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Late Imperial China 21.1 (2000) 1-40

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Prophets and Pretenders:
Inter-Sect Competition in Qianlong China1

Blaine Gaustad

[Glossary of Names]
[Glossary of Sect Names]
[Glossary of Selected Terms]

The last three decades have seen important advances in research on the late imperial Chinese popular religious sects collectively known as the White Lotus teachings. 2 As is often the case, our understanding of a given historical phenomenon is shaped by the kinds of materials that remain available for study. This is particularly true with late imperial Chinese sectarianism, where our primary materials are divided between an extensive scriptural record from the Ming period [1368-1644] and a vast archive of legal documents relating to the prosecution of sect members during the Qing dynasty [1644-1912]. For obvious reasons, scholars of the earlier period have focused on the textual record, and through exhaustive comparison and analysis of the precious scroll [baojuan] literature have traced the evolution of sectarian beliefs from the mid-fifteenth- to the seventeenth-century. 3 However, only with rare exceptions [End Page 1] have we been able bridge the scriptural and archival gap to trace how different sectarian formations used and interpreted the received canon after its initial formation in the late Ming period. The two most important exceptions are the cases of the Stone Buddha Wharf Wangs and Puming's Way of Yellow Heaven. The discovery and prosecution of the Wangs in 1815 enabled investigators to trace the history of the family back to its sixteenth century founder, Wang Sen, through a variety of confiscated documents, including scriptural materials that could be shown to have been directly linked to the family over many generations. 4 The discovery of the Way of Yellow Heaven in 1947 has also enabled researchers to examine in detail how a sect evolved over time. 5 But these cases are the exception. For the most part there remains a gap between the high scriptural record of the Precious Scrolls and our ability to explore its meaning, indeed its relevance, to the variety of sectarian formations that used it as the foundation for their religious beliefs.

To be sure, the use of the Qing government's archive of case records has enabled us to reconstruct the sectarian world in its real-life surroundings beyond a purely textual understanding of their religious beliefs. For example, in addition to the two examples mentioned above, Qing archival records have enabled the detailed reconstruction of the histories of two important sectarian rebellions, Wang Lun in 1774 and the Eight Trigrams in 1813, as well as examination of the means by which sect formations were able to organize and survive, even thrive, in what appeared to be an relentlessly hostile environment. 6 Qing legal records also have their shortcomings, most notably because the authorities who compiled them and conducted the interrogations were more concerned with establishing sectarian pedigree than with attempting to understand the motivations of their captives. For this reason, much of our work has perforce been a recreation of the complicated networks of master-disciple relationships that evolved over time. Even there, however, we are frequently denied access to the internal world of sectarian leaders because Qing authorities were legally required to destroy all sectarian literature, once a trial was completed. Fortunately, there were times when materials somehow managed to escape the torch and enable us to reconstruct how a given sectarian might have made use of the received canon in an environment where sectarian leaders were often competing for resources and recognition, as I will attempt to show below. [End Page 2]

In the essay that follows, my primary concern is with distinguishing the differences between the sectarian formations that have historically been associated with the White Lotus Rebellion of 1796. It is also a preliminary effort to explore the way specific sectarian leaders used and appended the received ideology of the Precious Scrolls according to their own idiosyncratic visions of the meaning of the scriptural record. First, however, I will describe the evolution of the main sectarian networks in north and central...


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