Religion in Late Imperial Narrative

11:00 am – 12:45 pm
Room B

  • Organised by Andrea Kreuzpointner
  • Vincent Durand-Dastès, Chair
  • Andrea Kreuzpointner, “Xiwangmu References in Ming Novels and their Influence by Ming Theatre as Examples of Popular Religion?”
  • Barbara Witt, “The Late Ming Book Market for Popular Religion”
  • Lucrezia Zanzottera, “Inner Alchemy in Yaohuazhuan: An Example of nüdan?”

In late imperial China, religion and narrative literature were not separate entities, but rather different aspects of a shared cultural landscape. As such, religious themes surfaced in many shapes or forms in vernacular novels. They ranged from crude displays of divine fighting powers, through hagiographical narratives and sermon-like allegories to sophisticated metaphors of advanced practices of Daoist Inner Alchemy or Buddhist philosophy. This panel will highlight three very different embodiments of religious themes in Ming and Qing dynasty narrative literature. Andrea Kreuzpointner will outline depictions of Xiwangmu 西王母 across several popular late Ming novels as well as theatre plays and the traces of Daoist culture found in those. Barbara Witt seeks to uncover the market mechanisms behind the large increase in publications of religious knowledge, popular vernacular narratives, and hagiographical novels in the late Ming and early Qing. Finally, Lucrezia Zanzottera’s paper analyses the hypothesis that the Qing vernacular novel Yaohuazhuan 瑤華傳 (1803) by Ding Bingren 丁秉仁 presents an example of female Inner Alchemy treaty (nüdan 女丹).

Andrea Kreuzpointner, “Xiwangmu References in Ming Novels and their Influence by Ming Theatre as Examples of Popular Religion?”

“The Queen Mother of the West” Xiwangmu 西王母 has been an integral part of Chinese text and art history since the Western Han Dynasty (207 B.C.–7 A.D.). Early sources like the Shanhaijing 山海經, the Lunheng 論衡, or the Zhuangzi 莊子 describe her as a crown wearing beast with tiger teeth and a leopard tail, as a name of a region or as a mythological figure having obtained the Dao 道 respectively. It was not until the Ming Dynasty as a unitary image of Xiwangmu evolved as the famous novels Xiyouji 西遊記, Dongyouji 東遊記 and Xiyangji 西洋記 amongst others depict Xiwangmu as the host of the peach festival pantaohui 蟠桃會, which takes place on the third day of the third month on mount Kunlun 崑崙. Those lucky enough to get invited enjoy a great banquet and get to taste the most desired fruit: the peaches of immortality bestowed by Xiwangmu herself. Guests to her festival have been as illustrious as the Eight Immortals or Buddha Amitabha. The Ming novels not only show Daoist and Buddhist influence but have greatly influenced each other as well as they have been influenced by another popular Ming genre: the theatre, especially the plays written by Zhu Youdun 朱有燉 (1379–1439) like Qunxian qingshou pantaohui  群仙慶壽蟠桃會 or Yaochihui baxian qingshou 瑤池會八仙慶壽. The aim of this talk is to trace down those influences as well as the impact of popular religion on those novels and theatres.

Barbara Witt, “The Late Ming Book Market for Popular Religion”

The mid to late Ming saw a rise in book culture and printing activity. Most famously, this led to numerous editions of the Four Masterworks 四大奇書, but also led to an increase in publications related to popular religion. Among these are religious novels of the genre that Lu Xun 魯迅 would go on to call Novels about Gods and Demons 神魔小說. Some of those novels, such as for example Xiyouji 西遊記, Fengshen yanyi 封神演義, Xiyangji 西洋記, and the collection Siyouji 四遊記, have already been studied to varying degrees. Less focus has so far been given to the shared features of these novels and surrounding literature, such as popular historical fiction, religious encyclopedias, or encyclopedias for daily use 日用類書. In fact, quite a number of literati were engaged in the publication of several works as publishers, authors, or editors. Striking examples are Luo Maodeng 羅懋登 (fl.1590s), Yu Xiangdou 余象斗 (1550–1637), and Zhu Dingchen 朱鼎臣 (fl.16thc.) among many others whose publishing effort touched various forms of popular literature. Considering the influence that popular narratives of Chinese history and religion retain to this day, a reevaluation of these works in light of the late imperial book market for popular prints is long overdue.

Lucrezia Zanzottera, “Inner Alchemy in Yaohuazhuan: An Example of nüdan?

Daoism and Buddhism have a great influence upon Ming and Qing novels, especially shenguai xiaoshuo 神怪小說. Since the late Ming period, we can see the emergence of a new literary phenomenon: specific feminine inner alchemy texts (nüdan 女丹). This is as long as feminine literacy increases and it’s linked to the emergence of female literature. The novel I analyze is Yaohuazhuan 瑤華傳 (1803) by Ding Bingren丁秉仁. This is a very peculiar xiaoshuo which relates to the history of a male fox spirit condemned for his sexual crimes to be reincarnated in the granddaughter of emperor Wanli 萬曆, Yaohua 瑤華, expert in poetry, performance, and in martial arts, who temporary defeats the rebels Li Zicheng 李自成 and She Chongming 奢崇明. The book is the story of the progressive refinement of the fox spirit to become immortal under the guide of other two female immortals, Wu’Aizi 無礙子 and Zhou 周. Among the many passages relating the transformation of the fox spirit, we notice one excerpt which in the purification process is particularly devoted to the female nature of the protagonist. Can it be considered as an example of nüdan?

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Room B