Ancestors and Anxiety: Daoism and the Birth of Rebirth in China

Ancestors and Anxiety: Daoism and the Birth of Rebirth in China

Ancestors and Anxiety: Daoism and the Birth of Rebirth in China

Ancestors and Anxiety: Daoism and the Birth of Rebirth in China


This innovative work on Chinese concepts of the afterlife is the result of Stephen Bokenkamp's groundbreaking study of Chinese scripture and the incorporation of Indic concepts into the Chinese worldview. Here, he explores how Chinese authors, including Daoists and non-Buddhists, received and deployed ideas about rebirth from the third to the sixth centuries C.E. In tracing the antecedents of these scriptures, Bokenkamp uncovers a stunning array of non-Buddhist accounts that provide detail on the realms of the dead, their denizens, and human interactions with them. Bokenkamp demonstrates that the motive for the Daoist acceptance of Buddhist notions of rebirth lay not so much in the power of these ideas as in the work they could be made to do.


In order to survey the ground we will cover, we begin with two vignettes.

Scene 1

Cai Yong 蔡邕 (133–92) was an eminent official, intellectual, calligrapher, and writer of the Latter Han dynasty. Though born into a powerful literati family, he first came to court notice because of his reputation for filial piety. Historians record that the first publicly recognized instance of Cai’s remarkable devotion to his parents came about as follows.

When Cai was young, his mother died. Cai set up a hut beside her grave and ritually served her shade during the mourning period. As a result of his intense devotion, rabbits ran as if tamed alongside his dwelling, and a pear tree planted on the tomb grew two trunks from a single base. These signs of divine approbation were widely known, and many came to view them, bringing renown and eventually offers of official position

1. For an English-language biography, see Chris Connery, “Ts’ai Yung,” in Indiana Companion to Traditional Chinese Literature, ed. William H. Nienhauser Jr. (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1986), 787–88.

2. On the increased filiality shown by men of the Latter Han in mourning their mothers, see Miranda Brown, “Sons and Mothers in Warring States and Han China, 453 BCE–220 ce,” Nan nü 5, no. 2 (2003): 137–69. Brown follows Fan Ye (398–445)Hou Hanshu (Beijing; Zhonghua shuju, 1971, 60B.1980) in describing the miracles as “Dodders pressed against the side of the hut and the wood grew into intertwining trees” (163). As all versions of the “Hymn” attest, the graph 菟 (dodder) in the Hou Hanshu is a mistake

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