Theses Doctoral

Origin Narratives: Reading and Reverence in Late Ming China

Ganany, Noga

In this dissertation, I examine a genre of commercially-published, illustrated hagiographical books. Recounting the life stories of some of China’s most beloved cultural icons, from Confucius to Guanyin, I term these hagiographical books “origin narratives” (chushen zhuan 出身傳). Weaving a plethora of legends and ritual traditions into the new “vernacular” xiaoshuo format, origin narratives offered comprehensive portrayals of gods, sages, and immortals in narrative form, and were marketed to a general, lay readership. Their narratives were often accompanied by additional materials (or “paratexts”), such as worship manuals, advertisements for temples, and messages from the gods themselves, that reveal the intimate connection of these books to contemporaneous cultic reverence of their protagonists. The content and composition of origin narratives reflect the extensive range of possibilities of late-Ming xiaoshuo narrative writing, challenging our understanding of reading. I argue that origin narratives functioned as entertaining and informative encyclopedic sourcebooks that consolidated all knowledge about their protagonists, from their hagiographies to their ritual traditions.
Origin narratives also alert us to the hagiographical substrate in late-imperial literature and religious practice, wherein widely-revered figures played multiple roles in the culture. The reverence of these cultural icons was constructed through the relationship between what I call the Three Ps: their personas (and life stories), the practices surrounding their lore, and the places associated with them (or “sacred geographies”). In this dissertation, I explore this dynamic through the prism of origin narratives by focusing on the immortal Xu Xun 許遜, the god Zhenwu 真武, and the immortal bard Lü Dongbin 呂洞賓. I conclude with a case study of a recurrent theme in origin narratives: the protagonist’s journey through hell.
The main goal of this dissertation is to examine the pivotal yet overlooked genre of origin narratives and unveil its significance to Chinese literature and cultural practice. What was the reading experience of origin narratives? What spurred their rise and commercial success in late Ming? And what was their long-term impact on writing and worship in late-imperial China? To answer these questions, this dissertation attempts to transcend anachronistic disciplinary boundaries that obscure the realities of life in late Ming China, and instead explore origin narratives within the broader cultural framework that informed their production and consumption during this period. Therefore, I analyze origin narratives in conjunction with a wide range of materials that fall into the realms of literature, religion, and history. These include literary works, canonical texts, popular religious tracts (baojuan and shanshu), daily-life encyclopedias, local gazetteers, geographical compendia, pictorial hagiographies, and art works.
Origin narratives reflect three concomitant trends in late-Ming book culture: a renewed interest in hagiographies, a penchant for anthologizing in commercial publishing, and the multiple roles xiaoshuo narratives played in the culture. In their hybrid composition and encyclopedic scope, origin narratives are a unique late-Ming phenomenon that opens a rare window onto the interplay between literature and religion during this transformative period in the history of Chinese culture.

Geographic Areas


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More About This Work

Academic Units
East Asian Languages and Cultures
Thesis Advisors
Shang, Wei
Ph.D., Columbia University
Published Here
May 15, 2018