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  • Ritendiskussionen am Hof der nördlichen Song-Dynastie (1034–1093): Zwischen Ritengelehrsamkeit, Machtkampf und intellektuellen Bewegungen
  • Martin Hofmann (bio)
Christian Meyer. Ritendiskussionen am Hof der nördlichen Song-Dynastie (1034–1093): Zwischen Ritengelehrsamkeit, Machtkampf und intellektuellen Bewegungen. Monumenta Serica Monograph Series, vol. 58. Sankt Augustin: Institut Monumenta Serica, 2008. 646 pp. Hardcover €65.00, ISBN 978-3-8050-0551-7.

This monograph is a multifaceted and in-depth study of the debates on ritual practices at the Chinese court between 1034 and 1093. This period is primarily known for its lively discussions on political reforms initiated by Fan Zhongyan and Wang Anshi, the development of Neo-Confucian philosophy, the growing importance of the examination system, and the rise of the literati. Yet, as Meyer rightly claims (pp. 28–29), the ritual debates (Ritendiskussionen) of that time, their relation to social and political issues, and their place in the reflections of prominent Neo-Confucian thinkers have not received much attention.

Meyer splits his exhaustive study into four main parts and a summary of results. The first part considers the meaning of the term li (rites, ritual, propriety) and, primarily drawing on the findings of the German sinologist Werner Eich-horn, sketches out the system of imperial court rituals of the Song dynasty. This section can be read as a general introduction to the subject of li from antiquity through the Song period, yet at times one wishes for more clarity with regard to the relevance of particular details to the overall argument of this study.

In the second part, Meyer turns to the core topic of his book, the Northern Song debates on the court rituals. He singles out four major issues: the debate on the sacrifices to Heaven and Earth, including the discussion on the Bright Hall (mingtang); the debate on ritual music; the debate on the veneration of Prince Pu; and the debate on the mourning ritual for the deceased chancellor Sima Guang. The sources on these controversies are scattered and fragmentary, and so one of Meyer’s major achievements is having meticulously compiled the available materials and offering careful translations and detailed paraphrases. In this way, this section offers an informative overview of the particular minutiae considered in these debates — from the color of the curtains to the sound of the bells. Moreover, the section effectively demonstrates that arguments and eventually decisions were often subject to a large array of conflicting considerations, from exegesis of the Confucian classics, through the interpretation of omens, to the pragmatic concerns of economy and power struggles. Despite the strengths of this section, the author simply lists a litany of proposals and decrees in chronological order without providing much analytical context, thereby running the risk of overburdening the reader. Particularly with respect to the exhaustive debates on the Heaven and Earth sacrifices and on ritual music, the short introductions to the key points of contention hardly suffice to guide the reader through the section’s extensive account of the deliberations. [End Page 218]

In the attempt to analyze and contextualize the four debates, the third part begins with a description of what Meyer terms the “ritual identity of the shidafu1 (scholar-officials) (p. 306). This section no longer focuses on court rituals but explains what implications li had, in a broader sense, for the self-perception of the shidafu during the Northern Song. The argument claims that engaging in discourses on li reassured the participants of their social and political relevance and fostered cohesion among them. Following a brief introduction to the institutional framework of the debates at the Song court, Meyer returns to his core subject, the court rituals, and analyzes the roles of different protagonists such as the emperor, chancellors and ministers, censors, court officials, and external experts.

Shifting the focus once more, Meyer then turns to some interesting reflections on the applicability of the Habermasian notion of public sphere to the Chinese context. He thereby addresses the contentious question of whether China has, or ever had, such a public sphere. Meyer convincingly concludes that neither Habermas’ concept of representative public sphere nor that of bourgeois public sphere is well suited to describe Northern Song society. Based on...