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Reviewed by:
  • Mortality in Traditional Chinese Thought ed. by Amy Olberding, Philip J. Ivanhoe
  • Armin Selbitschka
Mortality in Traditional Chinese Thought. Edited by Amy Olberding and Philip J. Ivanhoe . SUNY series in Chinese Philosophy and Culture , Roger T. Ames , editor. Albany : State University of New York Press , 2011 . Pp. 313 . Hardcover $85.00 , ISBN 978-1-438-43564-0 .

Mortality in Traditional Chinese Thought (hereafter Mortality), edited by Amy Olberding and Philip J. Ivanhoe, unites eleven essays dealing with an aspect of early Chinese culture that usually only gets addressed by archaeologists and art historians.1 Tens of thousands of tombs dating from the pre-imperial period through the end of the Qing dynasty have been excavated by Chinese archaeologists over the last sixty-odd years. The abundance of such material inevitably leads us to ask how people responded to the inescapable prospect of their own demise and the death of others.2 [End Page 1088] Except for the occasional study of rites and ceremonies prescribed in the so-called Rites classics of the Confucian canon,3 scholars interested in traditional Chinese intellectual history have thus far largely ignored the subject. In this regard, Mortality definitively breaks new ground in its attempt to “consider the phenomenon of death from a variety of disciplines and perspectives and capture some of the most important and distinctive ways people in traditional China understood and responded to death” (p. 1) as it combines three chapters (1–3) based mostly on archaeological sources with eight chapters (4–11) relying on philosophical writings.

Reviewers often frown upon collective volumes for lack of a coherent argument; not so this reviewer, who welcomes the opportunities they offer for the sole reason that many issues are far too complex to warrant simplifying generalizations. Therefore, the editors of Mortality were wise enough to “forego an attempt to create any singular theoretical frame” and instead opted to “sketch the remarkable range and richness of Chinese responses to mortality” (p. 2).

The table of contents lists “Acknowledgments” (p. ix), “Introduction” (pp. 1–11), chapters 1 through 11 (pp. 13–295), a list of contributors (pp. 297–299), and an index (pp. 301–313). The latter will prove highly useful to readers perusing the volume only for specific information as it refers not only to various concepts but also to ancient thinkers and political personalities, modern scholars, and archaeological sites related to the subject. The organization of the essays observes a clear logic: Chapters 1–3 pertain to death in an archaeological context, and chapters 4–11 to death and dying in a philosophical context. Moreover, these two blocks are in themselves coherently structured; they basically move chronologically from older to younger issues.

In “Preparation for the Afterlife in Ancient China” (chapter 1, pp. 13–36), Mu-chou Poo sets out primarily to illustrate and interpret modifications in actual burial practice that directly related to significant social changes in the second half of the first millennium b.c.e. Tombs dating from the Shang through the early Eastern Zhou periods, he argues, were constructed as vertical shaft pits, most notably containing one wooden chamber, coffin(s), and sets of bronze ritual vessels. The main purpose of such tombs was to convey social status through size, different numbers of caskets, and bronze ritual objects. It is for the reader, however, to figure out whether the author believes that such hierarchies were also transferred into an imagined afterlife. This much is only implied.

A major turning point in burial practice was when this type of tomb was superseded by multi-chambered horizontal constructions either cut into the faces of mountains or constructed as underground brick edifices. Considering the fact that some fourth- through third-century b.c.e. wooden chambers already provide evidence of doors and windows built into partition walls, thus suggesting rooms of different (symbolic) function, “there should be no doubt that the tombs were meant to be the houses of the dead in a realistic sense” (p. 17); furthermore, “the soul was expected to move around” (p. 16) within the confines of these structures. Such new concepts of individual existence after death and interment were directly linked to a “new social consciousness...