- Roaming into the Beyond: Representations of Xian Immortality in Early Medieval Chinese Verse by Zornica Kirkova
Reliable Chinese historical records, written or otherwise, go back thousands of years, and we easily recognize that so many of China's cultural traditions exhibit a historical constancy, flavored certainly by change and development, that is unmatched by other civilizations. Despite the fact that Daoism, China's sole great indigenous religion, is prominent among them, it remains little understood in the West. When Herrlee Creel some eighty years ago posed the question "What is Daoism?" the proffered answers (including his own) have at best enjoyed only piecemeal and contentious acceptance. Zornica Kirkova's study effectively uncovers one core component at the very heart of Daoism, present from its very beginnings: "immortality." She does a fascinating job of illuminating the ways in which it was actively imagined, pursued, and represented both by Daoists themselves and other literati figures who saw themselves as inhabiting the Daoist world. Kirkova accomplishes this by way of her meticulous and painstaking efforts to document the ways in which the concept of "immortality" changed and developed as seen from the perspective of early medieval Chinese verse. Her book goes a long way in responding to Creel's question.
Kirkova's study is primarily directed to the poetic genre of youxian 遊仙, "roaming into immortality," and its presence in a wide variety of texts that have been traditionally classified under various genres and thematic categories in early medieval China. Her book masterfully and comprehensively examines nearly two hundred such verses. Each chapter provides different angles on and approaches to their various thematic, symbolic, aesthetic, philosophical, literary, sociological, historical, and religious content.
Chapter 1 discusses ways of classifying youxian verse, and chapter 2 introduces the most important "immortals" found in them. Next to the general academic groundwork expected from such introductory chapters, in which she manages very great erudition, other parts of these two chapters are rather uninspired particularly when she presents the religious (aka Daoist) background of youxian verse. This is primarily due, I believe, to the fact that Kirkova is not a specialist in early Daoism, but neither does she anywhere represent herself as such. This renders her reliant on other sources for early Daoism, and she adopts the opinions of a group of recent scholars who vociferously deny that Daoism existed in any way before the Eastern Han. The consequence of this for her study is that she has no way to situate directly and substantially the writings, for example, of the Laozi and Zhuangzi. I can give her a pass on this because this denial of early Daoism with its master-disciple lineages rarely impinges on all that follows, and she nevertheless does go on to situate and discuss these and other early [End Page 44] Daoist writings in the course of her work, but this is certainly a lost opportunity for her.
Each of the remaining chapters typically begins with an opening gaze on early medieval youxian precursors from the Warring States and the Han dynasty that introduces the thematic content she examines from early medieval youxian verse. Youxian writers from first to last relied on these earlier writings in many ways, and they often filled their verses with quotations and direct allusions from them in their growing range of variations on what they had to say about "immortality." Speaking of one of its typical representatives, Korkova writes, "Yu Xin's erudite references are based on a very broad range of sources—the Daode jing, esoteric Shangqing and Lingbao scriptures, texts in general circulation like the Shenxian zhuan, the Liexian zhuan, and the Han Wudi neizhuan, and ancient works of mythical lore like the Shanhai jing, the Mu tianzi zhuan, and the Chuci—that is, the whole range of Daoist texts that provided the imagery and vocabulary of the late Six Dynasties poetry on immortality" (p. 349). The opening pages of each of these chapters set the orientational direction of her...