Daniel Burton-Rose

Assistant Professor of History, Wenzhou Kean Unviersity
Faculty Adviser: Susan Naquin

Terrestrial Rewards as Divine Recompense: The Self-Fashioned Piety of the Peng Lineage of Suzhou, 1650s-1870s


This dissertation focuses on the religious commitments of the Peng clan of Suzhou. From the early to mid-Qing dynasty (1644-1911) the Pengs were arguably the most successful corporate lineage in the entire empire in terms of civil examination performance. They were also pioneers of a charitable style of status justification in which the Pengs explained their worldly success as divine reward for their good works. By the early eighteenth century, many of the Pengs’ peers and social inferiors promulgated their claims as well. In the thriving genre of morality books (shanshu) particularly successful Peng patriarchs served as iconic shorthand for the terrestrial reward of civil examination success for philanthropic acts. Examination hopefuls and morality book consumers throughout the empire sought to obtain a portion of the prosperity of the Pengs by emulating their charitable commitments. Drawing on source materials ranging from autobiographies and genealogies to the transcripts of spirit-writing sessions, I focus my study on the pivotal figure of Peng Dingqiu (1645-1719). Dingqiu’s 1676 optimus distinction and self-presentational strategy were critical in the consolidation of the concrete and symbolic power of the Peng lineage. Exploring the role of spirit-writing altars in intra-elite relations, I argue that Dingqiu’s claim of a prophecy of his civil examination success had wide ranging consequences for his descendants and his own posthumous persona. In documenting the collective devotional commitments of the Peng lineage in realms such as a tower complex devoted to the deity Wenchang and local Daoist institutions, I provide a nuanced portrait of elite religiosity and its impact on the late imperial cityscape. Simultaneously, I use attention to the familial lineage in order to explain the centrality of religious modes of discourse in elite self-organization. A descriptive catalog of works by Peng lineage members from the sixteenth to the nineteenth centuries illustrates the scope of members’ cultural impact and provides a basis for understanding how successive generations represented their ancestors through editorial and publishing endeavors.