- Excavating the Afterlife: The Archaeology of Early Chinese Religion by Guolong Lai
What is “archaeology of religion,” as found in the subtitle of the book under review? It is, as defined in Michel Foucault’s late 1960s’ Archaeology of Knowledge, an attempt to reconstruct a vision of the past while avoiding the use of a priori categories for interpretation.1 In the case of early Chinese religion, this attempt would be replacing the traditional reliance on transmitted philosophical texts with information from material culture and excavated texts, the results of archaeology as a discipline rather than as an investigative process.
Donald Harper advocated this approach decades ago.2 And the application of Foucault’s approach to “religion” using material culture, including burial data, such as Lai presently does, can be traced back over twenty years to Colin Renfrew.3 Renfrew notes that burial is a highly symbolic act that can involve secular concerns but also reflect beliefs in an afterlife or even a larger worldview of transcendence in a community, as burial is “the last of all rites of passage.”4 Lai takes this approach and surveys a dense array of fascinating and colorful archaeological data. He defines early Chinese religious imagination in a way that readers will find thought-provoking, although not always, as he claims, either new or certain.
Lai focuses on burial data from the middle and lower Yangzi River valley during the late Warring States and (mostly) early Han periods. His primary claim is that the ritual treatment of war dead during the Warring States caused a shift in axis in belief: from a vertical ascendance of the deceased’s identity or “soul” from grave into heaven to a [End Page 219] horizontal journey across the earth from tomb to an imaginary mountain in the Northwest. This shift led to the concept of a community of transcendent spirits, which would become popular during the Han.5
The journey of the deceased from grave to heaven or from tomb to the imaginary mountain was assisted by two main types of Warring States and Han burial data: tomb shape and tomb contents. The latter he universally calls “spirit artifacts” (broadening earlier definitions, which limited the category of mingqi 明器 to artifacts specially produced for burial).6 Lai is particularly concerned with the personalized nature of “spirit artifacts,” especially those classed as “travel paraphernalia” (xingqi 行器), a term found in the tomb inventory text discovered at Baoshan 包山. It is clear in Excavating the Afterlife that Lai engages but does not acknowledge details discussed in a number of publications.7 Lai does engage Hung Wu’s counterarguments to the idea of a spirit journey beyond the tomb to good effect but ignores those of Eugene Y. Wang and of Jue Guo.8 This latter oversight is particularly egregious as many of the ideas in Lai’s discussion of underground texts, the formation of the underworld, and even the afterlife journey seem to reflect Guo’s interpretations.
Lai makes a number of interesting but somewhat disconnected remarks regarding one particular spirit artifact found in Chu tombs, an antlered wooden figure with a long tongue, which has been a source [End Page 220] of intense speculation during the past few decades. Although at times he seems to accept that it represents an apotropaic guardian-figure, he also sees it as a fertility god and a soul stand.9
The religious concept of personalized spirit artifacts and the journey to the Northwest began during the Warring States, because the incidence of mass conscription and war dead caused a large number of violent and premature deaths and created a new category of spirits. This new conception is reflected in the shift in tomb construction from the construction of simple vertical shafts, to the use of segmented wooden chambers inside the shaft, and finally to a horizontal layout of interconnected chambers.10 Lai claims that concurrent with this change was a change in the way human spirits were perceived generally, that is, from beneficial to harmful.