Death Rituals and Politics in Northern Song China

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Mihwa Choi
  • Oxford, England: 
    Oxford University Press
    , November
     248 pages.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.


The dynamic relationships between consensus reality and imagined realms, between the living and the dead, and between the individual and society have long proved rewarding terrain for scholars of religion. Mihwa Choi’s new book guides the reader through some of this terrain by tracing those relationships in 11th-century China. Along the way, the reader also witnesses the revival of Confucianism and the establishment of certain social orthodoxies that persist to the modern day. Theoretically, Choi’s work is self-consciously inspired by the Annales School of historiography and is informed by the en vogue idea of l’imaginaire, or in Choi’s usage, the “social imaginary.”

Choi’s study focuses on Chinese court officials during the years 1008 to 1085. This was a period when the performance of funerary rites became an object of contestation between various social groups and powerful factions. Her analysis begins with the so-called Heavenly Text Affair of 1008, when a divine text demonstrating the divinity of the ruling Chinese emperor miraculously appeared. This set off a series of events, which Choi traces across the subsequent four chapters, and eventually led to a revival of Confucianism and the creation of new models of authority and orthodoxy in the tradition. Her second chapter argues that it was the ensuing debate over funerary rituals that led to the establishment of funeral rites as a primary concern of Confucian intellectuals. At the same time, the nature of the debate established classical textual authority in Confucianism. 

The leading advocate of the prevailing traditionalist faction, Sima Guang, and his Letters and Arguments (Shuyi), is the focus of chapter 3. Among the most interesting observations in this chapter is Choi’s analysis of Sima Guang’s understanding of ritual (li) as consisting of two aspects: concrete action or practice and abstract principle. “Ritual as concrete action primarily served as a means to express and cultivate virtues within social activities. Ritual as abstract principle operated as ethical imperative and the guidelines for public order based on which individuals responded to given situations ritually” (100). Scholars of religion in particular may take note of this view and recognize in it certain resonances with ritual theories generated in the modern Western academy. 

In her fourth chapter, Choi more fully employs the theoretical model of the “social imaginary” in order to consider the political implications of imagined post-mortem realms and the funerary practices related to them. Here the reader is treated to material concerning the political role of popular stories and rumors that circulated in Chinese society and were a vehicle for disseminating specific ideological positions. The fifth and final chapter discusses the underlying issues that informed scholar-officials’ antipathy toward “lavish burials” and their support instead of “simple burials.” These simple burials were to be free from material representations of the post-mortem realm and of supernatural beings. Rather, the ideal memorial activity was funerary biographical writing extolling the virtues and social accomplishments of the deceased. 

Choi argues that these competing funeral models were the subject of intense contestation, as they reflected and reinforced specific social values, or “imaginaries.” Instead of the virtue and official station idealized by Confucian scholar-officials, the opulence of “lavish burials” reflected and reinforced the view of wealth as the principle instrument of happiness and the notion that opulent funerals and grave goods played a role in leading the soul to a felicitous afterlife. Choi also makes clear that what is ultimately at stake here was the social hierarchy these scholar-officials saw as central to their vision of an ideal society—one that, it should be noted, would serve to protect their social capital and material well-being in the face of a society increasingly populated by nouveau riche merchants. 

Choi’s work occasionally evinces the self-consciousness of a young scholar’s first manuscript, as she seeks to demonstrate her command of the primary sources and of relevant theoretical models. But in this reviewer’s opinion, the book does what a quality publication should: it effectively resolves long-standings questions (Why and how did Confucianism undergo a revival in the 11th century? Why did this revival result in part in an overweening concern with funeral rites?) and it also raises new questions and possibilities. For example, by focusing on approximately eighty years of Chinese history and seeking to address the relationship between the objective and subjective spheres, Choi’s work is closest perhaps to Ladurie’s emphasis on mentalités. Butif one were to adopted an Annales model that emphasized histoiretotale or a more developed structural approach similar to Braudel’s longueduréeconjonctures, and histoireévénementielle, might this productively place the 11th century court debates and the issues concerning ritual performance and society in the context of long-standing Chinese models of imperial authority and identity, the intersection of individual and the social, between the living and the dead? 

Death Rituals and Politics in Northern Song China demonstrates the utility of drawing theoretical models and insights from the diverse body of literature and subfields that constitute the academic study of religion. It shows us how to think about historical phenomena and the rich intersections of the political and religious, of the social and personal, of the living and the dead. And by invoking the concept of l’imaginaire (the “social imaginary”) in order to disclose the social and political stakes involved in officially sanctioned funerary practices, Choi also gives us a model for thinking productively about historical subjectivities.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Geoffrey C. Goble is Assistant Professor of Religious Studies at the University of Oklahoma.

Date of Review: 
August 7, 2018
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Mihwa Choi's research probes the role of religion in shaping the cultural, social, and political landscapes of China and Korea. Her articles have appeared in Asia Major, the Journal of Daoist Studies, the Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion, and the Seoul Journal of Korean Studies.


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