“Mourning texts” (āi jìwén 哀祭文) are an important genre of Dūnhuáng 敦煌 literature and are usually regarded as a subgenre of Dūnhuáng "Prayer texts” (yuànwén 願文). More than 230 Mourning texts are extant among the Dūnhuáng manuscripts, with more than 160 of them well-preserved, dating from the Táng 唐 and Five Dynasties 五代 to the early Sòng 宋 Dynasty. In a narrow sense, Mourning texts are primarily addressed to the deceased, expressing grief and mourning, and are written in the form of an Elegy (jìwén 祭文). More generally, they not only offer prayers for the living, but also include dedications to the Buddha, mountains, rivers, vegetation, and other entities, and are subclassified into the línkuàngwén 臨壙文, xíngxiāngwén 行香文, and other types.
Parallel to its Chinese counterpart, in Japan, Mourning texts reflect corresponding ideas and fulfill a similar purpose. They were produced in large numbers and passed down to this day in the form of Japanese “Memorial Prayer texts” (Jp. Tsuizen ganmon 追善願文). The vocabulary of prayer texts dating from the Nara 奈良 period is limited in scope, and their structure is relatively simple, owing to the influence of the models of the literature of the Chinese Hàn 漢 and Táng dynasties. After Kūkai 空海 (774-835) had returned to Japan from China in 806, the diversity of vocabulary, technical terms, and sentence structures in Japanese literature expanded, also deeply affecting the features of the Memorial Prayer texts. Japanese Prayer texts, like their Dūnhuáng counterparts, “offer prayers for the living and mourning for the dead 為生者愿, 為亡者念.” In contrast to the often vernacular and popular features of Dūnhuáng literature, Japanese Prayer texts are generally used by the upper class, and the authors of these texts are mostly well-known scholars of their time. More generally, we cannot discuss the origins of Japanese Prayer texts without considering their counterparts from Dūnhuáng and Turfan.
This study focuses on Dūnhuáng Mourning texts in a narrow sense, employing linguistic and philological methodologies to analyze the characteristics of the texts in manuscript form. Simultaneously, the project aims to situate them within a broader historical context, examining the rituals and religious and cultural factors of that time. Furthermore, we compare this genre with its Japanese counterpart dating from the same period and study the Japanese literati’s reception, adaptation, and further development of these types of texts.