Ascetics and Social Memory in Early Medieval China

By the middle of the third century B.C.E. in China there were individuals who sought to become transcendents (xian)—deathless, godlike beings endowed with supernormal powers. This quest for transcendence became a major form of religious expression and helped lay the foundation on which the first Daoist religion was built. Both xian and those who aspired to this exalted status in the centuries leading up to 350 C.E. have traditionally been portrayed as secretive and hermit-like figures. Making Transcendents: Ascetics and Social Memory in Early Medieval China, by Robert Ford Campany, offers a very different view of xian-seekers in late classical and early medieval China. It suggests that transcendence did not involve a withdrawal from society but rather should be seen as a religious role situated among other social roles and conceived in contrast to them. Robert Campany argues that the much-discussed secrecy surrounding ascetic disciplines was actually one important way in which practitioners presented themselves to others. He contends, moreover, that many adepts were not socially isolated at all but were much sought after for their power to heal the sick, divine the future, and narrate their exotic experiences.

“This pioneering study overturns conventional wisdom about ancient Chinese religious traditions by vividly portraying the social processes by which adepts could achieve recognition and legitimacy as transcendents (immortals). Campany convincingly demonstrates that some forms of self-cultivation and asceticism were culturally scripted performances that could have a profound impact on the audiences who observed or read about them, and that both adepts and the individuals they encountered were involved in constructing narratives about transcendence. Making Transcendents succeeds in bringing these seemingly ephemeral beings down from the summits and the clouds by locating them where they have always belonged: in the hearts of their worshippers and acquaintances. This eloquently written book should prove an invaluable resource for both teaching and research.” —Paul R. Katz, Academia Sinica

February 2009 / ISBN 978-0-8248-3333-6 / $48.00 (CLOTH)