Scholar of ancient China Robert Ford Campany makes clear in the introduction to his monograph, `The Chinese Dreamscape: 300 BCE-800 CE’ (Harvard-Yenching Institute, Harvard University Press 2020) that any historian will attest that everyone, everywhere, dreams. Recorded history, and for that matter the speculation about much visual art on cave walls in Europe from millennia ago, is full of the testimony to this. His mission in this brief, but fascinating overview, is to explore the trickier question of what sort of meaning people from the Qin to the Tang dynasty, a period covering over 1500 years, imputed to the things they saw when they fell asleep – and, equally importantly, what relationship they had to waking reality.

One of the clear conclusions he comes to is that much of the documentary evidence (and here, ancient China is rich in recorded material – way more than Europe, for instance) shows that Chinese people over this period did feel that what they saw in dreams had meaning, and that in particular it portended something. This was not about them being important in revealing the dispositions of an individual, but about offering insights into a different world, one with its own objectivity, which related directly to our own waking one. The key was how to accurately interpret what these dreams said about that world, or worlds, and about this link with ours. Dreams, as he writes `do mean things’ (72). The question is what, and how.

In imperial China, a huge amount of thinking clearly went into both the different kinds of meaning that could be attributed to dreams, and the sort of messages they had for those dreaming. Wang Fu (王符)in the Han, 2nd Century CE, produced one of the most comprehensive treatises covering the first issue above. His `Discourse of a Recluse’ (潜夫论) talks of literal dreams, indirect ones, ones prompted by longing, or by physical sensations, illness, or people’s temperaments. Other theories around the same time associated oneiric activity with levels of `qi’ in the body. For others, there was a direct link with spirits from another world. From the period of the Zhou, people existed who were credited with having particular abilities to read and interpret dream meaning – diviners as it were. Manuals came into existence with listings of phenomenon that might be seen in dreams along with their possible meaning – Wang Fu, mentioned above, made the logical enough argument that monsters and strange beasts implied impending trouble, and dancing or people acting something more positive and joyous. `Seeing in Dreams’ (梦见)necessitated a particular kind of hermeneutics and a skilled interpretation – something the `New Collections of the Duke of Zhou’s Book for Interpreting Dreams’ ( 新集周公解梦书)attempts to comprehensively list. In this book, dreaming of ascending to the sky meant one will have a noble child. Seeing a clear sky meant experiencing joy. Most auspicious of all was dreaming of the sun and moon disappearing (83). Campany lists some of the most well known of the diviners – from Suo Din (索紞) from Dunhuang, active around 300, CE to Zhou Xuan (周宣)active a half a century earlier whose success at being able to foretell future happenings from dreams is recorded in the `Romance of the Three Kingdoms.’

Over this period, Chinese also put great effort in trying to work out the narratives structure of dreams. For the latter era, Buddhist meanings were often found, usually reflecting on someone’s karma. What is striking, as the book explains in its concluding chapters, is the absence of the one thing that in modern times has become most associated with dream meaning – links to the instinctive sexual life of individuals and the most intimate areas of their inner lives. The dream descriptions in this book present those dreaming as almost like detached observers witnessing an alternative world, not one with lesser reality than that which they lived in. This world had enough substantiality to sometimes result in physical things being able to transfer from one to the other. It also had its own objectivity and logic: `Dreams were not taken to be expressions of latent fears or wishes of dreamers, but rather as indices of the direction of events’ (121).

Cover: The Chinese Dreamscape, 300 BCE–800 CE in HARDCOVER

This is not a subject that many have written about – nor one that immediately suggests the range and depth of material that the author has succeeded in finding. That Campany has been able to describe consistent patterns of interpretation and approach across such an extended period is as much as tribute to his own scholarship as it is to the remarkable extent of classical Chinese texts that still exist today – some of which have only been recently discovered in sites like Dunhuang. The most famous of ancient Chinese dreams are recorded here – Zhuang Zhou dreaming of a butterfly and, after awakening, then wondering if he was a butterfly dreaming of being a person. But there is also the equally haunting other Daoist story of the carpenter and the tree, who in their dream encounter discuss the use of uselessness – and of how the carpenter had spared the old tree because he was looking for better, stronger ones to fell. Dreams in east and west, past and present, have always maintained this endlessly tantalizing possibility of either meaning a great deal – or meaning nothing at all. In the puzzlement dreams produce, at least, we are all on common ground.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s