Great Perfection

Submitted by Anonymous on Thu, 02/12/2009 - 20:30
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GREAT PERFECTION: RELIGION AND ETHNICITY IN A CHINESE MILLENNIAL KINGDOM. By Terry F. Kleeman. Honolulu: University of Hawaii Press, 1998. Pp. vii + 251; bibliography; index. Cloth, $39.00, ISBN 0-8248-1800-8. 


This work is an exploration of the state of Cheng-Han and its significance for the study of Chinese history and culture. The target period is the first half of the fourth century C.E. Although the book has value for scholars of Chinese history in general, it is of interest especially to those who work in Daoist studies. The Celestial Masters movement is the womb from which the Li family, founders of the Cheng state emerged. A substantial portion of the work is devoted to the translation of documents of historical, religious, and philosophical interest. No Chinese text is provided. The translations integrate several sources, relying on the Record of the Land of Huayang as not only the most reliable, but also as the framework for the use of the other supplemental materials. The author uses italics and his footnote system to aid the reader in identifying how he has integrated the various texts. The translated materials are grouped around the various members of the Li family (Li Te, Li Liu, Li Xiang, Li Xiong, Li Ban, Li Qi, Li Shou, Li Shi) and the role they played in the formation and development of the state. 


The texts, although taking up the second half of the book, are the source for the topical narrative the author uses in the first half. The topics are ethnicity and identity; religion; history; and sources of Cheng history. This topical structure is at one and the same time the book's strength and its weakness. I found that I had to constantly move between the sections to get a full picture of an event or person's role. For example, the relationship of the Lis is not explained in the topical sections of the first half of the book and historical details necessary to understand a point on ethnicity or religion are not explained in those sections (compare what is said of Li Xiang's militia on p. 58, 81, 93). Sometimes this does create a question of factual accuracy. The author speaks of the murder of Li Xiang (82) in the religion section and yet elsewhere (the history and translation sections) he describes Li Xiang's execution (93, 150). And when the author says Zhao Xin died at the refugees' hands (82), that hardly gives the full story (93). Some material turns up in one topical section that is omitted in another [Li Xiong's reward of Fan Changsheng described in the religion section (83) is omitted in the history section]. Perhaps a coherently flowing single narrative hung on an historical frame would have been preferable to the topical chapters. This is not to say that the author's research is inadequate in any way. Quite to the contrary, the work provides excellent newly translated material, and very clear analysis and suggestive interpretations. 


In the section on ethnicity and identity the author provides an overview of four pitfalls involved in studying the subject of ethnicity in premodern China and these are well developed and carefully explained. He then provides an overview of Sichuan during this period, and of the Ba people specifically. He offers an interpretive model of three divergent patterns of interaction between Chinese and non-Chinese which may have application with respect to other ethnographic studies of China. Particularly worth noting is the section on religion. The author's strengths are most evident here. This section provides an introduction to the Celestial Master movement, with information not easily found elsewhere in one place. The ties between this movement and Mt. Tai in Shangdong, how the movement came to exert substantial influence in the Dunhuang and Chang'an area, the administrative and moral code of the Celestial Master state, and its strong milleniarian beliefs are all explained with great clarity and conciseness. The author explains how the Li family was aligned with the Celestial Master Daoist belief and practice tradition, and claims that "The Daoist faith was an important factor in the fate of the Lis and their state." The section on history contextualizes the Cheng-Han state in fourth-century Chinese society and political developments. A sub-text of this historical material is the diffusion of Celestial Master religion throughout north China. The author concludes that inhabitants of Sichuan fared better under the Lis than persons in most other parts of China at the time, because of the talents of the Li family, the wisdom of their advisors, and the tenets of their religious faith. The translations in this work and the author's interpretations certainly commend this work to all scholars interested in Daoist studies. 


Ronnie Littlejohn 

Belmont University 

Date Posted: May 21, 2003