Making Transcendents

Making Transcendents: Ascetics and Social Memory in Early Medieval China

Robert Ford Campany
Copyright Date: 2009
https://www.jstor.org/stable/j.ctt6wqqwh
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    Making Transcendents
    Book Description:

    By the middle of the third century B.C.E. in China there were individuals who sought to become transcendents (xian)—deathless, godlike beings endowed with supernormal powers. This quest for transcendence became a major form of religious expression and helped lay the foundation on which the first Daoist religion was built. Both xian and those who aspired to this exalted status in the centuries leading up to 350 C.E. have traditionally been portrayed as secretive and hermit-like figures. This groundbreaking study offers a very different view of xian-seekers in late classical and early medieval China. It suggests that transcendence did not involve a withdrawal from society but rather should be seen as a religious role situated among other social roles and conceived in contrast to them. Robert Campany argues that the much-discussed secrecy surrounding ascetic disciplines was actually one important way in which practitioners presented themselves to others. He contends, moreover, that many adepts were not socially isolated at all but were much sought after for their power to heal the sick, divine the future, and narrate their exotic experiences. By the middle of the third century B.C.E. in China there were individuals who sought to become transcendents (xian)—deathless, godlike beings endowed with supernormal powers. This quest for transcendence became a major form of religious expression and helped lay the foundation on which the first Daoist religion was built. Both xian and those who aspired to this exalted status in the centuries leading up to 350 C.E. have traditionally been portrayed as secretive and hermit-like figures. This groundbreaking study offers a very different view of xian-seekers in late classical and early medieval China. It suggests that transcendence did not involve a withdrawal from society but rather should be seen as a religious role situated among other social roles and conceived in contrast to them. Robert Campany argues that the much-discussed secrecy surrounding ascetic disciplines was actually one important way in which practitioners presented themselves to others. He contends, moreover, that many adepts were not socially isolated at all but were much sought after for their power to heal the sick, divine the future, and narrate their exotic experiences. The book moves from a description of the roles of xian and xian-seekers to an account of how individuals filled these roles, whether by their own agency or by others’—or, often, by both. Campany summarizes the repertoire of features that constituted xian roles and presents a detailed example of what analyses of those cultural repertoires look like. He charts the functions of a basic dialectic in the self-presentations of adepts and examines their narratives and relations with others, including family members and officials. Finally, he looks at hagiographies as attempts to persuade readers as to the identities and reputations of past individuals. His interpretation of these stories allows us to see how reputations were shaped and even co-opted—sometimes quite surprisingly—into the ranks of xian. Making Transcendents provides a nuanced discussion that draws on a sophisticated grasp of diverse theoretical sources while being thoroughly grounded in traditional Chinese hagiographical, historiographical, and scriptural texts. The picture it presents of the quest for transcendence as a social phenomenon in early medieval China is original and provocative, as is the paradigm it offers for understanding the roles of holy persons in other societies.

    eISBN: 978-0-8248-6349-4
    Subjects: Religion, Philosophy

Table of Contents

  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-viii)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. ix-x)
  3. Acknowledgments
    (pp. xi-xii)
  4. Introduction
    (pp. xiii-xviii)

    In China, before there was any such thing as a Daoist¹ priest or Daoist scripture, before Buddhist scriptures and images were brought in along the Silk Road or the coast, before there were monasteries where religious practitioners from either of these traditions gathered, there existed an only loosely cohesive tradition, a body of ideas and practices that I will call the quest for transcendence. Its main elements were already in place by the late third century B.C.E., well established by the turn of the first millennium, and increasingly well documented in sources dating from the second, third, and early fourth...

  5. CHAPTER 1 Bringing Transcendents Down to Earth
    (pp. 1-38)

    Consider the following passage from Ge Hong’sTraditions of Divine Transcendents:

    Ling Shouguang 靈壽光 . . . at the age of over seventy obtained a method for [making] “efflorescence of vermilion” pills. These he synthesized and ingested. . . . By the first year of the [Later] Hanjian’anperiod [196 C.E.] he was already two hundred and twenty years old. Later, without having shown any signs of illness, he died at the home of Hu Gang 胡岡 in Jiangling. Over a hundred days after his funeral and burial, someone saw Ling [alive] in Xiaohuang. This person sent a letter...

  6. CHAPTER 2 The Transcendent’s Cultural Repertoire
    (pp. 39-61)

    At the most basic level, how ought we to think about the ways in which individuals relate to their cultures, traditions, or religions? In the study of religion, a Western discipline devoted to a concept rooted in the histories of Western societies, the relation between individuals and religions is most often framed in two ways, cognitive and social: a person (ideally at least) “believes in” (the cognitive aspect) the core claims of the religion to which he “belongs” (the social aspect).¹ This model of religious participation, usually taken for granted as universally applicable, works well in—because it arose in...

  7. CHAPTER 3 Deeper Repertoire Analysis: “Avoiding Grains”
    (pp. 62-87)

    Because the extrinsic functions of particular repertoire features can be complex and powerful, we may learn a great deal from deeper analysis of a single, important repertoire feature: the adept’s claimed avoidance of “grains” (referred to byduangu斷榖, “cutting off grains,” and other terms). Such dietary regimens, whatever their details, directed the adept to minimize or entirely avoid eating things considered to be staple foods in the surrounding culture and to subsist on something else instead, something that, we might say, was precultural or natural, often pureqi(ingested in breathing exercises) orqias available in certain rare...

  8. CHAPTER 4 Secret Arts, Manifest Wonders
    (pp. 88-129)

    In many ancient and medieval cultures of secrecy (along with their modern descendants), knowledge was deemed powerful because access to it was restricted and access to it was restricted because it was deemed powerful. A gulf separates these cultures from those Steven Shapin and Peter Burke have recently argued arose only in early modern times (in Europe at least), wherein truth-telling and the art of civil conversation among gentlemen formed the basis of a new epistemological decorum, and where lying and secrecy came to be seen as violations of a code of honor.¹ Over the past century scholars beginning with...

  9. CHAPTER 5 Verbal Self-Presentation and Audience Response
    (pp. 130-150)

    Other than in terms of the secrecy-and-display dynamic, how else did adepts perform their roles? How did they present themselves to others? And how did others receive these performances? In revealing the wide array of activities of adepts and the responses of others to it, I want to focus on one particular aspect of self-presentation: the adepts’ storytelling and certain other verbal modes of interaction. Where possible, I also take note of other people’s responses.

    We have examined the socially interactive, collectively fashioned nature of narrative (even of first-person narrative). We have also noted the real-life effects of narration on...

  10. CHAPTER 6 Adepts and Their Communities
    (pp. 151-185)

    Scholars have long portrayedxianand would-bexianas socially withdrawn. When they have commented at all on the social contexts of the quest for transcendence, it has usually been to point out that histories record a keen interest on the part of certain rulers in esoteric arts, or to note that adepts shunned ordinary society and lived as hermits on mountains, or that in their training they were subject to certain poorly documented ethical rules, or that the only communities they formed were master-disciple lineages.¹ These characterizations (with the exception of the blanket statement that adepts shunned society) are...

  11. CHAPTER 7 Adepts, Their Families, and the Imperium
    (pp. 186-215)

    The stereotype holds that practitioners abandoned society to pursue their esoteric arts, but as we have seen their relations with local communities were, in fact, exponentially more complex than that. They functioned in society as a type of holy person, in part by absenting themselves from normal patterns of social interaction and taking up instead the behaviors identified with the role ofxian-hood-seeker, but these behaviors included many relations with others. We now turn to the social relations of practitioners with their own families and with representatives of the imperial bureaucracy.

    The patrilineal family and the body of ritual that...

  12. CHAPTER 8 Hagiographic Persuasions
    (pp. 216-258)

    Every instance of discourse about a holy person, whether oral or written, is, among other things, an attempt at persuasion. This feature is not unique to hagiographic writings, nor is it their only feature worth examining. But it is important to ask: in hagiographies, who was attempting persuade whom of what, and how? What interests and outcomes were at stake in these persuasive efforts? How do extant texts use rhetorical strategies and reflect social contexts of attempted persuasion? We saw some partial answers in Chapter 5, regarding the stories adepts were said to have reported about themselves. Here I shift...

  13. Epilogue
    (pp. 259-266)

    In late classical and early medieval China, individuals became transcendents not solely by their own efforts but by those of many other people as well. They came to be recognized as transcendents in the course of their multifaceted interactions with others, and, as a result of people’s responses to them, during and after their active presence in communities. Their reputations were formed by social and conversational processes that occurred mostly outside the texts that survive for us to read today. But these are processes to which our texts bear considerable witness, if we read them with the right questions in...

  14. Bibliography
    (pp. 267-290)
  15. Index
    (pp. 291-300)
  16. Back Matter
    (pp. 301-302)