China and Inner Asia
Organized Panel Session
This paper explores the religious dimension of Cao Cao’s 曹操 (155-220 AD) poetry by examining his yuefu poems on the theme of roaming transcendent. My close reading of these writings intends to show that Cao Cao draws on a variety of texts that have bearing with Daoism to variant degrees, ranging from intentional scriptural referencing to simple lexical borrowing. Analyzing these texts in light of their religious context, I argue that their full meaning can only be retrieved with an adequate understanding of key scriptures and ritual practices of early Daoism, which further suggests that Cao Cao was not only passingly familiar with texts of religious nature. Although scholars have studied Cao Cao’s connection with the Celestial Master Daoism (Tianshi dao) from a socio-political perspective, his transformation of religious vocabulary into literary writings is often neglected. Cao Cao’s acquaintance with early Daoism illustrates the lively and complex literary landscape in the third century dotted with court banquets, wars, and death. The exploration of the literary composition on religious topics of Cao Cao, who at the same time abides by generic conventions of secular poetry, helps highlight the inventiveness of the poet and provides a rare window onto ways in which early medieval religion expanded the vision of literature and enriched its imaginative realm.