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8th November, 2017

Laozi Leading Confucius to Salvation: Tracing the History of a Lost Text

Presenter: Dr Imre Galambos, Reader in Chinese Studies, Faculty of Asian & Middle Eastern Studies, University of Cambridge

In “Case files from the Qing court’s investigation of secret societies” (《清廷查办秘密社会案》), there exists an account of a sectarian movement leader known as Wang Bingheng, and his propagation of the Red Sun Teachings in the Jiangnan region during the early 19th century. After Wang’s capture, Qing authorities discovered that he had two precious scrolls in his possession. These scrolls, entitled “Laozi Saves Confucius” (《老子度孔子》) and “Confucius Bridging the Divide” (《孔子度元关》), purported to be the teachings of Laozi, and were used by millenarian sects for recitation. However, little is known about their origin. In his lecture, Dr Imre Galambos provided an analysis of the possible sources of the texts, using both their titles and the common thematic elements within them to trace their histories back almost a thousand years.

Dr Galambos successively identified various versions of the texts as precursors to those that appeared in the Qing and Republican periods, including testimonies of 18th-century scholars and a 16th-century text entitled “Record of the Elderly Lord at the Apricot Platform” (《老君杏坛记》). As Dr Galambos explained, while the titles of the texts differ, certain thematic elements remain constant: Confucius descends into the world, encounters a sage while travelling with a disciple, and becomes a pupil of this sage, now called Laozi. These elements allow the texts to be traced as far back as the year 1122, to a Tangut text (itself a translation from Chinese) bearing the name “Record of the Master at the Apricot Platform” (《夫子杏坛记》).

A number of questions during the post-lecture discussion centered around the temporal relevance of the texts, including the possible reasons why they tended to appear in times of increased sectarian activity. Other questions related to the purpose of the Tangut-language texts, and whether or not they were also associated with heterodoxy, as well as more general questions about Tangut, including the types of texts that were generally translated into the language. According to Dr Galambos, the vast majority of Chinese-language texts translated into Tangut were Buddhist, making Confucian Tangut-language texts such as “Record of the Master at the Apricot Platform” quite rare.

Blogpost by Michelle  Eastman