Excavating the Afterlife: The Archaeology of Early Chinese Religion.

Author:Selbitschka, Armin
Position:Book review
 
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Excavating the Afterlife: The Archaeology of Early Chinese Religion. By GUOLONG LAI. Seattle: UNIVERSITY OF WASHINGTON PRESS, 2015. Pp. xi + 297. $65.

In his highly anticipated book Excavating the Afterlife: The Archaeology of Early Chinese Religion, Lai Guolong aims to "provide a synthetic account of the changing religious beliefs and ritual practices beginning with the Warring States period and extending to the Qin and Han periods" (p. 11). What this exactly means is already stated in the title of the volume: the author intends to uncover early Chinese notions of the afterlife. Apart from presenting an overview of his main arguments, Lai spends the remainder of the introductory chapter expounding his methodology. Contrary to previous studies that championed received literature of largely political and philosophical contents or focused on selective archaeological data, Lai claims to be "following new trends in the archaeology of religions" (p. 12) by combining various kinds of sources. Primacy is given to archaeological, paleographical, and art historical sources over transmitted texts. As a result, an analysis of so-called elite tombs of the Chu culture is at the heart of the Afterlife. Since differences in finds and features are mainly quantitative and not qualitative in nature, generalizations beyond the confines of the highest social strata are legitimate. A similar rationale governed the decision to focus on well-preserved burials of the Chu cultural sphere, given that it was "quite influential and important in the formation of mainstream Chinese conceptions of religion, cosmology, and the afterlife" (p. 21).

Chapter 1 deals with the changing attitude towards ancestors during the Warring States. Sacrifices recorded on manuscripts yielded by several Chu tombs offer insights into a hitherto unknown pantheon of deities. Usually sacrifices were addressed to one's own ancestors. The excavated documents, however, reveal the names of transcendental entities that refer not to the personal relation with the sacrificer, but to the ways the former died. Those who died without progeny (jue wu hou zhe [phrase omitted]), by violent deaths (qiang si [phrase omitted]), or by weapons (bing si [phrase omitted]) would not become ancestors. They instead had the potential to turn into harmful ghosts. At the root of the development lay the lineage struggles of the Spring and Autumn period, which fostered the emergence of "a clearly articulated, written, and collective version of the afterlife" (p. 43) during the Warring States period. For the first time, this collective version was expressed in the Zuozhuan. The well-known passage features Boyou, who haunts the living as a vengeful ghost, and Zichan, who formulates "an elite view of the afterlife" (p. 44): the hunpo [phrase omitted] of victims of violent deaths might transform into malicious ghosts. Tombs, therefore, were places in which they could find peace. The changed perception of ancestors had an impact on burial goods as well. Spring and Autumn burial assemblages were dominated by bronze ritual items that implied that the deceased continued to worship their ancestors in the hereafter. In addition, they reflected the social status of tomb occupants. In turn. Warring States tombs contained so-called "luminous objects" (mingqi [phrase omitted]), i.e., replicas of real artifacts without practical functions, in addition to new and old personal belongings. No longer rigidly tied to status representation, so Lai argues, the purpose of the two new categories of grave goods was to negotiate prestige through public display during the funerary rituals; they also were thought to clearly demarcate the line between the living and the dead.

Chapter 2 explains the transformation from vertical pit tombs to "horizontal chamber-style tombs" (p. 55). In contrast to earlier scholarship that either emphasized the structural connection to catacomb...

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