Early China Seminar 2013-14:

Oct. 12:  David Pankenier and Li Feng         

David Pankenier: “Wherefore* the Star-Crossed Lovers Weaving Maid and Ox-herd?” * “Why?” (PDF)

Department of Modern Languages and Literatures, Lehigh University, PA; C. V. Starr Member, School of Historical Studies, Institute for Advanced Study, Princeton, NJ

The earliest textual reference to the Weaving Maid and Ox-herd occurs in the Book of Odes (ca 800 BCE), where it is already clear that the reference is to two stars. Throughout East Asia everyone is familiar with the story of the star-crossed young lovers’ painful exile to opposite banks of the Sky River and their annual conjugal visit on the night of the 7th day of the 7th month. There is no controversy about the astral identities of the pair as our Vega (α Lyr) and Altair (α Aql). After briefly highlighting the salient astral-temporal facts preserved in the legend, and the pervasiveness worldwide of related master metaphors drawn from weaving, this presentation will focus on explaining the legend’s original significance in China as an ancient teaching story about the seasonal stars, which will take us back to the dawn of East Asian civilization. 

Li Feng: “A New Hypothesis on the Techniques of Casting Western Zhou Bronze Inscriptions”

Department of East Asian Languages and Cultures, Columbia University

In this talk I will discuss the difficult question about the method of casting bronze vessels with long inscriptions. Considering a wide variety of actual cases, particularly cases where inscriptions were cast into raised grids on the bronze inner surface, and considering also the condition of molds we now have, I will take you through the technical details that gave rise to these inscribed bronzes. The talk should call for significant rethinking of the process of bronze-casting in the Western Zhou. Inscribed bronzes were not cast in only one way -- there were alternatives we need to consider.


Nov 16:  Cai Liang and David Branner         

CAI Liang: “Witchcraft and the Rise of the First Confucian Empire” (PDF)

Department of History, University of Arkansas, AR


This paper offers a new reading of the emergence of the first Confucian empire. It argues that the eventual rise of Confucian officials and the emergence of Confucian schools took place only after a witchcraft scandal reconfigured the political power towards the end of Emperor Wu’s reign. Years of witch hunt wiped out the established families in the court and gave birth to a new elite class, among whom was a group of Confucians. Providing a cosmological theory to legitimate the dictator Huo Guang and the commoner emperor Liu Bingyi, Confucians seized the right opportunity during the imperial crisis to realize their political dream, a dream that had been envisioned and pursued by the exemplary sage Confucius hundreds of years earlier.  


David Prager Branner: “Bān Gù’s Tetra-syllabic Verse and its Place in the Evolution of the Form” (PDF)

Willis F. Doney Member, School of Historical Studies, Institute for Advanced Study, Princeton, NJ

A substantial but little-appreciated component of Bān Gù’s 班固 poetic corpus is the roughly six dozen four-syllable zàn [encomiums, rhymed declarations of praise or judgment] of the Hàn shū. Zàn are a minor genre, normally serving as colophon to another piece of writing — often to the prose form of a historical narrative. Nevertheless, three of Bān Gù’s were considered worthy of inclusion in the Wénxuǎn 文選, in Category 50 “史述贊” [colophons in which the historian delivers his judgments]. In that it offers its summary judgments in verse form, the Hàn shū is unlike the received Shǐ , where the colophons are composed in prose, with less structure. The Hàn shū’s precedent became a fixture of official histories written in the medieval era.

        This paper reviews the systematic characteristics of the zàn form in Bān Gù’s hands. Formally speaking, in terms of style and prosody, zàn are not distinct from sòng [eulogies], míng [inscriptions], lěi [dirges], and various other tetra-syllabic rhymed compositions on serious subjects, despite being classified traditionally into separate genres. Four-syllable forms are typically very terse; appearing at the end of a history, the terseness of a zàn is made easy to read by the immediate context of the foregoing narrative. That terseness creates a technical challenge for later poets seeking to practice “counterbalancing” (對稱/), in keeping with the aesthetic that developed in the Six Dynasties period. Bān , in contrast, is still writing firmly in a style characteristic of the late Classical period and serves a pivotal role in preparation for the later development of the form.


March 22 Paul Nicholas Vogt and Adam Schwartz          

Paul Nicholas Vogt: “Ritual Assemblies and the Geopolitics of Zhou Expansion” (PDF)

University of Heidelberg, Germany


During the early and middle Western Zhou periods, the Zhou kings conducted a number of major state-level ritual events that combined the techniques described in previous chapters into ritual narratives depicting various potential relationships to the Zhou state project.  Based on a close analysis of the inscriptional records of these events – in particular, of the Mai fangzun and Xiao Yu ding inscriptions – this chapter shows how the Zhou royal house pursued an integrative strategy of ritual well suited to the geopolitical environment of the early Zhou state, in contrast to the exclusive strategy of ritual followed by its late Shang predecessors.  Along the way, I propose the model of “ritual techniques” and “ritual assemblies” as a solution to the ongoing problem of the “offering name” (jiming 祭名) as an analytical framework; these categories, I argue, support a better understanding of the approach to ritual and its relationship to the state followed by the Zhou themselves.


Adam Schwartz: “Prayer in the Huayuanzhuang Oracle Bone Inscriptions, with an Annotated Translation of China’s Earliest Prayer Text” (PDF)

ISAW, New York University, NY


Spirit communication was a major facet of daily life in all ancient societies. While the earliest Chinese documents contain many words signifying modes for communicating with ancestral spirits during ritual worship events there is an extremely limited account of direct dialogue. My paper introduces the earliest prayer text in both China and greater East Asia found within the newest collection of late Shang (early 12th c BCE) oracle bone inscriptions discovered at Huayuanzhuang East 花園莊東地 (1991; published 2003). In what is arguably the most important amongst the approximately 2500 individual divination records, a turtle shell numbered HYZ 161 contains excerpts of a prayer to be uttered by a grandson to his deceased grandfather. After providing an overview of the role and function of prayer within the Huayuanzhuang ancestral cult, I will present a new reading of the inscription.  The conclusion will not only support the view that the recipient is the 20th Shang king, Xiao Yi (小乙), but also finally identify the personal name of the invocator, whose diviners and scribes as a rule call by the honorific “our lord ().”

Apr 12:  Enno Giele and Minna Wu

Enno Giele: "The Language of Letters. Terminology in Private Letters From the Qin and Han Periods" (PDF)

University of Heidelberg, Germany

Among the many manuscripts from the Qin and Han periods that have been found to date, there is a considerable number that can be grouped together on account of conspicuous and rather ornate terminology, such as zuxia , "under (your) feet," wuyang 毋恙, "(may you) be without harm," fudi 伏地, "(I) prostrate (before you)," or xingshen 幸甚, "(I would be) tremendously happy!" As an analysis of their contents show, these texts, almost without exception, deal with matters that are not related to official businesses, and they represent communications between persons who only rarely refer to each other by way of official titles. As such, they are in stark contrast to the vast majority of early Chinese historical sources, that are state-related and the language of which is consequently teeming with references to the state and its representatives in one way or another. My presentation will introduce a number of these texts by way of in-depth reading and discuss them from three different angles: philologically, literary, and socio-historically. This touches upon the interplay between a highly formalized terminology that nevertheless purports to transport strong emotions; upon the concepts of "letter" and "private" in our as well as in ancient societies; and upon social relationships and everyday life situations that are largely concealed in the traditional sources at our disposal.


Minna Wu: "Conquest and Concord: the Transformation of Ji from a Pro-Shang Polity to Zhou Regional State" (PDF)

Richard Stockton College, NJ


The state of Ji was an important regional power in Northern Shandong during the Zhou period. According to the Ancient and Current Bamboo Annals, it was due to Jihous report that Duke Ai of Qi was boiled to death in a huge cauldron by the order of King Yi. The rulers of Qi felt great animosity toward Ji and this incident became the excuse for Qi’s annexation of Ji during the early Spring and Autumn period. This paper examines the developmental trajectory of the state of Ji in the broader historical context of the Zhou expansion into the peripheral area in the “Far East,” as a way to understand the process of the social-cultural transformation in northern Shandong. This paper mainly focuses on the following issues: 1) the origin of the Ji polity during the Late Shang period; 2) the clarification of the relationship between the Ji polities represented by different graphs within the different spatial and chronological framework; 3) integration of Ji into the Zhou political system and its relations with the Zhou court and other polities; and 4) cultural connection manifested by the material remains of Ji.


May 17:  Guo Jue

Guo Jue: TBA

Columbia University, NY