- The Writ of the Three Sovereigns: From Local Lore to Institutional Daoism by Dominic Steavu
Sharing one’s obsession with the world is a brave and difficult thing to do, particularly when one’s obsession focuses on a fragmented text in Classical Chinese. Due to the incomplete nature of such a text, its interpretation requires a broadening of what one must consider as ontological evidence to support one’s claims. In the case of Dominic Steavu’s [End Page 161] The Writ of the Three Sovereigns: From Local Lore to Institutional Daoism, that text is the Sanhuang wen 三皇文. The subject matter of the Sanhuang wen is a collection of talismans ( fu 符) that was believed in early medieval China to have the power to cure or counter any possible malady that might befall a person, but of course its significance is much larger than that. Steavu’s exposé of its historical and cultural importance includes a comparison with dozens of related texts from the same time period, both excavated materials and texts transmitted in the Daoist Canon. Steavu’s impressive effort to rebuild the complex tapestry surrounding the Sanhuang wen involves examining its influence on local, religious, and imperial elite culture in the Medieval period. This includes the textual history of what remains of the Sanhuang wen, its impact upon institutional Daoism, its influence upon local-elite and imperial culture, and finally, the divinatory and talismanic tradition from which it hailed. All this is to say that Steavu’s book reveals a fascinating glimpse into the cultural, historical, and religious gears at work influencing the power and authority of a heretofore largely ignored text. Nevertheless, since the text itself is fragmented, many of Steavu’s conclusions are conjectural.
Who were the Three Sovereigns at the core of this text? Fu Xi 伏羲, Shennong 神農, and Huangdi 黃帝 (the Yellow Emperor) were mythical rulers of China during the legendary golden age of antiquity. For the authors of the Sanhuang wen, harkening to the past in such an explicit way is a means to an end: It legitimates the text in the eyes of its readers. The authors used the tales of the Three Sovereigns as their origin story, claiming that the same talismans in the text aided Fu Xi, Shennong, and Huangdi in their peaceful rule over Heaven, Earth, and humanity. Steavu sees this integration of antiquity as a tactical move the authors made to obtain imperial patronage, as the imperial legitimacy of the talismans (and their power) was equated with authority over the spirit world. Aside from this origin story, the Three Sovereigns do not play much of a role in the Sanhuang wen.
The introductory chapter of the book begins with the dramatic banning of the Sanhuang wen in 648 CE and the edict that was issued claiming the text contained “reckless perversions” and was a forgery (p. 1). Steavu launches into his analysis by explaining the historical backdrop surrounding this ban, and how the text that was once hailed as an indispensable part of institutional Daoism was eventually replaced with the Daodejing 道德經 as the central Daoist text for religious specialists and laypeople alike.
One of Steavu’s most compelling comparisons, and one that is very useful for understanding the Sanhuang wen, is Ge Hong’s (283–343) popular text, the Baopuzi 抱朴子 (The Master Who Embraces Simplicity). In chapter 1 of the Writ of the Three Sovereigns, Steavu spends a great deal of time analyzing the links between the two texts and Ge Hong’s sway over our understanding of the Sanhuang wen. Interestingly, Ge Hong’s identification of two major lineages of the Sanhuang wen ’ s transmission reveals more about the socio-historical context of fourth-century Jiangnan province and the intellectual arguments between northern and southern elites than about the Sanhuang wen itself. Those in power effectively picked and chose which lines of transmission were more beneficial for elites during different historical periods, revealing who had...