Daoist Novels of Legends

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The word "legend" originally appeared in the book Legend by Pei Xiang, a writer in the late Tang dynasty. Since the Song dynasty, scholars have taken it as a general name for novels of the Tang. Daoist novels of legends are one type of Tang novels of legends.


In ancient China, poems and writings which "elucidate orthodox thoughts", have always been regarded as orthodox literature, while novels, which are not based on classics, do not appeal to refined taste. Nevertheless, in the Tang dynasty, the number of writers of legends was on the increase, and many of them were famous historians, ancient prose writers or poets. Especially in the middle Tang, the writing of novels of legends flourished. As far as content is concerned, although they deal with a wide range of subjects, the novels of legends after the middle Tang are generally associated with Daoism and strongly supernatural. The works of legends that have Daoist thoughts as their theme, demonstrate the nature of Daoist deities, depict activities of Daoists, or compose strange plots by use of Daoist Magical Instruments ( 法器 Faqi ) can be regarded as Daoist novels of legends. For example, Wang Du's ‘’Record of an Ancient Mirror’’ ( 古鏡記 Gujing Ji ) relates that the author got an ancient mirror from scholar Hou, and passing through many places, cured sickness and exorcised with it; and that a slave girl, reflected by the ancient mirror, revealed her true features as an old fox. It displays the magical function of the ancient mirror. Obviously it aims at elaborating the idea that Daoism attaches importance to the function of magical instruments in the transmission of Dao via literature.


Generally speaking, Daoist novels of legends have four main subject matters. The first is illusion, i.e., expressing Daoist thoughts through dream stories. For instance, Shen Jiji's Precious and Secret Tales ( 枕中記 Zhenzhong Ji) tells about scholar Lu's dream, in which he enjoyed high position and great wealth but eventually went to hell. Lu did not realize it was a dream until he awoke. This story publicizes the Daoist idea that glory, splendor, wealth and rank are just like a dream and cautions people against secular material desires. The second theme is about deities and Daoists. A number of novels of legends of the middle and late Tang directly depict deities and Daoists. In legend-writers' works, deities mostly have experience of cultivating Dao. Most of them were originally Daoists and later promoted to be deities after cultivation. Some examples are Luo Gongyuan, Pei Zhan and the like, depicted in the Supplementary Tales of Mysteries and Miracles ( 續玄怪錄 Xu Xuanguai Lu ) compiled by Li Fuyan and in the Collected Tales of the Miraculous ( 集異記 Jiyi Ji ) compiled by Xue Yongruo. These Daoists became deities because they were said to master one or more Daoist techniques. Of course, Daoists are not the only one to be enrolled in the pantheon. Legend-writers tell people that there are different approaches to immortality but what counts is firm belief in Daoism through the narration of the hero's life. The third is a romantic theme. A great deal of evidence shows that Daoism emphasized belief in one's feelings. A representative work is Li Chaowei's Biography of Liu Yi. It recounts the story of a scholar who had failed in the imperial examination, who encountered a dragon maid of Dongting Lake who tended sheep in wilderness. Plots about Daoist activities are inserted in the book. For example, Daoist Taiyang's preaching of The Book of Fire ( 火經 Huojing ) contains the Daoist theory that Yin and Yang interact with each other. The fourth is a historical theme. For example, Anecdotes of The Book of Documents by Li Chuo and The Unofficial Life History of Li Linfu by an anonymous author explain the Daoist idea that a just cause gains great support, while an unjust one gains little, through the description of the life history of some important historical figures of the Tang dynasty.


Compared with novels about the occult of the Six Dynasties, Daoist novels of legends are a great development in terms of technique of expression. As Lu Xun analyses, the writers of novels of legends "are very meticulous about strangeness" and have self-consciousness in fiction creation, so they can make use of various kinds of techniques to depict the characters' nature. For example, they reveal the theme and represent Daoist guidelines by foreshadowing through subplots and diagram divination.