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Hualin International Journal of Buddhist Studies 6.2 (2023): 18–29;
(This article belongs to the Special Issue Religion and Local Society)

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Popular Reverence and Commercial Publishing in Late Ming Hagiographic Literature

University of Cambridge

Abstract: The turn of the seventeenth century saw a surge in the publication of illustrated hagiographic narratives (chushen zhuan 出身傳), or ‘origin narratives’, in the book meccas of Jiangnan and Fujian. These commercially published books recount the miraculous lives of widely-worshiped cult figures, from Buddhist deities and Daoist immortals to Confucian sages and local heroes. Highly entertaining yet encyclopaedic in scope, origin narratives repackaged the life and lore of their revered protagonists into ‘vernacular’ narratives (xiaoshuo 小說) that seem to have targeted a wide readership. The cultic worship and sacred geographies of the protagonists of origin narratives take centre stage in their main narratives and feature prominently in the paratexts of these books (such as prefaces, postfaces, and appendices), offering practical, current information on the reverence of the protagonists. The incorporation of ‘religious’ materials in the main texts and paratexts of origin narratives highlights the multiple roles that commercial publishers played in late Ming society as cultural agents and producers of knowledge. Origin narratives, I argue, provided commercial publishers with a particularly profitable platform to engage with local cults while promoting their own intellectual and worldly interests.

Keywords: hagiography, print culture, literature, immortals, Ming, Zhenwu, Lü Dongbin


About the Author: Noga Ganany is an Assistant Professor in the Study of Late Imperial China at the Faculty of Asian and Middle Eastern Studies at the University of Cambridge, United Kingdom, and a Fellow of Sidney Sussex College, Cambridge. Her main research interests are Chinese cultural history, religious practice in China, premodern Chinese literature, print culture and history of the book, travel and pilgrimage, and popular culture. She is currently working on two book projects. Her first monograph, Origin Narratives: Hagiographic Literature and Religious Practice in Late Ming China, examines the role of commercial publishing in propagating cultic reverence of saints, gods, and immortals among lay readers. Her second book project, King Yama: Afterlife Judgments in Chinese Conceptions of the Netherworld, explores lay moral discourses in the last millennium by tracing the history of King Yama in Chinese religious practice, literature, and art. Her most recent publications include ‘Writing and Worship in Deng Zhimo’s Saints Trilogy’ (Religions, 2022) and ‘Journeys Through the Netherworld in Late Ming Hagiographic Narratives’ (Late Imperial China, 2021). Before assuming her current position at Cambridge, Dr. Ganany taught briefly at Boston University (2018–2019), after receiving her Ph.D. from Columbia University in New York (2018). Dr. Ganany is a member of the board of directors of the Society for the Study of Chinese Religions (SSCR) and a board member of the Society for Ming Studies.


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