The early Qing (1644–1911) midlength vernacular novel Guilian meng 歸蓮夢 (Returning to the Lotus Dream, hereafter Lotus Dream), attributed to Su'an zhuren 蘇庵主人 (Master of Su'an, hereafter Su'an), features a triple hybrid narrative: a hagiographic account of the female protagonist's path to Buddhist enlightenment, a scholar-beauty romance, and a heroic military adventure. Although Su'an (himself a lay Buddhist) claims to preach Buddhist teachings through the novel, the text does not represent the exclusive voice of a single religion or belief system. Instead, its hybrid narrative allows Buddhism, Daoism, Confucianism, and the teachings of other popular sects to interact, intertwine, and compete. This essay argues that the novel's narrative amalgamation is a result of the author's conscious adherence to established genre conventions and market tastes, while it quietly subsumes other religious beliefs into its own Buddhism. In its own way, the novel reflects the larger trend of syncretism, found in literary and religious practices alike in the seventeenth century. As such, Lotus Dream offers us a good example of “fictional religiosity,” encompassing both the religious elements scattered throughout vernacular novels and these novels' growing cultural authority. The religiosity of fiction is best understood in light of the notion of xiaoshuo jiao 小說教 (cult/teachings of fiction), denoting the genre's quasi-religious power of persuasion. Lotus Dream thus serves as an excellent starting point for a reconsideration of the spiritual authority that vernacular novels exercised in the Qing dynasty.

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