Precious scroll of the ten kings in the Suzhou area of China
With Changshu funerary storytelling as an example
This paper examines the connections to be found between the cult of the Ten Kings of the underworld and the practice of
baojuan storytelling (“telling scriptures,” or scroll recitation) in the Suzhou area of Jiangsu province. In some places, notably the city of Changshu, the stories devoted to the Ten Kings are recited during funerary services for the dead and are combined with the ritual actions aimed at salvation of the dead soul (i.e., with the object of obtaining a better form of rebirth for the deceased in the next life). These practices and related narratives have local specifics. They have been known since the 19th century, but rarely have been documented in historical sources. This paper is largely based on the results of the author’s fieldwork in several areas of Suzhou, where this storytelling has survived until the present, in addition to materials preserved in libraries. It focuses on discussion of the origins, special features, and religious affiliation of these funerary performances, taking the Changshu tradition as an example. The author also analyzes the meaning of this ritualized storytelling in comparison with funerary rites and performances in other areas of China and applies to it universal ritual theory. Funerary baojuan performances constitute a part of the complex “ritual event” that involves several groups of religious specialists and texts and rituals of different origins, and that has important social functions in the communities in which they are practiced.
Keywords: folk beliefs, storytelling, rituals, folklore, baojuan (precious scrolls), Chinese Buddhism