The Third Age Dawns in China: The Huangji Jieguo Baojuan

The Third Age Dawns in China: The Huangji Jieguo Baojuan February 25, 2024


A 18th-19th century Tibetan painting set of the three ruling buddhas of the three ages, Dipamkara, Shakyamuni (Siddhartha Gautama), and Maitreya. (Courtesy of Himalayan Art Resources)

The Ming period was the golden age of sectarian thought in imperial China. Religious associations and forms of worship that fell beyond state approval and control had always existed and had very often flourished. As we have seen, unapproved sects and the rebellions they launched have been one of the great motive forces of Chinese history. But the Ming period saw a proliferation of these groups far beyond anything that had come before. Throughout China, sects arose, operated semi-openly, and even competed against one other for converts. They managed to distribute their beliefs widely and sometimes even break into the mainstream of Chinese thought. In addition, it was one of the most creative periods for Chinese sectarianism, with new ideas and original reworkings of old ones bursting onto the scene and finding widespread acceptance. Indeed, the innovations introduced in this era were the most influential in sectarian thinking and eschatology since the introduction of Maitreya himself into China some ten centuries before.

The Ming’s own founding had helped to make this possible. The new dynasty had happily stoked the fires of apocalyptic anticipation on its route to power but had then tried to distance itself from them upon reaching the throne. Like many other dynasties throughout history, however, the Ming soon found that when such fires are ignited, they are impossible to put out again. Admittedly, not all the sects that arose during the Ming period were apocalyptic. But the general tenor of sectarian thought was avowedly millennialist, turning the eyes of the faithful toward the end of the current era and the birth of the age to come.

The Ming responded to this massive proliferation of non-orthodox religious groups and beliefs with a surprising lenience. This is not to say that the Ming Dynasty was a particularly tolerant regime or that they represented a break from previous dynasties. They had a particularly harsh law on the books that condemned sectarian leaders to death and their followers to, as Hubert Seiwert tells us, in Popular Religious Movements and Heterodox Sects in Chinese History, “a hundred strokes with the heavy bamboo and banishment” (Seiwert 209-10). And yet, for some reason, Ming authorities rarely saw fit to enforce it; Seiwert remarks of the law that “it was rarely used to suppress the new religious movements in the sixteenth century” (210). While it was not unheard of for a sect that gained too much fame and power to feel the full brunt of government persecution, most were left alone as long as they did not bring too much attention to themselves. A few were even openly tolerated, if never officially supported. The political situation in Ming China was not without its dangers for religious dissidents but it did prove far more agreeable than the stringent zero-tolerance policy adopted by the Qing Dynasty after it had replaced the Ming as the ruling regime of China.

Also key to this flowering of sectarianism was the widespread availability of the printing press. The press itself was no new invention but the Ming era saw its use become far more widespread amongst the general public. While the government printing office retained a prestige unequalled by anyone else—not to mention providing a stamp of government approval that saved the authors from official harassment—commercial publishing houses were appearing throughout China. Of course, not everyone could afford to publish books. The poorer members of society would still have struggled to do so. But if a number of middle-class citizens got together and pulled their resources, it was not unfeasible to finance the print run of a text. Needless to say, this relative affordability opened the literary field to many who would never have had access to it before.

If there was one group that could easily rally its middle-class adherents to pay for print runs, it was a religious sect. As a result, there was a boom in the publication of sectarian literature, one which is invaluable to scholars wishing to study the religious thought of the time. Most of the non-orthodox religious texts that we have prior to the Ming period come from a single source, the discovery of thousands of texts hidden away in the Mogao caves of Dunhuang in 1900. This find, like the discovery of the Dead Sea Scrolls in another series of caves far to the west, utterly transformed our understanding of the region’s premodern religious history. Without it, we would still be in the dark about much of the popular and “heterodox” religious thinking that flourished in earlier times. By contrast, the sectarian texts of the Ming period were copious enough to comprise their own genre—the baojuan—and achieved a wide enough distribution that they found their way in libraries and private collections across China. Some are even still in use today by extant religious sects. The spread of baojuans throughout the country inevitably inspired the creation of new sects who wrote and published new baojuans, leaving behind a rich depository of sectarian literature for later generations to read, study, and sometimes imitate.

Despite the relative wealth of texts that survive, however, the origins of the genre are lost to time. It is clear that the baojuans are descended from the kinds of eschatological texts we have looked at previously, such as the Taiping jing, Zhengming jing, and the Shouluo jing. They carry forward many of the same themes found in those works, such as the seed people and the floating city, often with very little change. But as to when and where the first baojuan was composed, or even what that text was, we have no answers. The oldest we have is the Foshuo Huangji jieguo baojuan (Precious Scroll of the Buddha’s Teaching on the Results of the Imperial Ultimate 佛説皇極結果寶卷), first published in 1430. This text, which refers to itself as the Shouyuan baojun (Precious Scroll of Attaining Completion), is certainly not the first ever written, as it refers to the existence of other baojuans and displays a level of sophistication beyond what would be expected if these kinds of works were still in a formative stage. But it is the closest that we can get to the origins of the genre and of its doctrines.

Indeed, most of the ideas and stylistic flourishes that would distinguish the genre as a whole are already here. Later sectarian baojuans would not only continue the Huangji’s distinctive hybrid prose/poetry structure, but would often repeat words, phrases, and whole sections verbatim. More significantly, however, is that the Huangji already possesses the detailed mythical narrative that underlies the later sectarian writings. The distinctive Ming-era story of “first and last things” is laid out here in the form it would retain ever afterward. The Huangji presents a system of belief that may be thought as basically monotheistic, with the caveat that it is more akin to the qualified and pantheistic monotheism of Hinduism than the kind seen in the Abrahamic faiths. According to the Huangji, there is an all-important central deity, who created the cosmos and humanity, underlies all reality, and manifests itself in many different forms. Humanity dwelt with the deity in heaven before the creation but forgot their true divine nature when they descended to earth. As such, the deity has repeatedly sent messengers and prophets throughout history to remind humanity of their original heavenly home and to offer a path of return and salvation. Because the age of Maitreya is on the horizon, the deity has chosen to reveal a fuller and better path to salvation so that as many as possible will be ready for when the messiah arrives. The baojuan itself is that revelation.

The later texts follow the Huangji in all of this. They only diverge from it in regards to the identity of the deity. Here, the supreme being is the Ancient or Primordial Buddha, a concept in East Asian Buddhism that somewhat resembles the Hindu Brahman and its manifestations, being the embodiment of the original emptiness from which the cosmos emerged but also a deity with personal characteristics. But the well-established notion of the Primordial Buddha would not be enough to satisfy later sectarians. They replaced him with a different supreme deity, one whose sudden appearance in the sixteenth century seems to have been a completely new development in Chinese theology. But to talk more about her right now would be getting ahead of ourselves. Suffice it to say that, while Westerners are conditioned to think of God’s identity as the foundation of all religious thought, Chinese sectarians were happy to adopt the Huangji’s cosmic worldview without committing themselves to its chief deity.

One part of this cosmic worldview that later sectarians were more than happy to adopt was the doctrine of the Three Ages. For, indeed, the Huangji is the first known text to lay out the distinct conception of Three Ages of history so dear to sectarians of the Ming and Qing periods. The basic premise of the system is that there are three successive ages of historical time, which are called ji極 (a word Daniel Overmyer translates as “apex” or sometimes “ultimate”) or yang陽. Each of these ages is ruled by a different buddha. The current time is one of transition, with the second age coming to an end and the third about to begin. This is a source of turmoil and confusion for those who do not understand the concept of these sanji or sanyang, but for those who do, it is a great opportunity to advance spiritually as they await the new age’s dawn.

Daniel L. Overmyer, in Precious Volumes: An Introduction to Chinese Sectarian Scriptures from the Sixteenth and Seventeenth Centuries, offers a useful summary of the idea, complete with the names of the three buddhas who are in charge of the three ages (note that he is using the older Wade-Giles romanization and so his rendering of Chinese terms will look different from my own):

The temporal setting of this revelation is the near future (tang-lai), to be ruled by the Buddha Maitreya, who replaces the Buddha Śākyamuni. Eons ago, Śākyamuni in turn replaced the Buddha Jan-teng (Dīpaṃkara). In each case the Dharma, or teaching, of the Buddha eventually ran its course and the human condition decayed until a new messenger appeared. In the Huang-chi book, the reigns of these buddhas are correlated with temporal periods called “apexes” (chi), for which I sometimes provide the conventional translation of “ultimate”—the Ultimate of Nonbeing (Wu-chi) for Dīpaṃkara, the Great Ultimate (T’ai-chi) for Śākyamuni, and the Imperial Ultimate (Huang-chi) for Maitreya. (Overmyer 54)

Of the three age-ruling buddhas, the first is called Randeng Fo, a term which translates to “Lamplighter Buddha.” This refers to a figure named Dipamkara or Dipankara. In orthodox Buddhism, Dipamkara is one of the many buddhas who lived before Gautama, the man we know as the Buddha. He is chiefly notable for the fact that Gautama was a disciple of his in a previous life, where he foretold Gautama’s future ascent to Buddhahood. That connection and Dipamkara’s place in history are inflated considerably in the Huangji, where he become Gautama’s immediate predecessor in the line of Buddhahood and, as buddha of the first age, the original revealer of Buddhism’s teachings.

Sakyamuni, the ruler of the second age, is Gautama himself, as Sakyamuni or Shakyamuni is an alternate name for the founder of Buddhism. His age naturally represents the present time, which is coming to an end and will soon be replaced by the next age. That age will be ruled by Maitreya. Even in the present, he is already taking charge. He has gotten in touch with a figure known as the Shouyuan Patriarch, the supposed source of the Huangji, and given him the revelation upon which the book is based. Maitreya does this to “put in order the nine-leafed lotus that is about to come,” which means that he is making the world ready for the new age that he is to rule, the “time of the nine-leafed lotus is that of the White Yang Assembly” (qtd. in Overmyer 57). Because the time of the new age is so near, it is urgent that the faithful accept the tenets of Maitreya’s teachings and prepare for its arrival.

Gone is the infinite lineage of buddhas revealing the doctrine anew across innumerable world-periods. The stock of the three who remain has risen dramatically. No longer simply one among many, Dipamkara is the first buddha and the founder of Buddhism itself. Gautama and Maitreya are not simply the two Buddhas closest in time to us. They now represent a full two-thirds of all buddhas in charge of revealing the doctrine for an age. Maitreya is the final such buddha who will ever exist. How far we are from Buddhist orthodoxy where, despite their importance to us, these three were quite insignificant in the grand scheme of universal time. Now, all three have become truly cosmic figures, defining and ruling the three periods into which time itself is divided.

When the texts speak of their rule over their respective time periods, this is no mere metaphor. Overmyer provides a partial translation of a fascinating passage on the reigns of the three buddhas:

All this is described in more detail in a section of 7/7 verse, where we are told that in the time of the Lamplighter Buddha (Jan-teng), the celestial golden lotus had three leaves. This was the time of the Green Yang Assembly, which lasted for nine kalpas. Then the calamities of water, fire, and wind were released. Those with good karma were able to ascend the road to the clouds; those without it were “drowned by stupidity and lust” (ch’en-ch’ih). Then Śākyamuni

With the light of his body refined the world, [and]

For eighteen kalpas manifested himself and corresponded to the apex.

He controlled and fixed the wind, clouds, thunder, and rain;

The myriad phenomena and all the gods were in his charge.

Then, seeing that the celestial primordial kalpas were complete,

It was Maitreya who was in charge of the stars and constellations.

He personally inquired about our school and sent down commands,

Wanting to put in order the nine-leafed lotus that is about to come.

The time of the nine-leafed lotus is that of the White Yang Assembly, which “is in charge of the Imperial Ultimate.” (57)

What we learn from this is that Gautama does not simply define his age but actually governs the entire cosmos for its duration. He “controlled and fixed the wind, clouds, thunder, and rain; / The myriad phenomena and all the gods were in his charge.” Everything in the universe is under his command for as long as his age lasts. The same is true of Dipamkara and Maitreya. They now do far more than simply reveal the true doctrine anew for their ages. Now they personally guide and manage the development and progression of the ages themselves.

The Ming sectarians do not deserve the credit for turning Siddhartha Gautama from an extraordinary but still quite human figure into a world-ruling deity. That process had been going on for a long time. But the Ming sectarians realized that idea more fully than perhaps anyone before them. It was not uncommon by this time to view Gautama as the earthly manifestation of a transcendent god or godlike being. But that was somewhat incidental to his earthly ministry; the events of his life and the contents of his teaching remained relatively unchanged. In the Huangji, Gautama’s earthly life and message take a backseat. What is important is his divine role as ruler of the age. The sanji system requires the three who rule the ages to be divine, and thus Dipamkara, Gautama, and Maitreya are made into something far beyond the conventional definition of a buddha. Their identity as gods is a core and non-negotiable belief of the text, as it would continue to be for later Ming and Qing sectarians.

This was enough to take them into the realms of theology that orthodox forms of Buddhism have often been unwilling to traverse. And yet, the Huangji pushes even further. As Overmyer notes, “The mythological framework of this book is that of the three buddhas, each of whom rules eons of time and all of whom seem to be understood as manifestations of the Ancient Buddha (Ku Fo), here equated with Amitābha, who is also the narrator of the book. This primordial buddha is the creator of the world” (63). What we have here, then, is an example of “one God in three Persons,” though again with the caveat that their conception differs considerably from how Christians have traditionally understood the Trinity. The sectarians believed in a single overarching deity who manifests as three separate persons. Each of these persons in the godhead is assigned a specific age of the world to govern. It is through/as that person that the deity interacts with and guides the world during that time. As a result, the corresponding ages of the cosmos are three and each age manifests the particular characteristics of the divine person ruling over it. But, as these three persons are ultimately the same supreme deity, the three ages resolve into a single movement of time that furthers and ultimately completes the work of salvation.

Joachim’s diagram of the Three Ages from the Liber Figurarum.

This should all sound familiar. These words could just as easily describe the Three Status of Joachim of Fiore as they could the sanji of the Huangji and later sectarians. After all, the great innovation of Joachim was that he was the first theologian to think about the Christian Trinity in terms of time and history. He was a firm believer in the view handed down by Christian tradition —recall that it was the basis of his struggle against Peter Lombard’s ideas—but he expanded that view considerably into something that much more resembles the theology the Huangji would later propose. Joachim saw the relationship between the three persons as uniquely dynamic and progressive, something that manifested itself in the basic structure of cosmic time. This was expressed in his revolutionary notion of the Three Ages of time corresponding to the three Persons of the Trinity.

Let us consider Joachim’s own words on the matter:

Because the Father is truly the one from whom proceeds the Son and the Holy Spirit; the Spirit is the one who proceeds simultaneously from the Father and the Son; both who proceed from one Father; the first status is ascribed to the Father alone, the third to the Holy Spirit, but the second to the Son and the Holy Spirit together. But I do not say that—may it be absent from the hearts of the faithful—the reign or operation of one Person may be believed to be divided from the reign or operation of the other two; but this is clearly to be accepted as a quality of the mystery. For just as there are three persons and one God, so too largely in these things, which are common to the three, can distinct symbols be found that relate in certain respects to the likeness of the persons; so it is that in Abraham, because he was chiefly called Father, is a symbol of the Father, in Isaac a symbol of the Son, and in Jacob a symbol of the Holy Spirit. Therefore the first status is to be attributed to the Father, the second to the Son and the Holy Spirit, although the works appointed to the Son may be more clearly present in it, because such was necessary; the third to the Holy Spirit, because in the third status the Holy Spirit is truly about to reveal His glory, just as the Son did His in the second, and the Father in the first. (Lib. Con. 2.1.9)

From this we can gleam the basic details of Joachim’s system. Time is divided into three ages, which Joachim refers to as status. Each age is allotted to one of the Persons of the Trinity, with that Person taking on the special role of overseeing that period of time and using it to “reveal His glory.” The first age is the Status of the Father, the second is the Status of the Son, and the third is the Status of the Holy Spirit. As the Huangji would later do, Joachim situates us in the second age, the Status of the Son. And, just as in the Huangji, there is an expectation that the third and final age, the Status of the Holy Spirit, is about to arrive. But even as the different Persons of the Godhead have a special responsibility over their respective ages, they are still all one God, and thus the three ages themselves are all part of a single temporal process through which He will bring the work of salvation to completion.

Not only do Joachim and the Huangji both divide time into three eras, but they assign those eras to the most important religious figures of their respective religious milieus. Joachim, a Catholic monk living in the heart of medieval Christendom, naturally chose the three persons of the Trinity as the representatives of the Three Ages. The author or authors of the Huangji, living at a time when Buddhism was the dominant faith of China, chose the three most well-known Buddhas. But if we look past the specific names and the particular religious flavoring they applied, we can see that their two conceptions were remarkably similar. They apportioned out the three ages in the same manner, put them under the rule of three individuals who together constitute a single supreme deity, and agreed that the ultimate goal of the temporal process was the completion of that deity’s plan for human salvation. Thus, Joachim and the Ming sectarians share a unique conception of time as the progressive manifestation of their deity’s triune nature and relationship with the world, something shared by none of the other supposed “three ages” systems. The extraordinary fact is that somehow this unusual idea occurred first to Joachim in twelfth-century Italy and then again to the Ming sectarians on the other side of Eurasia some two centuries later.

In addition, they both placed similar importance on the coming third age with each casting it as a utopian future era defined by the transformation of humanity’s spiritual condition and the revelation of new spiritual insights. Indeed, their respective understandings of the process of divine revelation are themselves very similar. Joachim’s most radical notion, the idea of progressive and continuing revelation, finds a parallel in the Huangji. Joachim claimed that revelation had occurred at set intervals throughout history and that it was beginning again as the Third Age drew near. The Huangji expresses a similar sentiment. As Overmeyer says, “The basic message of this book is that it is a new revelation of a path to heaven for those with the right karma who believe and practice its rituals” (Overmyer 54). The truths of the Huangji are as old as the universe, but their full revelation to humans is a new occurrence. The Huangji emphasizes that many prophets and revealed teachings have been sent before itself. The text speaks of thirty-six former teachers sent by the Primordial Buddha to reveal the truth throughout history. Unfortunately, these patriarchs “did not think about setting forth the details after opening up new fields” (qtd. in Overmyer 78). They provided the general message and their “opening up new fields” of salvation was good, but there was much that was left out of their revelations that believers need to know. It fell, then, to the Shouyuan Patriarch to finish the work they started through the Huangji and the previously unknown insights it contains.

At first glance, this may remind us of Islam’s attitude toward the prior revelations of Judaism and Christianity. But it even more closely aligns with Joachim’s own understanding of progressive revolution. For him, as for the Ming sectarians, the new truths about God and His relationship with humanity were eternal but had simply not been communicated—or communicated fully—to humans before. Now they would be, because the new age was near and it was time for humanity to grow to spiritual maturity. The Huangji accords with this, for all its complaints about the failing of previous patriarchs, it specifies that the reason for the new revelation to be given now is because the third age is drawing near and Maitreya desires to “put in order the nine-leafed lotus that is about to come.” For both Joachim and the Huangji’s authors, it is the need to ready the world for the new age that sparks the new transmission of prophetic insights. Those who receive these truths are, in turn, tasked with revealing them so as to make humanity ready for the coming transition.

Indeed, the Huangji even approaches Joachim’s notion of the “spiritual men.” Joachim believed that the transformations of the new age, the defeat of Antichrist, and the unification of all people under the true faith would all be brought about by “the spiritual men who are chiefly to be expected around the end of the world-age—even if some may have already come before—when that will be completed in many which was begun in a few by the promise the Lord made through Joel, saying: “It will be in newest days that I shall pour out from my spirit upon all flesh and your sons and your daughters will prophesy” (Lib. Con. 2.1.7). These spiritual men would be religious initiates—he specifically thought they would be monks—that would appear in large numbers—“that will be completed in many which was begun in a few”—and would possess the new mental faculty of the “spiritual intelligence.” The “spiritual intelligence” would allow them access to the new insights mentioned above, hence the citation of the prophet Joel’s words about prophecy becoming a universal gift. This did not mean that everyone living at this time would be called to become one of these “spiritual men,” but it was a role that was potentially open to everyone regardless of their place or status in society. Joachim’s spiritual men are less a chosen elect and more of a mass movement, even if they are imagined along monastic lines. They indicate that building the new age will be a collective and popular enterprise.

The Huangji suggests something similar when it remarks,

Three generations of buddhas have all come to descend to earth; the buddhas and bodhisattvas have together come to put [the world] in proper order. Dividing [their forms], they have been born in subprefectures, cities, districts, and prefectures, and have scattered about in settlements [of villages] and townships. They have become head supervisors to save the lost of the world, selecting the superior [among them] to become patriarchs [for] the apexes. (qtd, in Overmyer 90)

This means, in practical terms, that there are a large number of people throughout China who, as reincarnations of supernatural figures, are called to a special destiny. They are to guide the world into the coming age of Maitreya. There are many of them and they come from every conceivable human settlement and, assumedly, from all classes and stations in society. This recalls the spiritual men of Joachim. Like the spiritual men, membership is potentially open to all regardless of geographic location or rung on the social latter. As with Joachim, the emphasis here is on a kind of egalitarianism and the new age being brought about by collective action. The millennium is a uniquely social endeavor, built upon the common effort of the many rather than the few. Once again, the Huangji manages to reproduce one of the components so central to Joachim’s vision of the birth of the Third Status in its own portrayal of a world transitioning to the time of Maitreya.

A curious feature of the Huangji is that, for all of its talk of the coming of the new age, it can often be rather laconic about what the future world will look like. We hear Gautama say that “[After] eighteen kalpas, the Buddha Maitreya will be in charge of the teaching (chang chiao) and will obtain a nine-leafed golden lotus. His age will extend for eighty-one kalpas, and his heaven will be vast” ( Overmyer 62) and we know that, like in Joachim’s conception, the age itself will be wondrous, new spiritual insights will appear, and the true faith will become universal. But it seems like so much more could be said about the new time, its conditions, and its social structure. While Joachim can also sometimes be irritatingly opaque on what he imagines the world of the Third Status to look like, he gives us more to work with in this respect than the Huangji ultimately does.

This is because the authors of the Huangji seem far more interested in preparing their readers to meet Maitreya in heaven after death rather than waiting for him to arrive on earth. The sect behind the Huangji seems to have held beliefs not altogether unlike those the Essenes expressed in the Dead Sea Scrolls. They thought of themselves as an elect who would be rewarded for their devotion and attainment of secret wisdom with key posts in the celestial hierarchy. Their purpose was not to live on earth and experience the third age but to administer it from the heavens above. Indeed, the book itself can remind one of “Gnostic” texts such as the Pistis Sophia, filled with elaborate descriptions of how adherents are to bypass the multitudinous figures blocking the path to the highest heaven. Often, this otherworldly interest in the soul’s progress in the afterlife seems to take precedence over the worldly situation of the three ji periods.

That being said, while Overmyer takes these portions of the text as a literal description of what the sect expected to happen after death, Herbert Seiwert, in Popular Religious Movements and Heterodox Sects in Chinese History, offers a different interpretation. As Seiwert says:

Read in one way, we find an ‘eschatological message, promising hope to the pious that they will survive the disasters at the end of the age and attain rebirth in paradise.’ Read in a different way, we find a method of moral and spiritual cultivation that leads to the experience of transcendental worlds in this very life. It depended on the reader, which aspect was more important. (Seiwert 280).

Seiwert tends to see the steps of the afterlife journey as symbolic descriptions of how to apply all the newly revealed spiritual insights to one’s own life and awaken a fuller spiritual existence within this world. If this is so, this would mean that the Huangji is encouraging its readers to become something very much like Joachim’s “spiritual men,” who embody the transformative truths of the third age within their own lives and practices. This would bring the Huangji even more in accord with Joachim’s eschatological vision. Nor would this, despite what Seiwert seems to suggest, in any way dilute the apocalyptic dimensions of either Joachim or the Ming sectarians. The call to inner cultivation does not cancel out the “literal” apocalyptic meaning of the baojuans. Joachim’s own writings show us that both of these things can exist together. The coming of the new age encourages the work of personal transformation and personal transformation in turn helps to bring about the new age. For the Ming sectarians and for Joachim, both are necessary to a mature and proactive eschatological vision; one simply cannot exist without the other.

With all that being said, the Huangji does not display the same level of eschatological precision as Joachim does. As noted, the new age is not described as thoroughly as it could be and even the notions of historical progress, collective spiritual effort, and continuous revelation are comparatively rudimentary. As Overmyer says, “The terms for the three buddhas, apexes, and assemblies are all here, but they are not clearly and explicitly integrated” (Overmyer 68). It would fall to later sectarians and their baojuans to fully develop and refine these ideas, in the process unknowingly managing to bring them even further in line with what Joachim had proposed in the West.

Still, the importance of the Huangji lies in the fact that it, or at the very least the tradition behind it, laid the foundation for later sectarian baojuans to do these things. As Seiwert observes,

[T]he Huangji jieguo baojuan is the first baojuan that introduced the principal symbols of modern popular sectarianism. Already the introductory chapter describes the phenomenal world as a sequence of three cosmic periods ruled in turn by the Buddhas Dīpaṃkara, Śākyamuni and Maitreya. They preside over three assemblies called qingyang hui, hongyang hui, and baiyang hui (Green Yang, Red Yang, White Yang Assembly) and administer three teachings called Wuji jiao, Taiji jiao, and Huangji jiao (Teaching of Limitless, Supreme Ultimate, and August Ultimate). Here we have a basic set of symbols met again and again in later sectarian writings. (Seiwert 276)

The Huangji is, as noted above, the first known Chinese text to feature the three ages and the three buddhas who govern them. But it also develops all of the other major symbols used for the three ages by the later sectarian tradition. In the Huangji, each of the three ages are assigned a color. The first age, that of Dipamkara the Lamplighter, is given the color green. The color red, the imperial color of the Han and the then-ruling Ming Dynasties, belongs to Gautama’s age, which is our current one. And the future age of Maitreya receives Maitreya’s own traditional color, white. Thus, the three ages are also referred to as the Green, Red, and White Yang, hence yang becoming an alternative to ji as the term for these cosmic periods. The word yang itself signifies the element of light in the traditional yin-yang pairing and also refers to the sun. Its application here seems to have been symbolic, as the sectarians do not seem to have believed that each age possessed a differently colored sun. Later sectarians often changed up which color belonged to which period but they kept the alternative designation sanyang and the basic association of the three times with three different colors down through the centuries.

The Huangi also provides metaphorically describes each age as a lotus flower; the number of petals on each lotus indicates what age it represents. The three-petaled lotus is the first age, that of Dipamkara, and the five-petaled lotus is the second age belonging to Gautama. The nine-petaled lotus, meanwhile, represents the third age, the future era of Maitreya. The three ages are also designated by their lengths in kalpas; Dipamkara’s era is eight (8) kalpas, Gautama’s is eighteen (18), and Maitreya’s will be eighty-one (81). The lengths of time involved get longer as time moves closer to the salvific final age, in one of the few major divergences from Joachim, who believed that the length of each age was getting shorter. Intriguingly, there is also a symbolic relation between the specific number of kalpas assigned to each age, as each of the three lengths of time involve different combinations of the Chinese characters for 8 (八) and 1 (十)—a fact that, happily, translates well into English and Arabic numerals.

Finally, the three ages are also associated with the type of tree under which their ruling Buddha attained enlightenment. Gautama and his age are represented by the famous bodhi tree, the fig under which he found liberation. But more importantly in terms of later sectarian symbolism, Maitreya’s age is represented by the plant under which he will achieve enlightenment, the dragon flower. Each of these symbols would remain associated with the three ages throughout the later history of Chinese sectarianism, with the dragon flower gaining particular iconographic importance in later texts.

The persistence of these symbols again reinforces what we already know; that while later sectarians might have done much to elaborate and refine it, the basic idea of the three ji or yuan had been fully worked out sometime around the year 1400. This leads to the question of where the notion came from in the first place. We have already discussed that at length in our previous entry, showing that previous Buddhist, Manichaean, and Taoist three-age schemes could not have inspired or produced the sectarian one. Indeed, the Huangji makes use of both the Buddhist three periods of the dharma and the Taoist sanyuan idea. And yet, both are clearly subordinate to the new system of the three ji. Overmyer concludes that “any Confucian, Taoist, or Buddhist influences were indirect, digested, and part of what I suspect was a common pool of cultural information. Furthermore, they are here put in a new context, at the service of the dominant teachings of this book” (Overmyer 84). Whatever the Huangji incorporated from its religious milieu, it inevitably reconfigured to suit a new religious vision, much as Joachim had done in the west. Indeed, its only direct citation of another work is to an otherwise-unknown Hymn of the Venerable One from Sichuan, which assures us that, over a thousand years since we last checked in on it, Sichuan remained deeply associated with millennialist thought and activity but does nothing to blunt Overmyer’s assessment of the Huangji as a highly original text.

Of course, there is one parallel to the three-ages system of the Huangji that contains all the essential features listed above. That is the system proposed by Joachim of Fiore. We have now sketched at length how they agree on all the major particulars, despite coming out of completely different cultures and times. This naturally inspires the question of whether Joachim could have influenced the Huangji in any way, despite their geographical and temporal distance. It would certainly be a more satisfying explanation of their uncanny likeness than it all simply being a case of parallel but unconnected theological development.

It would also explain a few peculiarities seen in Joachim that the Huangji and later baojuan inexplicably reproduce. Of particular note is how Joachim’s treatment of Christ parallels that given by the Huangji and later sectarians to Siddhartha Gautama, the historical Buddha. It is remarkable that the sectarians do exactly as Joachim did and make their religion’s founder the ruler of the second age. Even if it was logical for both of them to see the second age reflected in their current religious dispensation, only Joachim’s system required that his faith’s founder govern the second age, because of the unique understanding Christianity has of Jesus. The Ming sectarians could have chosen any manner of structuring the three ages that they wanted. Thus, the fact that they chose one which reproduced this particular feature is certainly suggestive.

The system of the Huangji even repeats a problem Joachim encountered with his portrayal of the founder of his religion. Joachim has often been accused of minimizing the role of Christ in Christianity, of being too enraptured of the coming reign of the Holy Spirit to care about the historical life of Jesus of Nazareth. These criticisms are overblown, but they stem from a real issue in Joachim’s writings; he has a strange tendency in his writing to disassociate Jesus as a historical figure and the Son as a representative of the second age of time. Thus, he makes the curious comment in the Liber Concordie, when discussing which historical figures symbolically represent the three divine Persons and their respective ages, that “Zechariah signifies the Father, John [the Baptist] signifies the Son, and the man Jesus Christ signifies the Holy Spirit” (Lib. Con. 2.1.3). While Joachim surely meant nothing heretical by this, as the birth of Christ is still the proper beginning of the Age of the Son, the tension remains in his writings and is never properly resolved.

The same kind of tension appears in the Huangji. The whole text is structured as a dialogue between the historical Siddhartha Gautama, his disciples, and various individuals who come to him seeking wisdom. It features decidedly anachronistic elements—Qin Shi Huangdi comes to seek wisdom from the Buddha and is told off for not knowing about the three ages—there is a clear effort to present the dialogue as something that happened during Gautama’s historical lifetime. And yet, it otherwise seems quite uninterested in the historical Siddhartha Gautama. Its main interest is in him as the cosmic ruler of the second age and manifestation of the Primordial Buddha. When we have a Gautama who brags about creating the world and tells his interlocutors, “I nourished and gave life to you” (qtd. in Overmyer 63), we are at quite a distance from the historical teacher of liberation. Thus, the Huangji displays the same sort of tension between its faith’s human founder and the divine role is wants to assign him as Joachim did in his own writings.

Joachim’s notion that the second age would be apportioned “to the Son and the Holy Spirit together,” implying that they both have a hand in ruling the second time, also finds a parallel in the Huangji. Joachim presented the Son as predominant in the second period but the Holy Spirit as still being involved in its unfolding. In the Huangji, we find that while Gautama is the designated ruler of the Second Age, Maitreya is already “sending down commands,” indicating that he is quite active during this period as well. Not only does this resemble the peculiar set up Joachim had between the Son and the Holy Spirit but the fact that Maitreya is doing this because his own age is drawing so near recalls the concept of ages having two beginnings and overlapping each other which is so important to Joachim’s system.

There are other parallels. The Huangji and later baojuans see each of the three ages ending with world-shaking calamities. Joachim had each of his Three Status end with the persecutions of a great Antichrist. And for all their potentially radical millenarian assumptions, the Huangji and later baojuans wish long life upon the emperor and hope for the imperial realm to be eternally maintained. Joachim expected both the Catholic Church and the Papacy to survive into the Age of the Holy Spirit. Both thereby tempered their most revolutionary ideas with the hope that much of what we know from the current age would survive into the next. Once again, these intriguing areas of agreement would seem to indicate the possibility of influence.

So, did Joachim actually influence the sectarian tradition of the Huangji and later baojuans? At first glance, the odds seem astronomically low. The form of Christianity that had existed in China for centuries was the Nestorian variant completely disconnected from the West and Catholicism, which had almost entirely disappeared by the Ming period. The official entry of the Catholic Church into China is only dated to 1582 when the Jesuits finally penetrated the mainland. They only established themselves in Beijing in 1601, nearly two-hundred years after the Huangji jieguo boajuan was published there. The Catholic Church’s great effort to convert China came too late to have had any real influence on the by-then-flourishing sectarian tradition.

But there is one possible avenue of contact and influence. During the Yuan Dynasty that preceded the Ming, Franciscan missionaries were sent to the court of the Chinese Emperor by the Pope. One of these, John of Montecorvino, proved rather successful, establishing a church in Beijing in 1299 and another in 1305. This Franciscan mission did not expand much further than that, but within the region it seems to have found many converts. The Ming Dynasty’s rise to power in 1368 put an end to the mission, as the new dynasty was quick to expel all Christians from the country. This brought a swift end to a roughly seventy-year period of Franciscans spreading their faith in the capital region.

Seventy years is a long time and, given the mission’s relative success, it would not be surprising if some traces of its beliefs survived in the area. Could those beliefs have included the teachings of Joachim of Fiore? It is certainly possible. After all, this was a Franciscan mission. While all the new mendicant orders felt the sway of his ideas to some extent, Joachim’s influence on the Franciscans was particularly thorough, profound, and immense. Indeed, the mission was established just under a century after Joachim’s death, at a time when the Franciscan Order as a whole was deeply in the grip of his thought. The conflict between Joachim-inspired Spirituals and the Conventuals for control of the order was still ongoing at the time and the tenure of the Joachimite John of Parma as Minister General was still a recent memory. Given the strength of Joachim’s hold on the order at the start of the fourteenth century, it would have been natural for the Franciscans to carry his ideas with them to China.

What is more, the Franciscan mission was based in Beijing and found its only real success in the area of the capital. Beijing was also where the Huangji jieguo baojuan would later be published, and many of the later three-ages sectarian sects would have their origin in the region. The authors of the Huangji and their successors were in exactly the right place in China to encounter any ideas and teachings that might have survived from the days of the Franciscans. After all, the interval between the expulsion of the Franciscan mission and the publication of the Huangji is only sixty years, and the Huangji itself seems to suggest that the three-ages system was already widely circulating by the time of its writing. As far as historical time spans go, this is short enough that the basic tenets of Joachimism could easily have survived, doubly so if they had lost all the distinctive markers that associated them with the now banned faith of Christianity. Given all this, then, it is not unreasonable to think that the Franciscans might have brought Joachimism to China and that it survived in the Beijing region after they were gone, where it was swiftly integrated into the sectarian eschatological tradition that ultimately produced the Huangji and later baojuan. After all, the sectarians were never shy about taking what they needed from other religions and, when they needed a new time-system upon which to build their doctrines, the one created by Joachim of Fiore might just have fit the bill.

Of course, this is largely conjecture. There are no records that prove that this is what happened. All we can say is that it might have happened. We are left with no direct proof of a line of influence stretching Joachim to the Ming sectarians. But if there is no influence, then that instead means that we have one of the greatest cases of parallel evolution in the history of human thought. Such a monumental coincidence seems unlikely, but we still lack evidence to prove it was more than that. All we can say right now is that something truly astonishing happened in Ming China, as Joachim’s thought managed to be reproduced a continent away from his homeland, in a religious atmosphere completely different from his own. What is even more incredible is that as the religious thought of the Chinese sectarians continued evolving, they would somehow move the concept of the three ji periods even closer to the conception outlined by Joachim several centuries before.

Works Cited

Joachim of Fiore. Liber de Concordia Novi ac Veteris Testamenti, edited by E. Randolph Daniel. Transactions of the American Philosophical Society, vol. 73, no. 8 (1983): pp. 1-455. All translations mine.

Overmyer, Daniel L. Precious Volumes: An Introduction to Chinese Sectarian Scriptures from the Sixteenth and Seventeenth Centuries. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1999. All bracketed text is original to Overmyer.

Seiwert, Hubert. Popular Religious Movements and Heterodox Sects in Chinese History. Leiden: Brill, 2003.

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