Wednesday, August 29

Reading assignment:  The Rise of the House of Zhou;  The Story of the Duke of Zhou

No historical narrative was more important to the people of the Classical era than the tale of the Zhou conquest and the deeds of the dynastic founders, King Wen, King Wu, and the latter's brother, the Duke of Zhou.  In class today, we'll analyze the legends of the Zhou royal house.  (If you haven't already done so, print out the handout, Key Names in the Classical Account of the Distant Past. It will help you keep track of some important figures in pre-Classical legend.)

"The Rise of the House of Zhou" bridges the distance between myth and history. It begins in the imagined past of the era of Emperor Yao, and closes with a highly embellished account of real historical events, culminating in the Zhou conquest of the Shang in 1045. In the course of translating the account, I've taken the opportunity in the reading to throw in a hodge-podge of basic cultural information, but in class, I'd like us to focus on the tale, taking the study questions at its close as our starting point. 

"The Story of the Duke of Zhou":  While the Zhou founding kings (Wen and Wu) were certainly two of the most important models of "sagehood" for people of the Classical era, they were, in fact, outstripped in importance by the history and character of the Duke of Zhou, a man whose greatness was a function of the fact that he was not a king, although he clearly could have been. As important as the fact of the conquest in 1045 is the nature of the civil war that quickly ensued (1042-1039), a war whose outcome established the nature of the Zhou state, shaped the direction of Zhou political ideology, and created the basis for two centuries of peace in the ever-expanding Zhou kingdom -- at its time, by far the largest and most successful state on earth.

NOTE:  These accounts were actually composed quite late, about 100 B.C., by the historian Sima Qian. As your readings will frequently suggest, so important is Sima Qian and his great "universal history," the Shiji ("Historical Records") for our understanding of China, that we must stay constantly aware of the fact that much of what we see of early China is what Sima Qian wanted us to see. Late in the course, we will meet this remarkable man, learn of the tortured circumstances under which he wrote his book, and become more keenly aware of ways in which his rendering of the facts of early history was often apparently shaped by the values he brought to his historical project. For now, it may be enough simply to be mindful that Sima Qian's account, although considered authoritative throughout the centuries of China's long traditional era, must be understood as a complex mix of verifiable record informed by moral and narrative imagination.