Reviews / December 2015 (Issue 30)

Understanding Canonisation: Mark R. Meulenbeld's Demonic Warfare

by William Noseworthy


Mark R. Meulenbeld, Demonic Warfare: Daoism, Territorial Networks, and the History of a Ming Novel, University of Hawai'i Press, 2015. 288 pgs.


Demonic Warfare is a new book by Mark R. Meulenbeld, an associate professor in the East Asian Languages & Literature Department of the University Wisconsin-Madison, that focuses on a single Ming novel known as The Canonisation of the Gods (Fengshen yanyi). Although most analyses of the novel argue that it is "fiction" or "fantasy," Meulenbend rejects these terms. Rather, he argues that Canonisation is both historical and ahistorical, both a religious and a literary text. Demonic Warfare is a study that shows how a single novel changes history, interpretations of history and religious practice.

The standard version of Canonisation is from Sixue Caotang Publishing House, managed by Chu Renhuo [1635c.–1719], although there are at least two possible hypotheses regarding its authorship. The first is that it was written by Lu Xixing, a Daoist priest of the Jiajing period [1522–1566] and author of around ten other volumes. The second is that the earliest an author could have written the text was in 1624/5. Regardless, Meulenbeld asserts that being the author of the text is not as important as being its editor and compiler. Not considering authorship important, he argues instead that "ritual practices form the primary referents in the broad cultural domain to which Canonisation belongs … To be precise, Thunder Rituals are used to capture the unruly and uncanonical spirits that enthrall local communities and to transform them into bona fide sacred beings aligned with cultural institutions that transcend any single locality or region."

The novel's main characters are "orphan spirits," who fight and die violently and then are excluded from proper death rituals and prey upon the living. Within the novel, the Thunder Ritual is a method of appeasement that restores cosmological balance by "exorcising" these spirits and restoring the cosmological balance. To invoke the words of Paul Mus, the Thunder Ritual explains how the wayward spirits become "Gods of the Soil" in China. Hence, ideology is not the problem of these spirits. However, metaphysical loyalty is.

Chinese literary scholars, such as Lu Xun [1881–1936], Sun Kaidi [1898–1986], Zheng Zhenduo [1898–1958] and Tan Zhengbi [1901–1991] have interpreted Canonisastion using the same Weberian lens of "disenchantment" as European scholars in the field of Chinese Studies. In this approach, "religion is a metaphor for something else." Meulenbeld's analysis seems to accept this view, but he also makes an appeal for analysing the religious imagery of the novel by placing it in socio-historical context between "real" and "imagined" events. The argument is therefore extended to the whole literary genre of the novel (xiaoshuo) to ensure that aspects of "legend, divinity, ritual and community" are not ignored. This is an important point, since when Chinese writing became more widely known to European and American scholars in the nineteenth century, the more fluid nature of Chinese genres challenged the neat Western division of literature into "novels, drama and religion."

However, Eurocentric criticism, couched as "modernist" literary studies, eventually shifted Chinese scholarly positions and "religion" became subordinate to "the novel" even in the case of Canonisation. In some cases, the effect of such Eurocentric views of literature had even more pronounced effects on criticism of Chinese writing. For example, in some European analyses, the Chinese novel was not even classified as literature, such as can be seen in the following statement from Herbert Giles' History of Chinese Literature (1901): "Novels and plays are not included by the Chinese in the domain of pure literature. All literature in China is pure. Novels and stories are not classed as literature."

So what do we do to solve this problem for Canonisation? How do we restore its analysis to the level of the novel and literature while remaining true to its contents?

After situating Canonisation within a historical context, the author argues that the novel itself presents its own vision of history. In Canonisation, history is ordered by the gods. The order of the gods—with Yu Di (Jade Emperor) at the top, followed by and partnered with Xuan Di (Dark Emperor), outside the novel, followed by Dongyue Dadi (Great Emperor of the Eastern Peak)—is critical. They also appear as the first historical godly figures. Then the gods appear according to lists produced in Unified Origins of the Dao and Its Rituals (DZ 1220 Daofa huiyuan) and Forgotten Gems from the Sea of Rituals (DZ 1166 Fahai yizhu). These are, above all, also ritual texts, and, although they were compiled in the fifteenth century, the rituals date to the thirteenth. The Golden Book of Perfect Salvation Belonging to the Numinous Treasure of Highest Purity (1420s) by Zhou Side [1359–1451] has similar lists.

Taken together, the lists and Canonisation together demonstrate that the gods are not set in stone. They are mobile and advance in rank. The god Deng Bowen, for example, moves from the title of general to marshal to "Celestial Lord" over the course of his origins in Henan, from the twelfth to the thirteenth century. Regardless, many of the pantheons were not solidified until the Ming dynasty. Those formed during the Hongwu reign [1368–1398] and the Yongle reign [1402–1424] were particularly influential, crystalising in a favouritism for Daoism over Buddhism. Other evidence suggests that the leader of the Red Bandanas and the White Lotus militias were less influenced by Buddhist millenarianism, and more by Daoist militarism. Hence, the reexamination of these sources may have very real interpretations for historical analyses as well.

In Canonisation, the author connects his theoretical discussion and literary analysis to make very real points about common interpretations of Chinese history. He advocates for a close link between religious performance rituals and "secular" theater, drawing on the case of Sichuan in the eleventh century, where "the most common occasions for theatrical performances [were] communal festivals celebrated on the anniversaries of gods or the consecration dates of their temples." He also shows that local officials had an incentive to institutionalise their religious beliefs with performance during the Yuan and Ming dynasties, relying on them "to strengthen local defenses, both in terms of divine support and in terms of access to a reservoir of local militias available for battle during crises." Similarly, Meulenbeld reveals how local temples also frequently became host sites for defensive garrisons. The impact of a novel like Canonisation, therefore, was that it structured rituals at the temple sites and influenced martial practices for military officials and local rebels alike.

While Meulenbeld clearly shows how Canonisation changed history, there are some terms in the book that are pushed in non-conventional directions. This may indicate a shortage of readily available English language expressions for Chinese historical ritual processes. The primary example is the "exorcisms"—which in this case does not refer to striving to extinguish a spirit, but rather to incorporating and thereby placating it. Regardless of such linguistic stretches, the author demonstrates the great impact of Canonisation alongside Journey to the West, Watermargin and The Three Kingdoms, showing that all have common characters that appear through spirit mediums in communities as widespread as Peking, Taiwan, Singapore and Malaysia. For example, in Chinese overseas temples throughout Southeast Asia, it would be quite a surprise to find a temple without an altar to Ma Yuan, or at least a nearby alter to this martial god who is a central character in Canonisation. Finally, the links the author draws between performance and popularity bring to mind other works highlighted by Wild Idema concerning popular portrayals of The Butterfly Lovers as adaptations of classical literature. The emphasis on the connections between vernacular fiction and theater in this case strengthens the ties that Meulenbeld may be attempting to highlight in his discussion of Canonisation, or the idea that performed reality is reality.

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