Ascetics and Social Memory in Early Medieval China
Honorable Mention, Joseph Levenson Prize (pre-1900 category), Association for Asian Studies
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.
Robert Ford Campany’s Making Transcendents is a groundbreaking achievement in the study of Chinese religion that rewards the attention not only of sinologists, but also studies of hagiography, history, narrative theory, ascetics or holy men or women, and performance theory.
Making Transcendents is an invaluable aid in our understanding of traditional Chinese religion, culture, and society. Thoroughly comparative in its approach and methodologically sound, this book will no doubt stimulate future research. . . . If one day we arrive at a more profound understanding of the hidden agendas behind so much of Chinese writing, hagiographical as well as historical, Making Transcendents will undoubtedly have played a significant role in that process.
Robert Campany is indisputably the foremost current expert on the hagiographic literature of early medieval China . . . this impressive monograph has much to offer empirically and methodologically, both to sinology and to the wider community of historians interested in hagiography as a source of insight into the social construction of saintly/holy persons in any cultural and historical context.
Making Transcendents is confirmation that scholars of Chinese religions have much gain from a methodological dialogue with their homologues in other fields. Campany’s study offers invaluable insight into the social and rhetorical mechanisms that constitute and perpetuate the construct of xianhood. Its even broader appeal lies in that it brings the quest for transcendence into larger cross-disciplinary debates. In the process, one hopes that academic discourse in the humanities and social sciences will be relieved of some of its stubbornly persistent Eurocentric tendencies.
Campany not only demonstrates that xian-arts practitioners wished to be seen, but also documents how and why they were seen as holy. His study is invaluable for anyone who wishes to understand the phenomenon of sanctity in general and the Chinese cult of xian in particular.
This impressive monograph has much to offer empirically and methodologically, both to sinology and to the wider community of historians interested in hagiography as a source of insight into the social construction of saintly/holy persons in any cultural and historical context.” —China Review International (18:2, 2011)
A groundbreaking achievement in the study of Chinese religion that rewards the attention not only of sinologists, but also students of hagiography, history, narrative theory, ascetics or holy men or women, and performance theory.” —Frontiers of History in China (6:2, June 2011)
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