In 648 CE, Tang imperial authorities collected every copy of the Writ of the Three Sovereigns (Sanhuang wen) from the four corners of the empire and burned them. The formidable talismans at its core were said not only to extend their owners’ lifespan and protect against misfortune, but also propel them to stratospheric heights of power, elevating them to the rank of high minister or even emperor. Only two or three centuries earlier, this controversial text was unknown in most of China with the exception of Jiangnan in the south, where it was regarded as essential local lore. In the span of a few generations, the Writ of the Three Sovereigns would become the cornerstone of one of the three basic corpora of the Daoist Canon, a pillar of Daoism—and a perceived threat to the state.
This study, the only book-length treatment of the Writ of the Three Sovereigns in any language, traces the text’s transition from local tradition to empire-wide institutional religion. The volume begins by painting the social and historical backdrop against which the scripture emerged in early fourth century Jiangnan before turning to its textual history. It reflects on the work’s centerpiece artifacts, the potent talismans in celestial script, as well as other elements of its heritage, namely alchemical elixirs and “true form” diagrams. During the fifth and sixth centuries, with Daoism coalescing into a formal organized religion, the Writ of the Three Sovereigns took on a symbolic role as a liturgical token of initiation while retaining its straightforward language of sovereignty and strong political overtones, which eventually led to its prohibition. The writ endured, however, and later experienced a revival as its influence spread as far as Japan. Despite its central role in the development of institutional Daoism, the Writ of the Three Sovereigns has remained an understudied topic in Chinese history. Its fragmentary textual record combined with the esoteric nature of its content have shrouded it in speculation. This volume provides a lucid reconstruction of the text’s hidden history and enigmatic practices while shedding light on its contributions to the religious landscape of medieval China.
“This is a substantial, satisfying work dedicated to exploring one of the main missing elements in our knowledge of the Daoist Canon in its original formulation. Following a meticulous account of the origins of Three Sovereigns literature, Dominic Steavu goes on to make the very valid point that talismans, elixirs, and charts—not generally considered part of the transmission of scriptures in modern scholarship—constituted a nonverbal medium central to this religious tradition. While many readers will derive benefit from this knowledge even if they themselves are not particularly concerned with medieval Daoism, specialists will be glad to see a gap in our knowledge of early Daoist scriptures filled in such a thoroughly professional manner.”
—T. H. Barrett, emeritus professor, SOAS China Institute
“This much-needed publication restores a missing chapter in the history of Daoism. The early medieval text tradition known as Writ of the Three Sovereigns (Sanhuang wen) represented a major filiation of southern Daoist esoteric practice. Although highly commended by Ge Hong (283–343), and canonized by Lu Xiujing (406–477), the popular Sanhuang talismans and associated ritual instruments suffered the vagaries of informal transmission and gradually fell into confusion. In the seventh century the corpus was banned as politically subversive. Dominic Steavu has performed the impressive feat of tracing and analyzing all the surviving fragments, allowing him to reconstitute the movement’s socio-historical origins and illustrate its essential methods, comprising alchemy, meditation, divination, and rituals of protection against evil.”
—Franciscus Verellen, professor in the history of Daoism,
Ecole francaise d’ Extreme-Orient
Dominic Steavu is associate professor of Chinese religions and Chinese Buddhism at the University of California, Santa Barbara.