Chinese Magical Medicine

Submitted by Su Jui lung on Thu, 02/12/2009 - 20:21
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CHINESE MAGICAL MEDICINE. By Michel Strickmann. Edited by Bernard Faure. Monographs in Asian Religions and Cultures. Edited by Carl Bielefeldt and Bernard Faure. Stanford: Stanford University, 2002. Pp. xii + 418; illustrations. Clothbound, $65.00, ISBN 0-8047-3449-6; paper, $24.95, ISBN 0-8047-3940-4.


This book is one of three posthumous publications written by the late Michel Strickmann (1942-1994), the other two being Mantras et mandarins (Gallimard, 1996; English translation, Princeton University Press, forthcoming) and Chinese Poetry and Prophecy (Stanford University Press, forthcoming). The present title was edited by Bernard Faure (Stanford University), with annotations for chapter one and two provided by Angelika Cedzich (DePaul University). 


Strickmann’s research will deeply impress the reader with its broad learning and originality in investigating a fascinating subject. It explores Daoist etiological interpretation (diagnosis of diseases), therapeutic methods for curing diseases, Chinese demonology, and the extensive influence of Tantric Buddhism on the ritual practices of East Asian religions. 


Chapter one, "Disease and Taoist Law," opens with Daoist therapeutic approaches in medieval China and analyzes rituals and the concept of disease in the Shangqing (Highest Clarity) scriptures. One of the most prominent features of this section is extensive citation and analysis of long passages from works in the Daoist Canon in order to arrive at concrete and systematic explanations. Strickmann points out that the Shangqing sect shows a sophisticated mixture of Chinese and Buddhist concepts of karma. 


Chapter two, "Demonology and Epidemiology," deals with Chinese demonology and demonstrates the conspicuous influence from the Buddhist tradition. According to Strickmann’s research, many demons from Buddhism were assimilated into the Chinese pantheon and the two traditions became virtually indistinguishable in this respect. 


In chapter three, "The Literature of Spells," Strickmann focuses on the fifth-century Dongyuan shenzhou jing (Spirit-Spells of the Abyss; DZ 335) in describing spells in the Daoist tradition. This chapter also investigates books of spells in proto-Tantra and Buddhist traditions and highlights the close relation of Dharani-scriptures, Buddhist apocryphal scriptures, and Daoist spell books. Strickmann emphasizes that the "cult of books" evidences an influence from Tantric Buddhism, though it is well-known that traditional Chinese culture has great respect for writing. For example, the Eastern Han (25-220 C.E.) Fengsu tongyi already records that the Liujia, Xiaojing, and Yijing were recited to expel demons. 


Chapter four, "Ensigillation: A Buddho-Taoist Technique of Exorcism," turns to techniques of exorcism, with special reference to ensigillation (the use of seals). Again, the author presents a comparative study of magical seals from both Buddhist and Daoist perspectives, thereby revealing the mutual influence of these two religions. Chapter five, "The Genealogy of Spirit Possession," discusses the use of spirit-possession as a means of exorcism. The earliest Avesa ritual of possession is also emphasized here. According to Strickmann, medium possession, still prevalent in Asia today, is ultimately derived from Tantric Buddhism rather than shamanism.


Finally, chapter six, "Tantricists, Foxes, and Shamans," discusses how madness and sexual possession by demons were treated. Strickmann focuses upon spirit possession, which is compared to the Daoist use of talismans, arguing that it can be viewed as a central idea of Tantric Buddhism. A monk can be a reincarnation of a god or a god can possess a medium for whatever purpose. He also criticizes the application of the term "shamanism" in East Asia because most of the current ritual practice in Japan originated from the Buddhist tradition and shamanism itself may have been influenced by Tantric Buddhism. 


This fascinating book, amassing a wealth of scholarship on Daoism and Tantric Buddhism, expands our vision and draws attention to numerous important topics in the study of East Asian religions. It also suggests subjects for further academic inquiry. These include but are not limited to the following: Daoist conceptions of the underworld, the Chinese concept of filial piety in relation to dead ancestors, Chinese demonology, and comparative studies on Daoism, Tantric Buddhism, and Japanese Buddhism. This work will prove rewarding for both specialists and general readers alike. 


SU Jui-Lung

National University of Singapore

July 16, 2003