Demonic Warfare: Daoism, Territorial Networks, and the History of a Ming Novel. By Mark R. E. Meulenbeld. Honolulu: University of Hawai'i Press, 2015. Pp. vii + 273. $57.
Western approaches to the novel largely engage with modernity as it is embodied in the vernacular language the novel employs, in the adventures of small characters in the bourgeois age, and in the nation-state conceived in the novel. As Benedict Anderson noted, "the movement of a solitary hero [in the novel] through a sociological landscape of a fixity" is "clearly bounded" (Imagined Communities: Reflections on the Origin and Spread of Nationalism [London: Verso, 2006], 30). Nonetheless, how to discuss "imagined communities" in the premodern Chinese novel, a literary genre that had long existed before modernity, before the European rise of the novel? The empires as imagined are virtually boundless, reaching "all under Heaven." Which specific aspects of the civilization and sovereignty are drawn into the various novels' imagination of the empire? In what circumstances are such novels written, published, and received? How can nationalistic or patriotic sentiments be expressed in novels as such? In his ambitious study of the history, nature, and structure of the late Ming novel Canonization of the Gods (Fengshen yanyi), Mark Meulenbeld offers an outstanding new model for literary studies to explore the sociological, theological, and ideological space within and beyond the premodern Chinese "novel." He comes to terms with new methods and theories of late imperial/early modern Chinese literature as an interdisciplinary field.
Deconstructing the categories of "novel," "religion," and "theatre" as modern and Western concepts, Meulenbeld shows us that the Chinese novel is in fact constructed by and embedded in a larger cultural discourse of Daoist rituals. "Daoist rituals, theatre, and the novel" are "the intertwined elements of a single cultural complex" (p. 3). Arguing that the "interrelatedness of gods" in hagiographies or fiction embodies the relationships between "temples, rituals, and novels" (p. 20), Meulenbeld notes that Canonization "reflects the exorcistic strategy of enlisting locally autonomous forces into a pantheon with transregional or even national appeal" (p. 9). This "grand narrative" of Canonization "draws on the collective memory of China's imperial history" and "relates local traditions to the imagined community of a Chinese empire" (p. 9). He goes further to argue that "the very possibility of reenacting the efficacy of certain gods is exactly what the narrative of Canonization conveys and exemplifies" (p. 3).
In the opening chapter, Meulenbeld positions himself as a revisionist of modern literary scholarship, which has tended to ignore the "world of folklore and popular religious tradition" (p. 55). Such ignorance suppressed the study of Canonization and the study of the novel's ecological system--religion and ritual. He highlights...