Drettas (2012 Congress)

Dimitri Drettas
(Centre de Recherche sur les Civilisations de l’Asie Orientale, Paris)
“Classified Dreams:  Oneirocritical Manuscripts from Dunhuang and the Mantic Culture of Medieval China”

Abstract of Paper Presented at the 47th International Medieval Congress (Kalamazoo, 2012)
Session on “Dream Books”
Co-sponsored by the Research Group on Manuscript Evidence and the Societas Magica
Organized by László Sándor Chardonnens
2012 Congress

This paper presents the extant manuscript evidence of the literary component of dream divination in medieval China, and considers several hypotheses about the possible uses of these documents under the late Tang and early Song dynasties.

Most of the fourteen manuscripts hosting dream prognostics books have been found among the myriad of written and painted items stored in the famous “cave number 17” of Dunhuang (Gansu, China), which was sealed at the beginning of the 11th century.  There are fifteen separate texts inscribed on fragmentary paper scrolls, and, in three cases, booklets, one of which (Paris, Bibliothèque nationale de France, Pelliot chinois 3908) has been entirely preserved.  The formal features of the contents (namely the rigorous syntax of the entries, which link selected dream images to prognostics and are always classified by thematic rubrics) lead to a working definition of oneirocritique as a specialized genre of mantic literature, to be distinguished from other forms, like historical accounts and poems, where dreams also have a significant part.

There is no assignable testimony about the actual use of such items by diviners or laypersons.  This requires taking into account, not only the conditions of the production and transmission of the manuscripts, but also their nature as objects pertaining to the material culture of medieval Chinese society.  In order to efficiently replace these books in the context of religious, magica, and divinatory practes of the 9th–10th centuries, attention has to be paid to the interactions between the oneirocritical content and the other texts often copied on the same codicological unit.  In addition to the comparison with the printed descendants of this corpus, the recent discovery of a 3rd century BCE bamboo manuscript sheds new light on the evolution of the genre.


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  1. […] Dimitri Drettas (Centre de Recherche sur les Civilisations de l’Asie Orientale, Paris), “Classified Dreams:  Oneirocritical Manuscripts from Dunhuang (Ninth to Tenth Century) and Their Place in the Mantic Culture of Medieval China” Abstract and Drettas (2012 Congress) […]