Birth in Ancient China

A Study of Metaphor and Cultural Identity in Pre-Imperial China

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Constance A. Cook, Xinhui Luo
SUNY Series in Chinese Philosophy and Culture
  • Ithaca, NY: 
    State University of New York Press
    , November
     172 pages.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.


Birth in Ancient China: A Study of Metaphor and Cultural Identity in Pre-Imperial China by Constance A. Cook and Xinhui Luo is the first book that explores female birthing experiences and the sociocultural significance of birthing myths in early China. This book is centered on Chu ju, a 4th century BCE text, which includes the earliest detailed description of traumatic birthing and connects birthing to lineage creation and political identity. Examining this bamboo manuscript in its larger social and religious context, the book addresses many religious practices related to the control of social reproduction in ancient China, some of which have previously been inadequately discussed.

In chapter 1, the authors first examine a group of Shang and later graphs related to pregnancy and birthing. In particular, they look at the variants of graphs for Chu progenitors in several bamboo texts, exploring the possibility that one graph in the names of a Chu progenitor (the same graph is used in Chu ju as a verb for auspicious birthing) might be derived from a Shang graph which bears the image of birthing but refers to recently deceased ancestors. Next the authors discuss images from Neolithic through Han material culture suggestive of fertility cult, female birthing experience, and women’s roles in lineage reproduction. More specifically, they look at images of fetal-like forms emerging from splitting bodies in their religious context, discussing the possible link between birth and death, ancestral sacrifice, and fertility prayers suggested by these images.

In chapter 2, the authors first address the concern for social reproduction and lineage continuity revealed in Shang divination texts and Zhou prayers for abundant descendants on bronze vessels casted for ancestral sacrifices. The fact that some of these prayers occur on dowry vessels indicates that the physical roles of females for lineage continuity are valued in the early Chinese patriarchy. The authors then move on to examine the fertility ritual performed by the Zhou ancestress recorded in the bamboo text Zigao against related accounts in transmitted texts, with an effort to decipher the nature of the ancient fertility rites.  

The authors examine the idea of the mother as a channel of cosmic reproduction and transformation in chapter 3. In addition, they look at notions of embryonic development in early Chinese philosophical and medical texts. Noteworthily, they offer an alternative interpretation of the cosmic creation myth in an already intensely studied text Taiyi sheng shui, in which Taiyi is treated as the cosmic mother. Based on the phonological similarities between key words in this text and other contemporaneous texts, as well as on the semantic connections between some Shang graphs related to birthing experience, the authors suggest that this tale of abstract cosmic generation may contain a concrete metaphor pointing to the images of babies, water and sacrificial animals emerging from enclosure.

In Chapter 4 the authors discuss divination and other methods used to determine the outcome of birth. Various elements, including birth time, astral factors, supernatural forces and results of geomantic calculation, etc. were thought to be able to influence the gender, fate and delivery of the child. In the latter part of this chapter, the authors address the issue of sequestering birthing woman and explore the significance of the sacred enclosure as the site of birth of the Chu people and political identity.

Chapter 5 compares chu ju with several genealogical accounts of the Chu house in transmitted texts. Chu ju is unique in that: (1) it depicts the name of Chu people as derived from the thorns used by shamans as a means of healing for the split-side birth; and (2) it refers to the effect of the birth on the mother, the manipulation of her body and her final visits to heaven as an ancestral deity, acknowledging the female role in social reproduction. Toward the end of this chapter, the authors analyze the ancient pronunciations of ancestral names in the various genealogical accounts and confirm the existence of gender-bending in transmitted texts: two figures with names for ancestresses were treated as if they were ancestors in certain genealogical accounts.

In chapter 6, the authors discuss the cultural and political implications of the birth tales of Chu progenitors. Examining the contrast between the smooth and traumatic birthing of twins in Chu ju in the context of tales of the smooth birth of the Zhou founder versus the split-style birth of the founders of Xia and Shang, two pre-Zhou dynasties, they conclude that the two-sided style of birth in Chu ju may reflect the hybrid nature of Chu culture, with currents of Zhou influence overlaid over older influence. That Chu ju claims heritage to a Shang king known for splitting off the branch and beginning a new dynasty also reflects its purposeful identification with non-Zhou polity and may point to the Chu political ambition to take over the hegemony of the central plains.

This book reveals the authors’ solid training in several aspects. Their rich paleographical and linguistic knowledge, their familiarity with the material culture across the vast territory of ancient China, and their versatility in a wide range of excavated and transmitted texts allow them to “tease out the unknown history of ancient womanhood and women’s role in the social reproduction of early Chinese patriarchy.” (xii) Nevertheless, due to the lack of adequate supporting materials, as is common to the study of ancient history, some of the interpretations remain highly speculative. For example, lacking in supportive medical records, the possible employment of Cesarean section as surgical procedures in the Shang and even in the Warring States period can hardly be ascertained in spite of the popularity of the split-side birthing narratives.

Overall, this book will be a compelling choice for scholars and graduate students of early Chinese culture and history. Scholars of religious, anthropological and gender studies in general will also find this book a valuable addition to their reading lists.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Ying Zhou is a lecturer at Southwest Minzu University, Chengdu, China.

Date of Review: 
May 20, 2021
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Constance A. Cook is professor of Chinese at Lehigh University and the author of Death in Ancient China: The Tale of One Man’s Journey.

Xinhui Luo is professor of Chinese Ancient History at Beijing Normal University, China.


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