Fellows in Focus: John Delury

Color photo of a light skinned man in a blue button up shirt standing in front of a painted mural, smiling at the camera
John Delury, the inaugural Tsao Family Rome Prize Fellow at the American Academy (photograph by Claudia Gori)

John Delury, professor of Chinese studies at Yonsei University, is the Academy’s inaugural Tsao Family Rome Prize Fellow. This new initiative, announced in 2022, supports scholars working on the historical intersection of China and Italy in arts and ideas.

While at the Academy, Delury is writing a book that places the late imperial Chinese discourse of tianxia in dialogue with early modern European political thought. Reconstructing the life and thought of seventeenth-century Confucian thinker Gu Yanwu, Delury is rethinking a Chinese word for empire (tianxia) in a comparative light—exploring linkages and differences with the legacy of Rome in contemporaneous Europe.

Delury told AAR how his Rome Prize Fellowship is unfolding.

What have you been working on while at AAR? Has your project changed since arriving?

My principal work at the Academy is finishing a book manuscript about the ideal of empire in early modern China as refracted through the writings of an important Confucian scholar of the seventeenth century—a political thinker named Gu Yanwu. The idyllic setting of AAR has made it easy to wake up every day inspired to write, and I’m happy with the progress I’m making on the book.

My vision for the book has broadened and sharpened considerably thanks to being surrounded by classicists, art historians, early modernists, etc., with the quintessential (Western) imperial city at our fingertips. For all our disciplinary differences, many of the scholars and artists here are investigating the meaning of empire. My ear for the Chinese discourse around empire is becoming attuned in new ways by listening, on a daily basis, to their voices and learning from their inquiries. It’s also been invigorating to be surrounded by mostly non-sinologists, both for expanding my horizons as well as forcing me to explain what I know in terms that make sense to experts and creators outside my field.

What’s something that has surprised you about being at the Academy?

I totally underestimated just how much our family would be able to enjoy the unique communal life happening up here on the Gianicolo. This year’s group of fellows formed a tight-knit and supportive group early on, and those bonds of friendship are the greatest treasure of the many that the Academy gives.

As a parent, I have found the Academy to be a paradise—a place where kids can be kids while also getting to know caring and creative adults who mentor and inspire them in all kinds of ways. AAR staff have also been amazing in supporting families, from finding the right school to learning how to play pool 😊. I am pretty sure the fellows are happy the kids are here, too.

Have you had any great conversations with other fellows or residents that changed your perspective?

In my experience it is not that one great conversation that makes a difference. Rather, it is the constant flow of talking and listening and messaging that generates shifts in perspective and moments of insight. I’ve come to pay attention to things that were lost on me before through the work and interests of fellows and residents.

Lunches with Elizabeth (Whelan) got me thinking about silk in new ways. Chats at the bar and in the cortile with the Chrises (Bonura and Erdman) sent me to the library with a list of books on the Republic, on Byzantium, on Persia. Thanks to Mary (Danisi) I look for fillets on every Roman sculpture, and thanks to Gabriella (Johnson) I see seashells in every church. Reading Katie (Kitamura) made me think about authorial voice in the sense of how the words sound in the reader’s head. Reading Elif (Batuman) makes me want my book to be funny (unlikely but fun trying).

I could go on and on, with examples from interactions with almost everyone at the Academy—fellows, fellow travelers, visitors, residents, staff, the whole lot.

What have you seen in the city of Rome that has made a strong impression on you?

The strongest impression made has been on the basketball court at Quattroventi, where a group of us play a weekly pick-up game. We have all been impressed by the differences in how Americans and Italians foul.

Monteverde overall is a lovely neighborhood, an escape from the weight of history and throngs of tourists found in Trastevere and across the Tiber. That said, as a historian I revel in wandering the streets of ancient, medieval, and renaissance Rome, no matter how many tourists are milling about. Going to the Pantheon gives me mild aesthetic arrest every time. The tree where Caesar was slain, standing there calmly in the cacophony of urban chaos, is a favorite spot for reflection on things past.

Up the street is a wonderfully obnoxiously baroque church, la Chiesa del Gesu, where I’ve visited several times now, searching in vain for the portrait of Matteo Ricci, the legendary Jesuit missionary to Ming China. And call it cliché, but I adore the Colosseum. Those days when it appears through the window of the bus coming back from a trip across town, I pinch myself. Do I really live here?

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