Secret Scroll: The Production of Occult Knowledge in China’s Age of Print

Secret Scroll: The Production of Occult Knowledge in China’s Age of Print
This dissertation studies the paradoxical relationship between print culture and occult knowledge production in China’s age of print, i.e., the epoch between the Chinese commercial print boom in the late sixteenth century and the coming of a multimedia age in the early twentieth century. While in print culture studies it has become a commonplace that print helps disseminate knowledge and creates a reading public, this dissertation asks: what happens when a book about occult knowledge is printed and brought to market for popular consumption? To what extent does this book still bear any of the “secrecy” that it claims? This question arises from the discovery of a vast network of books known as “secret scrolls” (miji 秘笈) that were produced in this age of print. They include magic kung-fu guides, sectarian scriptures, secret society manuals, notes from séances, spirit photography, and Mesmerism how-to books. Delving into the textual and intertextual histories of these materials, as well as various literary works and social discourses that engaged with the “secret scroll” as a cultural trope, this dissertation conceptualizes the paradox of secrecy in an age of print. It argues that the secrecy of a “secret scroll” is established precisely because it is revealed and multiplied by way of a new public constituted by print culture.
This dissertation has five chapters, each focused on a single or a cluster of secret scrolls about a particular form of occult knowledge. The chapters are all related, in different ways, to the late Qing novel The Travels of Lao Can authored by Liu E 劉鶚 (1857¬–1909), which this dissertation reads not only as a secret scroll par excellence, but also as a theory of how to read secret scrolls and approach occult knowledge. Each chapter, in addition to manifesting the “paradox of secrecy” that the dissertation conceptualizes, also attends to a particular aspect of occult knowledge production in its historical context. Chapter 1, “The Travels of Lao Can as Book of Prophecy,” concretizes how and why The Travels of Lao Can, a canonical novel in contemporary literary historiography, was received as a secret scroll, replete with prophetic knowledge, in its own historical time. Through the discovery of a “fake edition” which was in fact the best-selling edition of this novel in the early Republican era, this chapter highlights the marketing logic of the “secret scroll” and the role played by the profit-seeking publishers. Chapter 2, “Restoring the Taigu Genealogy” provides a new narrative of the relationship between Liu E, The Travels of Lao Can, and the so-called “lost scrolls” of the “Taigu school,” an esoteric and “heretical” teaching originating in the eighteenth century with which Liu E was associated. Analyzing a dispute regarding whether the school’s “lost scrolls” should be published in printed form or kept secret as manuscripts, this chapter underlines the tension between manuscript culture and print culture. Chapter 3, “Transforming the Body, Transforming the Book” focuses on the Yijin jing 易筋經 (Sinew Transformation Classic), the most famous kung-fu secret scroll in postwar martial arts popular culture. Examining dozens of editions of the book produced throughout the age of print, this chapter argues that the Yijin jing is not a singular or bounded book, but is instead comprised of a network of numerous actors, including both things and human agents, that is in constant making, remaking, and reconfiguration. Chapter 4, “Rivers and Lakes” reads “Chinese martial arts fiction” born in the early twentieth century not as a self-conscious literary genre, but as a new manifestation of secret scrolls about the mysterious world known as jianghu 江湖, or the “rivers and lakes.” The interplay between secret scrolls, literary works, and serialization as a mode of literary production is a key concern of this chapter. Chapter 5, “The Spiritual and the Global,” shifts from traditional Chinese occult traditions to the influence of Western occultism since the late nineteenth century. It focuses on how secret scrolls about Western occultism, most noticeably how-to manuals to Mesmerism, were disseminated and consumed by way of a global postal network, and how they fostered an “imagined global community,” which not only granted Chinese readers access to the spiritual world, but also invited them to imagine their positions in the modern global order in a new way.


Xiangjun Feng

Defended in

1 Jan 2021 – 31 Dec 2021

PhD defended at

University of California, Berkeley




East Asia


Art and Culture