Academic journal article The Journal of the American Oriental Society

"Godly Worm" and the "Literati Prism" of Chinese Sources

Academic journal article The Journal of the American Oriental Society

"Godly Worm" and the "Literati Prism" of Chinese Sources

Article excerpt

INTRODUCTION

While archeological findings have played an increasingly important role in the past century or so, not the least in supplying many of the onomastic data used in this study, traditional Chinese literature still represents the leading primary source in Sinology and related studies. This is not only due to the enormity of its volume, but can also be more consequentially attributed to the simple fact that, as far as received primary sources are concerned, for a long time the educated Confucian gentry monopolized almost all genres of writing, not the least historiography, in East Asia. The inherent gentry bias of traditional written sources, though long recognized, still permeates much of modern scholarship. More often than not, we are looking at China's past through a "literati prism."

This "literati prism" has a particularly distorting effect for times when the Confucian elite lost socio-political domination. Early medieval northern China under various "Barbarian" rulers was a case in point. A few years ago, it took me quite some effort to convince several well-versed scholars that the perennial negative connotation associated with the proud ethnonym Han [phrase omitted] was an unacknowledged legacy of the lowly socio-political status of the Han people, especially the Confucian literati, during the Northern Dynasties. Small wonder that the Yuan dynasty gentry author Tao Zongyi [phrase omitted], who experienced a similar humiliating environment himself, first pointed out this long-forgotten fact. (1)

For the early medieval period, one should not ignore Daoist and Buddhist sources. However, firstly there were few influential contemporary Daoist writings, and Daoist authors tended to be cut from the same cloth as the Confucian literati. Or, in the words of Arthur Wright, "neo-Taoist colloquies continued to be a major pastime of the upper class." (2) So much so that, in the winter of 554, after declaring martial law and just days before his capital Jiangling [phrase omitted] fell to a Western Wei [phrase omitted] expedition army, the Southern Liang [phrase omitted] emperor Xiao Yi [phrase omitted] (r. 552-54) was still giving lectures on Daodejing [phrase omitted], with courtiers all attending in military uniforms. (3) Earlier, the Daoist master Tao Hongjing [phrase omitted] (456-536), founder of the Supreme Clarity (Shangqing [phrase omitted]) school of Daoism and author and/or compiler of several early Daoist texts, was so deeply involved with the Confucian-dominated southern court that he was awarded the epithet "grand councilor who resides in the mountains" [phrase omitted]. (4) The famous Wang clan of Langye [phrase omitted] that produced the legendary calligrapher father-son duo Wang Xizhi [phrase omitted] and Wang Xianzhi [phrase omitted], yet was also closely associated with the Daoist Celestial Masters Sect (Tianshi dao [phrase omitted]), is another good example. Furthermore, Chen Yinke [phrase omitted] has pointed out that zhi [phrase omitted], widely used in personal names borne by the Confucian elite, seemingly violating the familial naming taboo, reflected Daoist beliefs. (5)

Secondly, although Buddhist literature, again as Arthur Wright has pointed out, (6) did sometimes provide an alternative perspective not quite consistent with that of the mainstream Confucian elite, received Buddhist literature was still heavily dominated by "intellectual Buddhists" who largely came from the same educated social classes as the Confucian literati. Or, as Timothy Barrett summarized, (7) "Chinese Buddhist sources primarily give a picture of Buddhism as a literary phenomenon worthy of the attention of a highly literate audience," thus containing precious little information about less educated believers. The best example is bianwen [phrase omitted], "transformation texts." Before the early twentieth-century chance discovery of this important genre of writings, which apparently played a critical role in medieval popular Buddhism in China, nobody even knew of its existence, since it is absent from all traditional written sources, both secular and Buddhist. …

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