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  • Ancestors, Kings, and the Dao by Constance A. Cook
  • Ori Tavor
Constance a. Cook, Ancestors, Kings, and the Dao. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Asia Center, 2017. x, 337 pp. US$49.95 (hb). ISBN 978-0-674-97695-5

The study of early Chinese religion presents a unique challenge. Unlike the organized religious traditions of Daoism and Buddhism, it lacks many of the features modern scholars view as fundamental for a “religion,” such as a canonical set of scriptures, an ecclesiastical system, and a fixed pantheon of gods. Much like the category of “popular religion,” the label of “early Chinese religion” does not refer to a single empirical institution. It is a heuristic device, a term coined by sinologists to help make sense of the ideas, beliefs, and practices that circulated in China between the Shang 商 and Han 漢 Dynasties. Despite the inherent ambiguity of this category, most scholars agree that ancestor worship, a set of rituals designed to commemorate and venerate the spirits of one’s deceased forebears, occupies a central role. While ancestor worship is often associated with the Confucian notion of filial piety, it crosses the boundaries of religious traditions, geographical regions, and socio-economic groups. Dating back to the Neolithic period, ancestor worship is perhaps the single most enduring element of Chinese religious culture.

In Ancestors, Kings, and the Dao, Constance Cook offers an outline of the evolution of early Chinese religion from the Western Zhou (西周, 1046–771 BCE) to the Warring States (戰國時代, 481–221 BCE) periods through the prism of ritual performances related to ancestor worship. Cook divides this process into three distinct phases. During the first phase, which corresponds to the early Western Zhou period, ritual performances were part of a theocratic framework focused on the worship of royal ancestors. The demise of the central Zhou regime resulted in a shift to the worship of mythical founder deities that also served as paradigmatic models for moral behavior. Finally, in the third stage, the collapse of the ritual system that centered on the royal Zhou ancestors resulted in a turn toward self-cultivation practices aimed at achieving individual benefits. Cook identifies two key tenets that serve as a common thread connecting the changing social and religious landscape of early China: the claim that ritual practice results in the accumulation of an inner power (de 德) and the central role of music in both communal performances and individual self-cultivation as a vehicle for displaying this inner power.

The book is divided into two parts. Part I focuses on the Western Zhou period and chronicles the rise of eulogies and communal ritual performances designed to display royal “awesome decorum” (weiyi 威儀), whereas Part II demonstrates how Western Zhou rhetoric and aspects of ritual practice were reimagined to fit the sociopolitical contexts of the Spring and Autumn (春秋時代, 770–481 BCE) and Warring States periods. One of the strengths of this book is its choice of primary sources. Wishing to avoid an idealized and erroneous reconstruction based on prescriptive Warring States and Han transmitted texts, Cook opts to draw mainly on bronze inscriptions, which she describes as “the purest lens through which to study Zhou ritual” (p. 7). These are supplemented in Part II by canonical [End Page 285] sources like the Book of Odes (Shijing 詩經), as well as recently excavated Warring States bamboo texts from the Guodian 郭店, Shanghai Museum 上海博物館, and Tsinghua 清 華 University corpuses, such as Human Nature Arises from the Decree (Xing Zi Ming Chu, 性自命出), Elder Rulers of Ancient Times (Xizhe Junlao, 昔者君老), and The Lute Dance of the Duke of Zhou (Zhougong zhi Qinwu, 周公之琴舞). Cook’s command of these challenging texts, which are not accompanied by centuries of commentaries and annotations, results in a comprehensive and highly persuasive narrative of the interplay between continuity and change in early Chinese religion.

Part I offers close readings of Western Zhou bronze inscriptions, texts that were cast into the surfaces of vessels and bells used in ritual performances designed to nourish and communicate with ancestral spirits. These inscriptions, argues Cook, functioned as “physical memorials” of the link between their awardee and the ancestral spirits of their lineage. The sacrificial feasts in which they were presented took place in a...


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