2012 Conference

China and Inner Asia Session 83

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Ritual Anomalies: New Perspectives of Death Ritual in Imperial China

Organizer and Chair: Miranda D. Brown, University of Michigan, USA

Discussant: Alice Yao, University of Toronto, Canada

The death rituals and mourning practices of the imperial Chinese elite have long attracted the attention of historians. Seen as epitomizing the larger patrilineal order, such practices have been mostly studied from the perspective of the paradigmatic case: particularly, the mourning of fathers by their sons. Less attention, however, has been paid to non-paradigmatic or anomalous cases, cases that involve figures that were marginalized by the patriline or instances that fell outside the scope of classical ritual prescription. Our panel will focus on this under-studied aspect of ritual practice, synthesizing the historical record from the Warring States to Qing with insights culled from archaeology, cultural anthropology, and sociology. The main questions that our papers will address include: Did the ritual system work to exclude socially-marginal figures, such as felons? Or did it provide resources for reintegrating such figures into the broader social order? How did the ritual system of imperial China handle the son’s mourning for divorced mothers or the ritual treatment of eunuchs: the former is often depicted as competing with a son’s loyalty to the patriline, while the latter represented an inversion of prescribed male roles in the classics. Finally, to what extent do examples of ritual transgression reveal the existence of a coherent system of rules and meanings? Are there other ways of thinking about ritual practices, ways that explain both anomalous behavior as well as broader regularities?

Making Death Proper: A Case Study of a Western Han Burial
Jue Guo, , USA

Mary Douglas observes that cultures universally develop strategies to deal with anomalies that conceptually and socially create disorder in the established human experience. Ritual has been one of the powerful strategies that deal with, if not eliminate, the threat of the anomalies, and restore or recreate order. Having acknowledged the inevitable existence of death, one of the most disturbing anomalies, death rituals have been employed to make death acceptable, and more importantly, proper. What counts as proper and the specific rituals vary from place to place and time to time. This paper examines a burial of a presumably official-turned-convict from Western Han China and the ritualistic transformation of his unsettling death. Huchang tomb no.5, the focus of this paper, was discovered in 1980 in Hanjiang, Jiangsu province. The tomb was dated to 71 B.C.E. The tomb occupants, a man named Wang Fengshi, according to one of the texts found in his burial, was involved in a lawsuit and possibly died in prison in his early 30s. Coincidently, the examination of Wang’s remains also revealed premortem torture. However, the tomb and plentiful grave goods testified his proper burial that a “criminal” normally would not have received. Through examining one particular text from his burial, this paper suggests that Wang had been ritually restored to the status of a commoner and thus transformed his abnormal death into a proper one. The textual witness of such ritualistic transformation was buried with him to legitimate his return to his family graveyard.

Mourning Divorced and Remarried Mothers
Yiqun Zhou, Stanford University, USA

The Chinese Mourning Grades (hereafter Grades), which meticulously prescribed the types of mourning dress and the lengths of the grieving periods to be adopted by every person who had lost a relative, constituted a cornerstone in the organization of premodern Chinese kinship relationships. According to the Grades, a son should mourn his mother at a much reduced grade if she had been divorced by her husband or if she had remarried after the death of her husband. This stipulation is the most salient illustration of the patrilineal nature of the Grades, especially in light of the fact that the status of the normal “mother” (whose loyalty to the lineage of her husband and son was not comprised by her departure) underwent a steady elevation in the Grades and eventually attained exactly the same grade as the father. The conflict between ritual prescription and the natural feelings that sons had for their “compromised” mothers came up again and again in scholarly exegeses and court debates regarding the validity of the ethical imperatives contained in the Grades. By examining the discussions and controversies surrounding the status of the divorced or remarried mothers in the Grades, this paper explores how an important familial relationship was constructed in premodern China by way of a major ritual and legal institution. In this paper I shall focus on the developments in the Tang and Ming, and my main primary sources consist of the official histories and ritual codes of the two dynasties.

Ritual Without Rules: Han-Dynasty Mourning Practice Revisited
Miranda D. Brown, University of Michigan, USA

The late Han and early medieval elite are somewhat notorious for their seeming lack of ritual propriety: office-seekers would sire children while still wearing mourning for their fathers, well-connected literati would bray like donkeys at the funerals of friends, and a famous poet reportedly drank spirits after receiving news of the death of his mothers. In attempting to explain such surprising –even shocking – lapses of ritual propriety, scholars have explained such deviations from ritual norms as either transgressive expressions of individualism or signs of incomplete “Confucianization.” Underlying both explanations is a common assumption – to wit, that the ritual classics furnish a coherent system or systems of mourning, from which the educated elite drew prescriptive rules. In this presentation, I will challenge this commonplace assumption. Taking a Bourdieu’s critique of social rules as my point of departure, I revisit Ying Shao’s Discussion of Customs and Habits (ca. AD 200), an exposé on ritual misconduct of his contemporary. Through these methods of inquiry, I propose that the mourning practices of the Han elite are better understood in terms of recursive strategies of action as opposed to social rules. Much like fashion, the mourning practices of the Han elite exhibited clear patterns and regularities; yet interestingly, such practices were not evaluated in Han times by reference to any set of explicit rules.

Qing Eunuchs in Mourning
Norman Kutcher, Syracuse University, USA

A fascinating contradiction lies at the heart of the institution of eunuchs in China. On the one hand, they were considered an essential part of government, whose function was to ensure the purity of the imperial line. On the other hand, because castration deformed the body and ended the possibility of procreation, they were considered the products of an act that defied the mandate of filial piety. The state thus found itself in the awkward position of sanctioning an institution that went squarely against its core values. My paper will explore this issue by examining a particular moment in eunuchs’ lives: their mourning for their parents. Using extraordinarily revealing mourning records pertaining to Qing dynasty eunuchs, I hope to understand how 1) the state; and 2) individual eunuchs, reconciled or at least negotiated this contradiction. In the case of the state, for example, did it consider that those who became eunuchs had forever left their families, and thus were not subject to the requirements of mourning? Or did it permit eunuchs to observe mourning for their parents? In the case of eunuchs themselves, what was the range of their emotions in mourning? What lengths did they go through to mourn parents? Finally, I hope to determine whether eunuchs’ mourning practices found their way into the culture of Beijing’s temples.