If New Books in East Asian Studies were an All-Powerful Force of Good In The Universe and if one of the perks that came along with being an All-Powerful Force of Good In The Universe were to ensure that certain books got major awards, then we would exercise that perk in the case of Ken Brashier’s Ancestral Memory in Early China (Harvard University Asia Center, 2011).
Brashier’s book is a meticulously-researched, clearly organized, and compelling account of the ancestral cult of early China. Brashier focuses his arguments on the “cognitive aspects” of the cult, and in this respect the book offers a way to think about metaphor, remembrance, and forgetting in time that potentially extends well beyond the context of early China. After an introduction that lays out the arguments of the book and introduces the structural metaphors of lineage, tree, and watershed that will recur throughout the study, Part I introduces the basic ritual prescriptions of ancestral remembrance through the lens of performance theory. From prescriptions, the book then proceeds to descriptions of actual practice in Part II, focusing on case studies of exemplary moments in the practice and adaptation of ritual throughout early China. Part III then shifts from the sacrificers to the ancestral spirits themselves, proposing a spectrum with which to think about the range of ideas about the agency of ancestral spirits and the degree to which their existence was dependent on the memory of the living. The final two Parts of the book return to the themes of performative thinking and tie the entire book together in a study of the symbolic language and practice of ancestral memory in ancient China in terms of ritual and altar, time and space.
It is an astoundingly powerful and erudite study that also makes for an enjoyable reading experience. I ad a wonderful and inspiring time talking with Ken Brashier about this book and his future projects. Enjoy!