- Many Faces of Mulian: The Precious Scrolls of Late Imperial China by Rostislav Berezkin
In 1981 I spent several months in China looking for texts and manuscripts of popular religious scriptures called baojuan "precious volumes," composed, read, and recited by members of popular religious sects during the Ming and Qing dynasties, 1368–1911. I was helped in this work by Li Shiyu, a pioneering scholar of this genre, whose book, Baojuan zonglu (A bibliography of precious volumes) served as my guidebook for this research trip. Mr. Li and several colleagues met me at the Beijing airport, took me to a hotel, and to the Beijing Academy of Social Sciences, where I was introduced to their collection of baojuan. In the weeks that followed I read and photographed many of their texts, and those in the collections of the Beijing Library, kindly accompanied by Mr. Li (In keeping with the technology of the day I photographed many pages with a 35 mm camera!). While in Beijing I was also introduced to the famous scholar of Chinese literature Wu Xiaoling, who had a marvelous collection of old books in his house behind a wall on a narrow Beijing lane called a hutong, including many baojuan. Here I read, took notes and photographed with great delight. Since I was not sure of the legality of what I was doing I was always careful to shut the compound gate while I was photographing texts in the courtyard. By this time I had bought an old bicycle, and dressed in a blue "Mao suit" and cap so as to be as inconspicuous as possible. There was so much to read that eventually I started carrying books to the U.S. Embassy to photocopy. I photocopied until their machine broke down, all the while asked by Chinese employees who I was and where I was staying. It was great sport!
From Beijing I travelled by train to Nanjing, where I stayed in the Nanjing University hostel for visiting scholars. I enjoyed visiting the sights in this beautiful old city, which over the centuries had been the capital of China [End Page 106] eleven times. Since there were not many old baojuan in Nanjing, I travelled on to Suzhou University, and from there to Shanghai, always using Li Shiyu's book as my guidebook. I stayed in an old hotel, from where I walked daily to the Shanghai Library, where I asked the librarians for the books I wanted to read. By my great good fortune my friend Professor Susan Naquin, then at the University of Pennsylvania, was also in Shanghai. We had met and done some fieldwork together in Taiwan a few years before. The Shanghai Library had a rule that only half of an old book could be photocopied, so Sue and I photocopied different halves, and exchanged them later after we had returned to our universities. Upon my return to Vancouver I published several articles based on this research, and in 1999 the Harvard University Asia Center published my book, Precious Volumes: An Introduction to Chinese Sectarian Scriptures from the Sixteenth and Seventeenth Centuries, 444 pages.
Rostislav Berezkin's excellent new study is the first in a Western language on a single baojuan text tradition, in this case, that of the story of a Buddhist saint called Mulian who miraculously rescued his sinful mother from rebirth in purgatory, a story transmitted from the fourteenth century to the present. His Sanskrit name is Maudgalyāyana. Berezkin begins his book with a 2009 account of a ritual based on the Mulian story that he observed in a village in Jiangsu province. He discusses the writing and printing of this text over several centuries, its social background, its connections to popular religious sects over the centuries, and references to it in vernacular literature and even the imperial palace. Along the way he notes the work of the Russian Scholar Elvira S. Stulova (1934–1993) who worked in what...