Bianwen 變文, shortly called bian 變, was a literary genre popular during the Tang period (618-907). It is a type of literature that was influenced by the Buddhist changdao 唱導 (lit. "guidance [to enlightenment] by [publicly performed] singing") and advanced the literary tradition of the songs of the Music Bureau (yuefu shi 樂府詩), tales of strange events (zhiguai 志怪) and rhapsodies (fu 賦) that were very popular during the Han 漢 (208 BCE-220 CE), Wei 曹魏 (220-265) and Southern Dynasties 南朝 (420~589) periods.
According to the monk Huijiao 慧皎 (497-554), Buddhist missionaries urgently needed a kind of vernacular literature that could be understood by everyone. Songs and verses helped to entertain the audience and to express easily even complicated matters. The genre of bianwen literature includes Buddhist stories as well as tales about anecdote in Chinese history.
The meaning of the term bianwen is approximately the same as that of yanyi 演義 (lit. "extended meaning/morale [of an episode]"), a term often used for historical novels. This means that a historical event is narrated in a new form that was more attractive than historiographical reports. Bian can thus either mean that the historical content is "changed" into a popular form (hence the common translation as "transformation texts"), or that there is a plot with a history "developing" in the course of the story. Bianwen is a genre that was long forgotten and only came into remembrance with the discovering of manuscript novellas in the famous grottoes of Dunhuang 敦煌.
The earliest modern publication of "Three Buddhist Songs" (Fo qu san zhong 佛曲三種) was made by Luo Zhenyu 羅振玉 in his book Dunhuang lingshi 敦煌零拾 from 1924. At that time the term bianwen was not yet known, so that Luo classified these texts as "Buddhist songs", as if there had been such a tradition in India. Later on, this type of literature was called jiangjingwen 講經文 "Explanation of sutras", suwen 俗文 "vulgar texts", or sujiang 俗講 "profane explanations".
Only when stories outside of the Buddhist sutra context appeared, like Han jiang Wang Ling bian 漢將王陵變 "General Wang Ling of the Han dynasty", Jiang mo bianwen 降魔變文 "Bringing down the demons", or Da Muqianlian mingjian jiumu bianwen 大目乾连冥間救母變文 "Mahāmaudgalyāyana's search for his mother in hell", scholars came to know that bianwen was not a genuinely Buddhist type of literature but a widespread popular genre of the Tang period.
The story Mulianbian目連變 "Mulian" is also mentioned in Meng Qi's 孟棨 novella collection Benshishi 本事詩. Ji Shilao 吉師老 mentions the story Kan Shu nü zhuan Zhaojun bian 看蜀女轉昭君變 "How a girl from Shu transformed into Wang Zhaojun". Wang Dingbao's 王定保 Tangzhiyan 唐摭言 mentions how Huangfu Song 皇甫松 wrote his story Dashui bian 大水辨 after the inundation of Xiangyang 襄陽. All these descriptive bianwen were popular literature genres from that time. Even educated literati used this genre to carry out their creative work.
The early Tang period bianwen texts made use of a lot of miscellaneous explanations and allegories to explain the meaning of the Buddhist sutras, yet these methods were already adapted to the Chinese way of storytelling. They are a product of the Buddhist monasteries' attempts at giving the stories of the Buddha's life a visual and artful character. This was an excellent method to attract a wider public to the contents of Buddhist teachings.
Another method to address more people was the integration of well-known stories from Chinese history. The book Gaosengzhuan 高僧傳 describes how monks specialised on the recounting of such stories and "discussed the sutras by choosing histories". - "When talking about the fickleness of life, the narrator made their heart trembling; talking about the underworld, he caused fear and tears; when recalling the past, he evoked the virtuous rulers; when giving a warning of the consequences of doing and thinking, he showed the true roots of things; when talking about joy and gladness, he described all feelings and plunged into the description of delights; when talking about sadness and harm, he burst out in bitter tears. Hence, the surrounding crowd was very moved and went home in deep thoughts."
The bianwen texts of the later phase still carried on these characteristics. During the middle and late Tang period numerous temples within the capital Chang'an 長安 (modern Xi'an 西安, Shaanxi) told popular stories on unprecedentedly grand occasions. In his poem Huashan nü 華山女 "Girl from Mt. Hua" the great Confucian scholar Han Yu 韓愈 describes how crowded the streets and spaces in monasteries were when stories were publicly narrated. This kind of popular stories had gradually departed from the Buddhist background and non-religious contents increased.
Public performances were so popular that one certain Wenxu 文溆 was even accused of distracting the population from a decent life and distorted the proper art of composition, as Duan Anjie 段安節 laments in his Yuefu zalu 樂府雜錄. The book Yinhualu 因話錄 even reports that such a narrator was beaten as a consequence of a trial against his "indescent" performance. It can thus be seen that bianwen stories were popular tales with a wide-ranging social content. Monks and laymen narrators created many tales which took history, stories, folk legends and daily life as their topics. At the same time, it became common that bianwen stories were performed on a stage (the so-called bianchang 變場), similar to a theatre play.
Duan Chengshi 段成式 (800-863) mentions in his Youyang zazu 酉陽雜俎 a certain Baccalaureus Li 李秀才 who was said to love "watching banners of the tavern and seeking pleasure on the bian stages". The eminent history Zizhi tongjian 資治通鑒 also reports that Princess Wanshou 萬壽公主 went to the "theatre stages of Buddhist and Daoist temples". From these two statements it can be seen that not only ordinary people went to visit the bian performances, but also scholars, literati and even persons of the higher nobility. Even Emperor Xuanzong himself loved listening to explanations of the sutras and the performance of Buddhist and vernacular stories, as Guo Shi 郭湜 (700-788) tells in his book Gao Lishi waizhuan 高力士外傳.
It was common to illustrate the poems and the narrative parts of the stories with pictures, as is attested in the stories Kan Shu nü zhuan Zhaojun bian, Jiangmo bianwen and Pomo bianwen 破魔变文 "Smashing the demons". The pictures attached to the texts found among the Dunhuang manuscripts are the forerunners of the illustrations (chatu 插圖) of the editions of the great Chinese novels during the Ming 明 (1368-1644) and Qing 清 (1644-1911) periods.
In some Dunhuang bianwen texts, there are marks indicating the mode of the voice in which a certain passage has to be spoken or chanted, like ping 平 "even", ze 則 "inclined", or duanjin 斷金 "emotionally". The artistic level of the bianwen performances resulted in a combination of music, narration and illustration and so attracted the masses from all levels of society.
The bianwen texts preserved in Dunhuang include two different types of texts, namely Buddhist stories, and profane stories. Buddhist stories mainly served to propagate the religion of Buddhism and were mainly directed towards the moral sensitivity of the audience. Some stories also appeal to national loyalty and filial piety, moral attributes rather uphold by Confucianism.
One technique to attract the attention of the audience was to first recite a short passage of a sutra that was then explained with a lot of vivid examples and transformed into a whole story. For instance, the performer quoted a proposition from the Weimo jiejing jiangjing wen 維摩詰經講經文 "Explanation to the Vamalakīrti nirdeśa sūtra" speaking of the healing power of the Bodhisattva Mañjuśrī, and from this sentence developed a whole story with a length of several thousand words, the Weimo jiejing bianwen 維摩詰經變文. A large number of persons were introduced in the plot, and a complex story was made out of a simple sentence.
Another type of Buddhist bianwen text did not quote directly from a Buddhist text but retold attractive stories from the life of the Buddha, explained the meaning of sutras, or reported a dispute about Buddhist teachings by his disciples, like in the Jiangmo bianwen, where the Buddha's disciple Śāriputra (Shelifu 舍利弗) convinces his opponents, the Treasure Mountain 寶山 (ratna-parvata/ratna-giri), the Water Buffalo 水牛 (mahiṣa) and the Poisonous Dragon 毒龍 (viṣa-nāga), that all were able to transform into whole armies and to rejuvenate, by transforming himself into a vajra 金剛 "thunderbolt" (representing spiritual firmness and power), a lion or the Bird King 鳥王 (pakṣi-rāja, phoenix or garuda). These stories depicting the fight with fierce creatures representing sins and the overpowering force of the Buddha's adherents was a very attractive method to convince the auditorium of the power of Buddhism.
This sort of stories can also be seen as forerunners of the great novels Xiyouji 西游記 "Journey to the West" and Fengshen yanyi 封神演義 "Creation of the Gods". In the story Da Muganlian mingjian jiumu all the threats and dangers of the underworld are described, convincingly showing the auditorium what could happen if they did not worship the Buddha and live a moral life.
A great part of the bianwen stories draws its motifs from historical stories, folk legends and real life. In the procedure of creating such "speech/song" stories (partially consisting of sung poems and partially of narrative passages) as the bianwen, the stories were expanded, adorned and sometimes even exaggerated events. Historical persons become literary characters with good or bad inclination, social conflicts are explicitly described, and the personal difficulties, in which the protagonists find themselves, like love and hatred, are exemplified.
Such stories are Wu Ziyu bianwen 伍子胥變文 "Wu Zixu", Han jiang Wang Ling bianwen, Shun zi zhixiao bianwen 舜子至孝變文 "The most filial son of Emperor Shun", Wang Zhaojun bianwen 王昭君變文 "Wang Zhaojun", Meng Jiangnü bianwen 孟姜女變文 "[Virtuous woman] Meng Jiangnü", or the fragments of Zhang Yichao bianwen 張義潮變文 "Zhang Yichao" and Zhang Huaishen bianwen 張淮深變文 "Zhang Huaishen" (the two last being local heroes). These works opened up new ways for the bianwen literature, extending the plots from a religious and moral background to the sphere of the personal fate of heroes and bravers.
In forms of art the bianwen literature also produced unique outcomes. Except of vivid narratives, rich imagining of the plots and using everyday language, one important characteristic is the combination of verses and prose (prosimetric composition). The poems of bianwen use seven-syllable verses; occasionally also interspersed with three-, five- or six-syllable verses. The prose part of the bianwen stories consists of a simple classical Chinese (wenyan 文言) that sometimes transforms into a paragraph of paired sentences (pianwen 駢文) in a language close to poetry. Many passages are also declaimed in a real vernacular language (baihua 白話).
Prose part and rhymed speech are combined in two different ways: The prose part is narrative and tells the story, while the verses serve to repeat and to subsume the content, to intensify the impression won by the events of the story, and to draw a moral conclusion. The other type of story uses prose to string together the plot and verses to extend the description of the events. In this case the two parts do not overlap each other from the content, but are closely linked and compliment each other. Especially this type of combination of prose and poetry can be traced back to the rhapsodies that use a kind of prose-poetry to broadly describe the theme of the poem, while the much cruder, but more vivid and energetic part of the prose paragraphs was something new in this combination. Compared to the later great novels, the bianwen stories still miss a lot of liveliness and – in the art of portraying persons – do not reveal their inner world.
The bianwen genre surely had an influence on the Tang literary work, especially on the development of stories of strange events (chuanqi 傳奇). The whole text of Zhang Zhuo's 张鷟 Youxianku 游仙窟 from the early Tang period, for instance, uses prose to narrate the story and verses to express dialogs. The way of mixing prose and poetry as literary style and of singing and speaking as executing methods is basically unanimous. Furthermore, the description is meticulously and lively, the language is popular and easy to understand, and so approaches the manner of the bianwen stories.
During the mid-Tang period chuanqi stories flourished, and it was also a time when and storytelling in a popular language and with vivid plots was in fashion. At that time, a lot of stories evolved in which prose and verse were combined, for example the Liu Yi zhuan 柳毅傳 "Liu Yi" by Li Chaowei 李朝威, Yingying zhuan 鶯鶯傳 "Ying Ying" by Yuan Zhen 元稹, or Changhengge zhuan 長恨歌傳 "Lament everlasting" by Chen Hong 陳鴻. These stories were all very clearly influenced by the bianwen tradition. They also show already the tendency of the Tang stories and the later novellas of the Song 宋 (960-1279) and Yuan 元 (1279-1368) periods to a long narrative extension of the plot that was already an integral character of the bianwen stories.
The genre of bianwen also had a positive influence on the prosimetric literature of later generations, namely on the arias written in various musical modes (zhugongdiao 諸宮調), Buddhist "treasure scroll" stories (baojuan 寶卷), popular "drum song" (guci 鼓詞) or "string song" (tanci 彈詞) ballads, as well as the Yuan opera (zaju 雜劇) and the Southern style opera (nanxi 南戲). Some bianwen texts like the Weimojiejing jingjiang wen and the Baxiang yazuo wen 八相押座文 "Quieting the audience by the story of the eight phases in the Buddha's life" appear like blueprints to some Southern opera libretti. Their way of mixing singing and speaking was already very similar to the style of mixing arias with recitation parts in the Chinese opera.
The diversity of bianwen topics also supplied the Chinese opera literature of later ages with rich material. For example the Da Muganlian mingjian jiumu bianwen was used by the Ming period writer Zheng Zhizhen 鄭之珍 and enlarged to the Mulian jiumu quanshan xiwen 目連救母勸善戲文, an opera libretto that was very popular in his time. The bianwen stories of Wu Zixu, Meng Jiangnü, Wang Zhaojun and others, too, were later transformed into Chinese operas. The influence of the bianwen genre in the history of Chinese literature is therefore worth to be paid attention to.
There are a few modern publications of bianwen literature, like Zhou Shaoliang's 周紹良 Dunhuang bianwen huilu 敦煌變文匯錄 from 1954, or Wang Zhongmin's 王重民 Dunhuang bianwen ji 敦煌變文集 from 1957 (co-editors Wang Qingshu 王慶菽, Xiang Da 向達, Zhou Yilang 周一良, Qi Gong 啟功 and Zeng Yigong 曾毅公), which includes critical editions of 78 out of 187 bianwen stories found in Chinese and abroad collections. Some of the texts could only be processed on the base of photos. The collection is 8-juan long and is arranged thematically. Juan 1 to 3 include popular stories, juan 4 to 6 Buddhist stories, juan 7 prelude texts (yazuowen 押座文), and juan 8 stories from the biography collections Soushenji 搜神記 and Xiaozizhuan 孝子傳.