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  • Print publication year: 2015
  • Online publication date: June 2015

3 - Unity and diversity in state rituals

from Part II - Cultural negotiations


The three chapters in Part II examine what Lieberman calls “politicized ethnicity,” the cultural practices created by elites that simultaneously affirmed their shared civilizational roots and their uniqueness. This chapter looks at state rituals. A large body of secondary literature attests that rituals, “symbolic behavior that is socially standardized and repetitive,” shape our perception of reality and the world. State rituals are an important instrument by which rulers and ritual specialists fuse potent cultural symbols into emotion-stirring choreographed sequences of gesture, music, and voiced utterance in an attempt to legitimate political systems and create symbolic communities. Rituals are multi-media vehicles for the expression of collective sentiments about one's own community and the community's view of itself. Rather than being fixed and stable, they are evolving and fluid. They provide a rich source for insights about the self-images of East Asian states at different points in their long entangled history.

Surveying its ritual repertoire, we argue that calling China's state rituals “Confucian” ignores the diversity of religious practice and the persistence of indigenous “religious orientations” such as ancestor worship, an “omnipresent” orientation that, Benjamin Schwartz noted, was “central to the entire development of Chinese civilization.” Ancestor worship, dating from long before the life of Confucius (541–479 BCE), and the ancillary idea that human beings could become gods, featured in Chinese state rites to 1911. By the Ming and Qing period, the state supported Daoist, Buddhist, and shamanic rites; it sacrificed at altars to nature deities originating in pre-Confucian times, and to others that marked the Manchu identity of the Qing regime.

Before the second half of the seventh century, when Japan imported elements of proto-Daoist and other religious and ritual practices from the continent, shamanism was the dominant religious orientation. Striving to advance political centralization and consolidate the power of the imperial line, rulers seized upon the continental imports to position Amaterasu as the focal ancestress of the imperial family.