This article maps out a sphere of ritual practice that recognizably serves as a framework for the famous Ming dynasty (1368–1644) vernacular narrative Water Margin
(水滸傳 Shuihu zhuan
). By establishing a set of primary referents that are ritual in nature, I question the habit of applying the modern category of “literary fiction” in a universalizing, secular way, marginalizing or metaphorizing Daoist elements. I argue that literary analysis can only be fruitful if it is done within the parameters of ritual. Although I tie the story’s ritual framework to specific Daoist procedures for imprisoning demonic spirits throughout the article, my initial focus is on a genre of revelatory writing known as “celestial script” (天書 tianshu
). This type of script is given much attention at important moments in the story and it is simultaneously known from Daoist ritual texts. I show a firm link between Water Margin
and the uses of “celestial script” by presenting a nineteenth century Daoist ordination manual that contains “celestial script” for each of Water Margin
’s 108 heroic protagonists.
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