Ritual Theory in Early & Medieval China


A review of Embodying the Way: Bio-spiritual Practices and Ritual Theories in Early and Medieval China, by Ori Tavor.

What is ritual, why do people do it, and how do people write about it to foreground political, social and religious agendas? These questions have occupied sociologists, anthropologists, and scholars of religious studies in the Occident for over a hundred years, and lie at the core of the most recent theoretical studies of religion. Yet these questions concerning its social, personal, psychological, cosmological, and physiological functions have also occupied early ritual theorists in China across the ages. In Embodying the Way, Ori Tavor investigates ritual theory writ large, and brings to this modern conversation the high points of 1,000 years of ritual theory from pre-imperial and early medieval China.

Embodying the Way is a bold essay on ritual theory, and argues for a chronological development of ritual theory over time, moving from the ancestor worship of the Shang and Zhou, through physiological self-cultivation in the Warring States, to the monumental theorist just before the unification of the empire, Xunzi 荀子 (ca. 312-230 BCE). Taking Xunzi as a core counterpoint, Ori Tavor further engages with variations in Han ritual theory in the Liji 禮記 [Record of Rites], bringing into comparison the descriptions of the body and correlative theory in the Han medical text, the Yellow Emperor’s Inner Classic (Huangdi neijing 黃帝內經). Moving on to late Han Daoist cultivation and ritual, the dissertation then culminates in Lu Xiujing’s tri-partite synthesis of Buddhist, Celestial Master, and southern traditions in the Numinous Treasure (Lingbao 靈寶) purification rites (zhai 齋).

One of the chief achievements of the dissertation is the care with which Ori Tavor allows the sources to speak for themselves, rather than collapsing them into reductive interpretations that foreground contemporary theory. Each of the above positions are variously brought into dialogue with a range of contemporary theorists who are reviewed in the introduction, from Emile Durkheim and Marcel Mauss, to Michael Foucault, Pierre Bourdieu, and Talal Asad, to Pascal Boyer and Catherine Bell. Not only are the source translations sensitive ones, so too are the categorisations of what each thinker or collective has written; they carefully locate each writer in his or their political, social, and intellectual contexts. By drawing out the tensions between each writer and their contemporaries, it is thus all the more feasible to draw out the contrasts and comparisons between them and modern writers. The work thus succeeds in its stated aim, namely to “bring… these Chinese theories in conversation with their modern Western counterparts [to] open up new ways of thinking about ritual, the body, and their interactions” (p. 4).

One of the core foci of the dissertation is varying notions and uses of the body, its role in individual cultivation, and the production of a stable state and body politic. He portrays an overall progression, from detached meditative absorption in the Neiye 內業 and other received and excavated texts from the late Warring States, to engaged moral cultivation in the Xunzi, to codified five-phase Han rites that kept the Emperor’s body involved in urban rituals and in the purview of the literati. The breakup the Han gave rise to more individualized approaches and functions of ritual, such as Celestial Master confessional healing rites and Southern traditions of body god meditations, which were then synthesized by Lu Xiujing 陸修靜 (406-477) with Buddhist incantation. Ori Tavor interprets each of these ritual methods as “Technologies of the Body,” thereby drawing out common themes between them and with contemporary theory. In this he draws not only on Marcel Mauss’ notions of ritual as a practical form of enculturation, and Pierre Bourdieu’s habitus, but also the cognitive turn in ritual studies, drawing on Pascal Boyer’s attention to altered states of consciousness.

Each chapter is grounded in a dense engagement with the foremost Sinologists working on the different time periods and texts he addresses. Those with whom he agrees or disagrees most prominently are Erica Fox Brindley, Mark Csikszentmihalyi, David Hall, and Roger Ames, Donald Harper, Paul Goldin, Michael Puett, Nathan Sivin, Gil Raz, and Harold Roth, among others. Ori Tavor clearly states his analyses of his texts with reference to other scholars’ positions and, without fanfare, whether he draws on or varies from their analyses. The dissertation thus forms a rich synthesis of recent currents in pre- and early imperial Sinology. One of the very welcome changes it makes is to cross that border of scholarly habit which divides pre-Han from post-Han studies, and to draw out continuities and developments in the history and the scholarship of both periods.

When published, the dissertation is sure to cause a stir in early Sinology for the breadth of its materials and its deliberate placement within a number of arguments, and will further be of interest to historians of China, religious studies scholars, and anthropologists or sociologists interested in ritual studies.

Michael Stanley-Baker
Max Planck Institute for the History of Science

Primary Sources

Xunzi 荀子
Liji 禮記
Neiye 內業
Nüqing guilü 女青鬼律
Taishang dongxuan Lingbao fazhu jing 太上洞玄靈寶法燭經

Dissertation Information

University of Pennsylvania. 2012. ix + 306 pp. Primary Advisor: Paul Goldin.

Image: Illustration of Daoist ritual from c. 1700 edition of the The Plum in the Golden Vase. Wikipedia.

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