Chindian Myth of Mulian Rescuing His Mother – On Indic Origins of the Yulanpen Sūtra

Chindian Myth of Mulian Rescuing His Mother – On Indic Origins of the Yulanpen Sūtra

Debate and Discussion

By Xiaohuan Zhao

The scriptural source for the Ghost Festival in East Asia is the Yulanpen Sūtra, which, however, is overwhelmingly considered apocryphal in modern scholarship. This book challenges this widely held belief by demonstrating that the sūtra is a Chinese creative translation rather than an indigenous Chinese composition.

EPUB, 122 Pages


September 2023

£19.99, $23.80

PDF, 122 Pages


September 2023

£19.99, $23.80

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About This Book

This book addresses the thorny issue regarding the authenticity of the Yulanpen Sūtra with a view to clearing up the centuries-long confusion and controversy surrounding its translation and transmission in China. The main objective of this study is thus to check and confirm the authenticity of the Yulanpen Sūtra, which features Mulian adventuring into the Preta realm to rescue his mother. 

Traditionally attributed to the Indo-Scythian Dharmarakṣa (Ch. Zhu Fahu, ca. 266–308) as the translator, the sūtra is now widely believed to have been created by Chinese Buddhists to foster sinicisation and transformation of Indian Buddhism on the grounds that there is no extant Yulanpen Sūtra in Indic sources and that the sūtra stresses Confucian filial piety and ancestor worship, amongst others. Through a critical review of the major arguments prevailing in modern scholarship against its authenticity and a close examination of textual and contextual evidence concerning the Yulanpen Sūtra, this book demonstrates that filial piety and ancestor worship are also deeply rooted in ancient Indian culture and that the Mulian myth reflects the recurring motif of ‘rescuing the hungry ghost of a sinful mother’ in Indian mythology and religious literature. 

In so doing, this book sheds new light on the Indic origins of the Yulanpen Sūtra and the Ghost Festival in general and of the Mulian myth and the Mulian drama – the oldest Chinese ritual drama that has been alive onstage for nearly one thousand years – in particular.


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Author Information

Xiaohuan Zhao is an Associate Professor of Chinese Literary and Theatre Studies at the University of Sydney.


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Table of Contents

List of Figures; Preface; Author’s Notes; Introduction; 1. Yulanpen Sūtra and Maudgalyāyana; 2. Etymologies of Yulan, Pen and Yulanpen; 3. Yulanpen Sūtra in Chinese Buddhist Catalogues; 4. Yulanpen Sūtra: Apocryphal or Authentic?; Conclusion; Glossary; Bibliography; Index


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