SSEC Conference 2017

Abstracts (alphabetical by surname)


Hajnalka Elias (Cambridge University), “A Reassessment of Burial Practice as Reflected in Eastern Han Stone Sarcophagi from Sichuan”


Decorated stone sarcophagi of the Eastern Han period are limited to the southwest region, with an especially large number found in the cliff tombs of present-day Sichuan province. They provide a wealth of images on themes related to the after-life, local topography, architecture and animal world. This paper suggests that, together with an absence of decoration in the surrounding tomb walls, they may represent a reassessment of burial practices based on restraint and frugality in reaction to a period when increasingly lavish funerary customs prevailed in the wider empire. They were probably not, as some scholars have suggested, merely the products of a ‘poorer’ form of burial for families with economic constraints. The change in the layout of the cemetery and the apparent absence of public monuments in the approach to the tombs are also consistent with this change, which entails a shift in the function of tombs from social or public spaces towards private schemes that focused more on the deceased and his family members. The paper’s argument is supported by textual sources, in particular information obtained from a number of contemporaneous stele inscriptions which reveal a strong drive for prudence in a society that enjoyed great wealth and economic prosperity. This research bridges the methodological divide between art historians’ focus on material culture, and historians’ attempts to explain early funerary practices through textual sources.



Andrej Fech, (Southern University of Science and Technology of China), “The Zhou xun on Abdication”


The focus of this talk is the theme of abdication as found in the newly discovered text the Zhou xun (The Admonitions of the Zhou), among the corpus of bamboo manuscripts donated to Peking University in 2009. Abdication is among the most hotly debated themes in the intellectual life of the Warring States Period. Witnesses to this discourse include not only many transmitted texts, but also a number of recently excavated manuscripts, such as the Rongchengshi, Tang Yu zhi dao, Zigao, and Bao xun. The account in the Zhou xun differs from these texts in interesting ways. Much like the others, the text acknowledges the abdication of the throne by Yao in favor of Shun as well as by Shun in favor of Yu. However, it also depicts the efforts by both Yao and Shun that preceded these early instances of merit-based transfer of power, which sought to retain succession within their families by attempting to instruct and educate their favorite sons to become worthy rulers. It was only due to the sons’ incompetence that the final choice favored “outsiders.” Another characteristic trait of the Zhou xun is that it identifies the support of the populace as a decisive factor in the transfer of royal power. Taking these features as my point of departure, I aim to situate the Zhou xun within the broader debate on abdication and provide a tentative assessment of its period of origin.


Paul Fischer (Western Kentucky University), “An ‘Empty’ Reading of the Laozi’s Opening Chapters”


“Emptiness” is a central and multivalent idea in Asian philosophy generally, and this paper is focused on its meaning in the Laozi, a foundational text for Asian philosophy. In this paper I analyze some of the various Chinese words in this text that may be translated as “empty,” consider how they are distinctly applied to the Dao and to humans, and end with a reading of (at least) the first twelve chapters of the Laozi through the analytical lens of emptiness. I will argue that emptiness, when read metaphorically as “open-mindedness,” brings a certain coherence to an otherwise heterogeneous text (or, at least, to its opening chapters). Emptiness in the Laozi is usually construed as an ontological attribute of the Dao, and there is significant disagreement about precisely how to describe that ontological state. Applied to humans, however, emptiness in this text is usually related to knowledge and desire, insofar as humans are invited to be “without knowledge/desire” or “empty of knowledge/desire.” I argue that the kind of knowledge we are to be without consists of restrictive mental categories: the “box” that we should “think outside of.” When read with this in mind, the Laozi reads more consistently and logically than might be expected of a text that is clearly a heavily edited anthology.


Yegor Grebnev (University of Oxford), “The Many Origins and Multiple Descendants of the Warring States Authoritative Writings (shu)”


The authoritative writings (shu) mentioned in the Warring States sources are usually regarded through the lens of the Shang shu. This canonical collection serves as a reference point for the "shu genre," which results in a teleological vision in the study of the formation of the shu: Those texts that match the patterns of the Shang shu are considered more authentic, whereas those that diverge from it are treated with suspicion.

I would like to demonstrate that this approach is not justified if we prioritize the evidence of earlier sources. When approaching the authoritative writings of the Warring States, one has to be aware of their multiple origins (far more diverse than the widespread hypothesis of "historiographers’ archives" suggests) as well as multi-linear paths of development. Consequently, the descendants of the early authoritative writings should be sought not only in the canonical collection Shang shu, but also in the peripheral and oft-neglected texts, including such collections as the Yi Zhou shu, the Liu tao and perhaps elsewhere.


Huang Kuan-yun (National Tsing Hua University), “A Walk in the Night with Zhuangzi, Singing Songs of the South”


The “Fan wu liu xing” (All things flow into form) is a Warring States manuscript now held by the Shanghai Museum.  Taking cues from this text, particularly its discussion surrounding  the key formulation about “the mind prevailing over the mind,” this paper argues for a new reading of a difficult passage in Zhuangzi “Da zongshi” (The great and venerable teacher). I argue that it not only parallels the description of a spirit journey in “Yuanyou” (Far roaming) of the Songs of the South, but is also a detailed account of the different stages of the process of self-cultivation.  This interpretation situates the newly recovered “Fan wu liu xing” in the context of Pre-Qin intellectual history, cuts across conventional boundaries of Confucianism and Daoism, poetry and philosophy, and reminds us that the act of reading is never insulated from the linguistic details of the text.


Lai Guolong (University of Florida), “Literacy Education and the Changing Nature of the Writing System in Early China”


Using data on sign usage in the recently excavated bamboo manuscripts of the fourth century BCE (middle Warring States period), this paper explores the connection between literacy education and the changing nature of the early Chinese writing system. In the Shang and Western Zhou dynasties (before eighth century BCE), because of the relatively larger number of pictograph in the writing system, the script could arguably be classified as a logographic system. However, in the Warring States period, the large number of loangraphs based on the phonetic series (xiesheng tongjia) dramatically reduced the inventory of the basic signs to less than 1000 syllables. With the principle of xiesheng tongjia, the script because basically a syllable-based system that could record virtually all of the Old Chinese language, the lingua franca of early China.

 The reasons why the early Chinese script did not develop into an alphabetic system, I argue here, are related to the literacy education of the time. Qin and Han primary education emphasized on the memorization of several thousand (from 2000 to 9000) characters, surpassing the minimum number of signs (less than 1000) functionally needed. Additionally, there was an overemphasis on the “orthograph” (benzi) of the word in literacy education and Eastern Han hermeneutics. These things drove the script to become increasingly a logographic system with even larger number of basic signs.


Michael Lüdke (Friedrich-Alexander-Universität Erlangen-Nürnberg), “What’s in a Scroll? – An Attempt to Make Sense of the Diagram of Slip Find Locations Published for the Zouyanshu from Zhangjiashan”


For research on most early Chinese manuscript texts, scholars rely largely on the reconstructions presented by the Chinese editors. These reconstructions have not only to deal with effaced characters and the interpretation of character variants and phonetic substitutions, but also with the more basic problem of the correct order of the bamboo slips in a scroll. In most cases the binding cords that held the slips together and determined their original order have decayed. In such a situation, the editors tend to reconstruct a coherent text which seeks to minimize any problems. However, it is often not clear whether the result represents the condition of the scroll (and thus of the text) when it was buried, or instead an idealized text bearing little resemblance to that which had been placed in the tomb. For some manuscript texts, such as the Zouyanshu from Zhangjiashan, the only remaining evidence for the scroll’s condition is the diagram of find locations for the individual slips published by the editors. The large number of irregularities in the diagram for the Zouyanshu, as in those for other scrolls, raises the question of whether these plausibly can derive from post-burial processes, or whether it must be assumed that no coherent text was buried in the first place. This has important implications for a number of questions. Could the texts we find in tombs plausibly have been used by the tomb owner during his lifetime, or is it more likely they were specially produced as burial objects, maybe with little connection to the tomb owner’s occupation? Were they intended for use in the afterlife, or had they apotropaic functions? Does the assumed coherence of the text buried allow conclusions about the degree of coherence in the subject field with which it deals? This paper will use the diagram of slip find locations for the Zhangjiashan Zouyanshu as a test case and try to probe it for evidence that indicate answers for these questions.


Filippo Marsili, Assistant Professor (Saint Louis University), “The Bifurcation of Ritual: Li and Si between the Western and Eastern Han”


Sima Qian laments that after centuries of political turmoil, the loss of the rituals (li) of the Zhou deprived his contemporaries of an undisputed moral compass. According to the Shiji, the continuing popularity of Warring States political traditions (especially those connected to the former state of Qi) had allowed for the ascendancy of unprincipled and uneducated officials. In pursuing their personal interests, they produced what the Shiji defines as “the mixing of the noble and the petty” (da xiao xiang yu). By analyzing definitions of official sacrifices in received and excavated Han sources, I reconstruct the formalization of li and si as distinct and incompatible semantic realms: those of the “secular” rituals based on the classics and Confucius’s teachings (li); and the sacrifices commoners dedicated to local deities (si). Contrary to what generally held, I make the case that the relative stability of Han society did not depend on the establishment of a cultural/religious unity over the proverbial impiety of the Qin, but rather on a separation of “the lofty and the lowly.” I argue that whereas the Qin/Han bureaucratic standardization facilitated the survey of all rituals for fiscal purposes, the prevalently non-phonetic nature of the Chinese script allowed for the survival of regional diversity. While the common people continued to sacrifice (si) to the multitude of unspecified but distinct spirits and ghosts, elites could cultivate li and the art of government without the need to impose any “religious” unity or orthodoxy.



Andrew Meyer (Brooklyn College), “Chronicle, Masters Text, or Other? The Yanzi chunqiu and the Question of Genre”


The Yanzi chunqiu is arguably one of the most understudied texts in the corpus of early Chinese letters. This is in part because it is an outlier in many respects. Though recent scholarship has moved beyond the “six schools” paradigm that was so vexing to prospective interpreters of the Yanzi chunqiu  in the past, the text yet poses challenges to trends and emerging interpretive frameworks within current scholarship.

 Recent studies have explored, on the one hand, the “dynamics of Masters literature” that drove much textual production during the classical era, and on the other hand, a discrete “historiographical enterprise” that likewise informed the work of many early writers.   The Yanzi chunqiu is difficult to fit clearly into either of those discursive universes. On the one hand, its protagonist is identified clearly as a Master, and interacts frequently with figures familiar to that literary milieu, particularly Confucius and his disciples. On the other hand, transmitted and archaeologically recovered redactions of the text all consist of anecdotes identical in form and content (occasionally verbatim equivalent) to those found in historical chronicles such as the Zuo zhuan and Guo yu.

 In this paper I would like to explore the question of the genre of the Yanzi chunqiu, particularly the relevancy of distinctions between “history” and other types of writing (for example, “philosophy,” “fiction,” etc.) to the analysis of the text and its component anecdotes. Can an image of the historical “Yan Ying” be recovered from the evidence available to us? Would such an image have constrained literary depictions of Yan Ying, and if so, by what mechanism? Close attention to the structure and content of the Yanzi chunqiu holds out hope of advancing our understanding of how the discursive worlds of the “Masters” and the “historiographers” may have interpenetrated, and of the ways in which “writing the past” and “writing the Masters” were, in some respects, coterminous enterprises.


Thies Staack (Universität Heidelberg)

“Different Form, Different Function, Or Both? On the Distinction between 'die' and 'du' in Early Imperial China”


Most extant manuscripts from early imperial China consist of inscribed slips or tablets made of bamboo or wood. In contrast to what terms such as jianduxue, “the study of slips ('jian') and tablets ('du')” may suggest, the most widely used word for both – “slips” as well as “tablets” – at the time seems to have been "die". It frequently occurs, and not only in administrative documents. However, a Qin regulation found among the statutes and ordinances from the Yuelu Academy collection, which will be published in the upcoming fifth volume (expected 2017), suggests that at least for a certain period of time after the Qin unification, there was a clear-cut distinction made between "die" (“slips”) and "du" (“tablets”) with regard to the production of administrative documents. Taking this regulation as a point of departure, this paper will investigate on what basis that distinction was made – according to differences in form or use or both – and how far it is reflected in actual Qin and Han administrative documents excavated in northwestern and central China (Liye, Juyan, Jianshui, etc.). It will furthermore ask what this might tell us about historical developments in the production and use of administrative documents in the Qin and Han periods.


Karen Turner (Holy Cross College), “Foundations of Chinese Law: New Materials, New Perspectives”


It is well known in the sinological community that documents excavated in the past half century in China have added important new information about the development of legal theories and practices in China’s early empires.  Since the 1970s, much of our understanding of law in action has been derived from translations of documents from the Shuihudi Qin cache and a few pioneering articles on the Han Zhangjiashan materials. The recent publication of a full translation of the Han documents by Robin D.S. Yates and Anthony Barbieri-Low offers new opportunities for assessing legal culture during the critical period that witnessed the development of the Chinese imperial system.  A wealth of information from the translated materials themselves, contextualized by commentary from the translators, allows us to revisit standard assumptions and raise new questions. Now we can trace changes and continuities by comparing the Qin and Han statutes, assess procedures for deciding and appealing cases in light of the text titled Zouyan shu [Book of Submitted Doubtful Cases], place Han historical and philosophical literature in the context of hard documentary evidence, and revisit questions about the role of law in the new empire.

 In this roundtable, four scholars will raise questions, based on their own research, designed to stimulate conversation from the audience. We envision that each participant will take five minutes to introduce issues of interpretation that will encourage responses. This venue seems ideal for a meeting of scholars who share a common understanding of the historical period under discussion but approach these issues from different disciplines.   Karen Turner will chair the session and discuss briefly the question of whether these newly available materials challenge or support earlier arguments, from Chinese and Western scholars, that contended that ideals congruent with the rule of law did indeed exist in the Qin and Han period. Li Ren will present his work on the role of local legal officials in the Qin and Han period to suggest that they did not merely impose laws but in fact helped to shape them. Charles Sanft will consider how these new materials contribute to understanding the relationship between bureaucracy and culture. Sarah Queen and  Robin Yates and Anthony Barbieri-Low have agreed to join the participants for this rare opportunity to discuss the processes of translating and interpreting these newly available  Han materials.


Paul Nicholas Vogt (Indiana University), “Bound by Bronze: Western Zhou Inscriptions between Center and Periphery”


The Western Zhou period is justly famous for the quantity and complexity of its bronze inscriptions. Though both the preceding Shang and the following Eastern Zhou period produced bronzes of equal or, arguably, superior beauty and complexity, only during the Western Zhou did the inscriptions themselves attain their highest level of development as religious, historical, and narrative documents. Bronze vessels appear to have occupied a special role in Western Zhou society, conveying the interests of kings and other high-ranking patrons of the Zhou center while simultaneously serving the religious and political needs of local elites.

 This presentation brings into focus the role of inscribed bronzes as bridges between the different interaction spheres making up the early Zhou state. Delving into the inscriptions of recently discovered bronzes such as the Dahekou and Chenzhuang vessels, and contextualizing them with reference to classic exemplars, it explores how inscribed bronzes mediated between the social and political interests of various players in the diverse and far-flung communities making up the formative Zhou political sphere. In the process, it offers a vision of the role of bronze inscriptions in the development of a Zhou “center” and “periphery,” ideas that eventually found strategic expression in the rites of the Zhou kings.