Images of the Immortal

Submitted by Komjathy on Thu, 02/12/2009 - 20:32
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IMAGES OF THE IMMORTAL: THE CULT OF LÜ DONGBIN AT THE PALACE OF ETERNAL JOY. By Paul R. Katz. Honolulu: University of Hawaii Press, 1999. Pp. xvi + 309; maps; illustrations; appendixes; glossary; index. Cloth, $49.00, ISBN 0-8248-2170-X.

 

This impressively researched book examines the history of Yongle gong (Palace of Eternal Joy; Shanxi), one of the oldest and most important sacred sites dedicated to Lü Dongbin (b. 798? C.E.). Originally founded in the 10th century as a popular shrine, during the Jurchen Jin dynasty (1115-1234) the Palace of Eternal Joy was converted into a Quanzhen (Complete Perfection) monastery and, according to Katz, played a central role in the spread of the cult of Lü Dongbin. Katz's study has two stated goals: to explore the cultural diversity of Chinese sacred sites (4), and to trace the diverse interpretations of Lü Dongbin at the Palace of Eternal Joy (5). In addition, "[there is] a perception, however invidious, that area studies tends to focus more on reading texts or describing events than on interpreting them in the context of a broad theoretical framework. This book, which concerns the practice of religion in late imperial China, attempts to counter such misconceptions" (ix). That is, in combination with historical description and cultural documentation, Katz concerns himself with larger theoretical and methodological issues, specifically issues deriving from critical historiography, literary criticism, and social scientific perspectives. 

 

The book consists of an introduction, conclusion and five chapters: (1) The Site:— the Palace of Eternal Joy; (2) The Cult—the Immortal Lü Dongbin; (3) Text 1—Temple Inscriptions; (4) Text 2—the Murals; and (5) Reception and Reinterpretation. In addition to an extensive bibliography, the book also contains two appendixes, the first being a list of stele inscriptions at the Palace of Eternal Joy and the second listing hagiographic murals in the Chunyang dian (Hall of Purified Yang). 

 

Katz's work is noteworthy for a variety of reasons, particularly the diversity of its theoretical and methodological approaches as well as source materials considered. Katz utilizes literary critical methods and insights gleaned from "microhistory" to reveal the competing concerns and motivations of the Palace of Eternal Joy's inhabitants, patrons, and worshippers. Moreover, the translation and interpretation of texts (Daoist, officialist, popular, etc.), stele inscriptions, and murals leads to a more extensive and balanced account of this Daoist sacred site. For those engaged in Daoist Studies, Images of the Immortal provides one of the few readily available accounts of a Daoist sacred site (passim). It also contains important information on the early Quanzhen tradition (ch. 2) and the veneration of Lü Dongbin, a central figure in the development of internal alchemy (neidan) (also ch. 2). With regards to the latter, Katz clearly and convincingly demonstrates the competing interpretations of Ancestor Lü occurring simultaneously at the Palace of Eternal Joy: from Daoist immortal to popular healer and wonder-worker, from patron god of prostitutes to Quanzhen patriarch. These competing images and interpretations varied according to historical context and socio-economic position. Thus, it is a mistake to refer to Lü Dongbin simply as a "Daoist immortal" or a "patriarch of internal alchemy" without historical qualification. Highly recommended for specialists in the fields of Daoist Studies, Chinese history and religions, and individuals interested in deepening their knowledge of the Daoist tradition. A welcome addition to any research library or personal archive. 

 

(See also Journal of Chinese Religions 29 [2001]: 308-10; Religious Studies Review 27.2 [2001]: 199).

 

Louis Komjathy

Boston University

Jan 1, 2003