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Crazy Jì:
Chinese Religion and Popular Literature


The following book review appeared in the Harvard Journal of Asiatic Studies 60(1): 311-318 in 2000.

When I wrote the review, I tried to make it a useful summary of the author's important argument about how written texts in China could influence and be influenced by a population that was largely illiterate.

The author's basic argument is that, because writers continually "plagiarized" from popular storytellers and theatrical companies and then circulated their writings across long distances, local oral productions, in regional languages and dialects, could influence people in other parts of China, who used the written versions as a basis for new storytelling and theatricals, which were then "plagiarized" anew by yet other writers. And so on.

In the pre-modern world of low literacy and poor communications, there was little concern with authenticity, originality, or "intellectual property" (an invention of modern lawyers). Instead, a story worth telling was simply a story worth telling, and any teller —writer, actor, storyteller— felt quite free to improve on it as occasion arose to do so.

The process is maddeningly difficult to document, of course, and Shahar's book is an important success in doing so for the very specific case of a character called the "Salvationist Living Buddha," whose cult has been quite important in the religious system of China in recent times (where is especially often associated with spirit mediums). However other religious figures are importantly linked to novels and other literary productions, such as the cult of Lord Guān (Guān gōng 關公), associated with the Romance of the Three Kingdoms (Sānguó Yǎnyì 三國演義) and its predecessors.

What matters to us is that the process went on, and is probably responsible for the curious interaction of Chinese literature and Chinese popular religion.

For this web version of the review, I have inserted Chinese characters, tone marks, and occasional Romanizations that were prohibited by the publisher's style sheet in the original publication. I have also added a graphic, subtitles, and a couple of paragraph breaks to improve readability on a computer screen.


Crazy Jì: Chinese Religion and Popular Literature

Book Review by DKJ

Review Outline

  1. Introduction
  2. Jìgōng in History
  3. Jìgōng in Fiction
  4. Jìgōng As God
  5. Conclusions


Meir Shahar
1998 Crazy Ji: Chinese religion and popular literature Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Asia Center. xviii+330 pp. $45 (cloth), $19.95 (paper)


One of the most popular fictional figures of modern Chinese life is the "Living Buddha Jìgōng" (Jìgōng Huófó 濟公活佛), the "crazy monk" who goes through the world cheerfully appearing to violate his monastic vows (as well as the laws of nature), and yet ends up righting wrongs and saving souls. One meets Jìgōng in films and television serials, in books intended for children and adults, in advertisements, on T-shirts and in wax museums, in temple motifs and spirit-writing tracts, and in mediumistic séances. Easily recognizable by his gourd of wine and drunken gait, his tattered fan, and gaily patched clothes, and his odd hat with the word "Buddha" (fó ) prominent upon it, he has become ubiquitous.

Jìgōng's popularity, and much of what we think of as most characteristic of his iconography, is surprisingly recent, indeed mostly of this century. A study of the emergence and evolution of this iconography is the mission of Shahar's work.

In general, Crazy Ji is based in written sources, and seeks to remain close to them. Shahar makes brief excursions into sculpture and painting and occasionally into such media as films and television, and he has visited with modern mediums possessed by Jìgōng. But these materials play little role in his analysis, and modern worshipers still less. For the reader whose contact with Jìgōng has been largely through his modern religious and pop-culture manifestations, this close examination of the older textual background is especially intriguing.

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2. Jìgōng in History

"Crazy Jì" (Jìdiān 濟顛), the title by which Jìgōng is usually named in this book and by which he was known through much of his history, was perhaps a real monk, living somewhere near Hángzhōu 杭州 sometime in the late twelfth or early thirteenth century. His religious name was Dàojì 道濟, and it is probable that he was an itinerant monk dwelling outside of the monastic system of the time. Such figures are slow to capture historical attention because they are unlikely to be enrolled in monastic chronicles. They first emerge, instead, in local oral tradition and vernacular literature. This was the case with Dàojì.

Shahar's study is thus necessarily involved with the interplay of popular oral literature and written representations of it, with the popular literature and canonical literature, with popular piety and monastic tolerance, and ultimately with the continuing evolution in what is considered orthodox by whom.

Shahar argues vigorously, repeatedly, and, I think, cogently that Chinese popular religion is inseparable from the works of fiction and drama by which it has been so often transmitted. His argument is made more compelling because he has at all points kept in mind that novels are read by the literate; therefore we must see their influence among the illiterate as mediated, or we must see them as reflecting rather than influencing oral sources, or we must trace both processes in interaction.

The corpus of surviving Jìdiān materials allows Shahar to trace such interactions with convincing clarity. What Shahar successfully demonstrates for Jìdiān he suspects (p. 3) is true for other nationally popular gods as well: the generalization of a cult beyond its region of origin is accomplished in most or all cases significantly (but not entirely) through its representation in popular fiction, even though only the written fallout of the process is visible to us today. The book thus has two intertwined topics: Jìdiān and the relationship between literature and cult.

One can quibble a bit with Shahar's use of the word "fiction," perhaps, but the idea is clear enough, and for Jìdiān the oral-literate interaction is well laid out for us. In the abstract, the model works this way: tales about a local deity are created and transmitted orally in one region. Should they come to be collected into a novel, even one with strongly regional words or turns of phrase, they become available in other regions, where the novel can then inspire new oral productions (with their own local linguistic characteristics).

These can then, with or without further reference to the novel itself, inspire new written versions, which may travel to other areas (including retransmission back to the original point of origin). A religious cult may or may not actually follow such a transmission, but theoretically it can, and in the case of Jìdiān clearly did.

Reality is more complex than the model, of course, and cults do move between regions without known written vernacular productions. But the ability of literature, particularly novels, both to spread cults and to influence them is both powerful and underrated. In the case of Jìdiān, Shahar shows that a nineteenth-century novel, The Storyteller's Jìgōng (Píngyǎn Jìgōng Zhuàn 評演濟公傳), which portrayed Jìgōng as a martial artist defending the poor, and which invited social rebels to worship him, had a very substantial effect upon his cult.

Having laid all of this out in the introduction, Shahar uses the rest of the book to work through the data that defend this model. In Chapter 1, "Dàojì the Man," we meet Dàojì, who apparently died in 1209, and who is first mentioned briefly in but one contemporary source, a funerary eulogy by the abbot of Jìngcí monastery (Jìngcí Sì 淨慈寺) near Hángzhōu, who tells us that Dàojì was already known as "Crazy Jì" (Jìdiān) in life, that he was ordained at Língyǐn monastery (Língyǐn Sì 靈隱寺) near Hángzhōu 杭州, that he was admired as a poet but was unpredictable and eccentric as a monk, that he wandered much, and that he died at the Jìngcí monastery.

He was thought by at least some of the public to have important religious powers, for they sought his relics. In Chapter 2 Shahar examines the implications of the various elements of this description, particularly the tradition of religious madness and unpredictable behavior. Dàojì is not unique in this, but rather joins a category of other "crazy" monks whom we know also to have been canonized.

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3. Jìgōng in Fiction

In Chapter 3 we meet the Jìdiān of fiction. Shahar is able to trace mention of Jìdiān to several sources of the mid 1500s: an oral story, a written short story and a longer text that may have been a novel (both now lost), and a 1569 novel that is still extant. The surviving novel, Recorded Sayings of the Recluse from Qiántáng Lake, the Chán Master Crazy Jì (Qiántáng Hú Yǐn Jìdiān Chánshī Yǔlù 錢塘胡隱濟顛禪師語祿), is found in several editions, suggesting considerable popularity. It dates from three centuries after Dàojì's death, of course, and despite the title it is mostly an account of deeds attributed to him. Shahar's close analysis of the text reveals at least two sources and something about the sources that they, in turn, would likely have drawn upon. (It is in one of these antecedent sources, by the way, that changes Jìdiān to Jìgōng as the name of choice, reflecting, as Shahar characterizes it, Dàojì's transformation from "enlightened monk to an arch-magician and a miracle worker" [p. 82].)

Crazy Jì

The passage of time brought the spread of interest in Jìgōng, both as a fictional character and as an object of cult, Shahar argues, for the materials remaining from the seventeenth century (two novels, a play, and a short story) are no longer all from the immediate Hángzhōu region, even though all are from Zhèjiāng 浙江 and Jiāngsū 江蘇 provinces. One of the novels, Drunken Pútí (Zuì Pútí 醉菩提), was particularly influential, with at least twenty printings during the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries as the work spread over a widening area.

Much of Shahar's literary detective work in carefully dating and placing these (and other) works may be of limited interest to the reader who comes from outside of literary studies, but the conclusion that is made possible by these labors advances our understanding of Jìdiān. In Drunken Pútí we see a continuation and elaboration of Jìdiān's magical appeal. However in the other novel, apparently not a particularly popular one, we see the transformation of the jovial and unpredictable magician into a moral model and the agent of salvationist Buddhism. In other words, there developed in this period diverse understandings of Jìgōng and the seeds for much of what was to grow thereafter.

The popularity of Jìgōng grew especially quickly with the release in the 1890s of The Storyteller's Life of Jìgōng, by a publisher in Tiānjīn 天津, and a rapid series of reprintings of it well into this century by other firms, especially but not exclusively in Shànghăi 上海. The Storyteller's Life invites exploration of a narrative gap between itself and the earlier texts partly through minor changes in the story, partly through northern dialect usages that tell us something of the intervening years, and partly through its relationship to northern theatrical traditions and the popularity of martial arts fiction. Jìgōng is now released from his regionalism in Hángzhōu (or Zhèjiāng-Jiāngsū) and emerges to be just as colloquial in the north (and potentially in all of China); he springs forth as an especially available figure for dramatic productions; and he becomes a social bandit, or more exactly a figure pre-adapted to patronize social bandits.

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4. Jìgōng As God

In the last chapter, Shahar turns to Jìgōng's cult, which appears largely to follow in time the spread of literary materials reviewed in the earlier part of the book. Shahar carefully reviews temples and temple statuary, logs of gods, local gazetteers, and such other materials as he can find to trace this relationship. Repeatedly the religious materials follow the literary ones in date, tending to confirm Shahar's general point that cult can ride astride literature.

Through his fieldwork in Taiwan, Shahar met spirit mediums portraying Jìgōng, and he also draws additional material from modern media. What is of prime interest, given the general thrust of his main argument, is the way in which people in Taiwan today incorporate motifs and iconography intimately linked to earlier manifestations of Jìgōng in the interacting spheres of literature and cult.

Shahar's observations on the god's modern cult in Taiwan are interesting in themselves. The contemporary use made of Jìgōng by people in Taiwan has by no means stabilized into a single, settled form. Jìgōng's easily recognizable representation by actors and mediums may be responsible for some of his appeal, but as a religious patron he is popular with a startlingly wide range of worshipers.

At one extreme we see him appealed to by people seeking help with illegal betting and other "unrespectable" activities which worshippers hesitate to bring to better established (and potentially more censorial) members of the pantheon. At the other extreme the demure and self-consciously moral Unity Sect holds him to be the pre-incarnation of their late leader, and dismisses much of the more extravagant lore about him as foolish superstition.

Given the propensity of religious groups in Taiwan today to produce morality tracts through automatic writing séances, Shahar is able to analyze this genre, new to the Jìgōng cult, and contrast it with the earlier written material on Jìgōng. One element he finds here is an attempt to clean up Jìgōng's image. The god is represented as condemning the drinking of wine (which he drank) and the consumption of meat (which he ate), for example. This is a Jìgōng with little in common, it would appear, with the Jìgōng patronized by the gamblers and other petty violators of the law, despite identical iconography.

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5. Conclusions

The book ends, a bit abruptly, with a brief consideration of one of Jìgōng's most characteristic iconographic traits: his constant laughter. The abruptness of this ending is perhaps itself a kind of Jìgōng-ish laughter, for it is clear that we cannot know where this god will appear next, even though his humble origins, his trail of successes, and his power and appeal have all been made obvious.

The book's central intellectual defense of the relevance of Chinese literature to the anthropology of Chinese religion is important, and the demonstration of this relationship in the specific case of the Jìgōng cult is convincing, at least to me as a reader schooled in ethnography rather than literature. Even if it were not linked to a provocative hypothesis about how cults grow in China, the careful review of the Jìgōng literature is a significant contribution to the growing scholarship on the Chinese pantheon. (A summary listing of text sources on Jìgōng occupies four very useful appendices.)

At the risk of concluding on a sour note I would vent one annoyance: it requires four bookmarks (or as many fingers) to read this book. One's reading is troubled throughout by the obsolescent editorial conventions of referring to the bibliography (bookmark one) via end notes (bookmark two), of providing (nearly) all non-bibliography Chinese characters only in a table at the end of the book (bookmark three), and of printing pictures in a separate block of pages (bookmark four). I know of no logic by which it can be argued that this awkward arrangement is a service to the author or the reader.

The graphic is by Zhào Guózōng 趙國宗 and appears on page 114 of:

QIĀN Lǜ 千綠
1984 Yǒuqù de shén 有趣的神 (Interesting gods). Táiběi 台北: Mínshēng Bào 民生報.

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