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Teaching East Asian Religions through Literature and Film

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“Sacred” and “Secular” in East Asia

Taking his position at the hub of things, the writer contemplates the mystery of the universe. . . . Moving along with the four seasons . . . gazing at the myriad objects, he thinks of the complexity of the world.1

So wrote Lu Chi (261–303 CE), an early medieval Chinese author who used “secular” literary genres such as the rhymed prose (fu) that developed in China during the Han dynasty (202 BCE–220 CE) to explore “sacred” concerns such as the complexities of the universe and human beings’ place within it.2 The writings of Lu Chi, a prominent official of the state of Wu (229–280 CE) whose literary accomplishments brought him not only fame but also resentment and execution, are far from the only example of how the “sacred” can be seen in “secular” material such as traditional and contemporary literature and film produced in East Asia.

As Stephen J. Tanner has argued, literature—particularly classic works—articulates

an intuition that there is a purpose behind the phenomena of the world corresponding to the immediate sense of purpose in the individual conscience . . . an intuition of how things really are . . . The aim of the best literature has always been to reconcile us to life by showing (or at least intimating) that it is not limited to the actual data of existence.3

This essay argues that texts (including films) ordinarily regarded as “secular”—as fiction rather than “scripture”—have functioned as sacred texts in traditional East Asian cultures, and to some extent, still do today. While it is true that Chinese, Korean, and Japanese authors and filmmakers have brought their own individual experiences and creative visions to their work, it is also true the world over that “no important work can ever be the expression of a purely individual experience.”4 This is especially true in the case of literary works produced in traditional East Asian cultures, but it is no less true of works produced today. One of the most enduring wellsprings of East Asian literature and cinema has been contemplation of self in the unseen order of things. Whether that order is conceived in social, ecological, or cosmic terms, the tendency of East Asian authors and filmmakers has been to subordinate the individual to the larger scheme of things and affirm the goal of harmonizing with it. For this reason, those whose teaching entails East Asian religious content would do well to incorporate works of East Asian literature and film into their courses. By doing so, one may avoid the abstraction of textbook overviews (which students often see as remote from lived experience), complement canonical primary texts such as the Analects or Buddhist sutras (which students often experience as difficult to interpret), and bring East Asian religions to life through lively literature and film (which students often regard as more accessible than other materials).


When the question of the individual’s relationship to society is considered, the best choice of material often lies with the Confucian-themed romantic dramas of China’s Yuan dynasty (1279–1368 CE) and Japan’s Tokugawa period (1600–1868 CE). The narrative arc and character development in these plays usually revolve around the tension between the desires of individual human feelings and the demands of society’s moral order, a tension often dramatized by how individuals respond to the demands of loyalty. This tension can be seen clearly in Ji Junxiang’s Yuan dynasty drama The Orphan of Zhao, later a staple of Beijing opera, as well as in the Japanese dramatist Chikamatsu Monzaemon’s 1711 puppet play The Courier for Hell.5

The Orphan of Zhao is adapted from ancient anecdotes found in the Records of the Historian of Sima Qian (d. 86 BCE), while The Courier for Hell is based on actual events that took place in Osaka, the commercial capital of Tokugawa Japan, in 1710 CE. While both dramas revolve around adopted sons, destructive passions, and the slow but certain progress of justice, their most important commonality, and their most significant value as material for use in courses on East Asian religious themes, is that they take place in societies where Confucian values appear to be eroding. Although The Orphan of Zhao features characters drawn from China’s Warring States period (453–221 BCE), in the play they function to highlight the struggles of disenfranchised Confucians during the Yuan dynasty, a regime founded by Kubilai Khan (1215–1294 CE), grandson of the Mongol conqueror Genghis Khan (1162–1227 CE). During the reign of the Mongols, Confucianism—the prized ideology of the preceding Song dynasty (960–1279 CE)—no longer enjoyed exclusive state support and competed with Daoism and Tibetan Buddhism for official favor.

Although the shogun’s regime in Tokugawa Japan patronized Confucianism, by the 1700s, real economic and social power increasingly lay with the merchant class, which traditionally occupied the lowest niche of the Confucian social hierarchy. While Confucian-minded Japanese elites such as Samurai grew suspicious about profit-obsessed merchants who were not motivated by virtues that would benefit society as a whole, successful entrepreneurs amassed huge fortunes and spent enormous sums in Osaka’s commercial districts. Both plays “justify the ways of God to man” in a distinctively Confucian manner, insofar as heaven ultimately ensures that justice prevails and the causes (which, in the Chinese case, include opposition to foreign rule) for which characters are willing to sacrifice themselves become indicators of personal integrity in each play.

Such themes are expressed in later Chinese and Japanese material, as well. Good choices among modern Chinese works include Lu Xun’s 1918 short story “A Madman’s Diary,” Zheng Yi’s 1987 film Old Well, and Li Yiyun’s recent short story “Son.”6 All three of these works are set in post-imperial China and address the personal costs and the social benefits of living in a Confucian moral universe. Recent Japanese works that engage similar concerns in modern contexts include Ichikawa Kon’s 1956 film The Harp of Burma, Mishima Yukio’s 1966 novella Patriotism, and Takita Yōjirō’s 2008 film Departures.7 Just as with The Orphan of Zhao and The Courier for Hell, in these works the viewer encounters characters who wrestle with the conflict between self and society in times that challenge the value of Confucian traditions of group belonging.


East Asian religious traditions imagine the “natural” in different ways, but at the heart of each lies an appeal to relate oneself to a natural whole. While the Confucian tradition typically envisions the self in “natural” relation to society, other East Asian traditions, especially Daoism and Shinto, tend to relate the self to nature. This has the effect, particularly when expressed in literature and film, of recontextualizing culture as an aspect of nature by juxtaposing human beings with entities such as mountains and rural settings that seem remote from human habitats, yet within which humans find their true place. Poetry and cinema become expressions of what is most natural for human beings, and in this wholeness, true religious meaning and purpose may be found.

film cover for Why Has Bodhidharma
Left for the East?The annals of East Asian literature abound in writers who extol the virtues of sojourning in nature, but among these, Li Bai (Li Po, 701–762 CE) stands out.8 A celebrity in Tang dynasty China, other literati called Li “The Taoist Immortal of Poetry.” He also enjoyed the favor of Tang emperors, who patronized Daoism and claimed descent from the exalted sage Laozi (Lao-tzu), although—as was the case elsewhere in East Asia—China’s rulers also supported Daoism’s rival traditions, including Confucianism. Renowned for his prowess in poetic composition, Li wrote many lyrics about the natural world. Because of the relative brevity and simplicity of classical Chinese poetry, students can benefit from trying their hand at translating short works by Li and others for themselves using resources such as Greg Whincup’s The Heart of Chinese Poetry (New York: Anchor, 1987). Whincup’s work helps readers without any knowledge of Chinese approach this material, and it includes bilingual versions of dozens of famous works, many of which also may be found online.9

This exercise can be a useful prelude to exploring similar themes in Japanese poetry and prose. Instructors may find it fruitful to pair Kamo no Chōmei’s early thirteenth century essay, Hōjōki (An Account of a Ten-Foot-Square Hut) with the seventeenth century poetry and prose of Matsuo Bashō.10 Both writers focus on the natural world in order to highlight the impermanence of all things, but whereas Chōmei’s celebration of nature in the midst of the collapse of the Heian period (794–1185 CE) is shot through with a certain gloominess, Bashō, who lived in the comparatively more comfortable Tokugawa period, instead dwells on the fragile beauty of the landscape. The contrast between these two Japanese Buddhist authors, each at home in nature but for different reasons and with different reactions, can be instructive for students, who may be inclined to lump all Buddhists together instead of seeing the complexity and diversity of the tradition across time.

The South Korean film Why Has Bodhidharma Left for the East? …uses images of the moon, mountains, water, fire, and forests to depict the impermanence and interdependence of all beings, creating a tableau that eludes verbal description and is punctuated only rarely by spoken words.

Reading and discussing the works of Li Bai, Chōmei, and Bashō may in turn help to introduce students to expressions of their concerns in East Asian cinema. The South Korean film Why Has Bodhidharma Left for the East? (dir. Bae Yong-kyun, 1989), which takes its title from a famous Zen Buddhist teaching riddle, uses images of the moon, mountains, water, fire, and forests to depict the impermanence and interdependence of all beings, creating a tableau that eludes verbal description and is punctuated only rarely by spoken words.11 The final vignette in Kurosawa Akira’s 1990 Dreams entitled “Village of the Watermills,” narrates a hiker’s unexpected discovery of a primitive agrarian community hidden in the wilds of rural Japan whose values evoke Daoist classics such as the Daodejing and Zhuangzi.12 Finally, many students are familiar with the 1997 anime epic Princess Mononoke, (dir. Miyazaki Hayao), one of the highest-grossing films ever made in Japan, which concerns the quest of a young warrior whose primitive community is menaced by nature spirits (J. kami) that have become demonic due to their persecution and pollution by more technologically-advanced peoples to the west.13 In this quintessentially Japanese film, the East Asian quest for spiritual wholeness through human unity with nature comes dramatically to life: people, gods, and the land exist interdependently, and can attain completion, vitality, and peace only through harmonious balance with one another.


The quest for cosmic balance, of course, is a longstanding thematic concern of both East Asian religions and literature. One way in which East Asian peoples have sought to attain balance is by discerning and embracing their “fate” (C. mìng, K. myŏng, J. myō), a concept that originally developed within the Confucian and Daoist traditions but also became associated with Buddhist notions of karmic retribution. Two contemporary East Asian novels stand out as masterful meditations on fate: the Nobel Laureate Gao Xingjian’s Soul Mountain (1990) and Murakami Haruki’s Kafka on the Shore (2002).

In Gao’s semi-autobiographical work, a man’s misdiagnosis with a terminal disease inspires him to undertake an extended pilgrimage into the sacred Buddhist and Daoist mountains of China’s rural southwest and meditate upon the Classic of Changes (Yijing). This leads to his realization that “things just happen . . . and there is always a mysterious eye, so it is best for me just to pretend that I understand even if I don’t.”14 Similar epiphanies befall the characters of Murakami’s best-selling Kafka on the Shore, whose responses to fate—such as “I accept everything that happens, and that’s how I became the person I am now”—appear throughout the novel.15 Both Gao’s and Murakami’s novels connect at multiple points with East Asian religious traditions, even as they both are utterly contemporary, even postmodern. Like the discourses on fate associated with the Yijing and the doctrine of karma, Gao’s and Murakami’s treatments of this theme underscore both human helplessness in the face of destiny and human response to the moment of opportunity.

Seven Taoist Masters celebrates the founders of the “Complete Perfection” sect of Daoism in China by accounts of personal journeys into the discipline of“inner alchemy,”or the art of manipulating and refining the qi, or vital energy, within one’s body so as to attain health, longevity, spiritual insight, and ultimately, immortality.

book cover for Seven Taoist Masters: A Folk Novel of ChinaRecent East Asian films that mirror this nuanced treatment of fate as the human quest for cosmic balance include Ang Lee’s Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon (2000) and Kim Hae-gon’s Fate (2007).16 Perhaps less well-known, but no less powerful than these films, is Zhou Xiaowen’s film The Qin Anthem (a.k.a. The Emperor’s Shadow, 1996).17 In Zhou’s film, which narrates the rise to power of Qin Shihuang, the first emperor of the China’s Qin dynasty (221–206 BCE), balance is sought through the correlation of human and cosmic spheres of activity, particularly through music and politics. While numerous elements of traditional East Asian religious cultures appear in the film—such as yin yang cosmology, Confucian-style debate about discerning the will of Heaven, and the Daoist cult of personal immortality—it is the religious use of music that connects most powerfully with East Asian spiritual sensibilities. As the pageantry of this epic production unfolds, with its cast of thousands marching, singing, and playing the Qin anthem in unison, one is reminded of a passage from the “Discussion of Music” chapter in the Confucian Xunzi, which is contemporary with the events and characters in the film, and states:

As for music, it is an unalterable harmony;
As for ritual, it is an unchanging pattern . . .
Through the combination of ritual and music, the human heart-mind is ruled.18

Yet another way in which East Asian peoples have sought to attain cosmic balance is by participating in multiple religious traditions. Syncretism, or the practical combination of cultural elements drawn from diverse traditions to form a unified set of elements, is the historical norm in East Asian religious cultures. Classic examples of religious syncretism in East Asian literature may be found in Murasaki Shikibu’s The Tale of Genji (c. 1000 CE), the fountainhead of Japanese fiction, and the anonymous Míng dynasty novel The Seven Perfecteds of the North (a.k.a. Seven Taoist Masters).19 The setting for The Tale of Genji is Japan’s Heian period (794–1185 CE), an era when Japanese elites were besotted with the culture of Tang dynasty China—itself a highly syncretistic era in Chinese religious history. Murasaki’s novel provides evidence that the Japanese of the late first millennium CE seldom differentiated between religious traditions imported from China, and frequently patronized multiple religious institutions, in order to acquire this-worldly benefits, rather than for narrowly sectarian goals of salvation promulgated in particular doctrines.

Similarly, Seven Taoist Masters celebrates the founders of the “Complete Perfection” sect of Daoism in China by accounts of personal journeys into the discipline of “inner alchemy,” or the art of manipulating and refining the qi, or vital energy, within one’s body so as to attain health, longevity, spiritual insight, and ultimately, immortality. Personal crisis is transformed into cosmic balance.20 It is not only yin and yang that are blended and balanced within the bodies of the Daoist masters, but also China’s three traditional religions: Buddhism, Confucianism, and of course, Daoism. In both Genji and Seven Taoist Masters, “the three teachings harmonize as one” as the traditional Chinese saying puts it. Just as the traditional East Asian state would call upon the whole panoply of deities and cosmic energies available in order to maintain its vitality, so too would an individual petition the powers of ancestors, Buddhas, and kami in order to restore lost health.

Finally, Takita Yōjirō’s 2001 film, The Yin-Yang Master, dramatizes the Heian Japanese state’s fusion of the cosmic and the political as well as of multiple religious traditions.21 While unintentionally comic at times due to its somewhat limited special effects budget and rather over-the-top acting, the film does a good job of bringing the world of Genji and other Heian period elites to life. Theirs is a world in which the state sponsors an official department of Daoist adepts, the Bureau of Yin and Yang, whose staff wizards deploy their cosmic knowledge for the benefit of state concerns, such as protecting the capital from demonic influences and ensuring the safe birth of the emperor’s heirs. I know of no other film that so vividly captures the character of Heian elite religious culture so familiar to readers of The Tale of Genji and other classic Japanese texts. What it shares in common with the other works discussed in this section is its articulation of a worldview in which powerful forces buffet human lives, such that human beings must choose to act in ways that either thrust them into competition with, or draw them into communion with, the ever-changing cosmos. Moreover, in contrast with the usual Western expectation that one will seek refuge only in one religious tradition (at a time, at least), the characters in The Tale of Genji and other works of East Asian literature and film usually draw strength from more than one religious tradition at a time without ever incurring any sense of disloyalty or inconsistency.


Through the judicious selection of both traditional and modern East Asian literature, as well as contemporary films, teachers who wish to incorporate religious content into their courses about East Asian cultures can use unconventional and “fun” material to help students understand how people in China, Korea, and Japan have engaged the basic religious questions of cosmology (what is the nature of the universe?), anthropology (what is human nature?), and ethics (what is the right way to live?). Doubtless, many more examples of pedagogically fruitful films and literary works could be listed. I have found that the material described here works well in a variety of undergraduate courses, from freshman level introductory seminars on writing and critical thinking, to intermediate level surveys of East Asian religions and advanced seminars on specialized topics in East Asian studies. Much of this material is also suitable for high school teachers and students. Teaching East Asian religions through film and literature is no substitute for direct engagement with the primary sources of East Asian religious traditions. However, it does offer a welcome respite from texts that can be intimidating, as well as an invitation to think through one’s assumptions about the “sacred,” the “secular,” and the religious roles of text and film in East Asian cultures, not to mention one’s own.


1. Lu Chi, “Literature: A Rhapsody,” trans. Achilles Fang, in Classical Chinese Literature, Volume 1: From Antiquity to the Tang Dynasty, eds. John Minford and Joseph S. M. Lau (Hong Kong and New York: Chinese University Press and Columbia University Press, 2000), 632. In this essay, when a Chinese name or term may be better known to some readers by its Romanization according to the older Wade-Giles system, in some cases Romanization is provided parenthetically following the name or term’s introduction in the modern pinyin Romanization. An online guide to systems for the Romanization of Chinese may be found at

2. By “sacred,” I mean a relationship to what William James calls “an unseen order” to which “our supreme good lies in harmoniously adjusting ourselves” (The Varieties of Religious Experience) (London: Longmans, Green, and Co., 1920), 53.

3. “The Moral and the Aesthetical: Literary Study and the Social Order,” in Ethics, Literature, and Theory: An Introductory Reader, ed. Stephen K. George (Lanham, MD: Rowman and Littlefield, 2005), 124–125.

4. Lucien Goldmann, “Introduction to the Problems of a Sociology of the Novel,” Telos 18 (1973): 131.

5. See Chi Chun-hsiang (Ji Junxiang), The Orphan of Chao, trans. Jung-en Liu, in Six Yüan Plays, ed. Jung-en Liu (London: Penguin, 1972), 41–81, and Chikamatsu Monzaemon, The Courier for Hell, trans. Donald Keene, in Major Plays of Chikamatsu (New York: Columbia University Press, 1961), 161–194. Video footage of a contemporary (Chinese-language) production of The Orphan of Zhao may be viewed online at Video footage (apparently intended for use in karaoke performances by amateur singers) dramatizing portions of The Courier for Hell may be viewed online at

6. See Lu Xun, “A Madman’s Diary,” trans. Yang Xianyi and Gladys Yang, in The Columbia Anthology of Modern Chinese Literature, eds. Joseph S. M. Lau and Howard Goldblatt (New York: Columbia University Press, 1995), 7–15; Zheng Yì, Old Well, trans. Yu Shiaoling, in Theater and Society: An Anthology of Contemporary Chinese Drama, ed. Haiping Yan (Armonk, NY, and London: M. E. Sharpe, 1998), 262–325; and Li Yìyun, “Son,” in Li, A Thousand Years of Good Prayers (New York: Random House, 2005), 111–126. Old Well may be viewed in its entirety online at

7. The Harp of Burma may be viewed serially in eleven excerpts available online at Widely anthologized, Mishima’sPatriotism is available as a single slim volume published in 1995 by New Directions. While excerpts from Departures are available online through YouTube, the film is readily obtainable through rental services such as Blockbuster and Netflix.

8. See Tao Chien (Tao Qian), “Peach Blossom Spring,” trans. Cyril Birch, and “Two Poems on Returning to Dwell in the Country,” trans. William Acker, in Anthology of Chinese Literature, Volume 1: From Early Times to the Fourteenth Century, ed. Cyril Birch (New York: Grove Press, 1994), 167–168, 182–183; Wang Wei and Pei Ti, “From ‘Poems of the River Wang.,” trans. C. J. Chen and Michael Bullock, ibid., 220–223; and Li Po (Li Bai), “On the Mountain: Question and Answer,” trans. Arthur Waley, and “Four Poems on Wine,” trans. William Acker, A. C. Graham, ibid., 225, 230–233.

9. See

10. See Kamo no Chōmei, “An Account of My Hut [Hōjōki],” and Matsuo Bashō, “The Narrow Road of Oku [Oku no Hosomichi],” trans. Donald Keene, in Anthology of Japanese Literature: From the Earliest Era to the Mid-Nineteenth Century, ed. Donald Keene (New York: Grove Press, 1955), 197–21, 363–373.

11. While an excerpt from this film may be viewed online at, it also is available for rental.

12.This portion of Kurosawa’s film may be viewed online in two parts at

13. While excerpts from Princess Mononoke are available online through YouTube, the film is readily obtainable through rental services such as Blockbuster and Netflix.

14. Soul Mountain, trans. Mabel Lee (New York: Harper Perennial, 2000), 506.

15. Kafka on the Shore, trans. Philip Gabriel (New York: Vintage Books, 2006), 391.

16. Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon and Fate both have been excerpted abundantly online and rental copies (especially of the former) may be obtained with ease.

17. The entire film may be viewed online at

18. Xunzi, ch. 20. The translation is my own.

19. See The Tale of Genji, trans., Edward G. Seidensticker (New York: Vintage Classics, 1990), and Seven Taoist Masters, trans. Eva Wong (Boston: Shambhala, 1990).

20. Neidan (spiritual discipline) metaphors are crucial to understanding Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, as well. In traditional iconography, the dragon and tiger represent the energies of yin and yang coiled and concealed within the body, which await transformation by the neidan practitioner. For a graphic illustration see

21. An excerpt from the film, The Yin-Yang Master (J. Onmyōji) which is available for rental, may be viewed online at A sequel, Onmyōji II, appeared in 2003. In addition to feature film treatments of historical onmyōji, there have been manga (comic book) and television series based on onmyōji, which in turn have helped to spark the so-called “onmyōji boom” among contemporary Japanese youth. Excerpts from the television series may be viewed online at See Laura Miller, “Extreme Makeover for a Heian-Era Wizard,” in Mechademia 3: Limits of the Human, ed. Frenchy Lunning (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2008), 30–45.



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Whincup, Greg, ed. 1987. The Heart of Chinese Poetry. New York: Anchor.

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Zhaoshi guer (The Orphan of Zhao) at

Meido no hikyaku (The Courier for Hell) at

Laojing (Old Well) at

Biruma no tategoto (The Harp of Burma)

Dharmaga Tongjoguro Kan Kadalgun? (Why Has Bodhidharma Left for the East?) at

Suishiya no arumura (Village of the Watermills) at

Qin Song (The Qin Anthem a.k.a. The Emperor’s Shadow) at

Onmyōji (The Yin-Yang Master) at


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