An importance source for the early history of the Red River Delta is a text known as the Báo cực truyện 報極傳. This text dates perhaps from the late eleventh century, and it is no longer extant, but it is quoted in other later works that still survive.
While people are aware that the Báo cực truyện is an early text, I have never seen anyone clearly place this work in any known or recognizable literary genre.
This is difficult to do, as we only find excerpts cited from this work. Nonetheless, the word “báo” 報 in its title was an extremely important term for Buddhists who used it to refer to karmic retribution or reward.
Hence, this title could be translated as Tales of the Extreme Reach of Karmic Retribution/Reward. Such a title would fit this work into the East Asian genre of Buddhist miracle tales, stories which were particularly popular in the Chinese world between the third and seventh centuries, with perhaps the most famous collection of such tales being the seventh-century Records of Miraculous Karmic Retribution/Reward (Mingbao ji 冥報記).
Buddhist miracle tales appear to have been influenced both by Buddhist avadana tales from India and by the Chinese genre of anomaly accounts.
Avadana tales related events which occurred in a person’s life to deeds performed in a previous life, and one of the earliest translators of such tales was a third-century Sogdian monk who was active in the Red River Delta, Kang Senghui.
Anomaly accounts, on the other hand, dealt with supernatural and other unexplained phenomena. Chinese Buddhist miracles at times combined these two genres, taking a seemingly supernatural phenomenon and explaining it in terms of karmic reward or retribution.
While we cannot say for sure that the Báo cực truyện was a collection of Buddhist miracle tales, the information cited from it in a later source, the fourteenth-century Collected [Records] of the Departed Spirits from the Việt Realm (Việt điện u linh tập 越甸幽靈集), suggests that this was the case.
The quotation appears in a story about the Chinese administrator who served in the Red River Delta in the early third century CE by the name of Shi Xie.
After providing information about Shi Xie’s activities in the Red River Delta, much of which comes from the Treatise on the Three Kingdoms (Sanguo zhi 三國志), the Collected [Records] of the Departed Spirits from the Việt Realm cites the Báo cực truyện for the following information:
“The king [i.e., Shi Xie] was adept at preserving and nourishing life. After the king passed away, over 160 years later at the end of the Jin [dynasty], Linyi [people] raided. They excavated the king’s tomb and saw that the king’s body had not deteriorated and that his complexion looked as though he were still alive. They became terrified and reburied him. Local people saw him as a spirit, erected a shrine, and made sacrifices to him.”
This would seem to represent a local tradition, and yet there are historical problems with it. First of all, people from Linyi did not attack during these years. Instead, it was Chinese officials in the region who led attacks against Linyi.
One such person was a regional inspector by the name of Wen Fangzhi who attacked Linyi in 359. Not long after this, a legend emerged concerning Wen Fangzhi and Shi Xie’s tomb. However, that legend had nothing to do with Linyi.
This legend about Wen Fangzhi and Shi Xie’s tomb was recorded in a fifth century Chinese collection of anomaly accounts entitled the Garden of Marvels (Yiyuan 異苑).
The Garden of Marvels records that Shi Xie died in Jiaozhi during the final years of the Han and that he was buried in the “southern border region” (nanjing 南境).
It states that his tomb was often covered in mist and that it manifested supernatural potency at indeterminate times. The region then experienced years of unrest. However, the tomb was never excavated by robbers even during this time of turmoil.
When in the Jin Dynasty’s Xingning era (363–365), Wen Fangzhi was appointed regional inspector of Jiao Region, he personally rode off on his horse to open the tomb.
The Garden of Marvels does not report what he found. Instead, it relates that on his return, he fell off his horse and died.
In considering the historical information about Wen Fangzhi’s attack on Linyi, along with the legend of his search for Shi Xie’s tomb, it appears that this account of Shi Xie in the Báo cực truyện is likely a later creation inspired by these other accounts of Wen Fangzhi.
Surely local people did not “remember” a story about a raid by people from Linyi when such an attack had never occurred. Instead, it is much more likely that a Buddhist scholar in later years created this story.
In doing so, he altered some relevant historical information, changing Wen Fangzhi’s attack on Linyi to a raid on the Red River Delta region by people from Linyi and adapted a legend from the Garden of Marvels.
The fact that Shi Xie’s body did not decompose was meant to teach readers something.
The account in the Garden of Marvels is intended to show the miraculous potency of Shi Xie’s spirit. The Báo cực truyện may have sought to make the same point.
However, if it were a collection of Buddhist miracle tales, then perhaps it also emphasized the presence of Buddhists in the region during his time. This appears to be the case since the Báo cực truyện is also cited in a medieval Buddhist work (Cổ Châu Pháp Vân Phật bản hạnh lục) and there it does provide detailed information about the Buddhist community in the Red River Delta during Shi Xie’s time.
Therefore, in the Báo cực truyện, the miracle of Shi Xie’s non-decomposing corpse may have been presented as a miraculous sign of karmic reward for his support of the Buddhist religion during his lifetime.
Although we still cannot say for certain, nonetheless given the above evidence, I would argue that the Báo cực truyện was likely a collection of Buddhist miracle tales and that we can translate the title as Tales of the Extreme Reach of Karmic Retribution/Reward.