Academic journal article The Journal of the American Oriental Society

Heroes, Rogues, and Religion in a Tenth-Century Chinese Miscellany

Academic journal article The Journal of the American Oriental Society

Heroes, Rogues, and Religion in a Tenth-Century Chinese Miscellany

Article excerpt

  In the Tang, Huang Chao [??] (?-884)
  violated the palace, and [Emperor] Xizong [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN
  ASCII] (r. 873-88) went to Shu. Minister of State Zhang Jun [TEXT NOT
  REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII] (fl. 890-95) was of humble status and had not
  yet passed the examinations. (1) At the time he lived at an estate in
  Yongle in Hezhong. (2) In the hamlet there was a Taoist, who
  sometimes wore hemp clothes and sometimes wore a feathered cape. One
  could not be on familiar terms with him. One day Zhang was walking
  ahead on the village road. From behind there was a cry, "Gentleman
  Zhang Thirty-four, the troops ahead await you to defeat the bandits."
  He turned around, and it was this Taoist. The Minister of State said,
  "I am only a commoner. What basis could I rely on to be able to
  defeat the bandits?" The Taoist urged him to enter Shu. Just then the
  chancellor's parents were very ill, and it turned out that he could
  no travel south. The Taoist then gave him two cinnabar pills and
  said, "[Have them] take these and for ten years you will be without
  calamities." The Minister of State took the pills and gave them to
  his parents. They recovered from what ailed them. Later [Zhang]
  eventually ascended to be a Chief Bulwark of the State. The Taoist
  further was never seen again. As for the talk of defeating the
  bandits, how could it be verified? (3)

This narrative contains several features often found in tales relating to Taoists in Chinese medieval anecdotal collections. The Taoist appears as an unusual, solitary, unapproachable figure. The encounter takes place suddenly, without warning, not in a temple or at a home but on the road, and the two parties never meet again. He divines the future of an educated man and offers healing prescriptions that turn out to be efficacious. By dint of his modesty and filial piety, as well as his assistance in the rebellion's suppression and later in his service at the court of Tang Zhaozong (r. 889-904), the beneficiary proves worthy of such attention, despite the anecdotalist's final note of skepticism. The Taoist also affirms the imperial order, then gravely imperiled by the Huang Chao Rebellion (874-84).

What makes this story especially notable is its source, the Beimeng suoyan [??], or Sundry events from the north of Yunmeng, a miscellany completed by the literatus Sun Guangxian [??] (896-968) in the 960s. As an example of biji [??], or "brushed notes," the work exhibits the rich variety typical of the genre. We learn about the personalities of various Tang emperors, as well as about methods for extracting terrapin urine. Two features in particular distinguish this collection. First, the Beimeng suoyuan belongs to the tenth century, a period of remarkable literary obscurity, especially when compared with the glittering talents and productivity of the ninth and eleventh centuries. At its present size of roughly twenty-five chapters, Sun's volume numbers among the largest extant works composed in the tenth century by a single author who did not belong to the Buddhist or Taoist clergies, and ranks as the largest miscellany of its time. (4) Second, despite Sun's conventional note that he wrote his book to transmit the "enduring fine reputations of the court and countryside" of the late Tang and Five Dynasties era, (5) the collection as a whole portrays a polity and society in ruins. Feckless monarchs, scheming officials, brutal warlords, and presumptuous scions of noble families serve as Sun's main dramatis personae, who combine to produce a world of constant insecurity, corruption, gratuitous violence, and sudden death. In a manner matched by few works, the Beimeng suoyan reflects the troubled atmosphere of China's second, uncelebrated era of disunion.

Amid this grim tableau, the Zhang Jun anecdote above, with its portrayal of virtue and efficacy, offers a distinct contrast. (6) Other tales of success in Sun's collection involve the supernatural and do so to a striking degree. …

Search by... Author
Show... All Results Primary Sources Peer-reviewed

Oops!

An unknown error has occurred. Please click the button below to reload the page. If the problem persists, please try again in a little while.