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The Immortal Maiden Equal to Heaven and Other Precious Scrolls from Western Ga ...

Chapter 1:  Introduction
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<i>The Immortal Maiden Equal to Heaven</i> and Other Precious Scrolls from Western Gansu

Chapter 1

Introduction

This volume presents translations of several precious scrolls from Western Gansu.1 These texts, composed in alternating verse and prose, make for fascinating reading because they tell great stories. At the same time, they provide an intimate picture of the morals and beliefs of the local population in late imperial times and most of the twentieth century, as well as of that group’s reactions to major events in local history, such as the great earthquake of 1927 and the famine of 1928–1930.

Few genres of prosimetric literature are as wide and elastic in their definition as precious scrolls (baojuan 寶卷) are. The earliest texts that nowadays are considered precious scrolls do not use that term in their title and are already quite different in nature, ranging from a liturgical adaptation of a popular sutra to extensive prosimetric retellings of pious tales. What these texts share is that they are Buddhist in nature and that they were composed for performance in a ritual setting before a lay audience; the earliest preserved descriptions of such performances indicate that the precious scrolls were recited by clerics, usually nuns. Throughout the history of the genre, performances of precious scrolls never lost this ritual character, and the preserved texts usually begin with a poem inviting buddhas and bodhisattvas to attend the recitation, and they end with a poem sending off these same divinities, even when in precious