- Many Faces of Mulian: The Precious Scrolls of Late Imperial China by Rostislav Berezkin (review)
- CHINOPERL: Journal of Chinese Oral and Performing Literature
- University of Hawai'i Press
- Volume 38, Number 2, December 2019
- pp. 171-176
- View Citation
- Additional Information
Many Faces of Mulian: The Precious Scrolls of Late Imperial China. By Rostislav Berezkin. Seattle: University of Washington Press, 2017. ix + 248 pp. 15 illus. Cloth $90.00. Paper $30.00. A gap of nearly twenty years stands between Daniel Overmeyer’s Precious Volumes: An Introduction to Chinese Sectarian Scriptures from the Sixteenth and Seventeenth Centuries and Berezkin’s Many Faces of Mulian. Simply for breaking this long dry spell in English language monographs on precious scrolls (baojuan 寶卷) alone, Berezkin’s book deserves attention and praise.1 His book will bring this complex, broadly defined genre of popular literature to the attention of new generations of scholars and students alike. The evocative tale of Mulian rescuing his mother from the depths of Buddhist hell is a compelling narrative around which Berezkin shapes his detailed exploration of the genre’s shifting textual features and intended audiences. Berezkin charts out a map of multiple versions of this tale from the fourth century CE through to the very present, not only in baojuan but also in related religious texts and their performance contexts, contributing to the fields of Chinese performance literature and popular religious studies. Many Faces of Mulian opens with a glowing foreword in which Victor Mair, Berezkin’s doctoral advisor, summarizes the book’s main arguments using superlatives , explaining to readers how the field of popular Buddhist literature will “irrevocably transform” (p. xii) because of this work. Berezkin’s own work then begins with a prologue, a refreshingly straightforward, engaging account of his first exposure to the present-day practices associated with reciting baojuan about Mulian. By beginning with this clear and exhaustively detailed firsthand experience, Berezkin implicitly reminds us that even the earliest texts, which come down to us without reliable historical accounts of their performance, were part of repertoires of ritual practice in their own time and place. Without such a reminder, the detailed formalistic textual analyses in which Berezkin engages throughout his book may risk coming across as disconnected from the very human concerns that engendered their creation and spread in the Ming and Qing. Instead, such a vivid picture of one way that the Mulian story is enacted in our own time embeds us in the shared ritual experience of contemporary baojuan audiences, creating a bridge for readers to better access the genre’s history as well. The introduction provides succinct summaries of the generic definitions and history of baojuan, both premodern and contemporary, followed by Berezkin’s main goals for his book, namely to closely examine the history of Mulian in baojuan and trace the evolution of the genre overall. He concludes this short chapter with a list of the five baojuan about Mulian which he will explore in the following seven chapters. To give readers unfamiliar with baojuan a sense of just how even a study as detailed as this one essentially only scratches the surface of research remaining to be done in the field, note that in Appendix 2, Berezkin has expertly compiled a catalog of extant versions of baojuan about Mulian. There are seventeen 1 Baojuan is most often translated as “precious scroll.” Although juan originally meant “scroll,” baojuan do not take this form, so Overmyer preferred to translate the term as “precious volumes.” However, due to the recent string of translations of baojuan by Wilt Idema that refer to them as “precious scrolls” in their titles, the field seems to have settled on that way of translating the term. Book Reviews 171 (so far discovered), many of which were not accounted for until Berezkin’s exhaustive archival research. The main themes explored in Chapter 1, “Baojuan about Mulian and Performance Literature,” relate to how baojuan fit into existing discourses on folk, popular, and oral literature in both China and broader academic fields. Beginning with the complex relationship between text and performance, the chapter then touches upon the premodern social contexts of their performance using evidence ranging from late sixteenth-century fiction to early twentieth-century paratext, before settling into a cogently explained and extensive exploration of the relationship between oral traditions and baojuan. In this review of relevant theoretical literature on oral performance traditions, Berezkin lays out how baojuan straddle a porous...