“Jade Flower” and the Motif of Mystic Excursion in Early Religious Daoist Poetry

Timothy W K CHAN*

*Corresponding author for this work

    Research output: Chapter in book/report/conference proceedingChapterpeer-review

    4 Citations (Scopus)


    In early Chinese literature, there is a prominent motif of imaginary flights to heaven, whose entelechy became rudiments for a unique literary theory on the "spiritual flight" in the pre-writing stage after Lu Ji (261- 303) first discussed it in his "Rhapsody on Literature" ("Wenfu" ). In the scholarship of Chinese poetics this well-studied theory is no novelty. But, rather than the "allegorical survey of the political alternatives"1 in Qu Yuan's (late Warring States period) "Encountering Sorrow" ("Lisao" ), in Daoist literature the search for transcendent beings on celestial flights embodied a different goal and thus molded a different literary presentation of this motif. Perhaps because of the isolated, esoteric nature of Daoist scriptures,2 as well as the demarcation between literary texts and religious texts, little attention has been paid to this unique literary tradition preserved in Daoist scriptures.3 The motif of celestial excursions was already a marked feature in pre-Han literature, and such is the provenance of the "Lisao." Of the two features David Hawkes sees as characterizing these works, Daoist literature shares similarity with the erotic theme, that is, the quest for some goddess as a "mate," although their purposes are quite different. But Hawkes' second feature-the failure in such a quest in "Lisao"-is presented in Daoist literature as an achievement. This achievement is first seen in the "Far-off Journey" ("Yuanyou" ), which has recently been read as an early Daoist poem by Paul W. Kroll.4 Ironically, as this piece became exoteric and was collected in the Chuci , its esoteric Daoist references were overshadowed.5 The Han dynasty saw the zenith of the celestial flight motif, which was carried on in Wei-Jin literature.6 No one knows exactly when this motif bifurcated into the two separate tracks of literature and religion. Early evidence of the latter is found in the Scripture of the Yellow Court (Huangting jing ), a product of the second or third century. 7 In this scripture, which was probably retrospectively adopted as a Shangqing (Highest Purity) classic of the "salvation religion," attention is given to how one may attain eternal life by "producing the immortal body."8 Read from a literary perspective, the descriptive parts of the meditative flight in this scripture, as well as in other works in the Shangqing textual circle,9 contribute significantly to conjuring up another, different, world beyond the mortal realm. This world has a binary identity, because this universe in miniature is inside one's body.10 In the present study, I take this literary perspective in reading selected texts and in exploring various connotations of the term "jade flower." The image of "jade flower" appears passim in early Daoist scriptures dating from the Wei-Jin and Southern Dynasties periods. The meaning of "jade flower" varies in different contexts. Despite such variations and some undecipherable cryptographs in the texts, the meanings and features of "jade flower" can still be distinctly observed in this literaryreligious exegetic exercise.

    Original languageEnglish
    Title of host publicationInterpretation And Literature In Early Medieval China
    EditorsAlan K. L. Chan, Yuet-Keung Lo
    PublisherState University of New York Press
    Number of pages24
    ISBN (Electronic)9781441668394
    ISBN (Print)9781438432175, 9781438432182
    Publication statusPublished - Jul 2010

    Publication series

    NameSUNY series in Chinese Philosophy and Culture
    PublisherState University of New York Press

    Scopus Subject Areas

    • Arts and Humanities(all)


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