Recalling Kings: Ritual, Royal Identity, and Historical Consciousness in Early China

The kings of the Western Zhou period enjoy unparalleled status as classical Chinese culture heroes, thanks largely to their role in the Confucian canon. From early on, their ascendancy was understood as a result of their deep regard for and expert implementation of ritual practices. Core Confucian texts purported to capture this expertise, and through them, figures such as Kings Wen, Wu, and Cheng of Zhou helped set the paradigm for Chinese imperial history.

However, over the last few decades, a much finer-grained picture of Zhou ritual and its multivalent role in the development of early Chinese kingship has emerged. With the help of Western bronze inscriptions, royal ritual can now be tied to the historical specifics of Zhou geopolitics, clarifying the circumstances that drove changes in the ideological framing of the Zhou royal identity. Manuscripts of Warring States date have revealed the remarkable variety of ways in which later theorists recalled the ritual legacy of the Zhou kings, leveraging their memory to support particular visions of the juncture between history, religion, and the state.

This presentation explores one aspect of this rediscovered intellectual diversity: the tie between ritual, royal identity, and historical consciousness. It traces how the Western Zhou kings strategically deployed ritual practices in narratives of kingship and allegiance to the Zhou, promoting a ritually embedded model of history which nonetheless accommodated changes in the relationship between religion and the state. With examples from manuscripts, it shows how extra-canonical recollections of those practices drove diverse Warring States visions of the balance between royal power and sacred authority. Along the way, it proposes an answer to the question: Why does ritual loom so large in the study of early Chinese history?

Nick Vogt’s research focuses on the cultural and religious history of early China, with an emphasis on the connections between identities, objects, and ritual practices. Paleographical materials, including both inscribed bronze vessels and excavated manuscripts, form a key part of his work. Areas of special interest include early conceptions of kingship; approaches to securing individual legacies; the archaeology of religion in early China; the history of early Chinese ritual; and the characterization of the Zhou royal house and its methods both before and after the formation of the classical canon. His current monograph project explores the royal ritual of the Western Zhou era (ca. 11th-8th c. BCE) based on contemporary bronze inscriptions. Recently, he has begun a parallel line of research on the ideological, literary, and aesthetic concerns behind later tales of Western Zhou history in sources ranging from ancient manuscripts to modern science fiction.
Nick is Assistant Professor of Early Chinese History in the Department of East Asian Languages and Cultures, School of Global and International Studies, Indiana University Bloomington.

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Published: Thursday, October 5, 2017