Mourning Rituals in Archaic & Classical Greece and Pre-Qin China

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Xiaoqun Wu
  • London, England: 
    Palgrave Macmillan
    , July
     106 pages.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.


This slim book is an attempt to engage comparatively with the theme of “mourning ritual” in Archaic and Classical Greece and Pre-Qin China, which for the author translates to the period from the 8th to the 3rd century BCE. Regarding rituals as “symbols of social order and as the link between different aspects of life,” Wu adopts a comparative approach “to gain a deeper understanding of conceptualizations of the perception of proper behavior toward death, as well as to delve into the ways in which ancient societies tried to control and channel grief and its manifestations” (16). Introduction and conclusion aside, the chapters deal in turn with four separate aspects of mourning: attitudes towards death, lamentation, mourners’ gestures and behaviours, and mourning apparel. It is unusual in that all the chapters begin with an abstract and key words, and they read more like independent journal articles than book chapters. 

In the preface, Wu notes the challenges and benefits of comparative history. A more than cursory mention of the existing literature would have been preferred in the introduction, particularly given the recent expansion of comparative studies of ancient Greece and early China, with scholars such as Michael Puett and Yiqun Zhou (neither of whom is mentioned) writing specifically on the related topics of ritual and religion. Wu acknowledges the different schools of philosophy and customs relating to mourning and funeral in the Pre-Qin period, but explains her choice to focus on “Confucian” sources on the basis that Confucian thought is always the “great tradition” in Chinese society, while the other schools had modest influence. This choice is questionable, given that the ascription of philosophical “schools” to the pre-Qin period is to a large extent anachronistic and reflects later concerns for classification. “Confucianism,” after all, only rose to prominence during the Han dynasty, a period that falls beyond the trajectories of this book. 

Chapter 2 examines attitudes towards death in the two societies. Focusing mainly on the Homeric epics and the Chinese Book of Rites, it arrives at the conclusion that “the Greeks’ fear of not being buried may have been greater than the fear of death itself,” and “in ancient China, the Chinese tried to ‘sere [sic] the dead as they served them alive’” (44). Within the confines of 22 pages, it is difficult, if not impossible, to do the topic of “death” justice.

Chapter 3 focuses upon lamentation through an examination of excerpts from Greek tragedy and the Chinese Book of Rites, to reach the conclusion that, in China, music and singing were regarded as forms of entertainment and unsuitable for the funeral, while for the ancient Greeks, the singing of ritualized lament was given more attention. While Wu rightly recognizes in the introduction the “disparate nature” of the sources, she does not engage with this issue here, and chooses not to discuss the implications of comparing tragedy with the normative Book of Rites, and comparing representations of mourning with discourses about mourning.

Chapter 4 explores mourners’ gestures and behaviors and remarks that the Greeks passed laws to regulate the funerary ritual, aimed at controlling what was acceptable and what was not, while the Chinese promoted the idea of “moderation” or the so-called “golden mean.”

Chapter 5 identifies a point of difference between the ancient Greeks and Chinese on mourning apparel, arguing that the Chinese gave it far more extensive treatment than the Greeks, considering mourning attire to pertain to questions of social relations, and reflect different classes of relatives and degrees of feelings.

In the conclusion, Wu makes the intriguing observation that in Greece, “the mourning [sic] remained mainly on the level of external forms and procedures, but was not used to facilitate the expression of profound thoughts” (93), while in China “the Confucian thinkers of the Pre-Qin period used rituals (Li) as a tool to explain their thoughts about how to organize a community” (94). The English translation of Plato’s Laws provided (94) does not match the Greek (which is jumbled in parts), and does not appear to support the author’s argument.

This book raises, inadvertently perhaps, a series of pressing issues in terms of comparative methodology. Wu has set herself the daunting task of discussing mourning rituals in two societies over a period of time within the confines of Palgrave Pivot, which publishes works between 25,000 and 50,000 words long. The topic is promising, but the constraints on length do not allow the author to have a measured engagement with the range of evidence available, to give sufficient attention to the differing nature of the sources under examination, and to develop her comparative analysis. The result is that the reader is often left attempting to piece together the implications of the selected sources cited.

Wu makes the disclaimer that fully acknowledging the distinctiveness and complexity of each culture is sometimes an impossible task in a comparative study (17), a point on which this reviewer agrees. Nevertheless, it must be said that an examination of a limited range of evidence does not warrant general conclusions about the experiences of the ancient Greeks and Chinese. For example, can we conclude that mourning for the Greeks “was not used to facilitate the expression of profound thoughts” without paying sufficient attention to philosophical ideas about death in ancient Greece? And can we reasonably limit “Pre-Qin China” to a version of Confucianism, where neither Mengzi nor Xunzi—regarded as important figures in the “Confucian” tradition—neither is mentioned? One might add that Zhuangzi and Mozi would offer pertinent alternatives to the “Confucian” line of thought and enrich discussions of ritual and death.

Throughout the book there is a general lack of nuance in expression, and various errors should have been caught in the copy-editing process (for example, on page vii “but they typically focus is,” and on page 3 “classicalist” instead of “classicist”). Granted, as English is not the author’s first language, these issues may not have arisen had the book been written in her mother tongue.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Jingyi Jenny Zhao is Lloyd-Dan David Research Fellow at the Needham Research Institute and at Darwin College, University of Cambridge.

Date of Review: 
June 18, 2019
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Xiaoqun Wu is Professor of History at Fudan University, China. She teaches on Ancient World History and Western Classical Historiography, and was previously Associate Professor at East China Normal University.


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