Roel Sterckx’s book Food, Sacrifice, and Sagehood in Early China (Cambridge University Press, 2011) had me at drunken séances. (Drunken séances! Do you really need another excuse to read it?) It is a compelling and engaging read, and a wonderful resource for anyone interested in early China, the history of food, ritual studies, or the history of sensation. Sterckx’s work explores the culture, philosophies, and practices of sacrificial religion in early China, focusing on the ways that food and consumption at the dinner table and ritual altar helped shape ways of thinking about human sagehood and the relationships between the human and spirit worlds. The book ranges from the practices and language of cooking to the spiritual sensorium, from sacrificial procedure as a search and a multimedia event to the portrayal of Confucius in early texts about dining and sacrifice, from lively butchers to bland stews. In a particularly fascinating chapter on the economy of religious sacrifice, Sterckx considers how the demands of the spirit economy may have undermined that of humans in early China.
Also, there are drunken séances.
*Listeners will notice that the connection was a bit spotty at the very end of the interview. Stick with it! It’s worth it.