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Reviewed by:
  • Public Memory in Early China by K. E. Brashier
  • Erica F. Brindley
Public Memory in Early China by K. E. Brashier. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Asia Center, 2014. Pp. viii + 511. $69.95.

Public Memory in Early China provides a rich, exquisitely detailed, and important account of early Chinese strategies for creating and maintaining a shared, public memory. Guided by such questions as, “What things should we remember?” and “How does a society measure and mark what is important to it?” Brashier discusses how certain oral and literary cultures in early China sought to mark, preserve, and commemorate individuals and ancestors, as well as other aspects of the past. With nuanced, mellifluous, and meticulously organized language, Brashier transforms the cold bones of mortuary culture—in particular, stele inscriptions, which form the springboard for his inquiry—into a wide-ranging intellectual feast. In the introduction alone, this feast includes in-depth discussions about education, about orality and literacy, about the mechanics and performative aspects of remembering, as well as about the role of the classicists in creating a memorial culture, to name a few.

The bulk of the book presents a neat, threefold approach to discussing public memory. Parts I, II, and III highlight names, age, and kinship respectively as prominent ways of marking one’s status and public value during life and during the afterlife in early Chinese society. Parts IV and V examine what Brashier calls “the tangible and intangible tools of positioning the self” (pp. 263, 317). Central to the discussion of the first three parts is how names, age, and kinship help position the self [End Page 456] so as to locate individuals within a web of culturally meaningful relationships both during life and after death. This manner of organizing the book is innovative and interesting; it sheds light upon some of the most important techniques used in ancient Chinese culture to situate individuals not just hierarchically but also laterally and in every conceivable, three-dimensional direction, according to a complicated and dynamic calculation of social worth.

In part I, on names, we learn about the circumstances in which various names, such as familiar, courtesy, posthumous, family, and clan names, were bestowed, used, and tabooed. We learn how names served to position individuals according to a hierarchy of value and to link them to a particular region or plot of land. Indeed, one of Brashier’s most interesting points in this section is his discussion of the tight relationship between territory and ancestral cult: the surname could locate and associate individuals with specific areas on the map of the known world. In part II, on age, we learn about the various administrative systems of valuation and ways of honoring people during and after their lifetimes. We learn about the office of the “thrice venerable” (san lao 三老; p 175), about why early Chinese culture venerated their living elderly as well as their dead, and about the administrative seniority system (jue 爵) that was used during the Han period. The overarching comparative point that Brashier stresses in this section contrasts traditional, Western views of the arc of life—which allegedly rises to midlife only to decline thereafter—with a dominant ancient Chinese view, expressed through administrative grades as well as through religious attitudes toward the dead, of an “ever-climbing stairway” (p. 166) from birth through death and afterward.

Brashier’s discussion of the shared symbols used in stele inscriptions demonstrates how this medium helped reduce the particular qualities of a person’s life to a common language of hyperbole and praise, despite stele inscriptions’ ostensible focus on individual traits and biographies. A significant point that Brashier makes in part II thus has to do with the reductionism associated with age-related positioning of the self. In his discussion of “The Age of the Afterlife” (sec. 11), he especially zeroes in on this point. Specifically, his discussion of the spatial arrangement of ancestor worship and sacrifice shows how one’s individuality eventually recedes into a cloud-like, “corporate, ancestral body” (p. 200), indicated by the vertical height of an ancestral tablet [End Page 457] located at the top of the sacrificial hall. Noting the direct relationship between...


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pp. 456-460
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