The Trans-regional and Inter-religious Dimensions of Wenchang Spirit-writing Altars in Sichuan in the Qing Dynasty
By Jiechen Hu
The Wenchang 文昌 (God of Literature Flourishing) cult originated from a local deity in Sichuan and became nation-wide after the Song dynasty. The deity was usually regarded as the patron of literati and the educated classes afterwards, partially because he was in charge of the civil examinations according to his position in the bureaucratic pantheon of Daoism.
This project will address how the divinity of Wenchang evolved again in late imperial China. It shifted from a Daoist god into a deity worshiped by both Daoists and Confucian Literati, and even became the symbol of Rujiao 儒教 (Confucian Teaching) itself. This change was fortified by a spirit-writing cult named Yongji Tan 永濟壇 (Altar of Eternal Salvation), which operated in the Yongzheng 雍正 and Qianlong 乾隆 Reigns in Sichuan.
My research will focus on two dimensions of the network created by this specific spirit-writing altar, the trans-regionality and inter-religiosity.
First, this altar belonged to a trans-provincial network of spirit-writing groups in Sichuan, Guizhou, and Yunnan. The altar flourished at first in Yu 渝 (Chongqing) of Sichuan under the name Yongji Tan during the Yongzheng Reign. In the early Qianlong Reign, one of the leaders moved to Dading 大定 (Dafang County) in Guizhou and created a new altar named Zhan Tan 鱣壇 (Altar of the Sturgeon).
The texts and scriptures received at these two altars through spirit-writing mention more than once branch altars in Yunnan. New evidence corroborates the existence and influence of this network of spirit-writing altars attributed to Wenchang 文昌.
For example, two books, the Guanghua xinbian 廣化新編 (New Edition on Broadening Transformation) and the Yinguo xinbian 因果新編 (New Edition on Karma), received through spirit-writing in Yunnan during the Daoguang 道光 Reign, indicate a clear relationship with Jin Bencun 金本存, the leader of both the Yongji Tan and the Zhan Tan. In addition, a big set of ritual scriptures received in Zunyi 遵邑 (Guizhou) during the Tongzhi 同治 Reign were produced by another Wenchang related spirit-writing altar and literati community, who claimed themselves to be the successor of Jin Bencun.
The Yongji Tan and the Zhan Tan produced several new texts attributed to Wenchang through spirit-writing, and developed a whole set of new rituals under the instruction of the descending deities.
These scriptures and ritual texts, collected in the Wendi Quanshu 文帝全書 (The Complete Works of Thearch Lord Wenchang) and in the Wenchang Shengdian 文昌聖典 (The Sacred Scriptures of Wenchang), were reprinted many times, and transmitted beyond Sichuan, Yunnan and Guizhou, all the way to Zhejiang, Hubei, Guangdong and Jiangsu.
Finally, in contemporary Yunnan, some religious communities such as Dongjing Hui 洞經會 (Cavern Scripture Society) are still using the Cavern Scripture in their core ritual, which was received by the Yongji Tan and is collected in the Wendi Quanshu.
The second dimension of this network is its inter-religiosity, especially the overlapping field it created for the Confucio-Daoist tradition. The Wenchang cult in the Qing Dynasty was always interwoven with literati communities. The two altars I focus on produced and published all their scriptures and texts with the help of a literati community in Qingping County 清平縣 (Guizhou), lead by a prefect named Liu Qiao 劉樵. These publication also influenced Wenchang cults in Sichuan, such as the group lead by Gan Yushi 甘雨施 in the Daoguang Reign, and the famous Liu school 劉門 in the late Qing.
The former leader was a local elite in Rongchang County 榮昌縣 (a district in Chongqing), while the latter school was not only famous in late Qing, but also have some active successors at the present time. These collections of Wenchang texts were described as “Orthodoxy of Confucian Teaching” 儒教正宗, even though the texts included had been understood as Daoist scriptures for centuries. Thus we see a reshaping of Wenchang into the symbol of Confucian Teaching itself.
This created a new space for both the educated elites who appreciated Daoism, and for the Daoist masters who were close to literati culture. It is worth mentioning that the whole network also dialogued with the literati groups in Jiangnan area, which is another centre of Wenchang cult and literati culture in late imperial China.
My research will be based on the textual study on these two collected works, and the comparison with other Wenchang texts produced in and near Sichuan, and will focus on new rituals produced by this altar and the new theology attributed to Wenchang that emerges from them. It will help us to understand the unique elements of the Wenchang cult in the Sichuan area in late imperial China, and how Sichuan itself plays a vital role in reshaping the Wenchang cult; it will also provide a different perspective into the changing character of literati groups dedicated to spirit-writing, and the interaction between Daoists and Confucian literati.