material philology and Chinese manuscript studies, oneiromancy and dream theories, divination and magical medicine,'recipes and techniques' (fangshu 方術) and household encyclopaedias (riyong leishu 日用類書) under the Yuan and Ming dynasties.
Dr Dimitri Drettas
Dr Dimitri Drettas' public lecture was centred on the relationship between Chinese culture and dreams. He explained that dreams, 'as literary a device, [were] ubiquitous in Chinese tradition'. Dr Drettas' research on Chinese oneiromancy, of which the lecture represented the most recent result, has been based on the analysis of 14 manuscripts from Dunhuang, along with Daoist fu 符 and other texts ranging from the Qin to Yuan dynasties.
Oneiromancy占夢, or 'dream-based divination' (an oral tradition sometimes recorded and theorised in writing), was a part of Chinese culture, but did not occupy a prominent place among the divination techniques of ancient China. Dr Drettas explained that the preferred techniques involved use of phenomena or data accessible by different people in a seemingly 'objective' manner (e.g., clouds or natural phenomena). Dreams, however, were strictly individual experiences that were unavailable for observation by others. Still, it is possible to find many instances of oneirocritique, or 'the composition of dream prognostication texts', in Chinese tradition. This textual genre was defined both by its content and function. The word itself derived from the ancient Greek onirokritis, indicating 'the one who interprets or judges dreams', and in modern Greek the word indicates books dealing with dream interpretation. In the Chinese context, the word 夢書, or 'dreambook', referred to any text dealing with dreams. This type of literature was not necessarily focused on divination (or 解夢). Oneirocritiques were, therefore, only one specific type of 夢書.
A second focus of the lecture was the competition between professional diviners and the 'wise people', who could interpret dreams without textual support. An example of this competitive interaction can be found in the Yanzi chunqiu 晏子春秋 (Ch. 6.6), where Yan Ying states that there is no need to use textual support for interpreting a dream. The 'wise people' can be described as those who adapted the interpretation of dreams to the biographical and psychological background of the dreamer, and the professional diviners were those who relied on texts and institutionalised traditions. Therefore, Dr Drettas concluded that there was a 'fundamental contradiction between dreaming and the possibility of having a method of interpretation that can be mastered and consulted': the interpretation of dreams tended to escape institutionalisation.
A third important topic discussed during the lecture was the analysis of the Dunhuang dream-prognostication texts as a genre. These texts presented a standardised layout and organisation of dream content, based on thematic categories. The texts could provide either a prognostication based on the auspiciousness of the 'dream image' or a prescriptive line (that allowed the dreamer know how to avert negative influence from the spiritual world). Sometimes both functions could apply. Dreams were not always just images that could foretell future events; sometimes they were understood as the results of the direct contact with spirits. Although we still do not know how Chinese oneirocritiques were used in the ninth and tenth centuries, it is possible that they may have been used privately as manuals, and even for recreational purposes.
The complex interaction between religious and psychological elements is probably one reason for the marginal position of oneirology among Chinese divination techniques, but this interaction also makes oneirology a fascinating topic.