What are the baojuan 寶卷 (precious scrolls) of China?
Eminent Sinologist Wilt Idema (Harvard University) explains:
Precious scrolls (baojuan) is the name of a genre of prosimetric texts (texts written in an alternation of prose and verse) on religious subjects and written in vernacular Chinese. The most recent catalogue of precious scrolls lists more than 1500 titles. The oldest examples of the genre can be dated back to the 14th century. These earliest examples of the genre are all Buddhist in nature and range in content from adaptations of Buddhist sutras to retellings of pious stories. Originally, precious scrolls were performed by monks and nuns for lay audiences in a ritual setting. During the Ming dynasty (1368-1644) the genre was also adopted by the founders of new religions who used the format to spread their message, while during the Qing dynasty (1644-1911) many stories that were not necessarily religious in origin were also rewritten as precious scrolls (many stories are available in multiple versions). During these centuries precious scrolls also came to be performed by lay people, both men and women. The texts originally circulated in manuscript, but many of them also were printed.
Dr. Idema is one of this year’s winners of the prestigious Special Book Award of China established by China’s State Administration of Press and Publication.
Dr. Idema’s latest book is The Immortal Maiden Equal to Heaven and Other Precious Scrolls from Western Gansu. This book is part of the Cambria Sinophone World Series, headed by another eminent Sinologist, Victor H. Mair (University of Pennsylvania).
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