Interview with Wilt Idema on his new book, “The Immortal Maiden Equal to Heaven and Other Precious Scrolls from Western Gansu”

Wilt L Idema baojuan Asian Studies Cambria Press

The following is an interview with Cambria Press author Dr. Wilt Idema (Harvard University) whose new book has just been released. In addition to the many honors he has earned, Dr. Idema is one of twenty Sinologists this year to win the 9th Special Book Award of China, a national-level award was set up by General Administration of Press and Publication (GAPP).

The Immortal Maiden Equal to Heaven and Other Precious Scrolls from Western Gansu is part of the Cambria Sinophone World Series headed by another eminent Sinologist, Dr. Victor Mair (University of Pennsylvania).

Cambria Press Interview with
Wilt Idema on New Publication

Q: What are precious scrolls?

Wilt Idema: “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. With the introduction of new printing technologies into China in the late 19th century, precious scrolls even became the staple of some specialized printing companies in Shanghai, whose products were shipped all over China.”

Q: What happened with precious scrolls in the 20th century?

Wilt Idema: In the 20th century the overwhelming majority of modern Chinese intellectuals condemned the genre, if they took notice of it at all, as a repository of the traditional religion and morality that were seen as the cause of China’s backwardness. The only exceptions were a few aficionados of Chinese folklore and popular arts who started to collect precious scrolls and compile catalogues.”

Q: So precious scrolls became extinct?

Wilt Idema: Following the establishment of the People’s Republic of China in 1949 precious scrolls could not be printed anymore. As the embodiment of “feudal superstition” performances of precious scrolls were absolutely outlawed during the period of the Cultural Revolution (1966-1978), and many performers and owners of texts were severely criticized and persecuted during these years. To all practical purposes the genre, both texts and performances, had disappeared from the earth.”

Q: But clearly there was a comeback for precious scrolls. Why?

Wilt Idema: With the political reforms of the 1980s, the genre made a comeback in several regions of China when precious scrolls were once again performed. Two regions stood out for their lively “precious scroll culture”: the Wu-dialect area around Shanghai and Suzhou, in many ways the most developed area of China, and Western Gansu (the Gansu Corridor), long one of the poorest regions of the country. Hidden texts resurfaced and other texts were copied from manuscript. But while in the Wu-dialect area the religious nature of the genre is still very outspoken, this is less so in the case of the precious scrolls of Western Gansu even though their performance has not lost its ritual character. Once precious scrolls were performed again they quickly attracted the attention of Chinese scholars folk literature, of traditional music, and of popular religion. The status of the genre was enhanced greatly when in the early 21st century some local traditions of precious scrolls were placed on China’s national list of “intangible cultural heritage,” which induced many local governments to collect and reprint the precious scrolls from their area.”

Q: Why read precious scrolls?

Wilt Idema: “Traditional Chinese literature as studied since the beginning of the modern era was mostly written by and for elite men who in their public pronouncements upheld Confucianism and disdained more popular traditions. Even the vernacular traditions of drama and fiction that were incorporated in the master narrative of Chinese literary history in the May Fourth Period and beyond were those works of drama and fiction that had been incorporated into the literati culture from the late Ming onwards. But China’s last two dynasties also left a huge body of popular literature in a great variety of genres, many of which continued to be popular well into the 20th century (or in some cases even into the 21st) . So if we want to learn what the overwhelming majority of the Chinese population thought and believed in premodern times we have to turn to these largely unstudied genres of popular literature. But Chinese scholars in the first few decades of the People’s Republic of China, looking for the living voice of the people, primarily focused their research on strictly oral genres and on performance, avoiding to a large extent the written record of popular literature because the written texts, whether in manuscript or in print, had to be the work of authors with at least some degree of literacy.”

Q: Clearly, there has been a change, a new focus by scholars on written texts in studying  popular literature in China?

Wilt Idema: “It is only in more recent decades that the scholars of popular literature in China also have turned their attention to written texts. Scholars outside China were hampered in their research by the fact that libraries traditionally have tended to collect high literature, with the result that works of popular literature were hard to locate. Despite this handicap, a growing number of scholars in Chinese studies have started to become interested in precious scrolls since the 1970s, and their work has been greatly facilitated by a number of large reprint projects in recent years, as well as by the increased availability of China for field research.”

Q: Regarding the scholars who work on precious scrolls–are they mainly from the field of religious studies? 

Wilt Idema: “Most scholars who have worked on precious scrolls so far have a background in religious studies, and they often focus on the origin and development of the new religions (or “sects”)  of the Ming and Qing. Indeed, precious scrolls provide us with excellent materials to study the characteristics of grass-roots religion and popular values, in all their bewildering variety. But precious scrolls also tell great stories that have been able to hold their audiences spell-bound for centuries. Some of these stories are also well-known from other genres, but others would appear to be unique to the genre. In telling these stories, the genre employs both prose and verse. The prose may range from the highest register of the vernacular to earthy colloquial, and the verse sections come both in ten-syllable lines and in seven syllable lines as well as various forms of poems and lyrics. But whereas works in many other genres of prosimetric literature defy translation because of their volume, precious scrolls often are of limited length. The stories of many of these precious scrolls should not only appeal to the specialists of Chinese studies but also should hold great interest to students of comparative folklore, comparative literature, and comparative religions because of their content and form.”

Q: How did you select the precious scrolls selected for your new book?

Wilt Idema: “This volume presents in complete English translations six precious scrolls from Western Gansu. Following an Introduction, the book opens with The Precious Scroll of the Immortal Maiden Equal to Heaven based on the printed edition of 1698. This work in 19 chapters tells the life and miracles of the Immortal Maiden, a deity that was widely venerated in Zhangye and elsewhere in the Gansu Corridor. The first six chapters tell her mortal life, and show how she achieved divine status by her active piety, her persistent meditation and her spectacular death during a flood. The next six chapters narrate how she rescued the Chinese from the Tatars, first by saving the Chinese general Huo Qubing from his enemies by creating a bridge across the Black River, allowing him to escape, and next by inflicting three plagues on the Tatars who tried to demolish her temple in revenge. The final chapters narrate how she supports public morals among the Chinese by protecting a poor student from murder, by turning an unfilial daughter-in-law into a dog, by extending the life of a good Samaritan, and by saving a poor widow and her son from the shenanigans of her husband’s brother who tries to steal their inheritance. A later addition adds the accounts of some recent miracles. This precious scroll should not only appeal to students of Chinese literature and religion, but also to students of Chinese and Central Asian history as it reflects the tensions between Chinese and Mongols in the 16th and 17th centuries in this border zone.”

Q: Please tell us about the other precious scrolls featured in your book.

Wilt Idema: “Students of Chinese history should also be interested in The Precious Scroll of Kalpa Survival that provides an account of the terrible northwestern famine of 1928-1930 as seen through the eyes of its victims.

The Precious Scroll of Liu Quan Presenting Melon is a reworking of an episode from the famous 16th century novel Journey to the West. It tells the tale of a man who first causes his wife to commit suicide and in his desperation is willing to visit the world of the dead in order to bring her back, and succeeds in doing so. The Precious Scroll of the Con Artist Hu Yucui is rather unique is featuring as its heroine a negative character: the young and beautiful Hu Yucui who uses her charms to separate gullible men from their cash—only to be eventually punished gruesomely by King Yama, the lord of the underworld.”

Q: Your book also features some animal tales which were popular. Please tell us more.

Wilt Idema: “Yes, the collection also contains two animal tales that were quite popular locally. The Precious Scroll of the Parrot narrates the adventures of this filial bird that is captured when he leaves his nest to find his dear mother a sweet pear. Sold by his catcher to Judge Bao, he is donated by the latter to the emperor. But when the little parrot has duped the emperor to set him free, he finds that his mother has died during his absence, whereupon the other birds, each according to his innate ability assist him in burying her.

The second animal tale is The Precious Scroll of the Mouse which treats the court case of the mouse vs. the cat. Despite his precautions a mouse is caught and devoured by a cat. The rodent’s soul appeals for justice to King Yama, the ruler of the underworld. Hearing the mouse’s account of the unmotivated cruelty of the cat, King Yama summons that animal, who in his counter statement provides a detailed description of the damages wrought by the mouse. An enraged King Yama thereupon rejects the accusation of the mouse and orders the cat to devour mice and rats all through the world.”

Q: Is there anything else readers should know about this unique book?

Wilt Idema: “Each of the six translations is provided with its own introduction.  All selections are here printed for the first time.”

Excerpts from The Immortal Maiden Equal to Heaven and Other Precious Scrolls from Western Gansu will be posted soon.

Wilt Idema author Cambria Press book publication baojuan precious scrolls China Sinologist

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