Defining Chu

Submitted by Komjathy on Thu, 02/12/2009 - 20:38
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DEFINING CHU: IMAGE AND REALITY IN ANCIENT CHINA. Edited by Constance A. Cook and John S. Major. Honolulu: University of Hawaii Press, 1999. Pp. ix + 254; maps; plates; illustrations; appendix; index. Cloth, $59.00, ISBN 0-8248-1885-7.


This edited volume is the first Western language book-length study to focus on a single ancient Chinese state. Tracing the evolution of Chu from a vassal state in the Spring and Autumn period (770-476 B.C.E.), through its rise and fall as a leading political power in the Warring States (475-221 B.C.E.), to its subsequent resurgence in the early Han (206 B.C.E.-8 C.E.), Defining Chu addresses the historical geography, archaeological history, artistic achievements, and socio-political characteristics of Chu. 


In the process, the book's contributors focus on two related theoretical issues in particular: (1) the complexity and distinctiveness of "Chu culture," and (2) the competing "images" of Chu in the history and study of China. "Eventually, over the course of the book, we see the emergence of the constructed Chu image from historical reality-a reality argued according to each author's interpretation of archaeological or historical materials that they accept as defining Chu" (viii; emphasis in original; also 5, 167-69). Throughout the various articles, contributors argue for the need to revise the received view of Chu, which centers on the "Northern Bias" (1-2, 51-52) of traditional Chinese historiography and Western Sinology's indebtedness to that construction. The authors in turn attempt to separate the mythologized Chu, revolving principally around the image of Chu as an alternative, slightly barbarous (shamanic) culture, from a "historically real" Chu especially evident in recent archaeological discoveries. 


In addition to a preface, introduction and conclusion, the book contains nine chapters in three parts. Part I: Perspectives in Defining Chu Culture has three chapters: (1) "The Geography of Chu" (9-20) by Barry B. Blakeley, (2) "Chu Culture: An Archaeological Overview" (21-32) by Xu Shaohua, and (3) "Chu Art: Link between the Old and New" (33-47) by Jenny F. So. Part II: State and Society consists of four chapters: (4) "Chu Society and State: Image versus Reality" (51-66) by Barry B. Blakeley, (5) "The Ideology of the Chu Ruling Class: Ritual Rhetoric and Bronze Inscriptions" (67-76) by Constance A. Cook, (6) "Chu Law in Action: Legal Documents from Tomb 2 at Baoshan" (77-97) by Susan Weld, and (7) "Towns and Trade: Cultural Diversity and Chu Daily Life" (99-117) by Heather A. Peters. The final section, Part III: The Spirit of Chu, contains (8) "Characteristics of Late Chu Religion" (121-43) by John S. Major and (9) "Monkeys, Shamans, Emperors, and Poets: The Chuci and Images of Chu during the Han Dynasty" (145-65) by Gopal Sukhu. The book concludes with an appendix, which is Li Ling and Constance A. Cook's translation of the so-called "Chu Silk Manuscript," an astronomical and calendrical treatise from Zidanku (Hunan) datable to circa 300 B.C.E. 


These various articles attempt to "define Chu"-to delineate a picture of Chu history and culture that mirrors the long and complex history of the state of Chu itself (for a summary see 167-69). Those researching Chinese religion will find John S. Major's article on later Chu religion especially worthy of attention. Here Major discusses issues of regionalism, spatial orientation and religious cosmography, monsters and gods, snakes and animal motifs, hunting motifs, shamanism and spirit-possession, "farflight" or spirit journeys, Huang-Lao Daoism and Chu influence on Han culture, and four specific cases of Chu cultural influence (cosmographs, calendars, mirrors, and the mother goddess). With so much academic conjecture centering on the connection between the state of Chu (China's "shamanic substratum") and Warring States "Daoism," specifically the possible Chu origins of classical Daoism, one would have appreciated greater attention to this issue, either in some of the volume's contributions or as a separate article. The book also lacks a glossary of Chinese characters. Defining Chu is for scholars of early China, especially those focusing on the Warring States period, as well as for anyone thinking through issues of mythologization (essentialist definitions of culture based on a constructed past). Recommended for research libraries and historians of early China. 


Louis Komjathy

Boston University

March 1, 2003