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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

scrolls from the nineteenth century onward the story as such is no longer specifically Buddhist. Where monks and nuns were not available, the precious scrolls might also be performed by laypeople, mostly men but also women, as long as they conducted the proper rituals. Whereas the ritual of a precious-scroll recital might be organized for a specific purpose (such as praying for blessing or thanking for grace), it might also simply serve the purpose of instruction and entertainment. Because precious scrolls were an important format for the Buddhist clergy in its outreach to lay patrons, the form was from the fifteenth century onward also eagerly embraced by some founders of new religions, especially if they considered their own teachings a new and complete summation of Buddhism. Within the religious communities they founded (often called sects in Western literature), the precious scrolls in which the founders had expounded their teachings became the canonical scriptures that were devoutly treasured; they often acquired a central position in the ritual of these sects not only as a body of teachings but also as physical book.2

Because of the genre’s close and abiding relation with religion (and traditional morality), precious scrolls were with only rare exceptions despised by China’s modernizing and revolutionary intellectuals of the twentieth century as superstitious and backward, and both the texts and their performances were outlawed in the early decades of the People’s Republic. The persecution of those who engaged in traditional religious practices culminated in the destruction of the “Four Olds” during the Cultural Revolution (1966–1976), and many observers inside and outside China at that time were convinced that traditional religious practices had been completely wiped out forever. But in the early 1980s it became clear that this was not the case at all. The recitation of precious scrolls resumed in several parts of the Chinese mainland, most notably the Wu-dialect area of Suzhou and surroundings (one of the most economically and culturally advanced regions of China)3 and the poorly accessible rural areas of Western Gansu (one of the most backward sections of the country).4 In both places, performers made great effort to copy out (often from memory) the texts they used to recite in order to meet the needs of their audiences. At the same time, scholars were allowed more latitude in the study of folklore and religion, and a few of them resumed the study of precious scrolls, some because of their interest in the manifestations of popular religion, others