- Making Transcendents: Ascetics and Social Memory in Early Medieval China
Robert Campany is indisputably the foremost current expert on the hagiographic literature of early medieval China, having published numerous articles and a complete annotated translation of Ge Hong’s 葛洪 (283–343) Traditions of Divine Transcendents (Shenxian zhuan 神仙傳).1 In the present volume, he utilizes his profound knowledge of this literature to engage in a close reading of hagiographic texts and a sophisticated exploration of the methodological and theoretical issues involved in their reading. He limits his temporal focus to the period between the beginning of the Han dynasty (220 b.c.e.) and shortly after the death of Ge Hong (ca. 350 c.e.), and his thematic focus to the socially constructed nature of notions of transcendence or xian-hood. Much ink has been spilled about the pursuit of immortality or transcendence (the latter term preferred by Campany), including by Campany himself; thus, he makes a decisive shift in the present work by not emphasizing the intrinsic justifications and elaborations of techniques and cosmologies conducive to reaching the goal of xian-hood, but instead focusing on the extrinsic aspects of the social role(s) of the transcendent or the seeker after transcendence. The main text sources for this endeavor are the hagiographic collections Campany knows so well. Since they are usually not autobiographical, hagiographic accounts present third-party views of holy persons; by its nature, hagiography gives primary access not to the self-understanding of seekers after transcendence, but to outsiders’ views of these figures. There are two kinds of outsiders involved: first, of course, the author(s) of the hagiographic account, but second, the persons depicted in the account as interacting with the holy person. The role of the author is potentially problematic, as it could be argued that the image of transcendence-seekers in the Shenxian zhuan was created by Ge Hong himself in the service of an intrinsically religious agenda of his own and thus does not represent a widely shared cultural imaginaire. In that case, depictions of the social interactions of xian or xian-to-be would not provide us with reliable information on the social contexts of such persons. However, Campany reiterates his longstanding argument that writers such as Ge Hong saw themselves as compilers and transmitters, not as literary creators; their stories were gleaned from various sources regarded as trustworthy and, therefore, are collective representations. [End Page 163] Campany proves this point by means of cases where we can find corroborating evidence for the hagiographic accounts in other sources, including sources not sympathetic to the spiritual agenda of transcendence. Chapter 1 contains a detailed and sophisticated justification of hagiographies as sources of social and cultural history, which partly draws on studies of saints’ stories beyond China, as well as on theoretical works on the relationship of experience, memory, and narrative. The points made here are of cross-cultural relevance and should help Campany achieve one of the goals he set for this book, namely,
that the wider study of religion and culture, which sometimes relegates sinological scholarship to the hyperspecialized margins, may finally begin to admit the premodern China case to its dossier. Both the broader study of religion and the more specialized study of premodern China stand only to gain thereby.(p. xv)
In an exemplary effort at methodological transparency, chapter 1 also contains a very useful list of definitions of key concepts central to Campany’s project, among them imaginaire, asceticism, narrative, (cultural) repertoire, and collective memory (pp. 28–38). Chapter 2 proceeds to assemble from the sources the cultural repertoire “of features that constituted the role of xian and of adepts seeking to become xian” (p. xvii). Campany insists that this repertoire is structured both by intrinsic and by extrinsic rationales; the latter delineate this social role by “likening or contrasting it . . . to other roles in Chinese culture” (p. xvii). In chapter 3, the author successfully applies this approach to one element in the...