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Reviewed by:
  • Ancestral Memory in Ancient China by Kenneth E. Brashier
  • Armin Selbitschka (bio)
Kenneth E. Brashier. Ancestral Memory in Ancient China. Harvard-Yenching Institute Monograph Series 72. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Asia Center for the Harvard-Yenching Institute, distributed by Harvard University Press, 2011. xii, 470 pp. Hardcover $39.95. isbn 978-0-674-05607-7.

First things first: Ancestral Memory in Ancient China is an excellent account of ancestral cult as it is depicted in a variety of textual sources. Similar to several outstanding, albeit sometimes underappreciated1 papers he has published over the years, Kenneth Brashier continues to delight his readers with a well-balanced, critical reading of transmitted historiographical, sociophilosophical, as well as poetical records roughly dating to and dealing with an era spanning from the third century b.c.e. through third century c.e. By incorporating the occasional divinatory texts excavated from tombs as well as stelae inscriptions, he demonstrates that ancestral worship was far more than “a simplistic and uninspired exchange of food for longevity, of prayers for prosperity” (p. 5); centered on “the notion of thoughtfull [sic] ancestors — of ancestors projected from the minds of their descendants” (p. 4), the study primarily offers the perspective of the bereaved on the postmortem fate of their family members.

The book is organized in five parts (pp. 46–345), which are preceded by a lengthy introduction (pp. 1–45) and succeeded by a short conclusion (pp. 346–348). All in all, thirty-one sections subdivide the introduction and the five parts. Their suitably named headings are contained in the table of contents and guide the reader conveniently through the author’s arguments, a fact still enhanced by further topical headings used to structure more extensive sections (i.e., pp. 2, 3, 8, 27, 28, 29, and 30). As it has become the usual practice of publishing houses to replace the much more user-friendly thus infinitely more desirable footnotes with endnotes, we find the latter appended to the main text (pp. 349–438). The bibliography (pp. 439–463) follows. The volume is concluded by a brief index (pp. 465–470), which includes the main concepts and personal names of the discussion.

The introduction (“The Han Tree of Knowledge”) first paints a picture of intellectual diversity during the early imperial period before relating the respective idea systems — in light of recent scholarship, Brashier rightly avoids speaking of schools, or -isms (e.g., Confucianism, Daoism, etc.) — to one another. Early Chinese thinkers obviously were aware of differing trains of thought as is evident in numerous recorded debates. The author argues that the goal of intellectual discourse, contrary to Western intellectual history, usually was not the complete devaluation of an opponent’s arguments, but rather the elevation one’s own teachings from a pool of teachings sharing basic concepts. The latter expressed themselves in several metaphors common to various idea systems. Using the tree, [End Page 459] among other things, as a metaphor, the classicist (Confucian) scholar Liu Xiang compared teachings deviating from the norm, that is, the stem, to branches. In a very similar line of reasoning, the syncretic text Huainanzi likened the origin of all knowledge to the root of a tree from which stem and branches eventually emanate. By the end of the introduction, Brashier has built a sound basis for all arguments to come: “[U]nderstanding how differing idea systems were interconnected in early China explains how the early Chinese themselves related differing beliefs about the afterlife to one another” (p. 6).

In part 1 (“An Imaginary Yardstick for Ritual Performance”), the author decided to analyze the rituals involved in ancestor worship by invoking performance theory. We have ample theoretical evidence of how these rituals ideally should have been carried out from prescriptive texts such as the Liji (Records of Ritual). According to performance theory, however, actual practice is an essential part of ritual. Citing anthropologist Barbara Myerhoff, Brashier states that “not only is seeing believing, doing is believing” (p. 53). He continues by developing the concept of “structured amnesia,” which was central to applied ancestor worship. Accordingly, ancestors had a half-life: only for a certain amount of time did they remain in...