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Early Daoist Biography:
A Study of Shenxian zhuan Benjamin David Cooper Penny Volume One A thesis submitted for the degree of Doctor of Philosophy of the Australian National University May, 1993 Abstract This dissertation is a study of Shenxian zhuan, a collection of biographical records of Daoist immortals traditionally attributed to Ge Hong who lived from the end of the third to the middle of the fourth centuries C.E.
The Introduction seeks to define the term shenxian and discusses ideas concerning immortality in texts of the Eastern Han and Sanguo periods. It analyses the categories into which Shenxian zhuan was placed in early bibliographies and shows that it was first regarded as a text from a branch of history. Finally, evidence is adduced to show that in all likelihood the biographies derive from commemorative records of noteworthy local religious figures.
Chapter two discusses the textual status of Shenxian zhuan and the authorship of Ge Hong. It concludes that while there is evidence that Ge did compile a work of this name, it is clear that all modern versions of the text are recompilations of the Song or later. Thus, an original text is not completely recoverable. It is also argued that the Shenxian zhuan of this period probably contained about twice as many biographies as the modern recompiled versions.
The third chapter analyses the ideas that concern immortality contained in the biographies. It focusses on three major questions. What qualifications were necessary, if any, to become an immortal? How did one become an immortal? What special powers did immortals possess? The examination of these issues demonstrates that while there was a degree of broad agreement on major concepts, the biographies display a large measure of variation on points of detail.
Chapter four examines the narrative and structural features of the biographies and focusses on how they fit into the Chinese biographical tradition. This discussion, like that relating to ideas of immortality, shows that the biographies are characterized by heterogeneity. The narrative and symbolic structures of several biographies are analysed to show how they function.
The fifth chapter discusses the problem of biographical records in other sources of the same period of figures who appear in Shenxian zhuan. The appeal to historical accuracy of the Shenxian zhuan biographies, the different generic constraints of biographies in the official histories, records in secular collections of worthies and in records of marvels and types of editorial intervention are examined. Finally, it discusses the way some of the biographies may act as a critique of official records.
The thesis concludes with a short discussion of the later development of the Daoist biographical tradition and later careers and cults of some of the figures celebrated in Shenxian zhuan.
Acknowledgements I wish to acknowledge the support and guidance of my two supervisors Professor W.J.F. Jenner and Dr K.H.J. Gardiner. Without their encouragement, scholarship and erudition, this dissertation would be the poorer. I would also like to acknowledge the assistance given to me by my advisor Dr R.R.C. de Crespigny.
The China Centre in the Faculty of Asian Studies has provided a most congenial environment for research. Much credit for this must go to Mrs P. Wesley-Smith, the superbly competent and helpful administrator of the Centre.
Professor T.H. Barrett, now of the School of Oriental and African Studies, University of London, introduced me to the study of Daoism and suggested Shenxian zhuan as a possible dissertation topic: for this, I offer due thanks. I would also like to take this opportunity to remember Professor A.R.Davis, for many years at the University of Sydney, for demonstrating through his wit and learning how rewarding pre-modem Chinese studies could be.
In their capacities as librarians at the Menzies library at the ANU and the National Library of Australia, Dr Lung-wah Li, Mr Li Hoo Cheong and Mr C.P.Tang have greatly aided the research represented by this dissertation.
I owe thanks to Mr.P. Oldmeadow who has shown great patience and skill in providing computing support and to Mr S. Rivers who was responsible for the computing aspects of the bibliography and character lists.
My office-mate Mr T.A. Kirkpatrick deserves thanks for putting up with over three years of obscure queries in good humour as does my mother, Glen Rose, for her considerable proof-reading skills.
I wish to acknowlege my examiners Professor D.Holm, Professor D.Holzman and especially Professor Emeritus Liu Ts'un-yan for their valuable comments.
Finally, and most of all, I want to thank my partner Gillian Russell who has been a constant source of support and love. It is truly the case that without her this dissertation would never have been written.
Table of Contents
Arthur Waley noted, in The Way and Its Power, that there were two kinds of translation, which he called literary and philological. Literary translation is appropriate when "the main importance of the work is its beauty" and, in these circumstances, "the translator must be prepared to sacrifice a good deal in the way of detailed accuracy in order to preserve in the translation the quality which gives the original its importance."
Philological translation, on the other hand, should be employed when "the importance of the original lies not in its literary quality but in the things it says... " 1 If the translations in this thesis were to be placed in one of W aley's categories it would certainly be the latter but, at the same time, they do not, I hope, allow philology to destroy readability. It would have been possible, of course, to encumber each passage of translation with a large amount of philological apparatus: textual notes, variant readings, alternative translations and so on, but the point of this thesis is not to produce a variorum text. Rather, for each biography a basic text for translation has been selected on grounds laid out in chapter two.
These texts have been compared with the other available versions of, and citations from, the biography. Only passages that are of obscure meaning, important variants and places where I have emended the text have been commented on in footnotes to the translation. In general, my translations aim at what Waley called "detailed accuracy" while preserving, as far as possible, the tone and flavour of the originals.
Several terms used in the biographies have been translated with a single equivalent or a normal English form of that equivalent. For example, shijie always appears as "corpseliberation", dushi as "transcending the generations", xianqu as "departed as an immortal", or jin as "inhibit". Other terms have been left untranslated. These include words like Dao and qi which have some currency in modern English and for which there is no satisfactory translation. Words for weights and measures are also transcribed. Neither accurate conversion into western lengths, volumes or weights (for example, translating "He walked one hundred li" as "he walked thirty three miles" or "sixty kilometres") or else arbitrary replacement of Chinese terms with western terms ("he walked one hundred miles") are acceptable. The following is a list of weights and measures used in the
translations and their approximate values in the Han:2
Translations of official titles follow Bielenstein's appendix to The Bureaucracy of Han Times.3 In general, passages in Shenxian zhuan are not referenced beyond noting from which biography the passage comes, as the biographies are typically short enough for location of a piece of text to be easy. In any case, a page reference to a particular passage would often encompass the entire biography and would therefore provide no useful information.
Indented translations are always followed by the name of the biography in brackets. The particular text of each biography used for translation, the alternative versions and citations, the subject's place of origin, the period in which he or she was active and (where appropriate) the mountain with which he or she is associated, as well as any other textual notes to that biography are set out in the appendices.
All translations in this dissertation are my own. I have, of course, occasionally consulted existing full or partial translations of Shenxian zhuan biographies4 as well as standard translations of other pre-modem works for normal scholarly purposes.
This dissertation is a study of Shenxian zhuan, a collection of biographical records of Daoist immortals traditionally attributed to Ge Hong, who lived from the end of the third to the middle of the fourth centuries C.E. It is one of a number of collections of Daoist biographies preserved in the Daoist Canon and elsewhere. The earliest surviving collection in this tradition, and the only one to predate Shenxian zhuan, is Liexian zhuan) Shenxian zhuan celebrates the exploits of immortals; it records their extraordinary feats and their powers and capabilities that exceed those of normal people. In some instances the biographies tell of the way these figures attained the exalted state of immortality, for all of them passed from a normal human existence to a transcendent one, and why such a destiny fell to them and no-one else. Importantly, the biographies do not, in general, describe the technical background to the actions of the immortals in detail. The discussions on the preparation of elixirs, rules for entering sacred mountains and writing of talismans that are so familiar from the inner chapters of Baopuzi, for instance, are notable by their scarcity in Shenxian zhuan.2 The purpose of these biographies appears to be to provide evidence for the existence of immortals and records of models for emulation, rather than to give instructions on the attainment of immortality.
Present versions of Shenxian zhuan that purport to be complete were recompiled during the Ming or later and usually contain about ninety biographies. There are good reasons to think that this number represents only about half of those that were present in versions circulating in the early Tang; in this thesis, for various textual reasons explained in chapter two, that number is reduced to sixty seven. These are the only biographies for which evidence can be found to date them to an early Tang version of Shenxian zhuan.
Chapter two, "The Text and Authorship of Shenxian zhuan", examines in detail these and other textual issues that surround the text.
The figures who are celebrated in Shenxian zhuan are not, by any means, uniform.
The periods in which they were active range from the most ancient of times - Baishi Xiansheng was apparently 2000 years old in the time of Pengzu - up to Ge Hong's own lifetime- Dong Weinian is recorded as being active in the time of Jin Wudi who reigned between 265 and 290 C.E. Similarly, they came from a wide geographical range, involving most of the region inhabited by Chinese people at the time. Maojun came from the north eastern region of Youzhou to the north of the Bohai sea and Feng Heng came from Longxi near modern Lanzhou while Dong Feng travelled as far south as modern day Hanoi. The breadth of range of periods of activity and places of origin can also be observed in the number of mountains with which the subjects of the biographies are 1 Liexian zhuan has been the subject of a major monographic study: Kaltenmark, M., Le Lie-sien Tchouan (Beijing, 1953).
2 Baopuzi neipian, referred to hereinafter as Baopuzi (Baopuzi neipian jiaoshi, Wang Ming, ed., Beijing, 1985), is used frequently in this thesis for comparison with Shenxian zhuan. Chapter two presents a detailed discussion of the different ways in which the two texts refer to the same figures. Baopuzi waipian does not discuss matters pertinent to this thesis.
4 associated. It is important to note this indication that Shenxian zhuan was not the product of a single cult with a single holy site. 3 The Jack of any unifying temporal, geographic or cult feature in Shenxian zhuan leads, in one sense, to a primary question that underlies this thesis: what is it that brings these biographical records together in a single collection? Asking what they have in common is another way of addressing the question of what constituted the biography of an immortal at the time this collection was compiled. Three kinds of answers are given in chapters three, four and five of this thesis. Chapter three examines the biographies for the ideas surrounding immortality that they contain. Chapter four focusses on them as examples of the biographical form and discusses their narrative and symbolic structures. Chapter five begins from the observation that some of the subjects whose lives are recorded in Shenxian zhuan biographies also receive biographies in other texts which cannot be classified as biographies of immortals or even as Daoist works. Thus it seeks to determine what Jinks the Shenxian zhuan biographies by analysing what relationship they have to other kinds of historical records.
This thesis is concerned, then, with exploring what kind of text Shenxian zhuan is. It is therefore appropriate to begin by determining the meaning of the title Shenxian zhuan and in particular the somewhat problematic term shenxian. This chapter proceeds to discuss ideas concerning matters related to Shenxian zhuan from the Eastern Han and San guo periods and the earliest surviving collection of biographies of immortals, Liexian zhuan. In the third section, the position Shenxian zhuan occupied in early bibliographies is examined to see in which categories of text it was thought to belong. Finally, this introductory chapter looks to the origin of the biographies and makes hypotheses about their transmission.
The Meaning of Shenxian