Xiaohuan Zhao – ‘Harmony in Diversity’: A Compartmentalist Approach to the Three Teachings in Mulianxi


Xiaohuan Zhao

University of Sydney

‘Harmony in Diversity’: A Compartmentalist Approach to the Three Teachings in Mulianxi

This paper has two subjects: the ‘unity of the Three Teachings’(sanjiao heyi), which  is often described as most characteristic of the Chinese religious system; and Mulian drama or Mulianxi, which is the oldest and greatest Chinese ritual drama that has been staged for more than nine hundred years since its first recorded performance in the Song dynasty (960-1279). The first concern questions whether the Three Teachings (Confucianism, Buddhism and Daoism) were syncretised into a unitary belief system in imperial China as literally suggested by this Chinese term, and the second questions whether Mulianxi is a syncretic product of the Three Teachings.

In this paper, I re-examine the conception of sanjiao heyi from a perspective of compartmentalism proposed by Timothy Brook (1993). I argue that sanjiao heyi is not a syncretic product but instead a compartmental process and that Mulianxi is not a syncretic product, either, but a perfect compartmental gestalt of the Three Teachings. My arguments are based on a critical review of imperial discourse on sanjiao heyi and also on a close analysis of Mulian Rescues His Mother: A Play Text Newly Compiled to Exhort Goodness (Xinbian Mulian jiumu quanshan xiwen), the oldest dated surviving text of Mulianxi that consists of a 104-scene play in three volumes written in the southern style of chuanqi (marvel drama) by the Ming dynasty playwright Zheng Zhizhen (1518-1595). 

Keywords: the Mulian drama, syncretism; compartmentalism; Confucianism, Buddhism, Daoism, the Unity of Three Teachings or sanjiao heyi

ZHAO Xiaohuan received his PhD from the University of Edinburgh. He had taught at the Universities of Edinburgh and Glasgow in Scotland and Otago in New Zealand before joining the University of Sydney in Australia, where he is Associate Professor of Chinese Literary and Theatre Studies. He publishes extensively in the fields of Chinese literature, culture and theatre with a specialist focus on ritual, religion and theatre. His most recent book is Drama, Fiction and Folk Beliefs (Shanghai: Fudan University Press, 2018). He is now engaged in a Routledge book project on Chinese temple theatre.