A Few of Our Favourite Things #1: Victor H. Mair

As part of IDP's 20th anniversary celebrations we have asked twenty of our friends and supporters to select their favourite item from the IDP collections. The full selection will form an online catalogue and will be featured in the spring and autumn 2014 editions of IDP News

Professor Mair teaching at the European summer school for graduate students organized by Eötvös Loránd University in Budapest, Hungary, 2013. Photograph by Arina Mikhalevskaya.

Victor H. Mair is Professor of Chinese Language and Literature at the University of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia, USA. He has been teaching there since 1979, before which he taught at Harvard University. Professor Mair's interest in Central Asia stems mainly from his studies of Dunhuang popular narratives, about which he has written three books and dozens of articles. Developing out of his research on Dunhuang biànwén 變文 (transformation texts), he gradually moved into archaeological investigations on the Bronze Age and Early Iron Age mummies of Eastern Central Asia. In conjunction with the latter extended project, he has travelled to Xinjiang many times, hosted a major exhibition entitled Secrets of the Silk Road in 2011 at the University of Pennsylvania Museum, and has published numerous books and articles about the mummies and their associated artefacts.

A detail of Pelliot chinois 4524 from the Bibliothèque nationale de France collections.

Victor H. Mair writes:

The picture scroll depicting the contest of magical conjurations between Śāriputra and the Six Heretics is my favourite of all objects from Dunhuang for many reasons. The most immediate reason is simply its innate charm, the pictures vividly capturing the excitement of the competition and the details of the individual scenes.

Above all, however, is the fact that this unique scroll holds the key to unlocking the relationship between pictorial and textual narrative that became a hallmark of popular fiction and drama in succeeding centuries. What we find is that the verses on the verso of Pelliot chinois 4524 match the verse portions of the prosimetric transformation text about Mulian (Maudgalyāyana) saving his mother from the suffering of the underworld.

To show how the picture scroll relates to the transformation text, I have devoted one entire book Painting and Performance: Chinese Picture Recitation and Its Indian Genesis, parts of two other books Tun-huang Popular Narratives and T'ang Transformation Texts, and several major articles e.g. ‘Śāriputra Defeats the Six Heterodox Masters: Oral-Visual Aspects of an Illustrated Transformation Scroll (P4524),’ Asia Major; 3rd series, 8.2 (1995 [actually published in September, 1997]), 1-52, plus three plates.


  1. One of my most treasured books is Victor Mair's and JP Mallory's The Tarim Mummies: Mystery of the Earliest Peoples from the West.

  2. This detail from Pelliot chinoise 4524 fits well with recent scholarship on Indian yoga (e.g., Jim Mallinson, David White) that the primary actual goals of yoga (rather than, or at best in addition to kaivalya, etc, as stated in Yogasūtras) have been siddhis (YS ch 3 is there for a very good reason), conjurations, etc. This has been de-emphasized, even erased, in modern yoga, beginning with Vivekananda more than a hundred years ago, and still commands scant attention in modern scholarship, looked on as low level or insufficiently philosophical, meaning that it doesn't fit with the interests of modern scholars or transnational yogis. But it's quite dominant in the early textual record, right up to the 19th c. I just taught a course on the history of Yoga, and this really jumped out at me.


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