Making Transcendents: Ascetics and Social Memory in Early Medieval China
320pp. February 2009
Making Transcendents: Ascetics and Social Memory in Early Medieval China
Author: Campany, Robert Ford;
Winner of the American Academy of Religion Award for Excellence in the Study of Religion

Honorable Mention, Joseph Levenson Prize (pre-1900 category), Association for Asian Studies

By the middle of the third century B.C.E. in China there were individuals who sought to become transcendents (xian)—deathless, godlike beings endowed with supernormal powers. This quest for transcendence became a major form of religious expression and helped lay the foundation on which the first Daoist religion was built. Both xian and those who aspired to this exalted status in the centuries leading up to 350 C.E. have traditionally been portrayed as secretive and hermit-like figures. This groundbreaking study offers a very different view of xian-seekers in late classical and early medieval China. It suggests that transcendence did not involve a withdrawal from society but rather should be seen as a religious role situated among other social roles and conceived in contrast to them. Robert Campany argues that the much-discussed secrecy surrounding ascetic disciplines was actually one important way in which practitioners presented themselves to others. He contends, moreover, that many adepts were not socially isolated at all but were much sought after for their power to heal the sick, divine the future, and narrate their exotic experiences.

The book moves from a description of the roles of xian and xian-seekers to an account of how individuals filled these roles, whether by their own agency or by others’—or, often, by both. Campany summarizes the repertoire of features that constituted xian roles and presents a detailed example of what analyses of those cultural repertoires look like. He charts the functions of a basic dialectic in the self-presentations of adepts and examines their narratives and relations with others, including family members and officials. Finally, he looks at hagiographies as attempts to persuade readers as to the identities and reputations of past individuals. His interpretation of these stories allows us to see how reputations were shaped and even co-opted—sometimes quite surprisingly—into the ranks of xian.

Making Transcendents provides a nuanced discussion that draws on a sophisticated grasp of diverse theoretical sources while being thoroughly grounded in traditional Chinese hagiographical, historiographical, and scriptural texts. The picture it presents of the quest for transcendence as a social phenomenon in early medieval China is original and provocative, as is the paradigm it offers for understanding the roles of holy persons in other societies.

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“This impressive monograph has much to offer empirically and methodologically, both to sinology and to the wider community of historians interested in hagiography as a source of insight into the social construction of saintly/holy persons in any cultural and historical context.” —China Review International (18:2, 2011)

“A groundbreaking achievement in the study of Chinese religion that rewards the attention not only of sinologists, but also students of hagiography, history, narrative theory, ascetics or holy men or women, and performance theory.” —Frontiers of History in China (6:2, June 2011)

"Campany summarizes scholarship on the sociology of secrecy, recent work on how identity is shaped through culture, and he supplies the best discussion I have read on the problems and explanatory potential of hagiography. The epilogue which addresses the fundamental problems of how we can assess the sincerity and motivations of adepts and the extent to which we can determine from stories about transcendents what really happened, is especially clear and eloquent. In short, this is a book as surprising and rich in detail as the stories that inspired it." —Journal of Chinese Studies (51:7, 2010)

"If one day we arrive at a more profound understanding of the hidden agendas behind so much of Chinese writing, hagiographical as well as historical, Making Transcendents will undoubtedly have played a significant role in that process." —Journal of Asian Studies (69:1, February 2010)

"Invaluable for anyone who wishes to understand the phenomenon of sanctity in general and the Chinese cult of xian in particular." —Religious Studies Review (35:3, September 2009)

"This pioneering study overturns conventional wisdom about ancient Chinese religious traditions by vividly portraying the social processes by which adepts could achieve recognition and legitimacy as transcendents (immortals). Campany convincingly demonstrates that some forms of self-cultivation and asceticism were culturally scripted performances that could have a profound impact on the audiences who observed or read about them, and that both adepts and the individuals they encountered were involved in constructing narratives about transcendence. Making Transcendents succeeds in bringing these seemingly ephemeral beings down from the summits and the clouds by locating them where they have always belonged: in the hearts of their worshippers and acquaintances. This eloquently written book should prove an invaluable resource for both teaching and research." —Paul R. Katz, Academia Sinica

"Robert Campany, probably the most exciting thinker working in Chinese religions today, does not disappoint with this volume. One of the most original contributions of this path-breaking book is his re-reading of hagiographic accounts not merely as records of belief, accounts of divine individuals revealing something about the nature of the sacred, but also as records of real-world individuals, religious professionals, interacting with a community of believers, skeptics, officials, and hangers-on. Rigorous in its methodology, informed by the most current scholarship, and broadly comparative in its approach, Making Transcendents will significantly change the treatment of early Chinese religious history. It should have wide appeal among scholars of early China and to students of mysticism the world over." —Terry Kleeman, University of Colorado, Boulder

"Robert Campany does a beautiful job of analyzing the quest for transcendence in early medieval China, reconstructing the religious and social worlds within which this quest flourished and within which the seekers of transcendence lived, established their reputations, and were remembered thereafter. In order to tease out the complexities of how to understand these seekers and the texts in which they were commemorated, Campany draws upon the rich resources of theory in religious studies and thereby provides a powerful approach that will be inspiring to scholars of any religious tradition. This is a book that will help to bring Chinese materials into the larger conversation of religious studies in general, and it will undoubtedly become a classic." —Michael Puett, Harvard University

Author: Campany, Robert Ford;
Robert Ford Campany is professor of religion and East Asian languages and cultures at the University of Southern California.