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

by Wilt L. Idema


*This book is in the Cambria World Sinophone Series
(General editor: Victor H. Mair)

Following thirty years of suppression as feudal superstition, Chinese popular religion has made a spectacular comeback since the 1980s. One aspect of this phenomenon has been the return of precious scrolls as ritual and entertainment in several regions of China, most notably the economically advanced Wu-dialect area and the poor countryside of Western Gansu. As these texts were performed once again, they have been collected, edited, and published as part of China’s Intangible Cultural Heritage.

These materials greatly broaden and deepen our knowledge of popular literature, ritual, and religion and open a new window into the values and customs of local society. The texts also offer unique insights into the history of the region as seen through the eyes of the local population who had to confront the harsh environment and frequent incursions of nomadic groups.

Given the wealth of knowledge to be gained, it is not surprising that these materials are attracting the growing attention of scholars. The Immortal Maiden Equal to Heaven and Other Precious Scrolls from Western Gansu by eminent Sinologist Wilt Idema is thus a significant foray into the area. This unprecedented book provides complete and annotated translations of six precious scrolls that have never before been translated. An insightful and helpful introduction precedes each translation. The study includes a general survey of the development, origin, context, and popularity of the narrative and concludes with a discussion of available modern editions.

The first text is the Precious Scroll of the Immortal Maiden Equal to Heaven (based on its 1698 edition), the hagiography of a goddess widely venerated in Zhangye. Spanning nineteen chapters, this precious scroll describes not only the mortal life of the deity but also her posthumous miraculous protection of the Chinese community of Western Gansu. The following three other translated texts offer more recent adaptations of popular tales: the first is of Liu Quan who volunteers to travel to the underworld in the hopes of finding his wife; the second is of the filial parrot that buries its deceased mother with the aid of other birds; and the third is of the mouse that accuses the cat of murder with the judge of the underworld. The fifth precious scroll translated deals with the social disruption caused by the great earthquake of 1928 and the famine of the following years. The study concludes with the translation of a sixth precious scroll, which details the wedding scams of the beautiful Hu Yucui.

This book will be of much value to scholars of Chinese literature and folklore, as well as to scholars of Chinese religion and of Chinese history. It will also appeal to students of comparative literature and comparative religion, as well as readers interested in the history of Inner Asia.

Author Interview with Dr. Wilt Idema

More on the Cambria Sinophone World Series


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