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  • The Politics of Mourning in Early China
  • Constance A. Cook (bio)
Miranda Brown. The Politics of Mourning in Early China. Albany: State University of New York Press, 2007. 220 pp. Hardcover $75.00, ISBN 978-0-7914-7157-9. Paperback $23.95, ISBN 978-0-7914-7158-6.

Miranda Brown has produced a tidy study of the gendered nature of private and public space as expressed through mourning ritual during the Eastern Han period (25–220 c.e.). Her study is primarily limited to the political dimensions of memorial texts inscribed on stone stelae but avoids discussion of their religious or cultic implications (as found, for instance, in Mark Lewis’s Construction of Space in Early China [Albany: State University of New York, 2006], or in earlier works by Kenneth Brashier). Yet Brown’s detailed examination of the entire corpus of stone inscriptions, not just key examples of local urban or mountain cults, is the first major study to show the importance of the worship of mothers in late Han memorial culture.

In Brown’s reading, private space was domestic and was represented by the intimacy of mothers and sons. Public space was the sphere of hierarchical political relations that would engage the father, requiring loyalties that may supersede those of private space. Intimacy (qin), as a product of sharing the same bones, flesh, blood, and breath, required bonds of gratitude (en) and was exclusive to those who shared private or personal (si) space. Respect (jing) or veneration (zun) represented the bonds of lower-level to higher-level officials, or the Confucian duty of a minister to his lord—public space. The relationship and tension between these two spaces are evident from a comparison of two types of records: (1) transmitted ritual, history, and other texts from the Han that focus on public roles, primarily of male officers, and (2) the stone stelae inscribed by mourners, which focus on private and local roles of individuals, including a surprising number of mothers.

Mourning as a politicized subject appears in the official records primarily in terms of how much merit the officials who perform the ritual deserve. The conflict was essentially an old debate. Practicality and economics contended with the value of propriety as delineated by the ritual texts from Ru or Confucian scholars of the late Warring States period, around the third century b.c.e. This debate carried over into the Western Han and was tied to the religious issue of supporting local shrines (see Michael Loewe, The Government of the Qin and Han Empires, 221 b.c.e.–220 c.e. [Indianapolis: Hackett, 2006], pp. 97–99). Some accounts applaud Han officials for their elaborate displays of Ru-style mourning for fathers, a performance that required up to twenty-five months of seclusion. Other accounts applaud the transfer of such filial loyalty (xiao) to the state, which suggests the greater pressure not to interrupt a career path or at least to defer mourning [End Page 326] to later, more convenient times. The full display of mourning for a father was noteworthy, suggesting its rarity, but also suggesting its double-edged symbolic nature. On one hand, performances of grief might be considered by some at court as a sign of inner virtue and loyalty, qualities valued by the emperor. On the other hand, to others it represented excessive behavior, an expression of withdrawal from and disloyalty to the central court.

In contrast to the traditional analysis that defines co-option of male filial piety by the state, Brown’s analysis of memorial stone stele inscriptions reveals that the most emotional and common mourning documentation during the Eastern Han was written by a son for his deceased mother as an expression of personal gratitude (si’en). In these cases, emotional excess was not only applauded but provided an almost magical quality to generate a larger empathy in the outer world, one that could influence strangers and the spirit world, up to and including Heaven and the natural order. This is the same type of effect documented by Lewis on stele inscriptions dedicated to the local cults of secluded scholars and immortals that marked the rise of regional political and...