A Garden of Marvels

Tales of Wonder from Early Medieval China

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Robert Ford Campany
  • Honolulu, HI: 
    University of Hawaii Press
    , September
     2015.
     208 pages.
     $26.00.
     Paperback.
    ISBN
    9780824853501.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.

Review

A Garden of Marvels. Tales of Wonder from Early Medieval China is a compilation of translated tales, anecdotes, and accounts of strange events from over twenty-five pre-Tang collections compiled by Robert Ford Campany, perhaps the world’s leading authority on zhiguai 志怪 (“tales or records of anomalies”) and miracle tales in early medieval China. By “early medieval,” the author refers to the period from a few decades before the fall of the Eastern Han dynasty (220 CE) to the foundation of the Tang dynasty (618 CE). At the beginning of the book, Campany modestly states that A Garden of Marvels is “intended primarily for undergraduate students and other curious non-specialist readers” (xix). However, because most of these tales have been translated into English here for the first time, they can also be important sources for graduate students and scholars working on Chinese literature, culture, folklore, and religions.

The introduction provides us with background for the texts translated, including key information such as their function in Chinese society: when, why and by whom they were written, and why they are important for contemporary readers. “Records of anomalies” could take the form of anecdotes, historical records, memoirs, letters, temple inscriptions, and biographies, all of which were usually compiled by Chinese literati. They narrate encounters with spirits, demons or ghosts, journeys to the underworld, bizarre dreams, and other extraordinary experiences as well as descriptions of exotic lands, their inhabitants, customs, flora, and fauna. Interesting both as literature and as reflections of historical beliefs, the most common stories in early medieval zhiguai relate to survival in the grave and the return from death. In this book the reader will find plenty examples of all of the above.

A Garden of Marvels consists of 225 short tales that range from a paragraph to a couple of pages. Each story provides the full name of the protagonists, their birthplace, and information about where and when the event took place. Occasionally the tale itself states that multiple people heard of or witnessed the anomaly, conferring additional legitimacy to the story. The themes chosen by Campany are very diverse and consistently fascinating. Many zhiguai feature benevolent or malevolent ghosts, demons, spirits, gods, Buddhist deities, Daoist trascendents, and supernatural creatures as their protagonists. They castigate, stalk, and kill humans or help, save, befriend, and seduce them. Most times, these tales focus on moral lessons: evil humans who kill animals, mistreat spirits, break promises, or commit immoral acts are punished. A few tales are specifically Buddhist: they teach morality and the power of the Dharma, or recount the adventures of brave monks.

The most important characters in zhiguai though, are the dead. These spirits develop intimate relationships with the living—sometimes even romantic and erotic ones. In addition to these kinds of sensationally entertaining situations, these tales “from beyond the grave” also offer insights into the centrality of the cult of the dead throughout Chinese history. These tales, with their vengeful forgotten ghosts and munificent spirits, speak to the continued value of having a proper burial and honoring ancestors.

Campany’s expert attention to zhiguai shows contemporary readers the compelling ways that collective memory as well as concern with anomalies shaped early medieval Chinese culture. According to the author, the consequential interplay between the ordinary and the unexpected is the primary mechanism of zhiguai: strange events take place in the ordinary world, breaking individuals’ routine, and offering glimpses into a parallel universe that is hardly accessible to human beings. As extraordinary as their experiences might be, the protagonists are generally common people, which makes it is easy for the reader to identify with them. It is exactly this setting, Campany demonstrates, that gives legitimacy and credibility to the zhiguai. A Garden of Marvels does not provide much information on the history, mechanisms, and style of zhiguai but for these, readers can turn to Campany’s earlier works including Signs from the Unseen Realm: Buddhist Miracle Tales from Early Medieval China (University of Hawai’i Press, 2012) and Strange Writing: Anomaly Accounts in Early Medieval China (State University of New York Press, 2000).

Among several helpful tools in this book is Campany’s nomenclature for the different types of spirits as they are the most common protagonists of these tales. The great variety of spirits inhabiting Chinese culture and folklore pose a challenge to English translators. The nomenclature is very useful to understand these different categories of supernatural beings as well as giving interesting insights on Chinese culture and religions. The section on “conventions,” which explains specific terms such as measures and proper names, serves a similar purpose. Concise, erudite footnotes and suggestions for further reading provide avenues for further research for students and scholars alike.

Campany’s careful and creative treatment of zhiguai and the generous sampling of works never before translated into English help us better understand Chinese narrative, non-institutionalized religious traditions, early medieval social life, material culture, and legends which would otherwise have never been recorded in official historical documents. Additionally, the author selected texts that have largely been ignored by the scholarship along with tales that can be more accessible to all kinds of readers. Much has been written on zhiguai, and Campany’s new translations have furthered and advanced this field in a unique and inspiring manner. Undergraduate students of Chinese religion will surely find A Garden of Marvels a useful and interesting tool to explore the complex facets of Chinese religious traditions outside of the standard textbooks; to critically think in “unusual ways” about the interactions between religions, everyday life, material culture, and social behavior; and to better understand how the boundaries between ordinary life and other unworldly dimensions in medieval China were often blurry and not well defined.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Simona Lazzerini is a Ph.D. student in the Department of Religious Studies at Stanford University.

Date of Review: 
February 16, 2017
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Robert Ford Campany is professor of Asian studies and religions at Vanderbilt University.

Keywords: 

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