Reassembling Western Zhou Social Ritual


A Review of Between Kin and King: Social Aspects of Western Zhou Ritual, by Paul Nicholas Vogt.

This dissertation is a study of socio-political aspects of Western Zhou ritual based on the inscriptions on bronze vessels used in ancestral rituals by North China aristocratic lineages from the eleventh to early eighth centuries BC. Vogt combines methods of paleographic and philological analysis with an examination of both the archaeological context and ceremonial structures in which the bronze vessels were found. In the course of his work he critically engages major issues in the history of Early China, such as the continuity between the Shang and Zhou polities, the formation of the patrilineal lineage kinship system, mid-Western Zhou ritual reform and its implications, the origins of bureaucratic government and changing models of political participation, and the emergence of “Chinese culture” as a distinct configuration of identities, practices, and representations. In important ways this study contributes to our understanding of particular Western Zhou ritual techniques and the ways they enrolled elite actors into the Zhou collective to negotiate the roles of both leaders and participants in a socio-political order. By balancing the awareness of the religious context of bronze inscriptions against the essentially historical agenda of his research, Vogt advances a synthetic interpretation of the nature of social change and political action in Bronze Age China.

In the Introduction, Vogt identifies the subject of his study as the role of rituals in the process of group formation during the Western Zhou period (p. 2). He provides a historical background for the study of the Zhou ritual system, emphasizing the importance of excavated bronze vessel inscriptions that constitute the primary source of information on the contemporary ritual practices. These inscriptions offer a more solid foundation for the characterization of the ceremonial activities of the Western Zhou than the transmitted compendia and treatises, dated much later and representing their eras’ political contestation over the meaning of Zhou rituals (pp. 5-6). Aware of the problematic nature of the concept of “Zhou culture” that implies a shared quasi-ethnic or quasi-national identity throughout the realm, Vogt nevertheless justifies the applicability of the term “elite Zhou culture” as a consistent set of activities focused on the ancestral cult and interaction between the aristocratic lineages and the royal court, as well as among the elites (p. 10).

The bulk of the Introduction is devoted to the outline of social theory that guides the investigation of Western Zhou ritual practices. At the core of Vogt’s methodological toolkit, the “actor-network theory” (or “sociology of association”) provides an antidote against the interpretation of Zhou society as a stable, internally consistent system. In the Latourian paradigm, “society” is redefined as a network of associations between a potentially infinite number of actors. Intrinsically unstable and open-ended, these networks rely on the agency of material objects, or “non-human actants,” to perpetuate or, alternatively, re-figure particular visions of group identity (Latour 1993; Latour 2005). In Vogt’s view, the rituals and their paraphernalia served as such material mediators in the formation of Zhou elite identity in the wake of its victory over Shang, as well as in reimagining the collective in the middle of Western Zhou period (pp. 13-14). To explain the formation and transformation of social groups, Vogt delves further into the conceptual repository of ANT to identify the mechanisms of engaging actors in particular visions of groups or projects and securing their assent to play their respective roles. Particularly useful for his study are the notions of “obligatory passage point” (Callon 1986) and “social object,” or material entity in an “actor-network” defined by fluid boundaries and characteristics dependent on other “actors” engaging it (Mol and Law 1994). The emergent “actor-networks” are stabilized through ritual, which is another key component in Vogt’s conceptualization of Western Zhou socio-historical dynamics. Here, Vogt refers to a distinct lineage of sociological scholarship associated with Michel Foucault’s and Pierre Bourdieu’s theories of power and their application to the study of ritual and art in the works of Catherine Bell (Bell 1992) and Alfred Gell (Gell 1998), emphasizing the effectiveness of regularized action in creating the perception of authoritative relationships (pp. 15-21). As central paraphernalia in the ancestral sacrifices, bronze vessels and their inscriptions represented a “materialized ideology” (DeMarrais, Castillo, and Earle 1996) of integration in the Zhou elite collective, which was systematically enacted during ritual assemblies made up of people, places, things, and actions (p. 23). The study of the rites as “social objects” of permanent contestation and re-figuration provides a clue to understanding social and political transformation.

Chapter 1 lays the foundations for the study of Western Zhou ritual by defining its basic components. Vogt points out that patrilineal kinship groups constituted the basic units of Zhou elite society, and affiliation with such groups, manifest in ancestral ritual, was pivotal for individual identity. The existence of such groups should not, however, be taken for granted: Vogt’s analysis of kinship terms in the bronze inscriptions reveals the fluidity of the central categories of lineage culture such as “ancestral temples” or “ancestral lines” (zong), “kinship-based military units” (zu), “clans/surnames” (xing), and “lineages” (shi). The formative stage of Western Zhou ritual was inextricably embedded in the context of political consolidation of the Zhou state in the wake of the Shang conquest in 1046 BC. The early Zhou kings relied on their access to Shang “ritual techniques” that included bronze casting, ancestral sacrifice, and the use of writing, to promulgate the lineage model focused on the direct contact between the royal house and the founding ancestors of elite kinship groups. Inscribed bronze vessels mediated the Zhou kings’ “distributed personhood” as a part of a more general “ethic of presence” that imbued the moments of interaction between the lineage ancestor and Zhou royalty with particular value (p. 87). However, the success of the Zhou project of habituation of the political coalition of North China elites in context of lineage ritual had a side effect of creating a potentially autonomous arena for negotiating social status and constructing political power. The zigzagging shifts “between kin and king” in the Western Zhou politics of elite identity are examined in detail in the following chapters of the dissertation.

In Chapter 2, Vogt considers the Western Zhou ancestral rituals as “social objects” of lineage politics initiated by the Zhou state founders’ retooling of the “well-established Shang ritual system, centered on a supreme lineage … to cater to the needs of a recently forged coalition of elite populations” (p. 90). The royal patronage of ancestral offerings by lesser elites was effectuated through the circulation of ritual gifts and celebrated in bronze inscriptions that transformed the short-lived bonds of face-to-face interaction into a durable physical form. By figuring the Zhou king as an “obligatory passage point” in the all-important ancestral cult, Western Zhou ancestral rites created a link between participation in royal process of relation building and intra- and inter-lineage quest for status among subordinate elites. Through their patronage of non-royal ancestral sacrifices, the Zhou kings disseminated their brand of ancestral worship and participation in the Zhou political community, as the bronze inscriptions’ record of the performance of these rites throughout North China attests (pp. 186-88). By the middle of the Western Zhou, however, the paths of the royal ancestral ritual practices and those of non-royal elites clearly diverged, and substantial changes in the Zhou kings’ approach to public recognition and political patronage were well under way. In the following two chapters, Vogt addresses the alternative modes of generating royal prestige and forging political identity through ritual.

Chapter 3 analyzes ritual portrayal of kingship. Besides emphasizing king’s role in the formation of elite lineages, Zhou royal ritual generated prestige for the king by framing him against locations, economic tasks, and non-Zhou populations. The chronological distribution of mentions of various king-figuring rites leads to the conclusion that the ritual definition of kingship shifted from the military context in the early Western Zhou to the king’s role in production and distribution of resources in the mid-Western Zhou (p. 190). Vogt reconstructs and analyzes symbolic aspects of major royal rituals, such as the “Great Rite” (da feng/da li) with its cosmological references, the “ploughing” rite (jitian/jinong) which emphasized royal control over local land and agricultural productivity, and the rite of “catching foals” (zhiju) that posed the king as the ultimate source of military resources. While highlighting the Zhou royal house as an “obligatory passage point” in the distribution of resources, the rites analyzed in this chapter established a qualitative difference between the king and non-royal elites. In contrast to the ritual continuity of ancestral worship, royal rites represented the ruler as the arbiter of resources and exclusive sovereign over geographically delineated territory. This vision of the Zhou political community “created powerful new motivations for enrollment in the Zhou state identity and opened up the possibility of a Zhou elite identity separate from the royal house” (p. 230). The changing framing of kingship was by necessity accompanied by a new vision of the Zhou state project, addressed in the following chapter.

In Chapter 4, Vogt approaches a key question in the history of statecraft in Early China: how did the Zhou manage to maintain the coherence of their cultural and political project after the defeat of their archenemy Shang (p. 232)? Major stages in the evolution of the Western Zhou state are marked by changing strategies of enrolling allies and subordinates through patronage relations. As in previous chapters, the understanding of these strategies is achieved through analysis of the change in the Zhou ritual repertoire as well as in the application and meaning of individual rites. Vogt considers three major clusters of ceremonies: the “recounting of merit” (mieli), the rite of archery (she), and the appointment ceremony (ce ming). The first of these was strongly associated with the military context and was in all likelihood inherited from Shang ritual. After the dramatic military setback at the end of King Zhao’s reign (977/75-957 BC) and the abortion of the Zhou conquest expansion, the rite was gradually stripped of its military connotations and superseded by other patronage rites, even as it preserved its significance among non-royal elites at the frontier who used it to construct their own networks of military patronage (p. 245). Vogt points out that the decline of military ritual by the middle of the Western Zhou does not simply reflect a turn in military fortune. Not coincidentally, it took place at a time of inner consolidation of Zhou polity when the royal house took steps to monopolize the ritual narrative. Instead of providing an arena for indirect competition between the king and his powerful allies, the new and reconfigured old patronage rituals now emphasized the royal monopoly on establishing distinction and hierarchies outside the immediate local context to enroll aspiring elites in the Zhou collective (p. 271). These attempts to reimagine the political collective were particularly manifest in the proliferating appointment inscriptions starting from the reign of mid-Western Zhou King Mu (956-918 BC). Vogt demonstrates that the new ceremonies employed various material intermediaries to represent a fixed image of social order as dominated by the king, highlighting a division between the royal court and the remainder of the elite community, and emphasizing exclusive royal control over resources and operations of the state. Vogt’s conclusion about the evolution of patronage relationships from the allegiance to a war leader toward service to a sovereign (p. 284) resonates with recent arguments about the bureaucratization of government during the mid-Western Zhou period (Li 2008). The issue is revisited in the final chapter of the dissertation.

Chapter 5, the final full chapter of the dissertation, provides a chronologically organized review of Western Zhou royal ritual and engages the long-debated issue in Zhou history about the origins and nature of “ritual reform” (or “ritual revolution”) in the mid-Western Zhou (Rawson 1989, Falkenhausen 2006). Vogt characterizes the early Western Zhou ritual strategy as integrative, based on the shared experience of patrilineal ancestral worship and aimed at tying distinct elite groups together by common ritual practices, as opposed to the exclusive Shang strategy of obscuring and naturalizing the origins of royal authority through their emphasis on cosmic order and hierarchy (p. 301). Ironically, the mid-Western Zhou response to changing demographics and military environments in many ways resembled the late Shang political experience: systematization and bureaucratization of ritual, an increasing gap between the royal house and aristocratic elite, naturalization of royal authority, and intensified control over the contracting royal domain. However, the difference was hardly less significant. Post-reform Zhou ritual remained concerned above all with regulating competition between elites and maintaining the Zhou collective in the face of new sociopolitical realities. Ancestral devotion stayed at the heart of Zhou cultural identity even after it lost political relevance. The mid-Western Zhou program of regularized, controlled differentiation within the affiliated elite lineages (Falkenhausen 2006, pp. 67-70) was carried out within a matrix of lineage politics, as was the government bureaucratization project, notwithstanding its purported purpose of detaching the royal ritual of political patronage from the ritual practices of non-royal elites (Falkenhausen 2014). Vogt convincingly argues that in the wake of mid-Western Zhou “ritual reform,” the new materiality of ancestral ritual (standardized sets of sacrificial vessels; new decorative motifs; introduction of bell chimes, etc.) not only instituted formal differentiation within the lineages, but also created opportunities for less privileged lineage members to participate in common ritual activity (p. 331), to the effect of reinvigorating the social appeal of the ancestral ritual. By connecting the material record of the “ritual reform” to the inscriptional evidence of the change in royal rites, Vogt provides a nuanced interpretation of the historical process during mid-Western Zhou period and contributes to the understanding of multiplicity and controversy of strategies, interests, agencies, and outcomes in the Zhou politics of kinship and kingship.

The Conclusion summarizes the main findings of the dissertation and suggests venues for further research. Vogt identifies the key themes of his study as the role of ritual techniques in the formation of elite identity; their relationship with geopolitical circumstances of the Zhou royal house; and connections to ritual practices of preceding and following periods. He characterizes the general trend in the social impact of Western Zhou ritual from the enrollment of elites in the Zhou state project to internal differentiation of participants in the Zhou elite identity and intensification of royal control over the core operations of the state, in what may be described as a “pendulum track between kin and king” (p. 336).

Overall, Vogt’s dissertation is an important contribution to the growing body of theory-driven investigation into the socio-political history of Early China. By emphasizing the roles of identity construction, participation, and individual agency in the strategic deployment of ritual for negotiating social recognition and political authority, this study resonates with the recent re-evaluation of empire-building in China during the last centuries of first millennium BC (for the most recent statement, see Sanft 2014). With emphasis on the materiality of the socialization process and open-ended, discursive nature of ritual, these studies are well equipped to address socially embedded political processes in pre-modern states. Vogt’s account of the operation of Western Zhou “lineage politics” is not only an engaging, dynamic story of a people’s creativity, but also a useful reference for students and scholars of the political anthropology and sociology of state formation, in China and elsewhere.

Maxim Korolkov
Ph.D. Student
East Asian Languages and Cultures Department
Columbia University


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Dissertation Information

Columbia University. 2012. 398 pp. Primary Advisor: Li Feng.

Image: Photograph by author.

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