7 Explaining the Extraordinary and the Creation of Fiction

Julian Goldman-Brown


This is still a topic historians and scholars of literature are still researching, and the sources I looked at make it clear that a lot of this is speculation because there are large gaps in the history that are still being filled in. When it comes to the piece on the Buddhists and their cracking of the “formula”, those were conclusions I drew on my own that were just clear to me upon examining the text.

On top of this I wasn’t able to look at all the sources I may have been able to otherwise due to Covid-19.

When studying early China you might find that there are many records of extraordinary events. Whether it be people returning from the dead, dealings with monsters, magic, or something else entirely there are an abundance of these stories. This might be a bit of a surprise considering Confucius and Confucian scholars didn’t like to discuss these anomalies, yet this didn’t stop them from recording these weird events, which emphasizes that they felt these events were important[1]. So why were these events recorded? On one level people simply found them interesting. This shouldn’t come as a surprise considering humankind has always been fascinated with the extraordinary; however, this is not to say they were treated like fiction. The people recording these strange occurrences, called “zhiguai authors” saw it as their duty to report these event because they were essential to governance.[2] Many people believed that these accounts of anomalies foreshadowed calamities befalling the current dynasty, and therefore sought to determine the meaning behind them so such events might be prevented.[3] The zhiguai authors viewed their work as trying to make sense of the unseen world, and they never had the intention of creating a fictional world, nor did they have a message they were trying to convince those reading the reports; however, after the end of the Han dynasty (206 BCE–220 CE) this would all change.[4]

The change began when events started being compiled. The people compiling these odd circumstances often had their own reasons for compiling these events. Some would search for experiences similar to something they or someone they knew had experienced. Others would compile records that they sought to use to prove a point.[5] The Buddhists were among the latter. They recognized that people found these events entertaining and fascinating, and they realized that they could draw connections between certain records that would highlight their beliefs. Later on they had yet another realization. They discovered that the recordings had a formula.

An example of this is a record that talks about a man named Wang Xu. It talks about how several years after he died his wife and children were having a difficult time finding clothes and food. His form appeared in front of his wife and he asked if she and the children had enough food and clothes. After this his wife set out some wine for him, they said farewell, and then he told her that if he could get anything of value he would leave it for her. A month later their daughter found a pair of gold rings.[6] The story just simply ends there. Another example is one about a man named Song Jin and another named Sun. Song Jin was known to be quite skilled at interpreting dreams. Sun came to Song Jin and told him that he had a dream where two fenghuang birds, similar to phoenixes,  sat on his fists. He wanted to know what it meant. Song Jin told him that this meant that someone would have a funeral, and shortly after Sun’s mother died.[7] Now what do these have in common? They both begin routed in reality, and then go on to discuss the strange occurrence. The Buddhists saw  this formula, which led them to write their own stories involving strange occurrences that promoted Buddhism instead of having to draw connections that were often slim. Fiction was born.

Aside from being fabrications the Buddhist stories differed slightly from the records. An example is the story of Shi Senqun. It starts by saying that in the An district near the Luo river there’s a mountain called Mount Huo and atop the mountain there’s a spring that is always full. It goes on to talk about a monk who lived there, named Shi Senqun. He would drink from this spring and never felt hungry, and therefore just stopped eating food. The governor of An district, Tao Kui, heard about Senqun and wanted some of the water. Senqun sent him water, but whenever the water left the mountain it became sour, so Tao decided to climb the mountain to get to the spring; however, when he tried it started to storm. This happened three times, and he never made it to the top. Now if this were a recorded story it would likely end around here, but the Buddhists tweaked the formula. The story continues and it’s revealed that Senqun had to cross a river by walking over a log to get to the spring. One day he found his path blocked by a duck. He thought about using his staff to move the duck, but he decided not to because he was worried about causing it to fall and die. He ultimately starved, but before he died he told those near him that when he was younger he hit a duck’s wing, and he now wondered whether this was karma.[8] The Buddhists would write these stories that were quite similar to the records, but they would add an extra component at the end that showcased Buddhist teachings in an attempt to gain more followers.


Campany, Robert Ford. A Garden of Marvels: Tales of Wonder from Early Medieval China. Honolulu: University of Hawaiʻi Press, 2015. https://www.degruyter.com/doi/book/10.21313/9780824853518.

Campany, Robert Ford, and Yan Wang (active fifth century). Signs from the Unseen Realm: Buddhist Miracle Tales from Early Medieval China. Classics in East Asian Buddhism. Honolulu: University of Hawaiʻi Press, 2012. https://www.degruyter.com/doi/book/10.21313/9780824865719.

  1. Robert Ford Campany, A Garden of Marvels: Tales of Wonder from Early Medieval China (Honolulu: University of Hawaiʻi Press, 2015), xxii
  2. Campany, A Garden of Marvels, xxiii
  3. Campany, A Garden of Marvels, xxiii-xxiv
  4. Campany, A Garden of Marvels, xxv.
  5. Campany, A Garden of Marvels, xxvii.
  6. Campany, A Garden of Marvels, 3
  7. Campany, A Garden of Marvels, 8
  8. Robert Ford Campany and Yan active 5th century Wang, Signs from the Unseen Realm: Buddhist Miracle Tales from Early Medieval China, Classics in East Asian Buddhism (Honolulu: University of Hawaiʻi Press, 2012), 86-87.


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