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Writ of the Three Sovereigns also known as “Sanhuang wen”, “三皇文” Steavu, Dominic


The Writ of the Three Sovereigns was originally a key source of local Southern Jiangnan lore in China during the early medieval period. Dated to around the third century, it collected esoteric techniques that can be traced back to the “masters of methods” (fangshi), regional ritual specialists and influential court advisors from third century BCE to the third century CE. The scripture was thought to have been revealed in Antiquity by high gods to the first three rulers of China, the legendary Three Sovereigns, in order to assist them in ordering the realm and attaining the powers that came with spiritual accomplishment. The bulk of the text is devoted to a series of potent talismans written in a celestial script that is indecipherable to common mortals. When deployed correctly, they can summon supernatural beings ranging from local deities to high-ranking gods so that practitioners can obtain their favor, their protection, or, more commonly, to inquire about future events. The practice has a visualization component since the divine beings manifest in the mind’s eye; accordingly, some scholars term it “visionary divination.” Other techniques that are associated with the scripture include a meditation method that involves generating a bodily god that is a perfect embryonic version of oneself (an enchymoma) and alchemical practices that consist of crafting medicines and elixirs. In the fifth and sixth centuries CE, the Writ of the Three Sovereigns became the centerpiece of one of the three core divisions of the nascent Daoist canon. As a result, it also became one of the foundational sources of early institutional Daoism. This propelled the text from the fairly self-contained context of local Jiangnan lore to a far broader empire-wide setting. The purported efficacy of its summoning techniques, through which, it was rumored, that deities could grant even the status of emperor or empress to practitioners, were quickly identified as potentially seditious by Tang imperial authorities. The scripture was summarily banned in 648 CE. All known copies were collected and destroyed in the capital. The text was replaced in the Daoist canon by the Scripture of the Way and Virtue (Daode jing). Nevertheless, some fragments survived in citations or manuscripts, enough that the Writ of the Three Sovereigns could be reconstructed, at least in part, by contemporary scholars. After the ban, during the Song dynasty (960–1279), the scripture was “rediscovered” as a result of renewed interest in its practices. A highly modified version, in actuality an antiquarian reconstruction, circulated around the tenth century, enjoying significant popularity among Daoists for a few centuries. Its tenets and methods spread throughout China once again. Later on, during the late medieval or early modern periods, the Writ of the Three Sovereigns reached as far as Japan.

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