Fiction: Chinese Fiction and Religion

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This essay examines five genres or subgenres of Chinese fiction, namely the zhiguai, chuanqi, bianwen, vernacular short story, and vernacular novel (premodern and modern). Each genre contains works that have themes or structures with religious dimensions. Readership and religious functions of later fictional works will also be mentioned, although these aspects of early works should not be neglected.


The birth of what is usually rendered as Chinese prose fiction (xiaoshuo ) remains a subject of debate. In defining Chinese fiction in a strict sense, most literary historians trace its origin to the zhiguai (records of anomalies), fictional narratives in classical language, in the Six Dynasties period (220589 ce). These narratives are characterized by an outlook and context rooted in the supernatural world replete with themes such as immortality, the afterlife, the causal relation between merit and punishment, magic, shamanism, and alchemical theories and procedures. In composing these tales, many authors assumed the serious mission of proving the actual existence of the supernatural. Whether or not they succeeded in convincing their readers, this intent along with the general subject matter constitutes the religious dimensions in zhiguai tales. Definitive examples in the genre like the Soushen ji (In search of the supernatural) of Gan Bao (fl. 320) all represent this tendency.

Zhiguai narratives with religious dimensions can be divided into the modes of fangshi magicians, Daoist, and Buddhist. Some zhiguai collections of the Six Dynasties, especially the early ones, were perhaps composed by fangshi magicians. They are reminiscences of fangshi magicians, diviners, and healers as well as of their erudition and expertise.

Zhiguai anthologies of mainly Buddhist and Daoist origins were apparently put together by those who maintained and practiced the religious faith shown in the works represented. The most explicit are the collections focusing on biographies of Daoist immortals (xian ) and Buddhist miracle tales. Narratives belonging to the Daoist mode tell of ascension, meditation, and autonomy, all laying claim to the Daoist authority. They emerged predominantly out of the immortality cult and the alchemical practices common to popular Daoism.

Regarding the Buddhist mode, these Buddhist miracle tales are largely of the following three general types: (1) accounts of divine intervention and supernatural power in times of need, usually wielded by Avalokiteśvara (Guanyin); (2) illustrations of piety and sincere belief, often through descriptions of the inexorable workings of the law of karmic retribution; and (3) remarkable deeds of monks or laypeople, serving to demonstrate their high spiritual attainments.

Zhiguai tales stress communication between humans and supernatural beings. Whether it is a man's union with a female deity or a human's sojourn in the immortal territory, the stories invariably embody a state of transcendence for which Daoist practitioners yearn. One of the motifs is communication between the living and the dead. Still many zhiguai stories are about retributive phenomena.


Chuanqi (transmission of the extraordinary) as a genre refers to fictional narratives in the classical language, longer than zhiguai, that emerged during the Tang dynasty (618907 ce). Tang chuanqi tales were overwhelmed by a curiosity about traffic with the transcendent world of gods, immortals, and numinous beings or with the world beyond the grave. Compared to the Six Dynasties zhiguai, what distinguishes Tang chuanqi lies not so much in what kinds of supernatural themes are presented in a tale, as in how they are represented. With its particular narrative method and polished style, the concern of chuanqi is mainly on human motivations and on the exemplary side of human nature. In other words, the supernatural tends to be less arbitrary and arrogant but more benevolent and accessible in its relationship with humans. Their sympathy lies with those who have withdrawn from the official life or shown a tendency to a religious life.

While half of the chuanqi tales are determined by the theme of the supernatural, the other favorite subject is love, which is sometimes amalgamated with religious elements. In terms of depiction of supernatural beings, chuanqi brought several innovations. First, supernatural beings could become psychologically complex and sympathetic. The common topoi in chuanqi tales include the predestined marriage made in heaven, in which the romance with a nonhuman woman was particularly suited to the chuanqi' s combination of the emotional with the extraordinary. In some tales black magic transforms humans into beasts, including the self-motivated transformation of Daoists and Buddhists. Some tales present the process of alchemical formation as a psychological trial of dangerous experiences. Dragon lore in Tang chuanqi highlights human involvement in the dragon family. Some tales are about the predestination or revelation of a person's future, likely because of the belief given by the Buddhist doctrine of karmic retribution. Some tales narrate new kinds of oddity involved in dream phenomena and put into service essentially the Daoist-Buddhist ideas concerning the illusory nature of life and the vanity of striving after worldly gain. A great number of tales provide ideal knight errantry that possesses supernatural and fantastic elements, with the Daoist propensity to having the xia (swordsman) hero or heroine retire from the human world after his or her mission is accomplished. And again many tales tell of communication with ghosts.

Although the zhiguai from the Six Dynasties and chuanqi from the Tang are the most well known, later collections of zhiguai and chuanqi are also numerous. Some of them, such as Hong Mai's (11231202) Yijian zhi (Records of the listener), have been used extensively by historians of Chinese religion as a source book for delineating religious beliefs and ritual practice at that time. In the Qing dynasty (16441911) Liaozhai zhiyi (Strange tales from make-do studio) by Pu Songling (16401715) is the most celebrated collection of supernatural tales in the entire canon in the Chinese tradition, which alone contains almost five hundred stories. It is viewed as the pinnacle of the zhiguai and chuanqi traditions. Liaozhai zhiyi is especially famous for the depiction of female ghosts and fox spirits.


Bianwen (transformation texts) of the Tang dynasty and the Five Dynasties periods (907960 ce) from the Dunhuang caves are narratives written in semicolloquial Chinese in a prosimetric style. These texts, as a type of storytelling, were performed, intending to represent a miraculous event for the purpose of enlightening the audience with Buddhist teachings. Transformation texts are believed to have been used in combination with visual images for performances in Buddhist temples or in certain ritual services. The performers of these transformations were professional entertainers, and the copyists of the extant manuscripts were mostly lay students studying a largely secular curriculum in schools run by Buddhist monasteries.

Some transformation texts with Buddhist subject matter excel in conjuring vast maalas of fantastic beings, divinities, or demons surrounding the central Buddha and vistas of other worlds. Bianwen have their roots in Buddhist literature, though the genre quickly became a secular form of entertainment, adopting Chinese historical and contemporary themes. As an example of the Buddhist influence on Chinese thought and writing, bianwen stimulated Chinese fiction with many new forms and themes (prosimetric form, greater extension, and relinquishment of the claim that verifiable historical facts are being recorded) and provided an immeasurable variety of stories and figures.

Vernacular Short Stories

Chinese vernacular fiction has its origins in the professional storytelling of the Song (9601279) and Yuan (12061368) periods. Scholars debate what the precise categories of storytelling are in Song records. There were at least two schools of storytelling, among four or six, related to religious phenomena: first, xiaoshuo or short stories that included such supernatural themes as ghosts and marvels, and second, Buddhist scriptural narration, monastic tales, and scriptural parodies. In the Yuan, professional storytelling xiaoshuo is divided into eight classes. Of the eight, three are primarily concerned with religious themes: spirits and demons, sorcery, and gods and immortals. All these types of the Song-Yuan storytelling continued to appear in later written stories.

With this background in mind, huaben should be considered next. Huaben, or the vernacular story, refers to a short story from the Song to the Qing dynasties that is written in the vernacular. Many huaben stories dealt with the lives of the middle to lower classes, focusing on down-to-earth concerns like preservation of family or lineage and the quest for worldly success. Some, however, treated Daoist and Buddhist themes, emphasizing the emptiness of mundane glory as well as the happiness of reclusion and transcendence.

The development of vernacular stories can be divided into three periods. In the early period (the Yuan and early Ming dynasties, up to 1450), the themes of these early stories include demons, ghosts, and religion. The demon stories normally tell how a young man encounters an animal spirit or a ghost in the guise of a young girl, makes love to her, discovers his danger, and calls an exorcist, usually a Daoist master, to subdue her.

One distinctive story type of the middle period (midMing dynasty, 14001575) pertains to the Buddhist stories. They tell of priests, their deaths, and sometimes their reincarnations, combining themes involving the priesthood with that of karmic causation. The stories are concerned above all with the priest's vow of chastity and the temptations to which he is subjected, but they also possess a certain religious meaning. The stories of the middle period are either Buddhist in inspiration or reveal a down-to-earth morality that inevitably links deeds to punishments.

The stories of the late period (after 1550) were written by literati who often fused Confucian principles with popular religious ideas. Many stories in the "Three Words" (sanyan ), three forty-piece collections of stories compiled by Feng Menglong (15741646), have a strong Buddhist flavor. A representative sanyan story has its plot building on Buddhist beliefs, its narrative furnished with Buddhist lore, and its conclusion engaging the mediation of Buddhist deities or the attainment of buddhahood.

Among storywriters of this period, Langxian's stories stress reclusion and religious beliefs. They are devoted to Daoist themes, such as the attainment of immortality, more than any previous stories. Yet the Daoism of Langxian's works was not a rigid doctrine but one of the sentimental and artistic.

Confucian literati also described religious phenomena in their short stories. Ling Mengchu (15801644) in Paian jingqi (Slapping the table in amazement) and in Erke paian jingqi (Slapping the table in amazement, second collection), two collections of stories commonly known as "Two Slappings" (erpai ), described many religious people and motifs. These stories are ultimately related to the typical example of the Shanshu (morality books).

Vernacular Novels

Zhanghui xiaoshuo, a term that is used for full-length vernacular fiction, from premodern times, is customarily translated as "vernacular novel." When novel is used in the premodern Chinese context, however, it does not imply a secular literary genre. Nor does it necessarily project humans in society as the novel in the Western counterpart.

Lu Xun (18811936), in his pioneering Zhongguo xiaoshuo shilue (Brief history of Chinese fiction), defines shenmo xiaoshuo (novels of gods and demons) as a subgenre with religious or supernatural subject matters. There are over one hundred extant novels in this category. But religious or supernatural elements are not limited to these novels. Any novel without a religious or supernatural element would be rare. The Buddhist imagery and its underlying ideology in Chinese novels are obvious. Among the most important Buddhist motifs in Chinese novels are karmic retribution, rebirth, heavens and hells, miraculous transformations and manifestations, and illusion and dream. In many novels the theme, plot, structure, mode of expression, psychological conflicts, and finale are shaped by Buddhist epistemic-soteriological models, especially by the quest for enlightenment as prescribed by the Chinese Mahāyāna tradition.

Honglou meng (Dream of the red chamber; or, The story of the stone) by Cao Xueqin (1715?1763 or 1764) is the universally acknowledged masterpiece in the Chinese novel. The relationship between Bao-yu and his cousin, Dai-yu, can be interpreted as the narrative enactment of their karmic reciprocity, origin, and destiny. The novel shows the Buddhist complication of desire, as exemplified by Bao-yu's long journey to the Gates of Emptiness. The Story of the Stone deals with important Buddhist images of dreams and mirrors. It also represents the paradox of Mahāyāna Buddhism: only in the world of suffering can one find deliverance. That a full-length novel centers its plot on the protagonist's desire for liberation from his emotional sufferings and on his final determination to become a monk has few precedents. While the affirmation of the Buddhist view of reality is but one side of the novel, its success lies in the author's masterful translation of the mythic and religious into the aesthetic and realistic. The Story of the Stone in this light can be read as a book of enlightenment through love.

Besides The Story of the Stone, Dong Yue's (16201686) Xiyou bu (Supplement to journey to the west) manifests Buddhist psychology. In Jin Ping Mei (Plum in the golden vase) and Xingshi yinyuan zhuan (The bonds of matrimony; or, Marriage destines to awaken the world), the Buddhist vision based on merit-making and karmic retribution is apparent. One type of Buddhist novel is the hagiographical fictional work, such as Qiantang hu yin Jidian Chanshi yulu (The recorded sayings of the recluse from Qiantang Lake, the Chan master Crazy Ji; 1569).

Most Chinese novels begin with an account of the initial cosmogony. In these novels this familiar Chinese creation myth is immediately followed by an embodiment of the general patterns in specific mythical-historical processes. This pattern of cosmogony is of Daoist character. Indeed Daoism provides the Chinese novel with a soteriologic and narrative structure. In many novels the heroes (or heroines) usually have divine origins (chushen ) in heaven or paradise, and because of their own mistakes they are banished to or reborn in the human world to experience suffering, redemption, and self-cultivation (xiuxing ) and to accumulate merits by rescuing other sentient beings, saving the world, or subduing demons. After they accomplish their mundane missions, they return to their primordial heavenly positions or reattain immortality. All works of "fiction of gods and demons" and many other novels share this pattern of development. While The Story of the Stone can be read undoubtedly as a profound Buddhist allegory, the same novel can also be read as a Daoist myth in which the male and female protagonists as heavenly immortal beings are banished to the human world to repay their debts of love. After they fulfill their long-cherished wish of falling in love with each other as an experience of the vicissitudes of life, they have no other way but to return to their origins.

In Shuihu zhuan (Outlaws of the marsh; or, Water margin) the 108 bandits are 108 stars who are released by accident. They finally vanish in the world because of their redemption and accomplishment. The same sort of Daoist frame of previous origins is present in the Ming novel Pingyao zhuan (The quelling of demons), Luo Maodeng's (fl. 1597) Sanbao taijian xiyang ji tongsu yanyi (Journey to the western ocean), Li Baichuan's (c. 1720after 1762) Lüye xianzong (Trials of immortals in the green wilds), and Li Ruzhen's (c. 17631830) Jinghua yuan (Flowers in the mirror) and is used more ironically in Wu Jingzi's (17011754) Rulin waishi (The scholars). Even for the historical novel Sanguo yanyi (Romance of the three kingdoms; c. 14001500), its antecedent Sanguozhi pinghua (Stories from the records of the three kingdoms; c. 13211323) still retains this supernatural episode. In a majority of erotic novels, toward the end the protagonists forgo their practice and attain immortality, centering on the Daoist art of love and pursuit of longevity. Of course one of the best-known Daoist novels is Fengshen yanyi (Investiture of the gods). Despite Buddhist influence, this novel exhibits the most explicit Daoist frame work and elements by changing a historical novel into a "novel of gods and demons." The Daoists participate in the transition between the Shang and the Zhou from the beginning to the end. The war between the two Daoist sects in the novel represents a hierarchical struggle in Daoism: the official Daoism and folk Daoism. In fact the wars launched in the human world are envisioned as part of the divine cosmogonic process, that is, the "investiture of the gods."

Some novels even have the flavor of popular or sectarian religion. Pan Jingruo's Sanjiao kaimi guizheng yanyi (The romance of the three teachings clearing up the deluded and returning them to the true way; 16121620) reveals the mentality behind morality books, a lay religious movement. The moral motif of the novel was also stimulated by the Religion of the Three Teachings, a syncretic popular religious sect founded by Lin Zhao'en (15171598). Liu E's (18571909) Laocan youji (The travels of Laocan; 1907) intends to show the author's religious vision based on the Taigu school, an esoteric philosophy-turned-religious society with a syncretic creed, that embodied elements from Confucianism, Buddhism, Daoism, and probably even Manichaeism. Episodes in the novel, especially in chapters eight to eleven, which constitute the central part of the twenty-chapter work, were modeled after the Taigu school and its main figures, including a Taigu version of worldly paradise, a religious vision and cosmology of the Taigu school, the transcendental realm of this sectarian movement with its cultivation arts, and its prophetic faith in and eschatological problems with history and Chinese culture as well as its political criticism.

The religious novel par excellence is Xiyou ji (Journey to the west; or, Monkey), which is attributed to Wu Cheng'en (c. 15001582). Religious themes and rhetoric permeate the entire work. Journey to the West contains many references to yinyang and five-phases (wuxing ) terminology, Yijing (Classic of change) and alchemical lore, and various other Daoist, Buddhist, and Confucian ideas and practices. For more than three centuries the principal concern of criticism on the novel has been to decipher the allegory by separating the narrative surface into moral, religious, and philosophical meanings. While the novel can be read as a tale of travel and adventure or Confucian rectification of the mind and moral self-cultivation, it can also be read as a religious allegory. The immense appropriation of the teaching from the Three Religions (sanjiao ) is what makes Journey to the West a unique text in the history of the Chinese novel. On the Buddhist side, Journey to the West consistently projects a distinctly Buddhist worldview. There are countless allusions to Buddhist concepts and legends structured in the narrative. Although there may be no systematic discourse of one particular Buddhist doctrine in the narrative, certain themes and figures, such as karmic laws, merit making, Buddha's mercy, and the paradoxical connection between mind and buddhahood, do receive consistent development. Viewing the text this way, Journey to the West can be read as a story of Buddhist karma and redemption or enlightenment.

The story of Journey to the West raises a rather perplexing phenomenon, that is, that the narrative provides astonishingly few details traceable to specific Buddhist sources, although its story is built on the historical pilgrimage undertaken by Xuanzang (596664 ce), one of the most famous Buddhist personalities in Chinese history. It is rather noteworthy how extensively the Daoist themes and rhetoric appear in every part of the work. In the novel Daoist elements function not merely as means of providing commentary on incidents and characters in the narrative but often as an aid to disclose the true nature of the fellow pilgrims, to help characterize their essential relationships, and to evolve the narrative action itself. Moreover Journey to the West on the whole presents a complete process of internal alchemical cultivation, both the cultivation of nature (xinggong ) and cultivation of life (minggong ), including various stages in a proper sequence. Besides the Buddhist notion of salvation or enlightenment and the neo-Confucian rectification of the mind, the author now adds immortality as the distinctive goal of the pilgrimage.

Religious functions

Many authors, editors, and publishers of novels intended their works to be read as religious scriptures, and many readers accepted this claim. In this light Journey to the West is one of the three most important Daoist texts for adepts to study in their self-cultivation as a modern Quanzhen (Complete Perfection) Daoist asserts. Indeed many Chinese novels serve as religious texts, namely, morality books. Certain novels and morality books were printed together as two parts of the same work, making the former the exemplar and the latter the tenet. Many temples have printed and issued several novels as morality books or religious texts. There are always some messages at the end of these novels encouraging distributing these novels as merit making. Thus the readers, with their shared value and understanding of the devotional intent of the novels, constituted a religious community by disseminating and receiving these devotional novels in the same temples.

Some of these novels were not only devotional in nature but also revelatory as well. They have their origins in a context of religious revelations. At some point of their transmission, the novels may have been associated with a personage or group with techniques of revelation, such as spirit possession, shamanism, and spirit writing. In this case perhaps either the patron deities of the cults revealed the text or the mediums that the deities possessed "delivered" the text in spirit writing of planchette séances (fuji ). The appendixes at the end of Dongyou ji (Journey to the east) reveal that it was obviously an output of the planchette spirit writing. New novels, such as Dongming baoji (A precious record of the mysteries of outlying realms), were uttered by the deities through this technique of spirit writing.

The novels that functioned as vehicles for their protagonists' cults can also affirm these cults' existence. Thus it may well be that a proselytizing purpose probably underlies at least some "novels of gods and demons." For example, Romance of the Three Kingdoms has had an enormous impact on secret societies, and its character Lord Guan (Guan Yu) was deified as a universal god in Chinese religion. With respect to Journey to the West, Monkey exerts its influence on folk religion, making the Monkey cult in southeast China and Hong Kong one of the most popular cults. Many popular deities are drawn from Investiture of the Gods as well. Sometimes the influence of popular novels has had imprints on the monastic attitude toward the saints or deities. And some novels themselves were even canonized by the Buddhist or Daoist institutions.

Many novels, such as Plum in the Golden Vase, provide vivid pictures of Daoist and Buddhist rites. More important the novel has had a closer affinity with religious ritual. The ritual appendix found at the end of Beiyou ji (Journey to the north) stipulates the rules of worship. The readership was thus anticipated not to read the novel passively but to actively perform rites in honor of the novel's protagonist, God Perfect Warrior. In Jiangxi province in the early twenty-first century a Daoist ritual called "Breaking the Yellow River Trap" is directly from a battle described in chapter fifty of Investiture of the Gods.

Martial arts novels

Wuxia xiaoshuo or martial arts novels as a genre of popular fiction emerged in the popular urban press of the 1920s and 1930s and was later produced in the 1950s in Hong Kong and Taiwan (also encompassing the genre's thematic predecessors in earlier literature). In the 1920s and 1930s Huanzhulouzhu (19021961), in Shushan jianxia zhuan (Swordsmen of the mountains of Shu), narrates amazing tales of flying swordsmen, monsters, and magical combat largely drawn from Buddhist, Daoist, and popular religious fantasies. The "New School" of martial arts novels since the 1950s, represented by Liang Yusheng (Chen Wentong; 1922), Jin Yong (Zha Liangyong; 1924), and Gu Long (Xiong Yaohua; 19361985), inherits religious fantasies as the central plots and structures. But these novels also explore the religious meanings and truth behind martial arts, especially in Jin Yong's novels.

Modern fiction

Foreign cultural influences are particularly noticeable in fiction by and for the intelligentsia in the wake of the vernacular literature movement and the May Fourth New Culture movement. Influenced by the Enlightenment spirit, most modern Chinese fiction writers maintained an antireligion attitude. Given the Western cultural impact, however, some writers more or less tended to borrow Christianity in their fictional works. To most of the May Fourth writers, such as Lu Xun (18811936), Guo Moruo (18921978), and Mao Dun (Shen Yanbing; 18961981), Christ's teachings and lifestyle epitomize a spiritual force that can guide the individual in his or her pursuit of wholeness. Thus, in the minds of these writers, the individual should not adhere to Christ through religious faith but must follow his teachings in a basically humanistic fashion. Besides, Buddhism also exerted certain influence on modern fiction. As China was devastated by civil wars, foreign encroachment, and internal corruption, authors such as Fei Ming (Feng Wenbing; 19011967) accepted the Buddhist philosophy and acknowledged the imperfectness of this world and the sadness of human life; others like Yu Dafu (18961945) were pessimistic romantics, taking refuge in the nirvāa of love. Among modern Chinese fiction writers, Xu Dishan (18931941) had a strong interest in religion, including Buddhism and Christianity. What distinguished Xu Dishan from his contemporaries was his concern with the basic religious experience of charity or love and endeavor, which manifests in nearly all his stories to show its pervasive presence in human lives.

The decades from the 1990s onward saw a revival of interest in folklore and awareness of religion in Chinese fiction. Jia Pingwa (1952), in his short stories, particularly the collection Taibai (1991), demonstrates a return to the classical tale tradition and its fascination in mystical and numinous phenomena, including religious magic. Gao Xingjian (1940), the 2000 Nobel literature laureate, is more outstanding in this respect in his quest for individual spiritual freedom. In his best-known epic novel Lingshan (Soul mountain, 1990), Gao Xingjian makes manifest his sincere pursuit of religious values. Much of Soul Mountain explores or imagines a Chinese tradition counter to the orthodoxy and gives a reference to Daoism, which provides a moral baseline and cultural ground. It marks not only the first Chinese winner of the Nobel Prize for literature but also the fading of scorn for religion among most modern Chinese intellectuals and their literature, including fiction.


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Richard G. Wang (2005)