A Historical Semantics Perspective on ling

2:00 pm – 5:45 pm
Room 4

  • Organised and chaired by Christian Meyer
  • Joachim Gentz, “How ling is ling? Ling 靈 as an Exanimate Classifier Relating to a Conceptual Religious Realm”
  • Friederike Assandri, “Ling in Early Medieval Daoism”
  • Vincent Goossaert, “Ling as Divine Presence in Daoist Narrative and Ritual”
  • Esther-Maria Guggenmos, “The Plot-Engine—Ling 靈 as a Narrative Means in Early Buddhist Biograhies”
  • Stefania Travagnin, “Meanings of Ling in Modern Buddhist Discourses”
  • Matthias Schumann, “The Powers of the Psyche: Hypnotism, Psychical Research, and the Secularisation of ling 靈 in Republican China”
  • Nikolas Broy, “‘This Numinous Light’: The Notion of lingguang in Late Imperial and Contemporary Chinese Popular Sects”
  • Adam Yuet Chau, “Storied Spirits: Constructing Efficacy (Lingying 靈應) and the Strange (lingyi 靈異) Through Telling Tales”

This double-panel presents and discusses results from a specialized workshop on the Chinese term ling 靈 that took place in 2019. The character is widely known in academia as a key term for understanding Chinese local or popular religion where it is often translated as ‚efficacy‘ denoting the miraculous power of a temple or deity. The character, however, has older roots in antiquity. Later meanings were added through its uses by Buddhism and Daoism creating a broader notion of ‘numinous’ or ‘superhuman’. Until today such usages are effective when it comes to traditional Chinese medicine, divination, medium practices, Qigong, or, Japanese reiki 霊気. The story took a new turn when monotheistic traditions (Islam, Christianity) entered the Chinese linguistic field and the term was also adopted by missionaries as translation of the “holy spirit” as shengling 聖靈 in the protestant Bible. From this base, the term broadened again in the early 20th century when it became used for ‚spiritual practice‘ (lingxiu 靈修) or ‚spirituality‘ (lingxing 靈性) in general.
The project related to this double-panel aims to reconstruct the complex processes by which the premodern term ling has developed into a widespread and still puzzling term. The selected papers concentrate on various premodern traditions (panel 1), but also look at the continuities and transformations in the modern period (panel 2). Based on short presentations the panel will offer space to discuss relevant questions of translation as well as methodological problems with a wider audience.

Joachim Gentz, “How ling is ling? Ling 靈 as an Exanimate Classifier Relating to a Conceptual Religious Realm”

In early Chinese texts, the term ling has manifold meanings. The HYDCD lists 20 meanings of the term. Yet, if the meanings of the term are reconstructed in their respective contexts then a particular function rather than a meaning of the term seem to dominate the usage of the graph in early Chinese texts. Ling in most cases takes on a classificatory function as a label that qualifies something as belonging to a spiritual realm that is not defined in more specific detail. While thus acknowledging some general kind of spiritual quality it avoids to commit itself to any specifity. In early Chinese texts ling, therefore, appears mainly as an alienated term, a term in quotation marks, a categoriser, an indicator of an exanimate conceptual space that assigns a quasi-religious quality to something without determining the exact mode of its usage. The usage of ling can be metaphorical, allegorical, ritual, aesthetic or, indeed, religious in some indistinct way. It can, in a loose associative sense, refer to aspects of spiritual qualities such as goodness, power, superiority or auspiciousness. It can also de-secularise something in a very general sense and for various reasons. The paper will provide an analysis of textual examples from early Chinese texts to further support the hypothesis that ling is best understood as a graph with a classificatory function rather than a term with a range of lexical meanings.

Friederike Assandri, “Ling in Early Medieval Daoism”

The paper will present an inquiry into the use of the term ling in early medieval Daoism. One major focus of the analysis is the question of cosmological realms where ling is imagined or comes from.
The most prominent usage of the term ling occurs as part of the compound lingbao, which marks “a new Daoist lineage, with a new ritual program and cosmological conceptions” (Raz 2004, 6). In this context, the meaning of the term ling has been interpreted as “heavenly, divine, numinous” (Kaltenmark 1960).
This paper will expand the discussion, presenting an analysis of the usage of the term in different Daoist texts. Beginning with the “classic” Daode jing, where the single occurrence seems to point rather to the underworld than to the heavens as a “location” for ling, the paper will analyse different occurrences of the term ling in several early medieval Daoist texts, including the Purple Texts and the Scripture of Salvation, in order to establish semantic fields of the usage of ling.
It emerges that in early medieval Daoist texts the term ling if divorced from the term lingbao, has a broad range of semantic meaning. Thus the established notion of ling as the heavenly divine numinous, as it has been discussed in Daoist studies in the context of the term lingbao and the associated scriptural corpus, is but one of several notions that are associated with the term ling.

Vincent Goossaert, “Ling as Divine Presence in Daoist Narrative and Ritual”

One of the things ritual does is to create divine presence that can be sensed (seen, heard, felt…). One of the key terms used to describe this presence is ling 靈; notably, a frequent technical phrase I want to explore is “to make ling present in this world,” jiangling 降靈. This paper will look at both narratives (primarily, Daoist hagiographies) and liturgies (primarily, daofa 道法 manuals from the Daoist canon) from the Song to the late imperial period in order to chart the different ritual methods used to create such presence, and thereby to define the array of ways ling can be apprehended. A non-exhaustive list includes spirit-possession, dreams, spirit-writing, visualisations, and consecrating powerful images. All of these involve a priest who knows how to make ling present.

Esther-Maria Guggenmos, “The Plot-Engine—Ling 靈 as a Narrative Means in Early Buddhist Biograhies”

This paper traces the terminological field of so-called “spiritual efficacy”—ling 靈—in early medieval Buddhist biographical writing. The respective narrations in the Biographies of Eminent Monks (Gaoseng zhuan 高僧傳) partly borrow material from zhiguai literature. It is in these miracle tales that ling-related terminology is playing a crucial role as a narrative device. Ling is not only used in the context of designating certain supernormal abilities (shentong li 神通力). It is also applied in accordance with early medieval miracle tales as a means to denote efficacy—e.g. of a temple, a certain god, or by stating the power of a Buddhist relic. This also makes it a negotiated term in early Buddhism as it can mark the simple demand for proofs of efficacy and consistently the craving for such proofs can be seen as evidence of missing spiritual progress. The paper will delineate these various usages of ling-related terminology by focusing on how it is embedded in the narrations. While the concept of resonance, ganying, is by far the most prevalent organising concept of these early miracle tales (Campany), the deeper look at how the concept of “spiritual efficacy” is applied in the narrations reveals its central role as a “plot-engine” in some of the early Buddhist biographical literature.

Stefania Travagnin, “Meanings of Ling in Modern Buddhist Discourses”

During the late Qing and the Republican period, Chinese Buddhism was characterised by a ‘narrative of reform’, which included a more conservative recovery of a lost tradition from the past as well as drastic innovations and significant changes to that tradition. Often, the study of the narrative of reform has intersected with the argument of a possible ‘revival’ of Buddhism at the dawn of the twentieth century. This paper will discuss definitions and uses of ling within the framework of the intellectual and practical spheres of modern Buddhism, especially in relation to the contemporary ‘narrative of reform’ and framework of ‘revival’. The first part of the presentation will address semantic patterns of ling that were shared by both premodern China and the Republican era, so to show the level of diachronic continuity; the paper will continue highlighting different nuances and new messages regarding ling that Chinese sources from the Republican period offer. The third section will look at intellectual debates from Taiwan in the first half of the twentieth century, hence during the Japanese occupation of the island. The last two parts of the presentation will demonstrate to what extent Christianity and Western cultural systems might have reshaped Chinese and Taiwanese Buddhist usages and understanding of ling and its compounds; moreover, especially for what concerns Taiwanese arguments, I will question degree and modalities of impact from Japanese intellectual and Buddhist discourses.

Matthias Schumann, “The Powers of the Psyche: Hypnotism, Psychical Research, and the Secularisation of ling 靈 in Republican China”

During the Republican period (1911–1949), the meaning of the term ling 靈 became increasingly complex as it picked up new scientific connotations stemming from psychology, physics, and psychical research (xinling yanjiu 心靈研究). In its scientific guise, it proved especially appealing to an urban constituency that sought novel ways of coming to terms with the spiritual dimension of human life but wanted to avoid the contested category of “religion.” In particular, a number of newly-founded psychical organisations used ling or xinling 心靈 to translate the novel term “psyche.” Most of these organisations devoted themselves to the study and application of hypnotism (cuimianshu 催眠術), which served as a self-cultivation method able to confer “psychic powers” on the practitioner and improve his or her physical and mental health. The functions of hypnotism were explained by reference to a universal psyche (ling/xinling) to which the individual human mind was connected. This psyche, practitioners argued, accounted for specific psychic phenomena but also offered the hope of providing a comprehensive understanding of the relation between matter and spirit. Borrowings from religious discourses notwithstanding, psychical researchers generally stressed the secular nature of their theories and criticised a belief in spirits and deities as “superstitious.” The changing meaning of ling thereby also illustrates some of the larger debates about science, religion, and spirituality during the Republican period.

Nikolas Broy, “‘This Numinous Light’: The Notion of lingguang in Late Imperial and Contemporary Chinese Popular Sects”

This paper explores the use of the compounds “numinous light” (lingguang 靈光), “numinous brightness” (lingming 靈明 or mingling 明靈), and “numinous nature” (lingxing 靈性) in Chinese popular religious sects from the Song period (960–1279) onward. In particular, it looks at discourses about the nature of human selves and the teachings that aim to restore them through spiritual cultivation and moral progression. Moreover, some sectarian tracts argue that humans’ primordial souls existed already before the creation of the cosmos, but they had been corrupted by mundane desires. In the first part, the paper investigates how Song period Buddhist and Daoist texts introduce lingguang and related terms as referring to humans’ innate capabilities of spiritual enlightenment. Part two looks at various sectarian writings from the Ming and Qing (1368–1911) periods and how they develop narratives of lingguang as referring to eternal selves. In particular, it analyses texts related to the Patriarch Luo 羅祖 (ca. 16th century) and “Former Heaven” (Xiantiandao 先天道) traditions. Finally, part three explores how the modern “redemptive society” Yiguandao一貫道 (“Way of Pervading Unity”) synthesises previous accounts and Neo-Confucian the concept of the “open, numinous, and unobscured” (xu ling bumei 虛靈不昧) nature of humans’ natures into a coherent spiritual system.

Adam Yuet Chau, “Storied Spirits: Constructing Efficacy (Lingying 靈應) and the Strange (lingyi 靈異) Through Telling Tales”

The telling of tales (orally, in print or via modern audiovisual and electronic media) involving supernatural occurrences is one of the most prevalent and important activities in Chinese popular religion. These tales recount divine interventions as miraculous responses to pleas from worshippers, divine retribution for improper behaviour, divine reward for exceptional piety, ghost hauntings, and exorcisms or simply strange occurrences that defy rational explanation. But the contexts for telling these tales are as important as the tales themselves. This paper will examine some of these contexts (amongst festival-goers at temple festivals, during orientation camps for university freshers as well as in TV programmes dedicated to ‘strange tales’). The continuous reproduction of a culture of magical efficacy and the strange depends on the active participation of audience members and the construction of an ‘atmospheric’ suitable for telling such tales. For every actual experience of divine intervention or uncanny occurrence, there are ten-thousand fold tellings and retellings of the experience, through many mouths and on many different occasions.

Event Timeslots (1)

Room 4