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Hu Shih Distinguished Lecture brings back Victor Mair and a Dunhuang manuscript to Cornell

Victor Mair with Dunhuang manuscript images and audience members


Thirty-five years ago Victor Mair came to Ithaca to read through the Dunhuang documents, a microfilm collection of which the Cornell Library had acquired through the work of professor Tsu-lin Mei. Professor Mair told us in his talk that he camped near Cayuga Lake and spent his days pouring over these rare texts.

"I hope you all appreciate how lucky you are to be here with such a good library as Cornell's." Returning to Cornell as the 2018 Hu Shih Distinguished Lecturer, professor Mair rolled out for the audience two stories of textual journeys: that of this individual manuscript (Pelliot 4564) and that of this genre of pictoral storytelling and its circulation through Asia. 

Victor Mair describes his talk as follows:

One of the most popular Buddhist vernacular tales preserved among the Dunhuang documents is "Xiàngmó biànwén 降魔變文" ("Transformation Text on the Subduing of Demons"). There are six surviving manuscripts of this text, and one of them was for a time owned by Cornellian, renowned Chinese scholar and diplomat, Hu Shih (1891-1962).

The genre in question is a type of storytelling with pictures, and the six manuscripts under discussion constitute the verbal side of the genre. As for documentation of the pictorial side, we need to follow a trail that leads from cave 17 of the Mogao Grottoes at Dunhuang to Central Asia, India, and Southeast Asia.

The story has to do with a battle of supernatural manifestations between a Buddhist saint, Śariputra, and Six Heretics.  It also touches on the so-called "Silk Road", the 16th-century novel The Journey to the West, the Buddhist pilgrim Xuanzang, the simian heroes Sun Wukong and Hanuman, storytelling with pictures in India and Indonesia, extinct Central Asian languages such as Sogdian, Khotanese, and Tocharian (the first two Middle Iranian and the third a very ancient tongue having affinities with Germanic, Italic, and Celtic), early Indo-European loanwords in Sinitic, and so forth. 

As part of our journey, we see how the combination of biànwén 變文 ("transformation text") and biànxiàng 變相 ("transformation tableau") constitutes the forerunner of aspects of fiction and drama in China, and ultimately of cinema.


  • Mair, Victor. T'ang Transformation Texts: A Study of the Buddhist Contribution to the Rise of Vernacular Fiction and Drama in China. Cambridge, Massachusetts: Council on East Asian Studies, Harvard University, 1989; 286p. (Harvard-Yenching Institute Monograph, 28). ISBN 978-0-674-86815-1.
  • Mair, Victor. “The Contributions of T’ang and Five Dynasties Transformation Texts (pien-wen) to Later Chinese Popular Literature.” Sino-Platonic Papers 12 (1989): 1–71.
  • Mair, Victor. Tun-huang Popular Narratives (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1983; 329p. Cambridge Studies in Chinese History, Literature, and Institutions). ISBN 978-0-521-24761-0.

Most importantly for the Hu Shih lecture, this volume, which will soon be reissued from the University of Hawaii Press in a variety of formats:

Victor H. Mair, Painting and Performance : Chinese Picture Recitation and Its Indian Genesis (Honolulu: University of Hawaii Press, 1988).

More about Victor Mair:

A specialist on classical and medieval Chinese literature, Dunhuang excavations and manuscript culture, and early Chinese archaeology, and translator of such canonical pre-Qin texts as Sun Zi’s The Art of War and the Daodejing, Prof. Mair has spent his life teaching the culture and history of premodern China. He has authored and co-authored numerous books, including The Tarim Mummies, T’ang Transformation Texts, Painting and Performance, and The True History of Tea. He has also edited or co-edited numerous volumes, including Experimental Essays on Zhuangzi, Contact and Exchange in the Ancient World, The Columbia History of Chinese Literature, and the monumental An Alphabetical Index to the Hanyu Da Cidian (Great Dictionary of the Chinese Language).

Victor Mair is a philologist specializing in Sinitic and Indo-European languages, and holds the position of Professor of Chinese Language and Literature in the Department of East Asian Languages and Civilizations at the University of Pennsylvania, Philadelphia, United States.

More about the Hu Shih Distinguished Lecture:

On the 100th anniversary of the world-changing philosopher and statesman’s graduation from Cornell, the EAP initiated an annual distinguished lecture in his name. Leading scholars of Chinese and East Asian studies are invited to give a lecture on critical issues in their field of research.

This lecture series is video archived as a resource for the Cornell community and beyond. For full-length lecture videos and highlights:

Also see the video "Hu Shih, the greatest Cornellian" Sherman Cochran, the Hu Shih Professor of Chinese History Emeritus, presented the Cornell Contemporary China Initiative's inaugural lecture Nov. 20, 2015, making the case for Hu Shih, Class of 1914, as the 'greatest Cornellian.' Cochran framed his lecture as a comparison between Shih and other Cornell graduates: Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg '54, novelist Thomas Pynchon '59, and professional football player and actor Ed Marinaro '72.


Victor Mair with Professor Emeritus Mei Tsu-lin and Prof. Daniel Boucher
Victor Mair with Prof. TJ Hinrichs and other faculty
Hu Shih Distinguished Lecturer, Victor Mair discussing a Dunhuang manuscript