- Death in Ancient China: The Tale of One Man's Journey
The resting places of the dead are revealing windows into ancient cultures. The ways that a particular culture understands death, treats the dying person, and handles the corpse tell us a great deal about its values. For those of us whose understanding of ancient civilizations comes primarily through their transmitted religious and philosophical literature, a book like Constance Cook's Death in China: The Tale of One Man's Journey serves as a valuable guide to the material culture that constitutes a treasure trove of information regarding those cultures' understandings of death.
The focal point of Cook's study is the tomb of Shao Tuo, an official in the Chu court who was buried in 316 B.C.E. The book is an exhaustive inventory, analysis, and interpretation of the content and layout of this tomb, with close attention paid to the texts and art found in the tomb and the arrangement of the tomb itself.
Scholars must often think in generalities, and there are many books written about "the ancient Chinese." Over time, however, the people from a culture so far removed from us can begin to feel like an abstraction. One virtue of a book like this is that it focuses on a particular individual, and throughout the book we get a glimpse of the life, work, illness, and untimely death of a man in fourth century B.C.E. China through Cook's reconstruction. Through comparative reflection on other tombs and texts and by drawing on the work of sinologists and scholars of numerous aspects of ancient China (for example, philosophy, art, philology, and poetry), the book expands out from the concrete particularities of Shao Tuo's life to broader claims about the development of Chinese cosmology, conceptions and treatments of illness, and understandings of the afterlife.
The book is not for the casual nonacademic reader; it is a resource for scholars of Chinese culture and history, as well as for those interested in tomb archaeology and comparative studies of death and dying. It is informative, densely packed and well organized, and it provides readers with extensive inventories, illustrations, diagrams, and charts, as well as appendixes consisting of translations of two texts found in the tomb. These appendixes contain images of the bamboo strips found in the tomb, and for those of us who do not get our hands dirty in archaeological digs, looking at these strips, with their early but usually recognizable forms of Chinese characters, brings us into contact with the power that such artifacts possess. The appendixes also provide the modern Chinese characters from the strips along with copious notes that discuss the meanings of characters and the reasons for certain translation choices. [End Page 411]
One of the characteristics of Chinese tombs is the frequency with which texts were included within them. Shao Tuo's tomb contained records of his administrative duties, as well as both an inventory text detailing the contents of the tomb and a divination text, the latter detailing the many attempts by shaman-diviners to diagnose and cure the ailing official. The Chinese have a long history of keeping divination records, dating back to the Shang dynasty oracle bone inscriptions (their discovery has provided one of the most significant sources of insight into Shang culture). The divination text in Shao Tuo's tomb reveals a great deal about the religio-medical practices of the period, but the reason for the inclusion of this text, as well as the inventory text, in the tomb is unclear. Cook reviews the theories, including that the texts might have been for Shao Tuo's use in the afterlife, for use by other spirits, for the purpose of providing testimony to his merit and rank (for example, through the length of the inventory texts), and so that the texts could be separated from the world of the living and preserved. The texts could serve as talismans that...