To Live as Long as Heaven and Earth

Submitted by Komjathy on Thu, 02/12/2009 - 20:39
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TO LIVE AS LONG AS HEAVEN AND EARTH: A TRANSLATION AND STUDY OF GE HONG'S TRADITIONS OF DIVINE TRANSCENDENTS. By Robert Ford Campany. Daoist Classics 2. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2002. Pp. xxviii + 607; illustrations; index. Cloth, $95.00, ISBN 0-520-23034-5.

This book marks a major contribution and an important event in the history of Daoist Studies. Drawing upon his earlier work on the zhiguai ("accounts of anomalies") genre of Chinese literature, entitled Strange Writing: Anomaly Accounts in Early Medieval China (SUNY, 1996), here Campany provides a historical study and critical, annotated translation of the Shenxian zhuan (Biographies of Spirit Immortals; translated as Traditions of Divine Transcendents by Campany). A collection of some 100-odd hagiographical accounts, this work has traditionally been attributed to Ge Hong (283-343), famed author of the Baopuzi ([Book of] Master Embracing Simplicity), grandnephew of the fangshi (lit., "formula master") Ge Xuan (d. 244), and leading exponent of the Taiqing (Great Clarity; translated as Grand Purity by Campany) tradition of laboratory alchemy (waidan) during the fourth century. 

With regards to the justification for such a translation endeavor, Campany explains, "Ge Hong's works afford us an unparalleled glimpse into certain aspects of Chinese religious life and practice at a critical time in the history of Chinese religions….Ge Hong records elements of religious ideas and disciplines relating to the quest of transcendence that might otherwise remain unknown to us, and his writings constitute a valuable terminus ante quem for them….With respect to Daoist religious history proper, furthermore, Ge Hong's writings, and the practices, ideas, and values represented in them, constituted an important voice in ongoing inter- or intrareligious rivalries and self-definitions" (9-10). 

The book is, in turn, divided into three parts. Part one, "Traditions of Divine Transcendents and Its Context," covers Ge Hong and the writing of the Shenxian zhuan, the nature of religion reflected in Ge Hong's works, the Shenxian zhuan as hagiography, and text-critical matters. Part two is Campany's critical, annotated translation of the Shenxian zhuan, which contains the following sections: (1) Group A: Earliest-Attested Hagiographies; (2) Group A: Earliest-Attested Fragments; (3) Group B: Early-Attested Hagiographies; (4) Group B: Early-Attested Fragments; (5) Group C: Later-Attested Hagiographies. Finally part three is a highly detailed and specialized consideration containing Campany's text-critical notes, which include sources for extant Shenxian zhuan hagiographies. This section also discusses items attributed to the Shenxian zhuan excluded from the translation. Campany's attentiveness, care, and dedication are evident throughout the present study, especially in his detailed annotations and notes and his insights concerning theoretical and methodological issues (on possible translations of xian see 4-5; on the appropriateness of referring to Ge Hong as a Daoist see 6-9). 

There are a number of noteworthy features that deserve further mention, not the least of which is the opportunity to read a complete, annotated translation of one of the most important Daoist hagiographies. According to Campany, "My work on Traditions, a hagiography of more than one hundred figures spanning many centuries, is premised on the contention that it is a case-by-case history of the successful quest for transcendence. I believe that it was made, intended, and read as a work of record, an evidential work, a set of transmissions or traditions…about persons, practices, and results claimed to be actual" (98-99). Individuals studying and researching Chinese religious traditions in general and Daoism in particular will find the section "The Nature of Religion Reflected in Ge Hong's Works" (18-97) especially fascinating. Here Campany provides information on the following topics: the pneumatic idiom, dietetics, sexual arts, alchemy and the scriptures of Grand Purity, the bureaucratic idiom of life and death, the adept's armament, preferences and persuasions (including levels of achievement and taxonomies of practice), and adepts and society. This section also contains the only readily available English-language discussion of the Taiqing tradition of laboratory alchemy, the alchemical tradition associated with the family lineage of Ge Hong. 

In addition, the text-critical method developed, employed and advocated by Campany identifies distinct textual stratas within extant editions of the Shenxian zhuan (distinct Shenxian zhuans if you will), mostly datable to between the fourth and seventh centuries C.E. According to Campany, "This feature of my translation [the identification of temporal stratification] might be the single most useful one- as it is usually the case that each hagiography contains within itself relatively early- as well as late-attested elements" (124). However, Campany's methodology also raises a fundamental consideration: what does it mean for a contemporary Western scholar to dissect and reorganize a text considered sacred by a religious tradition? This reorganization also makes consultation of the original Chinese text(s) more difficult, a difficulty which Campany attempts to avoid by arranging the hagiographies alphabetically. 

Nonetheless, To Live as Long as Heaven and Earth is highly recommended for historians of Daoism and Chinese religion. Scholars of comparative religion will also find insights here concerning issues of death and post-mortem existence as well as hagiography as a type of religious writing. As the cost of the book will be prohibitive for many, it is to be hoped that the University of California Press will follow its previous policy of issuing a paperback edition a year or so after the publication of the clothbound version. Every scholar of Daoism and research library should have this book.

Louis Komjathy

Boston University

May 9, 2003