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date: 30 November 2020

The Modern Endeavor to Interpret Early Chinese Religions

Abstract and Keywords

Early Chinese religions consist of individual religious components, on one hand, and the systems uniting those components, on the other, but the systems get lost over time. Hence, when we study early Chinese religions, we tend to superimpose our own templates on the surviving components. To better navigate these religions, we must analyze our situatedness relative to theirs, be wary of how we play “dot-to-dot” with the components, and ultimately adopt a polythetic approach to defining religion. Part one addresses both the scope of individual religious components (i.e. their temporal longevity, geographic spread and degree of representativeness among the people) and their significance (i.e. from influential belief to banal flourish). Part two considers how we interconnect those components within a “religion” as well as connect them to non-religious components such as contemporaneous social and political forces. Part three discusses our projection of modern religious categories and theories onto early China.

Keywords: early Chinese religions, Zhou, Han, Confucianism, Daoism, ancestral cult, religious phenomena, religious systems, polythetic

Scores of stone reliefs, clay sculptures, and recorded texts from the Han Dynasty (206 BCE–220 CE) demonstrate the popularity of liubo 六博, a board game played with counters and dice. From courtiers to immortals, gamers challenged one another in what appears to have been a lively, popular pastime, and even the board’s symmetrical design was transferred onto other media such as the backs of bronze mirrors and the surfaces of sundials, perhaps adding cosmological symbolism to their mundane functions. Yet today’s students of the Han Dynasty must frustratingly remain within the language of “what appears to have been” and “perhaps” because, while we have excavated numerous images of the gamers as well as their actual boards, counters, and dice, we have yet to excavate the rules. We can’t play with their toys.

The study of early Chinese religions leads to a similar frustration because, while we possess the various components both physical (bronze vessels, sacrificial sites, apotropaic devices) and conceptual (spirits, prayers, festivals), we don’t actually know how they fit together or what the religious players experienced in their participation. We can’t even draw a circle around those components and call it “religion” because this particular demarcation did not exist in early China, the period from 1250 BCE to 220 CE. When we today examine a sacrificial vessel, an ancestral tablet, or a textual reference to spirits, we inevitably categorize that component as “religious” either consciously or subconsciously, a categorical label that brings with it a unique set of understandings. Yet in the absence of an early China religion rubric, we must sometimes fold up the modern “umbrella term” of religion just as we must elsewhere fold up the umbrella terms of politics, economics, morality, culture, and art. At the very least, we must step back and recognize that the coverage of our umbrella terms is not the same as the coverage of theirs.

Just separating the coverage of religion from other discourses in premodern China may in itself be an unwise endeavor, and more than fifty years ago, C. K. Yang famously contrasted its “diffused religions” against the “institutional religions” broadly familiar today:

Diffused religion is conceived of as a religion having its theology, cults, and personnel so intimately diffused into one or more secular social institutions that they become part of the concept, rituals, and structure of the latter, thus having no significant independent existence. [In traditional China], the religious element was diffused into all major social institutions and into the organized life of every community in China. It was in its diffused form that people made their most intimate contact with religion.1

Hence the circle we draw around early Chinese religion must be a blurry one at best. Furthermore, any drawn circle might falsely imply a sense of holistic stasis when much of religion is dynamic. Writing forty years after Yang in an article entitled “On the Very Idea of Religions (in the modern West and in early medieval China),” Robert Ford Campany warns of all the questions that become silenced whenever religion is reified as an entity:

To call a “religion,” X, “the Xist tradition,” implies a holism, unity, and continuity that ought not to be taken for granted. It does not broach the actual means of transmission; nor the content of what is transmitted; nor the changes (often dramatic) in what is transmitted; nor the hugeness of what is forgotten, or lost, or suppressed, or destroyed; nor the contestations over what is transmitted and remembered and who decides. Again, it is the actual processes and practices of remembering and transmitting that are obscured by the usage “the Xist tradition” and by the way of thinking about “religions” that the phrase implies.2

Hence we already have three general problems when interpreting early Chinese religions: (1) we are uncertain how the surviving components within the “entity” of religion interrelated with one another; (2) we cannot easily distinguish it from the coexisting entities around it; and (3) by freeze-framing this entity, we lose sight of its processional aspect, of how it was transmitted and morphed over time.

This essay will mainly parse out this first problem of having the game pieces minus the rules. To shift metaphors—and to introduce the guiding metaphor that will structure this essay on the modern endeavor to interpret early Chinese religions—we may see the same stars they saw in early China, but we constellate them differently than they did, and as modern students of early China who use terms such as “religion,” we must reconsider from time to time how drawing the lines among stars and around stars can vary between us and them. This chapter’s companion piece will consider how early Chinese writers themselves constellated those same stars.

Here we will first address how our modern scholarship treats the individual components and, second, review how it draws lines between these components. Finally, we will consider the larger idea system we interpret out of the accumulated line drawing. To put it another way, we will look first at the individual stars, then at the lines we draw among them, and finally at the Capricorn or Sagittarius that subsequently emerges. Throughout I will not be condemnatory of any particular past attempts to constellate early Chinese religions, perhaps because I myself number among the worst offenders in having mis-constellated the stars or in simply having left the skies overcast.

The “Stars” or Individual Components

The apparent magnitude of any given star is determined by its distance as well as by the amount of energy it emits. In early Chinese religions, any particular phenomenon has its own scope (temporal longevity, geographic spread, degree of representativeness among people), as well as its own intensity (from influential, tightly held beliefs to banal, merely decorative flourishes). We start with how modern scholars struggle to determine the scope of individual religious phenomena.

Temporal Scope

Identifying a religious phenomenon’s temporal dimension begins with placing it on the historical timeline, which, in turn, begins with dating the text or physical medium that references or embodies it. This first problem is of course not unique to interpreting religions, and many modern scholars have devoted themselves to matters of text dating, authorship, modification, disappearance, and cross referencing. Books such as Early Chinese Texts: A Bibliographic Guide, edited by Michael Loewe, or online resources such as the Warring States Project, overseen by E. Bruce and A. Taeko Brooks, attempt to assign absolute or at least relative dates to the received literature.3 Excavated texts offer additional insights, but the poor state of their conservation, transcription, and interpretation often hinder precise dates. Even the best of scholars sometimes resort to describing certain texts as “traditionally believed” to have originated in such-and-such an era without further comment.

In terms of research devoted to early Chinese religions, the most common textual dating problem seems to be whether the religious phenomenon led to the text or the text led to the religious phenomenon—that is, whether a text describes past actions or prescribes future actions. The former can be further nuanced with performance texts, distinguishing between its earliest possible point of origin (i.e., that usually claimed by the text itself) and its subsequent regular performance. For example, Martin Kern suggests that many of the ancestral hymns and early speeches in the Shi 詩 (Songs) and Shu 書 (Documents) are not necessarily reliable accounts of their purported early Western Zhou origins, but they “gain dramatically in terms of their public presence during the following reigns” within the mid-Western Zhou institutions of religious and political commemoration.4 These hymns and speeches over time coalesced into selective and polished collections—often in several versions—to become what we ourselves can now access as “texts.” Yet the story does not end there because it will take several more centuries for these texts to become canonical. Michael Nylan demonstrates how the so-called Confucian classics of five principal texts—including the Songs and Documents—did not begin to take firm shape until the middle of the Han, and even then the stabilization process of its format, content, and authority continued to the end of the Han.5 Why is that in itself significant in terms of dating religious phenomena? Once a text became canonical, it became the object of memorization among the youth of the lettered classes—a shift in education that probably began during the first century BCE—and the religious phenomena in these ancestral hymns and speeches became more broadly prescriptive, potentially shaping how the lettered classes imagined the religious components of their world. Hence, religious phenomena could lead to the surviving texts, but the surviving texts could also lead to religious phenomena.

The Liji 禮記 or Ritual Records probably constitutes our most religion-laden single source in early China, and this corpus well demonstrates the problem of phenomenon-to-text versus text-to-phenomenon. A few scholars today dub the sacrifices described therein as “hypothetically necessary events” and go on to use the corpus as an accurate and detailed representation of Western Zhou practice. Yet most now regard the Ritual Records and its comprehensive idea systems as taking shape relatively late in the period under consideration, meaning that selectively drawing from it to explain early religious phenomena can be fraught with danger.6 While one text within this corpus has been excavated in a tomb dated to 300 BCE, the corpus did not get cited in court debates and edicts until the first century BCE, after which, like the Confucian classics in general although less frequently so, it became a text to be mastered in youth from at least the first century CE. How much does the Ritual Records actually represent the Western Zhou thinking it purports to preserve? We will never know, but its sanitized tidiness suggests a later, idealized creation.7 Many of its basic themes such as the ancestral cult structure, sacrifices, prayers, and mourning are corroborated in other, more reliably dated texts, including bronze inscriptions, but it is hard to determine the threshold between basic theme and fictive detail. Hence in terms of phenomenon-to-text, the Ritual Records may be useful as a set of possible scenarios but less so as concrete evidence for individual religious phenomena. However, the Ritual Records plays a greater role in its subsequent impact after it becomes recognized as authoritative, although here the problem is simply insufficient research on this aspect of its existence. As Michael Puett writes of the Ritual Records and two other ritual compendia that grew in importance over the Han:

Much more work should also be done with the later appropriation of these materials: how and why the texts were read and utilized in different periods of Chinese history. More work therefore also needs to be devoted to the commentarial traditions, explaining how and why various commentators read the texts as they did and explaining how and why particular commentaries become significant at court.8

Hence the student of early religious phenomena must first negotiate the relationship between the phenomenon and the text that reports on it.

Dating a religious phenomenon via its appearance in a dated text still does not address the longevity of that phenomenon, although textual longevity—demonstrated through citations to it, commentaries of it, and individual claims of its mastery (the last being common in standard history biographies)—can itself suggest the longevity of the recorded phenomenon. Here archaeology may have a better claim to determining the temporal scope of a religious phenomenon, or as Michèle Pirazzoli-t’Serstevens observes, “Archaeology, by virtue of series of data covering a long span of time, enables us to retrace the evolution, to make clear the articulations and the points of rupture, to get an idea of the social or regional variations and to document the aspects which the texts do not touch on.”9 Despite its multipoint, long-term perspective, archaeology has often been unintentionally relegated to a supporting role for textual history rather than given the opportunity to develop new theories of its own. The usage of material culture in researching religion also encounters its own nuanced problems. For an example from the beginning of the period under consideration, oracle texts inscribed on animal bones and shells from the Shang dynasty (1600–1046) are not evenly distributed across the period they circumscribe, 60 percent of them originating in the first reign of their appearance, that of Wuding 武丁 ( 1250–1192). As Robert Eno notes, that exceptionality may demonstrate Wuding’s unique concern with the spiritual realm, meaning that we should not necessarily generalize about Shang religion from his era’s inscriptional content.10 For an example from the end of the period under consideration, Eastern Han grave deeds inscribed on lead and exorcism texts painted on jars allude to spirits of the dead becoming malevolent or at least agonistic in their attitudes toward the living, and some scholars have claimed these texts demonstrate a late Han sea change from the human-spirit harmony espoused in earlier literati texts. Yet the medium’s appearance does not necessarily indicate the idea’s appearance; it only indicates the idea was consigned to this particular medium at this particular time. Spirits as harmonious and spirits as agonistic may have long coexisted as separate genres of discourse (even within the same persons), and no late Han change from one to another can be demonstrated by the appearance of the latter in material culture.

Spatial Scope

The scope of a religious phenomenon extends beyond the temporal dimension to a spatial one as well. For example, Pirazzoli-t’Serstevens when addressing these exorcism texts is adamant that we not extrapolate too far using evidence that comes from a clearly delimited region, for the most part from Shaanxi and Henan.11 From time to time, evidence of localized distinctions in religious practices arise such as the Western Han historian Sima Qian 司馬遷 (c. 145–c. 86) alluding to southerners’ preoccupation with ghosts or Eastern Han mountain inscriptions preserving worship hymns to their particular spirits. Yet for the most part, religious phenomena rarely carry address labels, and without them, we tend to dangerously generalize their home as “China” without much thought. On one hand, the problem is even more prevalent with the received literature because it seems to float freely in space, divorced from any particular landscape. On the other hand, it can be argued that, over the course of the period under consideration, the level of human intercommunication grew as commoners across the empire were drafted to serve together at the border regions and as future officials clustered in Chang’an and later Luoyang during their probationary periods prior to their first postings. That is, the potential for geographic generalization about a religious phenomenon may be directly proportional to the advance of time during the period under consideration.

Scope of Representativeness

One final dimension that must considered alongside time and space when determining the scope of a religious phenomenon is of course its degree of representativeness. Does the religious phenomenon represent the thinking of the unlettered many, the lettered few, or both? Inspired by Puett, who in several articles and books urges us to think of early texts as arguments against something and not merely as descriptions of what is,12 I have elsewhere suggested a spectrum to identify decreasing degrees of representativeness as follows:

  1. 1. Deutero-truth. The idea is so embedded in the culture generally, the possessors don’t know they have it. Developed through habitus, such mindsets are only excavated via cross-cultural comparisons (spatial or temporal).

  2. 2. Description. The idea is broadly accepted but, unlike the deutero-truth, is recognized as an idea (perhaps because of the existence of exceptions or criticisms that help define the rule).

  3. 3. Paradigm. The idea is regularly adopted and regarded as authoritative when viable, an accepted model to utilize when circumstances permit.

  4. 4. Argument/prescription. The idea is consciously being inserted to compete in the marketplace of ideas, to serve as a model. “Isms” are often arguments.

  5. 5. Ideal/dream. The idea is only an aspiration; what “ought” to be isn’t the same as what “is.”13

Each degree of representativeness from broad to narrow has its own implications, measures, and methods of excavation, and so whenever we encounter a religious phenomenon in early China, we perhaps ought to ask ourselves where it falls on this kind of spectrum. Is it an unvoiced assumption? Is it a recognized standard? Or is it merely an idealization expressed by an unrepresentative group? To position it, one must be cognizant of the circumstantial evidence as to its popularity, such as (1) the authority behind the text alluding to the religious phenomenon (e.g. imperial edict or court memorial); (2) the ideas actually being acted upon beyond courtly or literati discourses; (3) the censure it inspired (e.g. in the critical works of Wang Chong 王充 [27–ca. 100], Wang Fu 王符 [c. 90–165] or Ying Shao 應劭 [c. 140–before 204]); or (4) references to it crossing different kinds of literary genres or physical materials.

Yet this list is too abstract, and various concrete cases demonstrate how thorny this particular problem is. Referring to one of the best new resources for our knowledge of early religious phenomena, John Lagerwey and Marc Kalinowski write, “Do the ‘daybooks’ (rishu 日書) discovered in such numbers in Qin and early Han tombs represent a religion common to all, or should we speak of an ‘elite common religion’?”14 Largely drawing upon the taboos listed within these same daybooks, Liu Tseng-kuei contends, “The study of taboos enables us to go behind the great tradition of the erudite to uncover what people in Qin-Han society believed.”15 That bifurcation—“the great tradition” versus “what the people believed”—is replicated by other scholars such as Grégoire Espesset when writing about the rise of religious mass movements at the end of the period under consideration:

The imperial cult had specialized in the worship of a cosmological, “ethicized” heaven. Either uninvited or unwilling to share in the rationalism of the elite, the people may have felt it necessary to perpetuate the more or less abandoned cults of numerous national, regional, and local divinities—divinities of the popular religion, which represent local society throughout Chinese history. There must be a connection between such phenomena as the “ethicization” of the religion of the elite and the massive expansion of popular religious activities on the one hand, and the strengthening of a body of canonical learning and the emergence of alternative forms of knowledge on the other.16

Texts and the physical relics that survive in opulent graves are of course more the domain of the lettered class, and if this bifurcation is true (and it very well may be), what we can talk about in terms of early Chinese religious phenomena based upon the accessible evidence is, volumetrically at least, only the veneer—thin but showy.

The question of “popular religion” is one of the toughest problems in the interpretation of early Chinese religions. As Stephen Teiser points out, the term has come to have two different meanings, the first being the religion as practiced by almost everyone regardless of social class, literacy level, region or express religious affiliation and the second being the religion of the unlettered classes as opposed to that of the lettered classes. Yet this label “popular religion” in general can be problematic: the category is too broad, covers up much variation and even internal conflict, and is contrastive rather than constitutive (i.e. popular religion is what literati religion is not).17

Intensity or Meaningfulness

Thus the scope of any religious phenomenon has a temporal dimension, a spatial dimension, and a degree of representativeness, all of which pose unique problems to its study. Yet as noted already, the apparent magnitude of a star is determined, not just by its distance, but also by the intensity of light it itself gives off. Here meaning and meaningfulness of a religious symbol are not necessarily static, and as for the former, religious ideas (or any kind of symbolic discourse) potentially change over time. For example, Alain Thote highlights a problem of interpreting the high use of jade within Liangzhu culture (3300–2000 BCE):

As regards the weapons and the numerous jade objects discovered in the tombs of the Liangzhu culture, the idea has been put forward that some individuals were “buried in jade”—a reference to historic times when, under the Han, from the 2nd to the 1st centuries BC, princes and members of the imperial family were dressed in suits of jade which completely covered the body. But it is not at all certain that as far back as the Neolithic period people already believed in the prophylactic properties of this rare stone.18

Hence it is necessary to recognize that religious symbols have the potential of changing meaning over time.

Yet religious symbols can also change in their meaningfulness—not so much changing in content but changing in significance. That is, just as stars go through life cycles that affect their brightness, religious symbols also have the potential of having their intensity dying out. “Like living beings, [symbols] grow and die,” the theologian and philosopher Paul Tillich wrote. “They grow when the situation is ripe for them, and they die when the situation changes…. They die because they can no longer produce response in the group where they originally found expression.”19 Even though such is the case, we almost never ask whether a particular phenomenon represents a deeply held idea that influences how one sees the world or has become merely decorous and even banal. The many metal disks currently in my pocket all proclaim “In God we trust,” but are they evidence of my intense monotheism or simply my laziness in using debit cards? The mere presence of a religious expression cannot imply its meaningfulness.

Usually limiting our inquiries as to what a religious symbol means, we rarely raise this question of whether the symbol was in fact meaningful because such evidence is often absent. Yet it is indeed a real problem that occasionally opens itself up for analysis as in the case of Han immortals. As Pirazzoli-t’Serstevens has observed, Han textual and excavated resources about the immortals can be significantly disconnected from one another which in itself raises its own problems of interpretation.20 Yet there is one physical medium, often cited by scholars, that brings text and image together, namely the backs of bronze mirrors that both portray images of winged immortals sporting among the fantastic beasts of the cardinal directions and also preserve poetic texts describing their longevity, their diet, and their Wanderlust. One particular set of four heptasyllabic lines appears on scores of these surviving mirrors, thereby giving us the opportunity to compare these modular texts, and comparison reveals the artisans regularly stopped their inscription of the verse when they simply ran out of room. Often the incomplete verses with their broken rhymes and meters don’t even make sense unless one is already familiar with the common poem. Hence the artisans were tasked with simply filling the space; they were not necessarily tasked with communicating a meaningful message. We cannot ignore the possibility that such is also true with the imagery of immortals adjacent these inscriptions. Mirrors were commodities bought and sold in the marketplace—a fact the inscriptions themselves also evince—and hence it is here problematic to interpret any degree of religiosity or even any degree of recognition concerning the immortals’ existence.21 We must be wary of overinterpretation especially whenever any particular religious phenomenon appears individually, not clearly connected to other religious phenomena that might indicate more investment in a coherent idea system.

The “Constellations” or Systems Connecting Those Components

The Western study of Chinese religion is a surprisingly young field, or as Norman J. Giradot summarized in 2008:

It is terribly important for a younger generation of students, teachers, and scholars, whether sinologically or comparatively inclined, to remember what it was like just twenty or thirty years ago. If one was a sinologist at that time, there was really not very much worth studying with respect to Chinese religion or Daoism. If one was a comparative scholar, China also seemed singularly impoverished when contrasted with the lush religious riches of the Indian subcontinent and the Indo-European tradition. Both sinology and the comparative history of religions were peculiarly insulated disciplines in relation to the emergence of the human sciences and the professionalization of academic life in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries….22

As a reader of endnotes may have already noted, several of the secondary studies cited here in fact come from a single collection of essays. This choice is intentional because in December 2006, two dozen scholars from China, Europe, and North America contributed their specialties to a comprehensive conference in Paris orchestrated by John Lagerwey which then led to the production of a 1,256-page survey entitled Early Chinese Religion. It is to date the most complete study on the subject, and the problems of interpretation were of course frequently discussed both during the conference and in the subsequent publication.

Line Drawing: From Sacred to Secular

In their introduction to the publication, Lagerwey and Kalinowski observe:

This book, with its multiplicity of disciplinary approaches, assumes, namely, that religion is more about the structuring values and practices of a given society than about the beliefs of individuals. The place allotted the individual is in any case of necessity small for the early period of Chinese history, for want of sources…. [M]ost of the chapters in these volumes are about religion as a social and political force, organizing the state and social memory by means of ritual practices and in accord with changing values.23

This overview is born out in the individual contributions. Addressing Shang and Zhou funeral practices at the beginning of the period under consideration, Thote first states, “Generally, the practices associated with death are interpreted in terms of social rank, prestige or wealth, rather than from a religious point of view.”24 Surveying the overlap between religion and medicine at the end of the period under consideration, Li Jianmin concludes the final contribution with an epilogue entitled “The neglected middle” which states:

Do we really mean that social history is a mere extension of political and institutional history? And what are the differences in our basic assumptions about religious history and standard history? Perhaps we must also search for a religious mentality and its practice in a “middle layer,” representing the majority—the mainstream—between upper and lower, the elites and masses. This “middle layer” ignores the differences between institutional and popular religion, and it includes the basic common beliefs and practices of all classes.25

Thus we regularly focus on the historical, social, and institutional side of religion. Furthermore, very few writers on early Chinese religion are from religion departments, and it remains uncertain exactly what religion as a discipline brings to the study of early Chinese religion.26

When we draw lines outward from an individual religious phenomenon, we thus tend to connect it to what we today would generally regard as non-religious phenomena, duly echoing C. K. Yang’s understanding of a diffused religion. We less frequently connect that phenomenon to other religious phenomena. By itself, an oracle bone may in fact tell us little about the rest of Shang religion, and Eno lists several aspects of religious practice—shamanism, totemism, animal usage in worship, and even other forms of divination—that do not seem to connect to the bones.27 Mu-chou Poo highlights the shortcomings of ritual texts from later periods: “Actions, emotions, sounds, color, even odor, though important during ritual performance, are often difficult to recapture with written words.”28 Hence when we draw our lines outward, it is perhaps not surprising that we instead form connections with non-religious phenomena and that the larger enterprise treats “religion as a social and political force,” as Lagerwey and Kalinowski noted.

Much scholarship on early Chinese religions is in fact an exercise in drawing lines that were not previously visible, whether from a religious idea to contemporaneous social concerns, from a sacred object to surviving texts, or from a ritual practice to economic realities. One scholar might connect the inscriptions of mid- to late Western Zhou sacrificial vessels to another of the five Confucian classics known as the Chunqiu 春秋 (Spring and Autumn Annals) because the vessels and annals were both sanitized records aimed at the ancestral spirits of the different ruling houses. Another scholar might instead connect those same inscriptions to verses of the Songs due to a shared aesthetic of consolidation and standardization.29 The latter scholar goes on to forge links with the ninth-century BCE ritual revolution first identified by Jessica Rawson in which it is theorized that a strong centralized control of ritual took place, resulting in a standardization, repetition, and restriction in the décor and inscriptions of bronze vessels and bells. Perhaps the next equally monumental development in vessels—or at least those vessels excavated in tombs—was the gradual replacement of high-quality bronze vessels with crude, useless bronze or pottery substitutes. Still other scholars attribute this later phenomenon to the later disruption of the state’s centralized control and a consequent lack of access to bronze manufacturing centers.30 Here the simple point to be made is how lines are being drawn between a religious phenomenon and other, often non-religious phenomena around it—the vessel to the Spring and autumn annals, to the Songs, to the state’s centralized control, to the later substitutes, and those later substitutes to the state’s lack of centralized control.

Line Drawing: From Secular to Sacred

Drawing lines in the other direction—that is, from ostensibly nonreligious phenomena to religious ones—is also a necessary means of contextualization, or as Michael Loewe contends:

It is, however, now becoming possible to identify the growth of certain concepts and to examine how they gave way to new modes of thought and the impact of new faiths; and indeed it has fast become essential to do so. For we are concerned with a world which maintained no strict distinction between sacred and secular, or between political issues and intellectual problems. If we are to understand the motives for political change, we must also comprehend the hopes that inspired the hearts, and the reasons that controlled the minds, of Han China.31

Yet in all this line drawing in either direction that contributes to the notion of a diffused religion, we indeed tend to focus on the grand narratives of social and political forces that Lagerwey and Kalinowski describe; we cannot tell the smaller, intimate stories that in fact characterize lived religion. The academic study of large-scale religious narratives leaves out the “religious practice and imagination in ongoing, dynamic relation with the realities and structures of everyday life in particular times and places,” as Robert Orsi describes it. Orsi goes on to detail that religious practice as follows:

The study of lived religion explores how religion is shaped by and shapes the ways family life is organized, for instance: how the dead are buried, children disciplined, the past and future imagined, moral boundaries established and challenged, homes constructed, maintained, and destroyed, the gods and spirits worshiped and importuned, and so on. Religion is approached in its place within a more broadly conceived and described lifeworld, and domain of everyday existence, practical activity, and shared understandings, with all its crises, surprises, satisfactions, frustrations, joys, desires, hopes, fears, and limitations.32

In summary, most everything that we might recognize as “lived religion” in early China is, like every other personal experience in early cultures, sadly inaccessible to the student of early China.

Drawing Lines Across Time

Because we are indeed looking at religion within a historical frame rather than within the frame of lived religion, we of course tend to draw temporal lines fore and aft to plot historical change. When we do, often we consciously or unconsciously impose a slope on that line, imbuing that line with the quality of evolution or devolution, even though any person living that religion at any particular point on the line would most likely not have recognized such a projected, constellation-level valuation. Here is where social history and religious studies can dramatically clash as the former (the “etic”) with its big-picture knowledge potentially invests qualities on religion that aren’t actually present for those living the religion (the “emic”).

Not only that, the slope of that line can be arbitrary depending upon which dots we choose to connect and how we describe the connections. Let me conclude here with an attempt to demonstrate the dangers of flexibility in line drawing by briefly relating the same story twice, namely that of the Zhou ancestral cult’s fate. In this hermeneutic exercise, I will first present the sad tale of its devolution (as it is commonly presented and using actual descriptors drawn from previous accounts), and then I will re-present the same as a triumphant evolution of the cult’s transcendence and perpetuation.

The ancestral cult in memoriam.

The Zhou Dynasty began its centuries of success by establishing the fengjian 封建 system in which the king delegated territorial power to a network of his hereditary lords, and the ancestral cult was the religious and ritualized expression of that system. Yet the loss of the Zhou homeland around 771 BCE also meant the loss of the Zhou system of fengjian and of ancestor worship, the bronze sacrificial vessels that had created and nourished those ancestors also coming to an end around this time. As the Zhou realm fractured, the Zhou system of ancestral worship collapsed and crumbled, and by the conclusion of the Warring States, a closed cosmological system based on natural cycles and resonance gradually replaced ancestral agency. From this point on, the ancestral spirits devolved into manifestations of qi. By the beginning of the imperial period after the failed Zhou system was lost, it was only reinvented by the Han as a memorial gesture. Yet the decline could not be stopped, and over the course of the Han, the ancestral shrines all fell silent as cemeteries became the sole center of remembering the dead.33

The ancestral cult triumphant.

The Zhou Dynasty began its centuries of success by establishing the fengjian system in which the king delegated territorial power to a network of his hereditary lords, and the ancestral cult was the religious and ritualized expression of that system. The tablets of the subsequent Zhou kings came to flank the founder to his left and right in their zhao 昭 and mu 穆 positions, these terms probably coming from the names of two early back-to-back Zhou kings. While the Zhou reality fractured, the literati then discussed in depth the value of filial piety, proper mourning, remembrance, and so forth as they traveled from state to state. Furthermore as evinced by the received literature and later vessels, those states were in fact appropriating the rituals and rhetoric of the Zhou ancestral cult for their own local situations and founders or, alternatively, they never saw the ancestral cult system as particularly “Zhou” in the first place. In other words, the fengjian system may have collapsed (although we have evidence of its practice as late as 334 BCE), but its ancestral-cult manifestation transcended the original circumstances of its instantiation. That is, the ancestral cult came to exist in its own right, and while the cast of particular characters might have changed, the performance script did not. For example, the zhao and mu tablet positions named after Zhou kings survive even to the present day. When a new discourse of natural cycles, resonance, and qi evolved near the end of the dynasty, it accommodated the ancestral cult as both the living and their dead became understood as an interconnected network of resonant forces (as we will see in the later section “Whether Religions Are Defined by Spiritual Agencies”). Yet this new discourse didn’t entirely set aside the old one with its ancestral spirits and individuated agencies, both discourses coexisting at the end of the Zhou and throughout the early imperial period as well. Furthermore, both the Qin and the Han within one generation each constructed its own imperial ancestral shrines that continued the system as it had existed in the Zhou—long before any so-called Confucian victory at the imperial court—and the ancestral shrines both on the imperial level and well below it continued to enjoy their seasonal sacrifices throughout the Han, concomitant with the new sacrifices conducted at the cemetery.

The first interpretation of the evidence reflects the common storyline, perhaps because historians tend to privilege the study of larger historical events and political forces such as those surrounding the collapse of the Zhou, tying the religious phenomenon of the ancestral cult to its demise. I am personally biased toward the second, perhaps misguidedly so because of my desire to study a “meaningful” ancestral cult in early imperial China.34 Both versions are joining up the dots to create historical stories, but the slopes of the emerging temporal lines are noticeably different and subject to how we play dot-to-dot.

Seeing Capricorn or Sagittarius: Interpreting the Systems

Because “religion” is a modern construct that was imported into China, perhaps it should not be surprising that scholastic ideas about the grander religious systems are mostly from Western-trained theorists as well. For example, texts such as Daniel Pals’ Seven Theories of Religion covering the work of Durkheim, Eliade, Geertz, and others are now available in Chinese.35 Not only Western trained, many theorists are Western influenced, or as Barbara A. Holdrege warns, “Up until recently the academic study of religion has been dominated by paradigms of religious tradition that arose out of a specific and discernible Protestant Christian context,” paradigms that continue to unconsciously linger.36 While a few of the most famous theorists study non-Western traditions, rarely do we find these methodologies rising up from Asia itself. Yet Zhang Zhigang, professor philosophy and religious studies at Beijing University, as well as editor and contributor to Zongjiao yanjiu zhiyao 宗教研究指要 (The Guide of Religion Studies), argues against seeing Chinese usage of religious theory as merely importing these ideas:

Ever since religious studies took shape [in China], most of the universal theories have originated from scholars in Europe and the United States, and that has moved many scholars in China to think of current religious theory as “Western.” Yet that is in fact a misunderstanding and goes against the spirit of academics. Academics is an international enterprise. When we set up any particular academic field, we can’t “build a cart behind closed doors” and should first look back along the explorative tracks of the pioneers, enumerating their milestones and watershed moments in the history of the field’s development so that we can seek out a new starting point. We should continue the discussions of the great thinkers and about the key problems.37

Zhang Zhigang goes on to say China will develop its own culture-specific understandings at the same time it appropriates these foreign theories in the study of religion.

Defining Chinese Idea Systems as “Religious”

Most Western religious theory begins with defining “religion,” and here problems of interpretation with regard to China arose even as early as the rites controversy in the 17th century over whether Confucianism and the ancestral cult constituted a religion, hence making it incompatible with Catholic belief. Late 18th and early 19th century translations of the Daodejing similarly sought to locate Christian doctrine within the Daoist text. In more recent times and within smaller academic circles, the search for religion continues but with much less at stake. For example, Rodney Taylor has argued that anyone who fails to see the religious dimensions of the Confucian “heaven” (tian 天) has missed Confucianism’s quintessential feature and the full significance of the Confucian religious life:

It is time for Confucianism to assume its rightful place amongst the major religious traditions of East Asian cultures and, in turn, the religious traditions of the world…. The religious core itself is found in the relationship of humankind to Heaven. Heaven for the Confucian tradition is not thought of, as some have argued, as an abstract philosophical absolute devoid of religious meaning. In the Classical Confucian tradition Heaven functions as a religious authority or absolute often theistic in its portrayal…. Thus, in the relationship between Heaven as a religious absolute and the sage as a transformed person, we have the identification of a soteriological process and, as a result, the identification of a religious core of the tradition.38

Conversely, Frederick Mote opposes any such claims to Confucian religiosity, writing as follows with regard to Confucius, Mencius, and Xunzi:

I have never been one who denied the large role of religious thought and attitude in the life of the Chinese people, past or present. Nonetheless, I have been quite satisfied with a perception of a Confucianism that can be a complete system of ideas and values, at the level of a philosophy that does not require one to admit any specifically religious content…. [T]he Confucian system was complete without admitting into it any role for the transcendental. By “transcendental” I mean that elements of what one regards as truth may not be fully comprehensible by purely rational means.39

Here it may be significant that Taylor is a religious studies scholar and Mote a historian, and while the “religion” label may have less impact today than during the Chinese rites controversy, it is not without its consequences, as will be seen.

A similar dispute has characterized past scholarship on early Daoism that begins with the ostensibly philosophical works of the Daodejing (a.k.a. Laozi) and Zhuangzi. During the Han, Daoism’s Laozi becomes deified and begins offering his revelations in the first and second centuries CE, and so the question then becomes whether this tradition constitutes a continuation of the Daoist idea system or is a very different construct. That is, modern scholarship famously struggles with whether to distinguish between a “philosophical” and a “religious” Daoism, some scholars contending there is really no difference whereas others arguing the two are almost unrelated. Because this Daoist debate is old and well established, we will again limit ourselves to just one clear voice on either side, beginning with the introduction to Isabelle Robinet’s Taoism: Growth of a Religion:

During this account we shall often have to consider the question of the relationship between what are called “philosophical Taoism” and “religious Taoism.” This distinction is much like the distinction between contemplative Taoism and the kind of Taoism seen as “purposeful,” that is to say “involved” or “directed” (what I render as “practical” Taoism), concerned with the achievement of longevity. Much ink has been spilled on this matter, but usually, it must be admitted, by people who have not studied the texts of “religious Taoism.” We shall see again and again that this division has no significance. I share the view that this is a nonexistent problem arising from only an apparent difference, one that exists in all religions and mystical systems—the difference between self-discipline (techniques, training, etc.) and either the results of this discipline or the speculations that can accompany or crown it.40

We now contrast Robinet’s absence of distinction between philosophical and religious Daoism with Creel’s opposite opinion in his What Is Taoism?:

In my opinion, philosophic Taoism (including both the “contemplative” and the: purposive“ aspects) and [immortality] Taoism not only were never identical; their associations, even, have been minimal. At an undetermined date, perhaps around 300 BC, there arose what we might call a cult of immortality. Also around 300 BC, and perhaps in the same areas, Taoist philosophy arose. The cult and the philosophy seem to have been almost entirely distinct until perhaps as late as the middle of Former Han times. During the Han dynasty those seeking immortality gradually took over the name of Taoism (perhaps for the respectability it afforded) and much of the jargon of “purposive” Taoism, but they did not take over Taoist Philosophy. In Latter Han times [immortality] Taoists took over Buddhist practices to develop a popular Taoist religion. Although there was some miscegenation, Taoist philosophers have commonly considered the quest for immortality to be fatuous or worse, and some [immortality] Taoists have reciprocated the lack of cordiality. The evidence for this hypothesis is voluminous.41

Some modern scholars contend that, with the rise in studies of the Daoist canon, “the traditional distinction between Daoist religion and Daoist philosophy has been largely torn down,”42 but in fact the debate persists as to whether texts such as the Daodejing and Zhuangzi can be read without recourse to a religious dimension.43

Whether Religions Are Defined by Spiritual Agencies

Many early China scholars would sidestep the thorny issue of “religion” altogether by keeping their own definitions “functional” or “heuristically-convenient,” but they still tend to draw upon the transcendental element to which Mote refers, echoing the minimalist Tylorian definition of “belief in spiritual beings.” Poo for example describes the aims of religious ritual as the “effect that could somehow influence or attract the attention of certain supernatural or extra-human powers.”44 Yuri Pines similarly understands the “religious” to be “related to communication with deities (particularly ancestral spirits), or insofar as it is supposed to have a certain sacral power of influencing the world through a proper choice of wording or proper arrangement of the material.”45 Yet Joachim Gentz well demonstrates a fundamental problem that then arises with regard to early China in particular. Over the course of the Eastern Zhou, those supernatural agencies—ghosts, ancestors, and a personified heaven, all able to exert their will—gave way to (or at least became coexistent with) an understanding of the cosmos as a closed system of unchanging action-and-response rules. Personified heaven transformed into a systematized heaven that was by the Han institutionalized and governable, at least in the eyes of the lettered class. Even if canonical exegesis written near the end of the period under consideration returned to using the language of heaven and spirits, it possessed a very different understanding of them, cosmologically deconstructing them into agency-free components such as resonating qi 氣. As Gentz concludes:

Turning back to the question of religion, then, we have to consider the possibility that the category religion in its application to early Chinese contexts might jeopardize our analysis of intellectual moves because it easily identifies features which are often thought of as opposites. The concept of religion as belief in superhuman beings as well as in cosmological correspondences may obscure the difference and as a matter of fact the possibly fundamental contradiction between these two types of belief. What appears to Western eyes as a return from skepticism back to religion appears to be in fact a further step away from anthropomorphic religion by means of the further development of other more non-personal and systematic religious premises, which even in the skeptical phase had never ceased to exist.46

As Campany noted in the introduction to this essay, simply creating the entity of “religion” can gloss over its internal transformations and contestations. Here if “religion” is loosely defined to include both supernatural agents and a systematically deconstructed cosmos, do we then lose sight of the real difference between them as well as of the significant revolution at hand? Yet if “religion” were only about communication with supernatural agents, do we then speak of religion getting replaced by cosmology? Just what is included in the constellation of religion matters as to whether we see stasis or change within it.

It should be noted at least in passing that, just as certain late Warring States discourses were deconstructing heavenly agency into forces and resonances, others were similarly deconstructing human agency. As briefly noted in our “hermeneutic exercise” on how to interpret the Zhou ancestral cult, the same cosmic qi became the basic means for thinking about the human self—its thoughts, emotions, dynamic existence, and corporeal substance—as internal qi ideally harmonized with external qi. Regarding texts that explain how to refine one’s qi, Romain Graziani notes, “The key elements of self-cultivation lend themselves more to a disappearance of the self rather than to an ipseity,” ipseity being “a subjectivity which is aware of and makes reference to itself (ipse).”47 Yet while these contemporaneous texts would deconstruct both heaven and humans in identical terms, we appear not to struggle with the same categorical problems for changing humans that Gentz raises in terms of a changing heaven. That may be because the umbrella term “humanity” is less frequent and contentious within academic parlance than is “religion,” even though in Western academics the notion of humanities arose in contradistinction to divinity. Perhaps we are simply arbitrary in just which umbrellas we choose to unfurl.

Matching Modern Constellations with Their Early Chinese Counterparts?

Hence there seems to be uncertainty as to whether the religion constellation must include a “spiritual beings” star, and other related Western constellations likewise do not exactly map onto the early Chinese sky. For a second example, Mark Edward Lewis notes the Western constellation of “mythology” includes distinctly separate stars for gods and humans, whereas the original Chinese constellation does not. “For the entire historical period, the boundary between gods and men in China was blurred or porous; the vast majority of gods were dead men,” he writes. “Consequently, the blurring of this line in early stories reflects a basic pre-supposition of the culture that produced them.”48 Mark Csikszentmihalyi in turn offers a third example regarding ritual: if we draw a line from ritual to ethics, we in the West tend to label such ritual as self-transformation, and if we do not draw that line, we instead label it as religious. While that distinction does not exist in early China, we dangerously superimpose our Aristotelean and Platonistic constellations of virtue ethics, which simply do not include rituals.49

Neither Lewis nor Csikszentmihalyi completely dismiss comparative constellating, but before any comparison can be made, each culture’s constellation must first be fully mapped out lest false parallels arise. Lewis argues against transcultural categorical approaches to myth because what is important about myth is how each receiving audience interacts with it and not any inherent quality of the myth itself. The audience itself provides its own reading rules, and the story changes with the needs of the audience. “If there is nothing inherent in the structure or content of a story that marks it as a myth, then any resemblance in such contents or structures across cultures is not necessarily of any significance, and the tracing of such resemblances without first analyzing the place(s) and meaning(s) of a story within its own culture will not produce useful insights,” he summarizes.50 We might of course raise the same question when categorizing the components of religion. Csikszentmihalyi similarly highlights the need for an awareness of unique cultural ties, but he also goes on to offer valid reasons for subsequent comparison:

The challenge of using etic categories to speak about early China is to maintain a connection to culturally-specific constructions while acknowledging that similarities across human psychology and physiology coupled with common environmental factors that frame daily experience might lead to parallels between cultural formations across time and space. Yet despite the fact we have all come across cultural parallels that would seem to allow the use of etic categories, the subjectivity inherent in the process of translating between emic and etic categories render such comparative projects suspect in the eyes of many.51

Here Csikszentmihalyi well describes the problem of postpostmodernism. On one hand, postmodernism denied the “totalizing metanarratives” that characterized much of 19th and 20th century cross-cultural scholarship because tidy templates poorly fit each unique set of circumstances. Comparative religions with its sociological, psychological, and anthropological explanations for religiosity particularly suffered (and to some degree perhaps deservedly so). On the other hand, the differences among cultures are in fact finite rather than infinite, the universals of biology, psychology, environment, basic linguistics, and so forth impossible to ignore. Furthermore, because hidden comparisons and concealed interpretations are always inevitable even in the simple act of (for example) translating early Chinese texts into modern English, it may thus be better to make our comparisons consciously and carefully. The safest position is perhaps to strongly emphasize difference, thickly describing early Chinese religion as much as possible, before then moving on to any comparison always with an express attitude of speculation and hesitance. Most important, comparison need not be for the purpose of affirming universals or contributing to totalizing metanarratives. Conscious comparisons can instead help us avoid accidentally dragging our modern assumptions (such as our own religious constellations) into early China. They are also extremely useful in raising new questions (such as in asking why two stars are connected in one constellation and not the other), questions we might not have otherwise thought to ask.52

A Polythetic Definition of Religion

Students of religious studies tend to define religion either by describing it or explaining it away. Definitions that describe it usually resort to a single lowest common denominator such as “belief in spiritual beings,” or they can be more elaborate, grouping and interrelating a handful of shared components such as in Clifford Geertz’s now-classic fivefold description of religion that is often used (and misused) in scholarship, including scholarship on early China. A principal advantage of this descriptive approach is that those within the tradition—the emic position—might still be able to recognize themselves even though they have been deconstructed to the barest essentials. Such is not the case with definitions that explain religion away into another discipline such as sociology, evolutionary biology or linguistics. Definitions that explain away religion—the etic position—are saying “I know what you are doing even though you don’t know what you are doing.” Your gathering to worship the totem is really the formation of community; your seeing gods at every turn is really a genetic holdover from instinctual overinterpretation that helps animals survive predators; your fear of an all-seeing god really allows you to make economic deals with anyone outside of your family under the eyes of an invisible, father-like divinity. Those within the tradition would disagree with these explanations because they directly deny the practitioners’ own interpretations of religious components. While those who would explain away religion often make a compelling case, they suffer from various extra hurdles compared to those who would only describe religion, the most relevant hurdle here being a lack of information access to develop explanations. In my opinion, theories explaining away religion may be superior to theories that describe religion, but we as historians of early history must be content with the descriptive approach precisely because we can only access the components of religion and not the systems of how those components fit together. It is the systems that potentially generate our explanations. We can see their stars, but because we cannot dialogue with the dead and because so many data are lost, our constellating—including the lines we would draw between religion and nonreligion constellations—must remain speculative.

To put it another way, even though we have lost its rules we still know that liubo was a game through references to it, pictures of it, and the pieces of it that survive. Yet a precise definition of “game” in general is perhaps not very useful, or as Wittgenstein in his Philosophical Investigations wrote:

Consider for example the proceedings that we call “games”: I mean board-games, card-games, ball-games, Olympic games, and so on. What is common to them all?—Don’t say: “There must be something common, or they would not be called ‘games’.”—but look and see whether there is anything common to all.—For if you look at them you will not see something that is common to all, but similarities, relationships, and a whole series of them at that.”53

Wittgenstein would argue there is no “least common denominator” in games but instead a general family resemblance that thins out at the edges as one reaches first and second cousins.

Something similar can be said of religions, and if we were to deconstruct family resemblances a bit further, we might say that “religion” happens when the number of religious components reaches a critical mass. Religions are like multivitamins. One multivitamin might have the organic compounds and minerals A, C, folic acid, zinc, and calcium; another might have B, C, manganese, and iron; still another might have A, E, iron, and beta-carotene. There is no guarantee that every multivitamin will have one particular organic compound or mineral, but they each have enough from a list so as to be dubbed a “multivitamin.” In terms of religion—and particular historical religions when we can only access the religious components—this polythetic approach is perhaps best. Not every manifestation of religion in early China will have “belief in spiritual agencies,” and indeed as we saw with the concerns of Gentz and others, spiritual agency disappears in some Warring States and early imperial discourses. Yet the polythetic approach means we need not then discard this new cosmology from our analysis of religions if it still retains many of the other components—heaven, rituals, afterlife explanations, and so forth.54 Furthermore, were people in early China to define “religion,” they might include components on the list we ourselves wouldn’t recognize such as political structures, self-cultivation techniques, hygiene, and medicine. The list ultimately gets taken out of our hands.

Wittgenstein’s description of games here is useful for more than just his understanding of family resemblances, and Umberto Eco in his essay on the model reader picks up on Wittgenstein’s “I mean” just before he lists the various types of games:

When this voice says “I mean,” it is inviting us to come to an agreement, so that the word “game” should be taken as referring to board games, card games, and so on. But this voice does not define the word “game”; rather, it asks us to define it, or to recognize that it can be defined satisfactorily only in terms of “family resemblances.”55

Eco brings the spectator back into Wittgenstein’s musings on family-resemblance definitions. A polythetic approach to religion is not merely about constellations including some stars and not others; it also must recognize the situated stargazers and their own constellating efforts as they decide which stars to include, whether in early China or today.

Conclusion: The Situatedness of Stars and of Stargazers

Comparison can take at least three forms in religious studies. We have already encountered the first and most dangerous, namely the creation or affirmation of meta-narratives that would universally define “myth” or “ritual,” a practice much criticized by postmodernism. While universals clearly exist, it is indeed difficult to distinguish the threshold between a universal paradigm and any unique set of cultural circumstances. In the study of early Chinese religions, justified criticism against this form of comparison has sometimes morphed into blanket criticisms against any reference to Western phenomena in articles and books. Yet even if we no longer join the hunt for universals, there are still two other forms of comparison that are not without merit.

The second form of comparison is less to affirm universals and more to inspire new avenues of research. For example, Puett like many others supports the comparison between early China and early Greece if such comparison is focused upon particular problems that arise across cultures:

We should try to focus on terms that allow us to tease out the problems and tensions in each culture under analysis…. In both Greece and China, at roughly the same time, one finds comparable tensions surrounding sacrificial action, self-divinization, cosmology, and empire. The interesting issues for comparative studies are how and why the claims were made in each culture, and how and why various solutions came to be institutionalized.56

Once a tension point is identified across cultures—and here Puett is specifically addressing matters we might dub as “religious”—one then proceeds to see how each culture uniquely handled that tension point in a way that we can better appreciate the nuanced solution of each. Here comparison is not so much to affirm universals but ultimately to nuance how any points of similarity were differently handled.

The third form of comparison is not so much between two early cultures but between an early culture and our modern one. It must be recognized that the difference between two early cultures is probably smaller than the difference between early and later periods even within the same culture, but this last form of comparison is not intended to generate good analysis but to avoid bad analysis. “The nature of an interpretation of action depends as much or more on the interests, purposes, and situation of the interpreter as it does on those of the actor, and this is not a consequence of the interpretation being a poor one, inattentive, shallow, or ‘merely protective,’” Nancy Jay noted in her study of sacrifice.57 She then necessarily complicates this relationship between interpreter and actor with a relevant lesson:

But what is this work of understanding? It cannot be to reach a meaning identical to that of the ritual actors themselves, because their meaning is an organization of their experience which is inaccessible to us. There are two kinds of situatedness, that of the sacrificers and that of the interpreter. The one is unattainable and the other is inescapable. The task is to build some kind of bridge between the two to hold the worlds together, not accurately to decode their meaning, but to make what they do and say intelligible for us. This is a kind of negotiating process, a reaching of some agreement, in which we recognize sacrificers as both different from and the same as ourselves. We recognize their differences from us by recognizing their social context, other than our own; by identifying the kind of social world (the form of life) within which sacrifice is meaningfully performed. But we will still not find their symbolic action intelligible unless we can also recognize in it logical structures like our own.58

In her 2010 presidential address of the American Academy of Religion, Ann Taves echoes Puett’s interest in studying tension points as well as Jay’s awareness of first scrutinizing our own situatedness when studying them:

Insofar as we want to describe and analyze these traditions of reflection as part of a process of valuation, we can focus on sites of controversy where people’s assumptions about the meaning of value rise to the surface. We should not expect that disputants would necessarily view themselves or the sites of contestation as religious. We can select sites where some, all, or none of the participants characterize what matters most to them in religious or religion-like terms, depending on what matters most to us. In setting up studies, we should formulate our own claims in the active voice.59

Hence we locate the tension points, but before we proceed, we calculate our own claims and situatedness in advance before tackling theirs. Here it is significant that those we study might not even recognize our own “religion” constellation.

Finally we should recognize that we are also creating a situatedness when we do research. Simply deciding which topics go into a work entitled Early Chinese Religion is generating a subsequent definition of what early Chinese religion is and is not. Furthermore as Lagerwey and Kalinowski observed, most work on early Chinese religions is framed in social and political discourses, and we are in danger of habituating ourselves to think that such constitutes early Chinese religion.

Even so, these are not necessarily the only questions of interest within the study of religion per se. That is, it is extremely useful to link the inscription format of a bronze vessel to one of the Confucian classics or to recognize how ancestors devolved into manifestations of qi to fit the new Warring States cosmology. Yet that does not describe what mattered to the actual sacrificer or descendant; it does not explain how the vessel or ancestor fit into a person’s genuine daily experience. While that experience is unattainable, never to be decoded because we cannot access those sources as we might a modern object of religious study, we often need to remind ourselves that the biggest problem of interpreting the meaning of early Chinese religion is that we will never interpret what early Chinese religion actually means, at least not to them. Even so, we continue to play dot-to-dot in full knowledge that we can only sketch out the most probable scenarios of early Chinese religious experience, looking for the constellation we think fits best.


The following bibliography combines resources utilized in “The Modern Endeavor to Interpret Early Chinese Religions” and its companion piece, “The Early Chinese Endeavor to Interpret Early Chinese Religions.”

Ames, Roger T. “Knowing in the Zhuangzi: ‘From here, on the bridge, over the River Hao.” In Wandering at Ease in the Zhuangzi, edited by Roger T. Ames. Albany, NY: State University of New York Press, 1998.Find this resource:

Bokenkamp, Stephen R. Early Daoist Scriptures. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1997.Find this resource:

Brashier K. E. Ancestral Memory in Early China. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Asia Center, 2011.Find this resource:

Brashier K. E. “Han Mirror Inscriptions as Modular Texts.” In The Lloyd Cotsen Study Collection of Chinese Bronze Mirrors, vol. 2, edited by Lothar von Falkenhausen, pp. 100–119. Los Angeles: UCLS Cotsen Institute of Archaeology Press, 2011.Find this resource:

Brashier K. E. “Han Thanatology and the Division of ‘Souls.’” Early China 21 (1996): 125–158.Find this resource:

Brashier K. E. “‘A Poetic Exposition on Heaven and Earth’ by Chenggong Sui (231–273).” Journal of Chinese Religions 24 (1996): 1–46.Find this resource:

Brook, Timothy. “Rethinking Syncretism: The Unity of the Three Teachings and Their Joint Worship in Late-Imperial China.” Journal of Chinese Religions 21 (1993): 13–44.Find this resource:

Bujard, Marianne. “State and Local Cults in Han Religion.” In Early Chinese Religion—Part One: Shang through Han (1250 BC–220 AD), edited by John Lagerwey and Marc Kalinowski, pp. 777–812. Leiden: Brill, 2009.Find this resource:

Campany, Robert Ford. “On the Very Idea of Religions (in the Modern West and in Early Medieval China).” History of Religions 42, no. 4 (2003): 287–319.Find this resource:

Campany, Robert Ford. “Xunzi and Durkheim as Theorists of Ritual Practice.” In Discourse and Practice, edited by Frank Reynolds and David Tracy, pp. 197–231. Albany: State University of New York Press, 1992.Find this resource:

Chunqiu Zuozhuan zhu 春秋左傳注 (Zuo commentary of the Spring and Autumn Annals with commentaries), annotated by Yang Bojun 楊伯峻. Beijing: Zhonghua, 1981.Find this resource:

Cook, Constance A. “Ancestor Worship During the Eastern Zhou.” In Early Chinese Religion—Part One: Shang through Han (1250 BC–220 AD), edited by John Lagerwey and Marc Kalinowski, pp. 237–280. Leiden: Brill, 2009.Find this resource:

Creel, Herrlee G. What Is Taoism? And Other Studies in Chinese Cultural History. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1982.Find this resource:

Csikszentmihalyi, Mark. “Ethics and self-cultivation practice in early China.” In Early Chinese Religion—Part One: Shang through Han (1250 BC–220 AD), edited by John Lagerwey and Marc Kalinowski, pp. 519–542. Leiden: Brill, 2009.Find this resource:

Csikszentmihalyi, Mark, and Michael Nylan. “Constructing Lineages and Inventing Traditions through Exemplary Figures in Early China.” T’oung pao 89 (2003): 59–99.Find this resource:

Da Dai liji jiegu 大戴禮記解詁 (Ritual Records of Dai the Elder with explications and glosses), annotated by Wang Pinzhen 王聘珍. Beijing: Zhonghua, 1989.Find this resource:

Eco, Umberto. Six Walks in a Fictional Woods. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1994.Find this resource:

Eno, Robert. “Shang State Religion and the Pantheon of the Oracle Texts.” In Early Chinese Religion—Part One: Shang through Han (1250 BC–220 AD), edited by John Lagerwey and Marc Kalinowski, pp. 41–102. Leiden: Brill, 2009.Find this resource:

Espesset, Grégoire. “Latter Han Religious Mass Movements and the Early Daoist Church.” In Early Chinese Religion—Part One: Shang through Han (1250 BC–220 AD), edited by John Lagerwey and Marc Kalinowski, pp. 1061–1102. Leiden: Brill, 2009.Find this resource:

Gentz, Joachim. “Language of Heaven, Exegetical Skepticism and the Re-insertion of Religious Concepts in the Gongyang Tradition.” In Early Chinese Religion—Part One: Shang through Han (1250 BC–220 AD), edited by John Lagerwey and Marc Kalinowski, pp. 813–838. Leiden: Brill, 2009.Find this resource:

Graham, A. C. “The Origins of the Legend of Lao Tan.” In Lao-tzu and the Dao-te-ching. Albany, NY: State University of New York Press, 1998.Find this resource:

Graham, A. C. Studies in Chinese Philosophy and Philosophical Literature. Albany: State University of New York Press, 1990.Find this resource:

Graziani, Romain. “The Subject and the Sovereign: Exploring the Self in Early Chinese Self-Cultivation.” In Early Chinese Religion—Part One: Shang through Han (1250 BC–220 AD), edited by John Lagerwey and Marc Kalinowski, pp. 459–518. Leiden: Brill, 2009.Find this resource:

Hanshu 漢書 (Han documents). Beijing: Zhonghua shuju, 1973.Find this resource:

Henderson, John B. The Development and Decline of Chinese Cosmology. Taipei: Windstone Press, 2011.Find this resource:

Hou Hanshu 後漢書 (Documents of Later Han). Beijing: Zhonghua shuju, 1973.Find this resource:

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(1) C.K. Yang, Religion in Chinese Society (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1961), 294–295.

(2) Robert Ford Campany, “On the very idea of religions (in the modern West and in early medieval China),” History of Religions 42, no. 4 (2003): 293. In this excellent piece that highlights how we unwittingly impose structures on Chinese religions, Campany identifies many examples of how we use metaphorical language to describe Chinese religions, including religion as a living organism, personified agent, marketable commodity, and military campaign. Once we apply a reifying metaphor, we are implicitly making statements as to how religions function and spread.

(4) Martin Kern, “Bronze Inscriptions, the Shijing and the Shangshu: The Evolution of the Ancestral Sacrifice during the Western Zhou,” in Early Chinese Religion—Part One: Shang through Han (1250 BC–220 AD), ed. John Lagerwey and Marc Kalinowski (Leiden: Brill, 2009), 151.

(5) Michael Nylan, “Classics without Canonization: Learning and Authority in Qin and Han,” in Early Chinese Religion—Part One: Shang through Han (1250 BC–220 AD), ed. John Lagerwey and Marc Kalinowski (Leiden: Brill, 2009), 722–724.

(6) For a series of examples in which selective citation of the Liji is questionably used to explain excavated pre-imperial building foundations, see K. E. Brashier, Ancestral Memory in early China (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Asia Center, 2011), 78–89. There I demonstrate the problems of using ritual systems from later prescriptive texts to interpret Zhou history, namely the problems of vagueness, selectivity of sources, reinterpretation of texts to fit historical evidence, and, finally, reinterpretation of historical evidence to fit the texts.

(7) For an example of Liji tidiness and how it has come to shape our field despite much evidence to the contrary, see K. E. Brashier, “Han Thanatology and the division of ‘Souls,’” Early China 21 (1996): 125–158.

(8) Michael Puett, “Combining the Ghosts and Spirits, Centering the Realm: Mortuary Ritual and Political Organization in the Ritual Compendia of Early China,” in Early Chinese Religion—Part One: Shang through Han (1250 BC–220 AD), ed. John Lagerwey and Marc Kalinowski (Leiden: Brill, 2009), 719.

(9) Michèle Pirazzoli-t’Serstevens, “Death and the Dead: Practices and Images in the Qin and Han,” in Early Chinese Religion—Part One: Shang through Han (1250 BC–220 AD), ed. John Lagerwey and Marc Kalinowski (Leiden: Brill, 2009), 949.

(10) Robert Eno, “Shang State Religion and the Pantheon of the Oracle Texts,” in Early Chinese Religion—Part One: Shang through Han (1250 BC–220 AD), ed. John Lagerwey and Marc Kalinowski (Leiden: Brill, 2009), 84.

(12) For example, in To Become a God, Puett introduces his subject by stating, “I will read the texts in question as claims, and my goal will be to reconstruct the contexts in which these claims were meaningful. I will argue that we cannot understand early Chinese cosmology until we understand why certain figures presented cosmological arguments, what they were reacting to, and what impact their claims had at the time.” See Michael Puett, To Become a God: Cosmology, Sacrifice, and Self-Divinization in Early China (Cambridge: Harvard University Asia Center, 2002), 24.

(14) John Lagerwey and Marc Kalinowski, “Introduction,” in Early Chinese Religion—Part One: Shang through Han (1250 BC–220 AD), ed. John Lagerwey and Marc Kalinowski (Leiden: Brill, 2009), 27.

(15) Liu Tseng-kuei, “Taboos: An Aspect of Belief in the Qin and Han,” in Early Chinese Religion—Part One: Shang through Han (1250 BC–220 AD), ed. John Lagerwey and Marc Kalinowski (Leiden: Brill, 2009), 948.

(16) Grégoire Espesset, “Latter Han Religious Mass Movements and the Early Daoist church,” in Early Chinese Religion—Part One: Shang through Han (1250 BC–220 AD), ed. John Lagerwey and Marc Kalinowski (Leiden: Brill, 2009), 1062.

(17) Stephen F. Teiser, “Introduction: The spirits of Chinese religion,” in Religions of China in practice, ed. Donald S. Lopez, Jr. (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1996), 21–25.

(18) Alain Thote, “Shang and Zhou Funeral Practices: Interpretation of Material Vestiges,” in Early Chinese Religion—Part One: Shang through Han (1250 BC–220 AD), ed. John Lagerwey and Marc Kalinowski (Leiden: Brill, 2009), 107.

(19) Paul Tillich, The Essential Tillich: An Anthology of the Writings of Paul Tillich (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1999), 42–43.

(21) For a comparison of such inscriptions and a further discussion on whether symbols should always be interpreted as meaningful, see K. E. Brashier, “Han Mirror Inscriptions as Modular Texts,” in The Lloyd Cotsen Study Collection of Chinese Bronze Mirrors, vol. 2, ed. Lothar von Falkenhausen (Los Angeles: UCLS Cotsen Institute of Archaeology Press, 2011), 100–119.

(22) Norman J. Giradot, “My Way: Teaching the Daode jing at the Beginning of a New Millennium,” in Teaching the Daode jing, ed. Gary D. Deangelis and Warren G. Frisina (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2008), 117–118.

(25) Li Jianmin, “They Shall Expel Demons: Etiology, the Medical Canon and the Transformation of Medical Techniques before the Tang,” in Early Chinese Religion—Part One: Shang through Han (1250 BC–220 AD), ed. John Lagerwey and Marc Kalinowski (Leiden: Brill, 2009), 1149.

(26) Although I am from a religion department, I do not see religion as a discipline but as area studies. That is, we borrow the disciplinary lenses from other fields—anthropology, art, history, sociology, psychology, and even biology—to look at the subject of religion. Others disagree and maintain religion is a sui generis discourse that merits its own rules of study. Much depends on whether we tend to explain away religion into another discourse (as I would) or instead describe religion within its own terms that the practitioners themselves might still accept.

(28) Mu-chou Poo, “Ritual and Ritual Texts in Early China,” in Early Chinese Religion—Part One: Shang through Han (1250 BC–220 AD), ed. John Lagerwey and Marc Kalinowski (Leiden: Brill, 2009), 281.

(29) Yuri Pines, “Chinese History Writing between the Sacred and the Secular,” in Early Chinese Religion—Part One: Shang through Han (1250 BC–220 AD), ed. John Lagerwey and Marc Kalinowski (Leiden: Brill, 2009), 316–323; Kern, “Bronze Inscriptions, the Shijing and the Shangshu,” 188–200.

(30) Constance A. Cook, “Ancestor Worship during the Eastern Zhou,” in Early Chinese Religion—Part One: Shang through Han (1250 BC–220 AD), ed. John Lagerwey and Marc Kalinowski (Leiden: Brill, 2009), 253.

(31) Michael Loewe, Chinese Ideas of Life and Death: Faith, Myth and Reason in the Han Period (202 BC–AD 220) (Taipei: SMC Publishing, 1982), 1.

(32) Robert Orsi, The Madonna of 115th Street: Faith and Community in Italian Harlem, 1880–1950, 2nd edition (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2002), xiii–xiv.

(33) Many of the descriptors here such as “collapsed,” “crumbled,” “failed,” “devolved,” and “replaced” are taken from existing secondary studies.

(34) I would also contend that several points in the traditional story are wrong. For example, the new interest in a resonance cosmology did not entirely replace ancestral agency, and there is also a great deal of evidence to demonstrate that the graveyard did not become the solitary center of ancestor worship in the Han.

(35) Pals’ critical survey is translated as Zongjiao de qizhong lilun 宗教的七种理論 and was published by Shanghai guji in 2005. A year later, Pals published a second edition entitled Eight Theories of Religion, adding Weber to his original work.

(36) Barbara A Holdrege, “What’s Beyond the Post?: Comparative Analysis as Critical Method,” in A Magic Still Dwells: Comparative Religion in the Postmodern Age (Berkeley, CA: University of California Press, 2000), 84–85. Holdrege’s opinion is representative of many (if not most) of today’s scholars of religion.

(37) Zhang Zhigang 張志剛, “Zongjiaoxue de xingcheng” 宗教學的形成 (“The status of religious studies”), in Zongjiao yanjiu zhiyao 宗教研究指要宗教研究指要 (The guide of religion studies), ed. Zhang Zhigang (Beijing: Beijing daxue chubanshe, 2005), 239–240 (my translation).

(38) Rodney L. Taylor, The Religious Dimensions of Confucianism (Albany: State University of New York Press, 1990), 2–3.

(39) F.W. Mote, Imperial China: 900–1800 (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1999), xiv–xv.

(40) Isabelle Robinet, Taoism: Growth of a Religion (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1997), 3.

(41) Herrlee G. Creel, What Is Taoism? And Other Studies in Chinese Cultural History (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1982), 11.

(42) Moeller, Hans-Georg, “Introduction,” in Teaching the Daode jing, ed. Gary D. Deangelis and Warren G. Frisina (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2008), 9.

(43) For a summary of arguments establishing a continuity between so-called philosophical and religious Daoism, see Julia M. Hardy, “Influential Western Interpretations of the Tao-te-ching,” in Lao-tzu and the Tao-te-ching, ed. Livia Kohn and Michael LaFargue (Albany, NY: State University of New York Press, 1998), 174–179.

(46) Joachim Gentz, “Language of Heaven, Exegetical Skepticism and the Re-Insertion of Religious Concepts in the Gongyang Tradition,” in Early Chinese Religion—Part One: Shang through Han (1250 BC–220 AD), ed. John Lagerwey and Marc Kalinowski (Leiden: Brill, 2009), 838.

(47) Romain Graziani, “The Subject and the Sovereign: Exploring the Self in Early Chinese Self-Cultivation,” in Early Chinese Religion—Part One: Shang through Han (1250 BC–220 AD), ed. John Lagerwey and Marc Kalinowski (Leiden: Brill, 2009), 480.

(48) Mark Edward Lewis, “The Mythology of Early China,” in Early Chinese Religion—Part One: Shang through Han (1250 BC–220 AD), ed. John Lagerwey and Marc Kalinowski (Leiden: Brill, 2009), 548.

(49) Mark Csikszentmihalyi, “Ethics and Self-Cultivation Practice in Early China,” in Early Chinese Religion—Part One: Shang through Han (1250 BC–220 AD), ed. John Lagerwey and Marc Kalinowski (Leiden: Brill, 2009), 536–537, 542.

(52) For a collection of essays on how religious studies is moving beyond postmodernism, see Kimberley C. Patton and Benjamin C. Ray, A Magic Still Dwells: Comparative Religion in the Postmodern Age (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2000).

(53) Wittgenstein, Philosophical Investigations (No. 66), as cited in Umberto Eco, Six Walks in a Fictional Woods (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1994), 24.

(54) I would not be so bold as to enumerate a foundational list of religious components as one might enumerate vitamins, nor would I set a threshold of how many constitutes a critical mass for us to consider “religion.”

(57) Nancy Jay, Throughout Your Generations Forever: Sacrifice, Religion, and Paternity (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1992), 8 (emphasis hers).

(59) Ann Taves, “2010 Presidential Address: ‘Religion’ in the Humanities and the Humanities in the University,” Journal of the American Academy of Religion 79, no. 2 (2011): 308.