Mao Zedong's "three jewels"

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On the eve of the establishment of the PRC, Chairman Mao referred to united front (tǒngyī zhànxiàn 統一戰線) work as one of the Party's "three great fabao" (sān gè dà fǎbǎo 三个大法宝).  So what is a fabao, what did Mao mean by that expression, and where did he get it?

Mao's "fabao" is often glossed as "magic weapon" or "secret weapon", and it seems to be a reference to the "Three Jewels / Treasures" (sānbǎo 三宝 / 寶; Skt. triratna) of Buddhism: the Buddha (Fó 佛), the Dharma (fǎ 法, the "Law" or "Doctrine" of Buddhism), and the Sangha (sēng 僧, the community of Buddhist monks and the monastic order to which they adhere).

For a magisterial and highly influential article about the fabao as political weapons, see Anne-Marie Brady, "Magic Weapons: China's political influence activities under Xi Jinping" (Wilson Center [9/18/17]), which leads to a pdf. My aim in this post is to provide a modest Sinological survey of the origins and development of fabao.

Everybody knows about the sānbǎo ("Three Jewels / Treasures") of Buddhism (the Buddha, the Dharma, and the Sangha) in which Buddhists take refuge (hence they are also called the "Three Refuges").  Mao Zedong's sān gè dà fǎbǎo 三个大法宝 ("three great fabao") bears an obvious resemblance to sānbǎo ("Three Jewels / Treasures") of Buddhism, but I do not believe that Mao got his notion of "three great fabao" directly from the Buddhist sānbǎo ("Three Jewels / Treasures").

If anything, a fabao would be the second of the sānbǎo ("Three Jewels / Treasures"), and sān gè dà fǎbǎo 三个大法宝 ("three great fabao") would be three manifestations of it.  Whereas sānbǎo 三宝 / 寶; Skt. triratna ("three jewels / gems / treasures") is solidly established as a cornerstone of the Buddhist faith,
fǎbǎo 法宝 ("dharma jewel / gem / treasure", which can be written in Sanskrit as dharmaratna), it is not a central pillar of Buddhist discourse.

Something that surprised me: even though I translated the Tao Te Ching, I never really paid attention to the fact that sān bǎo 三寶 appears in ch. 67 of that work, where it refers to "compassion", "frugality", and "humility".  It was also used to refer to the Three Treasures (jing, qi, and shen) in Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM).

The interconnections among the early Taoist, the Buddhist, and the TCM uses of sānbǎo 三寶 ("three jewels / gems / treasures") is fascinating, but also seem to me to be vastly complicated.  Mao was no doubt vaguely aware of this threefold background, but not as a philologist would be.  When he spoke of the sān gè dà fǎbǎo 三个大法宝 ("three great fabao [or "dharma gems / jewels / treasures"]), he was thinking of them as magical weapons (the united front, armed struggle, and Party building) that enabled the CCP to defeat its enemies, so he was using the expression in its popular religious sense, not in its more narrow, Buddhist or Taoist doctrinal meaning.

As the Buddhist sānbǎo 三宝 / 寶; Skt. triratna ("three jewels / gems / treasures") are well attested in Indian Buddhism (Skt. tri-ratna / Pali ti-ratana) I tend to think that this set is fairly straightforward. The early translators of Indian Buddhist texts into Chinese need not have been aware of the sān bǎo 三寶 in the Tao Te Ching, inasmuch as sānbǎo 三寶 as a translation for tri-ratna is the obvious solution.

It is not surprising that in China too virtues were grouped in sets of three. The primes three and five are just handy for a short list, better than four or six, which can be split symmetrically.

As for exactly how Mao came up with the term 三大法宝, although he was undoubtedly influenced by the Buddhist, Taoist, and TCM notions discussed above, the idea of adapting the popular religious notion of three jewels / gems / treasures for communist warfare appears to have been his own creation.

For a list of the main meanings of fabao and illustrations of their uses, see Hànyǔ dà cídiǎn 汉语大词典 (Unabridged Dictionary of Sinitic), 5.1049a: 1. Buddhist technical term as described above; 2. in myth, a precious substance or object that can subdue demons and devils; 3. a special weapon, method, or experience that can defeat one's enemies (as explained by Mao); 4. precious gem, treasure, or jewel.

[Thanks to James Leibold, Marcus Bingenheimer, Dan Boucher, and Jan Nattier]



5 Comments

  1. J said,

    October 2, 2017 @ 12:31 pm

    THIS is why I read Victor Mair on Language Log! Can you get this kind of in-depth explanation from one of those cutesy Chinese-learning apps?

    "The interconnections among the early Taoist, the Buddhist, and the TCM uses of sānbǎo 三寶 ("three jewels / gems / treasures") is fascinating, but also seem to me to be vastly complicated."

    Which leads me to a question a bit off topic. Have you read Christopher Beckwith's "Greek Pyrrho"? What do you think of his reconstruction of 老聃 as 'Gotam' (~Guatama)?

  2. leoboiko said,

    October 2, 2017 @ 4:11 pm

    So the shift of the 宝 morpheme from "treasure" to "weapon" is something created entirely by Mao? Or is "weapon" just an artifact of translation, and Mao's three great 法宝 were, in his mind, just three "holy treasures" to be used in revolution?

  3. Victor Mair said,

    October 2, 2017 @ 5:40 pm

    @leoboiko

    The shift from gem / jewel to weapon had already begun long before Mao, as documented in definition 2 of Hànyǔ dà cídiǎn 汉语大词典 (Unabridged Dictionary of Sinitic). Mao applied this power to subdue one's enemy to the political realm. See the last paragraph of the o.p.

  4. Lugubert said,

    October 3, 2017 @ 1:52 am

    The gem/jewel to weapon reminds me of Sanskrit vajra: thunderbolt or diamond.

  5. flow said,

    October 3, 2017 @ 7:54 am

    I had the same question as @leoboiko when I came to the last paragraph of the OP. I think the essential peace of data here is either the publication date of the referenced 汉语大词典 or else a pointer to sources given in its entry for 法宝. I think the relevant page here is shown at http://www.guoxuedashi.com/kangxi/pic.php?f=dcd&p=7504; it shows under 法宝:(3)比喻有特效的武器,方法或经验。毛泽东《〈共产党人〉发刊词》…, IOW its first reference to 法宝 in the sense of 'secret weapon' is indeed Mao Zedong… OTOH I *think* the two other sources given are older?

    At http://www.guoxuedashi.com/hydcd/269681a.html, GXDS has a reference to Lu Xun: 鲁迅《中国小说史略》第十六篇:「﹝妙吉祥童子﹞复生炎魔天王家,是为灵耀,师事天尊,又诈取其金刀,炼为金砖以作法宝,终闹天宫,上界鼎沸。」; that work dates from 1925, so its decades before the Chairman's usage of the term.

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