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Ancestral Memory in Early China (review)
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K. E. Brashier begins his study of ancestral memory with a wry regret that this book was due out ten years ago. No matter: the wait was worthwhile. This complex and fascinating tome is packed with detailed information organized into five thematic chapters, or “parts,” with a total of thirty-one “sections” (specific case studies). The topics discussed are so intertwined, with colorful threads drawn and re-spun from previous chapters, that the reader can be overwhelmed, wondering if each “part” should not have been separated into an independent book.1 Fortunately, after a lengthy introduction, Brashier deftly guides the reader from one part to the next. The result is that by the time the reader reaches the end of Part 5, the rhetorical flourish that constitutes the conclusion is enough. This is an impressive and entertaining work.

Despite his erudition, Brashier speaks directly to the reader, often by playfully using metaphors from modern life to explain his theoretical approaches. The book begins with an examination of the political economy of Han mortuary rules for ancestral memory and ends with an exploration of the cognitive aspect of preserving ancestral memory as an individual experience in what he calls the “bubble of ritual-time and altar-space.” Brashier freely speculates, drawing connections between details of Han religious practice accessible only to a scholar who is deeply engrossed in every type of material and literary resource reflective of the Han period (206 b.c.e .–220 c.e .). Ancestral Memory in Early China reflects over a decade of work, and its structure brings to mind one of the many metaphors Brashier uses to describe the Han religious experience, such as the “Han Tree of Knowledge,” in which the trunk represents the shared understanding of ancestral cults inherited from the earlier Zhou period and the branches connote singular practices particular to certain times and places.

Brashier carefully acknowledges the limits of his sources for interpreting the “trunk” and “branches” of Han practice, accepting that all were recorded or edited by classicists (Confucians or Ru 儒) with their own interpretive agendas. He recognizes that the majority of images of Zhou belief preserved in ritual texts were products of Han-period imagination. Even so, he is forced to make generalizations, declaiming the filter of the Eastern Zhou (770–221 b.c.e .) interpretations as a corruption of a purer Zhou practice (Western Zhou, 1046–771 b.c.e .). Inspired by Brashier’s own analysis of Han religion, this reader would argue that there was likewise no pure Zhou practice and that the idea of defining religious practices by historical eras was a late Warring States–early Han effort to identify a tradition in the face of multiple competing regional influences.

In Part 1, Brashier wisely describes the so-called “Zhou” practice defined in the Liji (Ritual records) as the “imaginary yardstick for ritual performance.” In Part 2, he tests these idealized ritual rules against thirteen case studies drawn primarily from Han historical records. He notes that the Han officials who interpreted ritual for the emperors generally edited the rules for their own benefit, choosing records that supported one system of remembering imperial ancestors over another depending on which branch lineage was in power. With regard to the individual practice of ancestor worship, the system applied affected which ancestors were remembered through regular sacrifices.

In Part 3, the heart of his book, Brashier discusses how descendants formed their images of the ancestral spirit and suggests that their relationships to the images involved balancing their expressions of “sincerity” to the spirits against both their own doubts and popular debates over the very existence of spirits.2 The mental effort involved in expressing sincerity to a spirit is the primary subject of Part 4. He explains these acts of mentation and performative thinking by drawing on literary metaphors mostly preserved in poetry. These metaphors reflect a cosmos that was composed of qi 氣 (which Brashier defines as “atmospheric vapors” or “bodily energies and breaths”) and flowed according to the rules of yinyang and the Five Phases (or processes) (wuxing 五行) theory (see pp. 234–38).3 Ancestors existed in a state of yin (death, winter, north, dark) and could only be...

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