On the Evolution of Baojuan Performances in Shanghai: A Development of Traditional Literature in the Modern City (1875–1915)


This article traces the history of baojuan (scroll recitation) performances in Shanghai in the period 1875–1915. Scroll recitation is a type of ritualized storytelling that originated in Buddhist preaching, but that also included secular subjects in the later period. This study demonstrates how a traditional performative art was integrated into the cultural environment of a developing cosmopolitan city at the end of the nineteenth century, and how it was transformed for the new demands of urban audiences in the early twentieth century. This study analyzes the process of secularization of scroll recitation through the growth of entertaining aspects of its contents and performance style in Shanghai. It makes use of newly discovered historical materials, including newspapers and periodicals of that period, which help to clarify many details of this art’s evolution in the modern city.

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  1. 1.

    For an introduction to baojuan, see Sawada Mizuho (1975), Overmyer (1999), Li Shiyu (2007), and Che Xilun (2009).

  2. 2.

    See also Berezkin (2017, 32).

  3. 3.

    On the modern performances of this text, see Berezkin (2017). It also can be called Baojuan of Guanyin; see the passages by Yuqian and Mao Xianglin quoted above.

  4. 4.

    Such pieces in this collection as the “Song of Eight Immortals” (Ba xian ge 八仙歌), “Chen Jiuxian Prays for the Son” (Chen Jiuxian qiu zi 陳九仙求子), “Encounter in the Nunnery” (Antang xiang hui庵堂相會), etc., judging from their contents, also can be related to scroll recitation (Hu Zude 1989, 195, 163, 157).

  5. 5.

    On Wutong and Shangfang mountain, see, e.g., (von Glahn 2004; Cai Limin 2014, 241–262; Yang Derui 2016).

  6. 6.

    In this connection, one should note that several famous performers of baojuan in Shanghai in the later period were not Shanghai natives, but came from the neighboring areas (see Sect. 3 below).

  7. 7.

    See also the similar poem about the Assembly of Seven Buddhas, which was written in an earlier period (ca. 1821–1850), Lei Mengshui, ed. (1997, vol. 2, 1042).

  8. 8.

    The metaphor of migrant birds is used for “fast livers.”

  9. 9.

    The aforementioned essay “The Confession of Pleasant Travels” was also included in this book: Ge Yuanju 2011, juan 3, 209–210.

  10. 10.

    See Goossaert (2002); for historical perspective, see also Rowe (2001, 94–98) and Goossaert (2006, 317–320).

  11. 11.

    On the discourse of “superstitions” and anti-religious campaigns in early twentieth-century China, see, e.g., Goossaert and Palmer (2011, 43–66), Nedostup (2009) and Katz (2014, 17–68).

  12. 12.

    Literally “Buddhist horses,” but more commonly called zhima 紙馬 (paper horses), devotional images to be burned after the ritual.

  13. 13.

    Compare with the earlier records: Yuqian (2010 [1876]), juan 7, 48a [436]; Mao Xianglin (1985, 140).

  14. 14.

    See, e.g., Overmyer (1985, 243–253), Johnson (1995, 59–69), Grant (1995), Tsuji (2007) and Her Yuncheng (2010).

  15. 15.

    For the English trans., see Chang (2005, 171–172, 185).

  16. 16.

    On Suzhou chantefable and its possible historical connections with scroll recitation, see Bender (2001, 2003).

  17. 17.

    Unlike some written narratives based on Suzhou chantefable, however, the baojuan texts of the nineteenth–early twentieth century apparently were not penned by female authors.

  18. 18.

    According to Yao Chi-on, we have reliable evidence on Yihuatang activities only since 1857 (Yao Chi-on 1999, 153–154), but its early history in general is not very clear; see also Liu (2009, 234–241).

  19. 19.

    In modern practices of baojuan performances, there is a special concluding text on the “benign [karmic] links” (Berezkin 2013, 186), which may be inferred here.

  20. 20.

    For the history of tanhuang drama in Shanghai, see Stock (2003, 38–58) and Zhu Hengfu (2008, 109–135).

  21. 21.

    On Huang Chujiu and the New World, see Zeng Hongyan (2015, 123–141); also McDaniel, Laura A. (2001, 487).

  22. 22.

    See also McDaniel (1997).

  23. 23.

    The special satirical drama developed in Shanghai in the same period, see Ling Meifang (2014).

  24. 24.

    On this text, see e.g., Overmyer 1985, 243–253; Grant 1995.

  25. 25.

    What dramatic genre it performed is not clear, but later records say that this troupe specialized in the “Yangzhou drama”.

  26. 26.

    For partial list of baojuan printed in Shanghai in Republican period, see Berezkin (2014, 180-185).

  27. 27.

    On language issues of Shanghai storytelling, see also McDaniel, Laura A. (2001, 493–498).


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This research was supported by a grant from the State Social Sciences Foundation of China: “Survey and Cross-Disciplinary Research on Folk-Beliefs-Related Arts of the Taihu Lake Region,” no. 17ZDA167 (本文为国家社会科学基金重大项目“太湖流域民间信仰类文艺资源的调查和跨学科研究” (批准号 17ZDA167) 阶段性成果之一). The author also expresses his gratitude to Yu Dingjun, Zhang Minwei, Hu Xiaochen, and Dou Heng for providing materials and assistance during fieldtrips, as well as to four anonymous reviewers for their suggestions and to Paula Roberts for fixing many language problems.

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Berezkin, R. On the Evolution of Baojuan Performances in Shanghai: A Development of Traditional Literature in the Modern City (1875–1915). Fudan J. Hum. Soc. Sci. 12, 649–670 (2019). https://doi.org/10.1007/s40647-019-00262-6

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  • Baojuan (precious scrolls)
  • Storytelling
  • Folklore
  • Vernacular literature
  • Shanghai entertainment culture