the Adventures of the Mad Monk Ji Gong.  Trans. by John Roberts Shaw.
the Adventures of the Mad Monk Ji Gong. Trans. by John Roberts Shaw.

Guo Xioting. Trans. John Robert Shaw. Adventures of the Mad Monk Ji Gong. Rutland VT: Tuttle. 2014. 542 Pages.

Introduction: Meeting Crazy Ji

Inscription on the Sarira Relics of the Recluse from the Lake, Elder Fangyuan (Square-Circle), Jidian (Crazy Ji)


The elder was from Tiantai County in Linhai prefecture [in modern Zhejiang]. He was a descendent of Commandant Li Wenhe. He was ordained at the Lingyin Monestary by the Chan Master Fohai. He was wild and carefree yet upright and pure. He would not soften his critiques which on the whole were not in line with accepted norms. His achievements were in many respects outstanding. He had the same exquisite poetry skills as the famous monks of the Jin [265-420] and the [Liu] Song [420-70] periods.

He wandered over half the land, for four decades he was a disillusioned vagabond. On Mount Tiantai and Mount Yandang [both in Zhejiang], he adorned the walls of secluded huts and hidden cloisters with exquisitely elegant writings. Hot or cold, he never had a whole garment to his body; whenever one was donated to him, he would immediately use it to pay the waiter in the wine shop. His bed and meals were never regularly provided. He devotedly prepared medicines for old and sick monks. Yet when it came to visiting powerful households, he would not go if they tried to compel him for no good reason.
The elder’s name was Daoji. He was called Huyin (The Recluse from the Lake) and Elder Fangyuan (Square-Circle). All these names were given to him by his contemporaries. He passed away at the Jingci Monastery on the fourteenth day of the fifth month, the second year of Jiading period [June 17th, 1209]. The local people sorted his sarira remains and stored them below the Twin Peaks.

Translation provided in Meir Shahr, Crazy Ji: Chinese Religion and Popular Culture. Harvard, 1998. pp. 24-25.

This is an excerpt from a short obituary written for the recluse and monk Daoji (ca. 1130 – 1209 CE). While valuable as the only contemporary account of Daoji’s life, it only hints at the great popularity that he would latter attain as a hero of both popular religion and culture. Indeed, while this description is not totally unkind to the memory of Daoji, and the author appreciated his great literary skills, it is clear that the historic figure by this name was not appreciated by the monastic communities of the day. Note that it was ultimately the laity who sorted Daoji’s remains and began to venerate the Recluse of West Lake as both a “Crazy Saint” and a healer of the various ills afflicting the common people.

Today there is a vast body of popular and religious writings on “Crazy Ji.” Somewhat begrudgingly Daoji was posthumously adopted into the cannon of Chan saints due in large part to overwhelming public pressure. This has granted him a degree of institutional legitimacy in death that he never enjoyed in life. Much of the more devotional literature surrounding Daoji attempts to recast him as a fierce critic of hypocrites who, nevertheless, supported the fundamental spiritual norms of monastic Buddhism.

Yet such literature has never been the venerable hermit’s true home. “Crazy Ji,” as he exists in the popular imagination today, probably bears little resemblance to his 12th century incarnation. Instead he is the product of both local oral traditions and more widely disseminated printed novels which have successively remembered the hermit as a clown, a living Buddha, a master magician and even as the leader of a band of martial artists living along the “Rivers and Lakes” of China’s wuxia literary tradition.

The immense literature purporting to tell the stories of the Crazy Ji bears testimony to his popularity within both Chinese popular literature and religion. The memory of the Hermit of Westlake has never really constituted a single tradition. Instead he has been continually re-imagined by many authors in various times and locations to meet the needs of specific communities.

Most of these efforts begin by mapping the received memory of Daoji onto China’s long and colorful history of “Crazy Saints.” Such individuals could arise from the popular, Daoist or Buddhist traditions, and their eccentric behavior was often seen as both a cause and a sign of their immense spiritual power. Of course this same archetype has manifest itself within the martial arts genera where eccentric teachers with their sadistically incomprehensible training methods are imagined as the key to true martial attainment.

Statue with Sword and Wine Gourd.  Another figure in China's long tradition of eccentric warrior-sages.  Source: Vintage German Postcard.
Statue with Sword and Wine Gourd. Another figure in China’s long tradition of eccentric warrior-sages. Source: Vintage German Postcard.

Crazy Ji and the Martial Arts Tradition

It was with this pattern in mind that I first sat down to read John Robert Shaw’s recent translation of a classic novel titled Adventures of the Mad Monk Ji Gong (Tuttle 2014). How was it that an obscure Buddhist hermit living in the 12th century could go on to be remembered as a folk hero, popular religious figure and even martial arts gang leader who literally dominated much of the Republic of China’s national popular culture? Story tellers, puppeteers, opera troops, newspapers, novelists, and later TV and film producers all helped to promote and transform the memory of what had once been a strictly local religious figure (albeit one with an enthusiastic popular following) into a national symbol.

The story of this transformation was the subject of Prof. Meir Shahar’s first book, Crazy Ji: Chinese Religion and Popular Literate (Harvard University Asia Center, 1998). Anyone interested in delving more deeply into the world of Crazy Ji would be well advised to work their way through this volume first.

Shahar’s work masterfully demonstrates how the current image of Daoji is the product of the repeated interaction of China’s local oral cultures (including professional storytellers), refracted through the lens of published novels. These nationally distributed volumes then inspire yet another round of local vernacular storytelling, which in turn spawned new and different novels. While scholars had suspected that this mechanism was at work in the evolution of other themes in Chinese popular culture, we can actually watch the entire process unfold in the case of Crazy Ji.

Shahar examines the literary record to demonstrate that popular traditions about Daoji coalesced in the Zhejiang area which inspired an initial group of printed novels. While the oral tradition was restricted to the geographic area dominated by a single spoken dialect, the printed word was free to circulate.  The idea of Daoji made its way to Beijing where he was re-imagined by that city’s professional storytellers in the 19th century.

Different types of storytelling were popular in northern China at that moment in history introducing the issue of genera. Given the trauma of the Taiping Rebellion, the rise of banditry in the countryside, the spread of militias and private security companies and the increased popularity of martial arts training (both as a practical and culturally coded behavior) we should not be surprised to learn that the 19th century saw a sudden increase in the popularity of martial arts stories.

When “Crazy Ji” was reborn into the world of northern storytellers, he emerged not just as a monk but as a leader of a brotherhood of trusted warriors, martial artists and bandits devoted to righting the wrongs that afflicted the common people. As a “living Buddha” Crazy Ji could use his powers of clairvoyance to predict the exact time and nature of crimes that were about to occur, sending his men out to deal with them in an appropriate manner. When the drama became too dire for mere martial artists to handle Crazy Ji would step in either by providing magical weapons and charms, or using his own divine powers to personally defeat rogue Daoist wizards (usually engaged in the much feared practice of soul stealing) or the monstrous animal/god hybrids that stalked the imaginary landscapes of this popular literary world.

These tales proved to be an immense commercial success for popular storytellers.  Individuals with marginal literacy skills even began to rent transcripts of Crazy Ji’s various drum-songs (some of which were hundreds of volumes long). Eventually this new vision of Daoji was codified in a novel (referred to by Shahar as the Storyteller’s Jigong.)

This immensely popular work was published in two halves. The first of these came out in 1898 by the supposed author “Guo Xiaoting” (probably a pseudonym for the novelist Guo Guangrui). The second half of the book was published in Beijing in 1900, just as the city entered the throws of the Boxer Uprising.

No copies of this initial edition exist, but it must have been a great success. By 1906 other editions of the novel (combining the two books into a single volume) were in print and by 1926 (the height of the Jingwu era) no fewer than 38 sequels had been published by various printers.

These spread the story of Crazy Ji throughout the country where his tales eventually took hold in local vernacular opera performance, storytelling and religious traditions. Of course this Jigong was much indebted to the martial arts inspired imagination of Beijing’s professional storytellers, and bore little resemblance to his much humbler origins in Zhejiang.

Another image of Ji Gong.  Note his characteristic fan and drinking gourd.
Another image of Ji Gong. Note his characteristic fan and drinking gourd.

The Adventures of the Mad Monk Ji Gong
All of this brings us back to John Robert Shaw’s work. Tuttle has done a great service in publishing this particular volume. But given the immense size of the Daoji literature, what exactly can readers expect?

The textual history of this work is complex and not entirely clear. I have noticed that other on-line reviewers have treated this work as a complete collection of the “Dharma Wisdom” of the “Chan Monk Crazy Ji.” The book’s subtitle (“the Drunken Wisdom of China’s Famous Chan Buddhist Monk”) even plays into this view. China and Japan’s more iconoclastic religious figures (especially those connected with the Chan or Zen tradition) seem to be enjoying a moment of renewed popularity in the West.

It is understandable that an audience that is primarily interested in Daoji as a religious figure might approach this work in this way. Nevertheless, such a view fundamentally misunderstands the nature of this volume in at least two ways.

To begin with, this work is actually a partial translation the Storyteller’s Jigong which Shahar previously introduced to us. Rather than being a collection of religious traditions on Daoji, it is a single late 19th century novel.

Beyond that it becomes increasingly difficult to say anything about the textual origins of Shaw’s project. Lacking any sort of specific discussion or scholarly apparatus it is actually very difficult to say what exactly this book is a translation of. Recall that Shahar mentioned that the original 1898 edition of this novel is no longer extent. It is only available to readers in a number of subsequent editions (all of which date to well after the Boxer Uprising).

This is critical as it was not uncommon for firms in the highly competitive pulp novel market to alter novels (sometimes in fundamental ways) in order to increase sales. As such it would be very helpful to know which specific edition of this book Shaw translated, and how that edition related to the overall evolution of the Crazy Ji genera. Unfortunately that information is never provided.

What we do know is that John Robert Shaw first encountered the Storytellers Jigong while stationed with the US military in Beijing in the mid-1930s. While there he developed an interest in the Chinese language and discovered that he had a good ear for the various dialects that dominated the city’s many itinerant occupations. One suspects that this may have been one of the things that actually attracted Shaw to Crazy Ji in the first place.

The original Chinese author of this book seems to have shared Shaw’s deep linguistic interest in the various professional dialects that colored life among Beijing’s working class markets and neighborhoods at the turn of the century. He quite consciously fills his story with vernacular verbiage to add color to his scenes of bustling urban life. He brags in places of revealing the secret language of martial artists and bandits to his readers. While the Storyteller’s Jigong claims to be set in 12th century Zhejiang, it is actually a loving homage to the vibrant tea houses, temples, markets and inns that dominated Beijing’s seedier neighborhoods at the turn of the 20th century.

At some point in his career Shaw (who later received language training at Georgetown and worked as a teacher), decided to translate the first half of this book. We know from other copies that the entire work (as it existed in 1906) had no less than 240 chapters. The Tuttle edition includes only 89 of these, all drawn from the first half of the work. Presumably this corresponds to the material that was published in the now lost 1898 edition.

It would appear that Shaw’s edition of the Storyteller’s Jigong is a partial translation of the first half of a copy of the book that he bought from a Beijing vendor during the 1930s. How this actually relates to the 1906 edition (let alone the original 1898 printing) requires additional investigation.

Setting these textual question’s aside, Shaw’s translation has much to recommend it. It does a masterful job of conveying the lively and fast-paced nature of the original work. It is not hard to feel the rhythm of the public drum-song performances that rested behind Guo Xiaoting’s novel. The vivid world of Crazy Ji, dominated by heroes, long suffering citizens, corrupt officials and the occasional Daoist wizard, shines through with clarity.

The translators of this volume also appear to have augmented their text with helpful asides to assist their readers in navigating what may be the unfamiliar back alleys and winding lanes of China’s wuxia literature. I noticed at one point that when discussing the payment of a bill at a tavern the text began to explain the nature of Chinese coins (e.g., that they have a hole in the center) and how they could be strung together to make “strings of cash.” One very much suspects that such asides are later additions as it is unlikely that Guo’s original readers would have needed an introductory discussion of how their currency system worked.

While such notes will likely expand the general appeal of this work, academic readers will notice that they are not demarcated with brackets or otherwise set off from the main body of the text. The end result is that it can be difficult to distinguish whose voice (the author’s or the translator/narrator’s) one is hearing at any specific moment. This lack of transparency may actually have a substantive impact on how the novel is read.

At a few points the text digresses into detailed discussions of monastic life or the esoteric history of Vedic deities that have been adopted into Chinese Buddhist art. This tends to nudge the story in a rather Buddhist direction, which of course meets the expectations of many of its modern western readers. Yet Shahar’s extensive study of this same novel notes that it was remarkable for actually containing almost no Buddhist content or religious detail.

The author of the drum-songs that the novel was based on obviously had little interest in, or background familiarity with, these subjects. The end result was that the Storyteller’s Jigong strongly reflects a neo-Confucian world view rather than a Buddhist one.

While Jigong is ostensibly shown as a Buddhist monk, in reality he has been transformed into the star of a strictly Confucian story. Indeed, even though the author claims that Crazy Ji is the “living incarnation of Buddha,” his work remains so deeply steeped in the folk-Confucian ideology of the family that he does not even allow his protagonist to aspire to the life of a monk.

There has always been a certain tension between the celibacy required of Buddhist monks and the Confucian demands of filial piety through the continuation of the lineage. Rather than allowing Daoji to buck social convention on this point the author makes him a loyal son and Confucian student with no interest in Buddhism. His career aspirations are limited to passing the provincial civil service exams. It is only when the death of his parents forced him to miss these exams (due to his observance of the customary period of mourning) that he can be introduced to the idea of Buddhism without offending the moral sensibilities of his readers.

This brings us to the second way in which this book has been misread. Simply put, the Storyteller’s Jigong has very little to do with Chan, or Buddhism of any kind. To be understood it must be read as an example of China’s rich late 19th century tradition of martial arts novels. The “wisdom” that readers will find within its pages is that of wandering heroes, martial artists, security guards, bandits, smugglers, corrupt government officials and a divine clown.

These are precisely the sorts of characters that populate the imaginary world of the Storyteller’s Jigong. In this work Crazy Ji is re-imagined not primarily as a monk, but as a marketplace miracle worker who leads a motley assortment of martial artists and righteous bandits in a quest to put right the social wrongs inflicted on the common people.

Students of Chinese martial studies will want to closely study this novel. While current discussions of the martial arts tend to focus only on the formal styles that have come down to us today, Guo Xiaoting instead describes the working martial artists that actually inhabited China’s many marketplaces and temples at the end of the Qing Dynasty.

With the exception of a single individual who is a part time martial artist and fruit vendor, the heroes of the Storyteller’s Jigong make their living in one of three ways. Many of the characters identified in the text as “martial artists” work as security guards (employed by armed escort companies or as building watchmen). The rest make ends meet by “selling their skills” in the marketplaces, either through direct performance of martial feats or by hawking patent medicines.  Last come the “social bandits” that specialize in robbing the rich to feed both the poor and themselves.

Such individuals are usually scoffed at in current discussions of “real” martial arts history. Yet they were all a very real part of the 19th century social landscape, despite Republican era efforts to make the fighting arts more socially respectable by distancing them from these roots.

In contrast Guo delved into the details marketplace performance. He explored what role public speaking and storytelling played in the world of the working martial artists. He considered the frustrations awaiting those who tried to make a living as a security guard. What emerges from all of this is an unusually detailed picture of the world of the late 19th century’s marketplace martial artists, separate from later attempts to discount this aspect of the martial tradition.

One detail that caught Shahar’s attention was the discussion of weapons within the text. Aside from Jigong who fought with his magical powers (including long distance death-rays), most of the martial artists in these stories did not carry the elaborate sabers and pole arms described in earlier martial arts novels such as Water Margin. Instead these late 19th century urban martial artists are shown as favoring short swords of the type now referred to as “duandao.” Other heroes instead carried long knives that could be concealed in a boot.

This is interesting precisely because it seems to reflect an actual shift that was underway in the final decades of the late 19th century. Existing antique weapons seem to suggest that short swords became extremely popular at this point in time. In southern China this trend manifest itself in the rapid spread of the hudiedao as the de facto blade of choice for a number of martial arts systems. Both the descriptions within the pages of the Storyteller’s Jigong and the existing antique record demonstrate what the corresponding shift looked like within Beijing’s martial arts marketplace.

A modern votive statue of Ji Gong.  I love the updated look with the Sunglasses.
A modern votive statue of Ji Gong. I love the updated look with the Sunglasses.

Conclusion: The Place of Crazy Ji in Martial Arts Studies

John Robert Shaw’s translation of the Storyteller’s Jigong has much to recommend it. Academic students will certainly notice the lack of any sort of scholarly apparatus. At minimum it would be helpful to have more guidance as to which passages belonged to Guo versus the translator. Still, the end result is a fast paced and highly accessible book that does a good job recreating the world of Beijing’s late 19th century markets with their tea houses, storytellers and working martial artists.

Victoria Cass, a respected scholar on popular culture in late imperial China has contributed a short introduction to this volume that must be considered one of its highlights. Rather than revisiting the same ground already covered by Shahar, she instead provides further information on the social environment that shaped this book.

Of particular interest is her discussion of the official distrust of popular novels during the late Qing period and the perils of the all-pervasive censorship system. Her essay is well worth studying, and if nothing else it will provide more casual readers with a vivid explanation of why most popular novels during this period were published anonymously! Cass’ previous scholarship in her study Dangerous Women may also be quite helpful for anyone attempting to understand China’s rich tradition of “Crazy Saints” and how they often became connected with issues such as heterodoxy, rebellion and the martial arts.

Beyond offering us an unexpected and vivid description of the world of Northern China’s late 19th century martial artists, the Storyteller’s Jigong (and its treatment by both Cass and Shahar) raises two additional theoretical issues that will be of interest to students of Chinese martial studies. First is the question of the social and political place of the martial arts novel raised most forcefully by Petrus Liu in his book Stateless Subjects. When dealing with Republic period attacks on martial arts fiction by May 4th intellectuals, Liu claims that their critiques of these works are both without substance and politically motivated.

Literary reformers routinely characterized martial arts fiction as being crude and appealing only to semi-literate individuals who were overly enamored of romantic notions of a return to a feudal past. Liu responded by pointing out that many of these novels were actually very sophisticated and were written in classical Chinese which was only accessible to the most educated readers. As one might expect, during the Qing dynasty the typical audience of these books was actually highly literate, and during the Republic period they were used to convey a sophisticated and blistering attack on the vision of social modernization and state-led nationalism being supported by the May 4th intellectuals.

Liu’s argument strikes me as very interesting and fundamentally correct on a certain level. However, as Shahar’s treatment of the Crazy Ji literature makes abundantly clear, not all Wuxia novels rose to the same level of sophistication. This novel really was written in the vernacular for a poorly educated audience. The drum-song manuscripts that it was based on were actually the product of semi-illiterate scribes and were rented to a similar audience. While these individuals could technically read, they did so by treating Chinese characters as phonetic elements. As such more advanced historical, religious, political or even wuxia works would have been beyond the literary grasp of these individuals.

In short, the Storyteller’s Jigong appears to be a good example of the sort of thing that the May 4th Reformers were so disturbed by. One suspects that works like this also had a vastly larger audience than the more sophisticated novels discussed by Liu. In that sense a greater awareness of the truly popular literature on the martial arts will help to frame his argument within more meaningful parameters.

Still, it would be a mistake to assume that political philosophy is the sole property of the educated elite. Many of the same critiques that are employed in the works discussed by Liu also seem to be raised in the Crazy Ji literature. A closer examination of this fact in the future may allow for a much richer understanding of both the origins and full social depth of these popular critiques of the elite led modernization model.

The second question raised by both Cass and Shahar has to do with the timing of this work. On the one hand the Storyteller’s Jigong is the culmination of an oral tradition that dates back to before the 1850s and is clearly shaped by the evolution of Northern China’s late 19th century martial arts novels. Still, one cannot help but notice that the first half of this book was published in 1898, just as the fires of the Boxer Uprising were being sparked in neighboring Shandong Province. Even more tellingly, the second volume is published in 1900 as China’s capital is consumed with conflict and occupied by foreign forces.

This is precisely what makes Shaw’s translation of the Storyteller’s Jigong an essential book for students of Chinese martial studies. This text is remarkable precisely because it provides us with a detailed exploration of popular views on martial arts, magic (including multiple discussions of the Armor of the Golden Bell) and social justice at exactly the moment that these forces came to the fore. This novel marks the moment of a violent rupture between China’s traditional past and its emerging future. It is hard to think of any other work that speaks so directly to this unique constellation of issues at the popular level at exactly this point in time.

Both Cass and Shahar direct the reader’s attention to questions of timing when discussing the text, yet they offer fewer clues as to how this quickly evolving social situation may have shaped the later stages of the evolution of the Crazy Ji tradition, or the reception of this novel by its readers. If nothing else, the fires of the Boxer Uprising and the active suppression of martial arts culture which followed could explain why there are no extent copies of the 1898/1900 edition of this book. The first surviving volumes date to the 1906 edition.

When discussing weaponry Shahar does offer a few hints as to how the process of imperialism and the early stages of the Boxer Uprising may have affected the story. He notes that Jigong’s use of the “heavenly fires of enlightenment” (basically a death-ray) to consume opponents from a distance is a break with the normal pattern of combat seen in other forms of martial arts storytelling. He suggests that this new interest in remote combat may be a result of recent contact with advanced western weapons such as rifles or field artillery.

While suggestive this reading seems strained to me. Cannons were not a new element of the Chinese battlefield or in its literature. They were even featured in the classic novel Water Margin. It is also interesting to remember that the traditional Chinese bow had a faster rate of fire and a greater killing range than the muskets that were the mainstay of the Taiping Rebellion, the conflict most proximate to the composition of the Jigong drum-song tradition. While their efficiency had improved, ranged weapons were not fundamentally an innovation on the Chinese battlefield.

I suspect that one might instead find shadows of the Boxer Uprising in Jigong’s battle magic and the ways in which it was used to augment the fortunes of his retinue of martial artists. Some of this was actually quite typical of the period, including the use of historically known charms and rituals to grant invulnerability. Indeed, these same magical techniques would reemerge with Northern China’s Red Spear movement in the 1920s.

More suggestive still are the demonic monsters that Jigong is called upon to fight throughout the complete version of the novel (including its later chapters). While imperialism does not make a direct appearance in this novel, Crazy Ji’s China is a land that is set upon by demonic forces from without and divided by corrupt and greedy officials from within. One suspects that this is a landscape that many of Beijing’s residents in 1850 and 1890s would have found very familiar.

Did these same readers see in Jigong a model for cultural salvation? In an era when the traditional order was failing, one possible reading of Crazy Ji’s antics might be that he argued for the possibility of selectively abandoning certain aspects of traditional behavior and social identity without losing the essence of Chinese culture which would ensure one’s eventual victory through “superior virtue.”

Indeed, Douglas Wile has identified a very similar mechanism at work in the composition and dissemination of the Taiji Classics during the 1880s.  The move away from a traditional view of martial heroism towards the veneration of a “crazy saint” in the Jigong wuxia cycle might indicate a conceptually similar move happening at the more popular level at roughly the same time.

The Storyteller’s Jigong provides students of martial arts studies with a unique opportunity. It is a rich and under-examined source of data focusing on the lives and environment of China’s many marketplace martial artists in the late Qing. At the same time it provides us with an invaluable glimpse into popular beliefs about the martial arts, magic and social justice on the eve of the Boxer Uprising. At the same time it raises critical theoretical questions about the nature of the social critique within China’s popular martial arts literature, as well as the social forces shaping its civilian fighting systems during the final years of the Qing dynasty.

For all of these reasons the Storyteller’s Jigong, as well as Shahar’s and Cass’ discussion of this work, should play a greater role in the field’s examination Chinese popular culture. The enduring value of John Robert Shaw’s translation is to make this critical text available, for the first time, to a large western audience so that this discussion can begin to move forward. It is my prediction that Crazy Ji has only just begun his own journey to the West.


If you enjoyed this you might also want to read:  The Soldier, the Marketplace Boxer and the Recluse: Mapping the Social Location of the Martial Arts in Late Imperial China.