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Reviewed by:
  • Text and Ritual in Early China
  • Brian J. Bruya (bio)
Martin Kern , editor. Text and Ritual in Early China. Seattle: University of Washington Press, 2005. xxvii, 332 pp. Hardcover $40.00, ISBN 0–295–98562–3.

Text and Ritual with Regard to Writing and Authority

Text and Ritual in Early China, edited by Martin Kern, is an important book. While reading it, I was repeatedly reminded of Mark Edward Lewis's Writing and Authority in Early China (State University of New York Press, 1999), not just because of the formal and lexical similarities of the titles or to the many references to Lewis's book. Both Lewis and the contributors to Text and Ritual are meticulous in their scholarship, broad in their sources, assiduous in supporting their claims, cautious but insightful in their generalizations, and forward looking in their scholarship. They approach the texts of early China with a view to understanding the sociopolitical dynamics of the time and draw on every available text, leaving no stone unturned and taking nothing for granted. Given the time span of the period they cover, the multiplicity of texts, the variety of media on which the texts were recorded, the array of secondary sources, and the difficulty of the early language in its many manifestations, the task does not come easy.

Even though the dates of the publication of Writing and Authority and of the conference "Text and Ritual in Early China" on which Text and Ritual is drawn are fewer than two years apart, there are two ways in which Text and Ritual can be seen as an updating of Writing and Authority. First, whereas Lewis makes numerous references to the Mawangdui, Baoshan, Yunmeng, and Fangmatan manuscripts, he makes little or no reference to such recent finds as the Guodian and Shanghai materials, which the contributors to Text and Ritual repeatedly bring into the discussion. Second, although Lewis and the contributors to Text and Ritual are on equal ground as outstanding expositors of the field of early Chinese studies, some of these same contributors have extolled Lewis's work as a grand synthesis of scholarship in the field, thus giving it, by default, a position of predominance and authority to which related books in the field, for the time being, will naturally be judged as responses and extensions.1

Lewis, showing a concern for the authority associated with ritual and with the texts that developed around it, notes that the relationship of writing and ritual goes all the way back to the earliest days of the Chinese polity and its persistent preoccupation with natural and spiritual forces. That writing was created seemingly for the purpose of recording the significance of events associated with these forces should signal the central importance of ritual in the history of texts in early China.

In the first part of this review, I will summarize what I find to be the main insights of each chapter. Though there is very little to criticize, I will, in the second [End Page 338] part of my review, examine three important areas of concern that fall under the general heading of terminological precision. As a heuristic for approaching the diversity of topics in Text and Ritual in Early China, I will group the chapters as they relate to the broad themes of Writing and Authority.

Nylan, Falkenhausen, and Brashier on Text and Authority

Both Writing and Authority and Text and Ritual begin with the nexus of ritual and political authority. Lewis details its origins in the oracle bones and then shows how later texts, such as covenants (meng盟), local registers, and coins, developed out of the tradition of using ritual texts for the purpose of political control. Michael Nylan, in her chapter, "Toward an Archaeology of Writing: Text, Ritual, and the Culture of Public Display in the Classical Period (475 B.C.E.–220 C.E.)," extends this theme in the direction of artifactual displays. The chapter can be seen as a long and involved answer to the question, why do we "find what we ordinarily think of as 'secular' texts buried in tombs?" (p. 34).

Nylan begins with a nice summary of "writing's share in ritual...


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