- Of Body and Brush: The Grand Sacrifice as Text/Performance in Eighteenth Century China
It may be best to think of the argument of Angela Zito's enormously stimulating book Of Body and Brush: The Grand Sacrifice as Text/Performance in Eighteenth Century [End Page 623] China as a series of concentric circles. At its core is a careful and satisfyingly annotated translation of the chapters of the Comprehensive Rites of the Qing (Da Qing tong li) (1756) that concern the grand sacrifice, the most important ceremonial moment in the life of a Qing emperor. From her careful and original analysis of these materials, Zito is able to bring new life not only to the Qianlong Emperor himself but also to the worlds of which he was, or sought to be, the center. These included the officials who served him, the community of scholars and editors who wrote about ritual, and the people who looked to the state for models of the centering process. In so doing, she rescues the eighteenth century from the accusation that it was the "graveyard of modernity." But she also examines the nature of Chinese ritual itself, in a way that explodes Western assumptions and explores Chinese subjectivities.
There are far too many implications of this book to deal with in a short review, and any choice of themes is somewhat subjective. Zito's suggestion that we refer to the community of Chinese officials as an "imperium" rather than a "bureaucracy" (à la Weber) is a convincing one that will certainly influence our narrative practice. I was most impressed, however, with what I found to be the triumphant demonstration that this book achieves of the vitality of ritual in the eighteenth century. We have always known, at some level, that ritual was important in China, but we have not always known what to do with this fact. Like contemporary undergraduates who respond with blank stares when asked if they have ever participated in a ritual (I have tried this), we have stood mute before the mountain of Chinese primary source materials dealing with ritual. In showing us a way to read ritual texts, Zito reminds us that these provided for the Chinese a way of "making manifest" (p. 79) the power of heaven in human affairs, and re-actualizing past words in present ceremonial. In short, eighteenth-century students of ritual texts were hardly antiquarians; they were actually optimists, pursuing the possibility that the realities of the golden age of the past could actually be recovered in the present. And they were not only this, of course, for Zito offers the fascinating suggestion that in a world where literacy was becoming more common, the analysts of ritual were attempting to recuperate their social and political positions as "interpreters and creators of authority" by reconnecting writing and obscure ancient ritual practice.
This comment, however, is really an aside in an argument that is mainly concerned with how ritual was acted out in the eighteenth century. The details of the Grand Sacrifice—the various prostrations, placements, and profferings—are compellingly described and interpreted here. One waits—to say "breathlessly" may be a bit strong, but certainly with mounting anticipation—to see what historical associations or symbolic statements will come next in this most theatrical of imperial performances. One of the most interesting questions is whether the emperor sacrificed as a filial son—human, like the officials who surrounded him on the lower steps of the altar, or like a sage whose access to the heavenly realm was of a qualitatively different character than that of any other mortal. Of course the emperor was both, and it was the function of ritual, as Zito argues, to negotiate the differences between the two. [End Page 624]
What is at stake in this volume is nothing less than an attempt to recover the mentality of those who were engaged in ritual practices. What did it mean when the emperor clothed his body in ceremonial...