- Record of the Listener: Selected Stories from Hong Mai's Yijian Zhi transed. by Cong Ellen Zhang
Hong Mai's 洪邁 (1123–1202) Yijian zhi 夷堅志, or Record of the Listener, a massive collection of tales of the extraordinary, was a product of the unprecedented social, economic, and technological developments of the Southern Song (1127–1279). It comprised at least thirty-two installments compiled and published over the last forty years of Hong's life, more than half of them now lost. Enough survives to yield four volumes in Zhonghua shuju's 中華書局 modern typeset edition, on which Cong Ellen Zhang's translations are based. These selected translations "aim to provide students and the general English-language reader with a representative sample of Hong's work" (p. xiii). Yijian zhi has been one of the richest sources for social, cultural, and religious historians of Song dynasty. As Zhang says in her introduction, "a large percentage of the Record stories, as can be seen when times and places are clearly marked in the text, occurred during Hong Mai's lifetime in the Southern Song, and feature the everyday lives of ordinary men and women in local societies" (p. xxxi). Zhang's selection contains a hundred stories, most of them appearing in English for the first time. Along with her introduction, Zhang's translations provide extremely useful source material for either surveys or upper-level Chinese history and religion courses. The introduction offers just enough background on the time period, the author, and the text, while the selections are the perfect length to serve as a weekly reading for an undergraduate course. The translations are fluent and accessible with footnotes that inform without overwhelming. The selection includes many stories that will be of particular interest to scholars of Chinese religion and the thematic guide in the appendix makes them easily discoverable for both students and scholars.
Zhang begins her introduction by illustrating the usefulness of Yijian zhi for Song historians through the example of "Buddha Redresses an Old Injustice." In this short story of only 241 words, we see how a vicious karmic cycle involving two ordinary people—an urban resident and a soldier—was resolved in South China soon after the Jin sack of the Song capital Kaifeng and North China (pp. xi–xii). In addition to well-researched subjects—local temples and cults, exorcism and ritual masters, medical and healing practices, and the like—Zhang's translations shed light on many folk beliefs and practices such as karmic retribution, miraculous dreams and spiritual journeys, testimonies about the netherworld and the divine justice system, geomancy of ancestral tombs, ubiquitous ghosts and spirits, and interactions between the living and the dead. We also see in quite a few stories that Buddhist temples often provided space for unburied coffins or temporary graves during this time. Zhang's selections also reflect her own research interests: many stories deal with travel and issues of filial piety.
Since this volume is a part of Hackett Publishing's translation series, the introduction is kept brief. In the remainder of this review I shall offer some thoughts and extra information that readers of this volume may find useful, raise a few questions about Yijian zhi in general that I believe bear further consideration and research, and highlight a few stories translated in this volume that I find particularly interesting. Given the extreme diversity—in both content and style—of the stories in Yijian zhi, I would be somewhat cautious of describing any selection as "representative." We should keep in mind that more than half of the Yijian zhi accounts have been lost, that the compilation and publication of Yijian zhi took place in installments over four decades, and that the issue of authorship is not a straightforward one. There is little doubt that Hong Mai was the compiler of all the installments, but he relied heavily on contemporary informants. In quite a few cases [End Page 247] an entire...