What are baojuan?

Baojuan 寶卷, often translated as “precious volume,” is the name of a genre of Chinese popular storytelling literature that flourished during the Ming (1368-1644) and Qing (1644-1911) and was simultaneously part of the worlds of religion and entertainment. I study baojuan that were popular in the late 19th century, a period of baojuan florescence that has not yet received concentrated attention, due in part to the pervading perception that such texts were lesser examples of a genre in decline due to cross pollination with popular secular performance genres. Heavily studied early examples of the genre include texts that recount popular Buddhist tales, likely related to practices of vernacular preaching, and texts that through a syncretic blend of Buddhism, Daoism, and a new theology emphasizing apocalyptic millennialism and new salvific deities like the Eternal Mother of the Buddha, predicted the coming end of the world age. In the 17th and 18th centuries, sectarian groups discovered to be producing baojuan of the latter variety were often violently suppressed by the state. In contrast, the majority of baojuan circulating in the 19th century largely supported the existing social order, emphasizing lowest common denominator approaches to religious devotion.

As works that are in neither the Buddhist nor the Daoist canon and are not ranked with the classics in the field of Chinese literature, baojuan were not intentionally preserved until the 20th century, when vernacular literature attracted attention as a legitimate field of study. The texts which are extant today, and there are many, survived by accident. Baojuan were never understood to be a prestigious genre to produce and the taint of association with heterodoxy, even if inapplicable in later centuries, lent an air of suspicion to their existence. As such, not only are there few mentions of baojuan performances before the modern era, but little is known about their performers, writers, publishers, and audiences. Some works feature paratextual materials – prefaces, afterwords, and donor lists – which help to provide a sense of the actors involved. The association between sectarian groups and early texts further abets their study by linking some works to religious and political movements. In general, narrative baojuan are associated with female audiences, due in a large part to representations of their performances in a 17th century novel, the Jin Ping Mei (金瓶梅 The Plum in the Golden Vase), and the self-representation in paratextual materials which characterize their text as useful for the edification of the uneducated, including women. But lacking documentation to prove such associations, narrative baojuan have stood outside the chronologies of social, religious, and literary history.

My dissertation is an attempt to understand the ordinary and lived experiences of common non-elites in 19th century China through a study that is almost entirely lacking in historically identifiable baojuan authors or audiences and explanations of their motives in creating and reproducing the texts.

In this AAS paper presentation, I suggest that by adding two baojuan that feature anti-infanticide messages to the spectrum of 19th century anti-infanticide literature, we are able to temper the harshness that has led many to conclude that anti-infanticide tales offered no mercy for infanticidal mothers. Instead, through the penitential female protagonists in these baojuan tales who receive rewards in the end for their piety, we can see how writing in this literary genre and for its intended audience reshaped the seemingly immutable judgment of heaven, and consider the way in which other genres of morality literature shaped the ways in which heaven’s justice was represented.

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