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Chinese Society in the Age of Confucius (1000-250 BC)

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Chinese Society in the Age of Confucius (1000-250 BC), by Lothar von Falkenhausen

Chinese Society in the Age of Confucius (1000-250 BC), by Lothar von Falkenhausen

Cotsen Institute of Archaeology (c) 2006
Lothar von Falkenhausen. 2006. Chinese Society in the Age of Confucius (1000-250 BC). ISBN 1-931745-30-7 (paperback, alkaline paper). 420 pp, extensive bibliography, index of archaeological sites, general index and glossary. Cotsen Institute of Archaeology at UCLA, Los Angeles.

Chinese Archaeology and Confucius

Chinese Society in the Age of Confucius (1000-250 BC) is a perfect example of archaeological data revealing what Americanist R. Lee Lyman recently called "ethnologically imperceptible large-scale processses". Using archaeological data, author Lothar von Falkenhausen reveals society-wide changes that took place during the Zhou Dynasty, changes reported by the philosopher Confucius, but not addressed in historical documents of the day.

Confucius [551–479 BC] was an important political leader and philosopher who lived and wrote during the latter part of the Zhou Dynasty. He and his followers were concerned with what he considered was the wastefulness of the ritual behaviors of the day and advocated a return to better days. His reforms suggested that, as had been true in the ancient and distant past, rituals should focus on the living community rather than deceased ancestors, on honest reverence rather than sanctimonious display, on the value of virtue over descent, and on the practice of ritual without exorbitant expenditures.

Archaeological Data and History

Early Western Zhou bronze you. Baoji, Shaanxi Province, China.

Early Western Zhou bronze you (liquid container with arch-shaped movable handle). Baoji, Shaanxi Province, China.

Andrew Wong/Getty Images.
Confucius also said he was a transmitter of reform, not a creator, and that he was building on reforms which had taken place in ancient days. But historic records of the earlier Zhou dynasty do not record such a set of reforms. Using archaeological data, Falkenhausen identifies the changes described by Confucius, which took place not at the beginnings of the Zhou Dynasty but rather to about 850 BC.

The dataset accessed by Falkenhausen is primarily bronze vessels placed in kin-based hoards or buried within clan cemeteries. Many of these vessels are inscribed with genealogical data, and by examining the changes in form and function over time, Falkenhausen makes a persuasive argument for a shift towards what we think of as "Confucian philosophy" as having taken place 300 years before Confucius lived, more recently than Confucius thought.

Thoroughly Engrossing

Chinese Society in the Age of Confucius is a thoroughly engrossing text--even though it is clearly not intended for a generalist audience. (Full disclosure--I asked the Cotsen Institute for the book, they didn't ask me to review it.) The book is clearly intended for an audience familiar with Chinese history, who might be interested in what archaeology can present to the knowledge base. I know this, because there are several places where technical jargon--such as waist tombs and mingqi--are used but undefined in the text until late in the book.

However, Falkenhausen has provided a wonderful combined glossary and index, which includes definitions of these and many other terms in English and Chinese. Waist tombs (yaokeng) are small square animal burials placed beneath the waist region of a human interment, while mingqi are vessels built specifically for funerals, in miniature and/or of inferior quality.

Providing Depth and Context

Chinese Society uses archaeological data to provide depth and context to the establishment of Chinese culture that is invisible to the ethnologist and the historian. And, even though the book presupposes some amount of knowledge about Chinese history, the publishers have provided resources so that the interested generalist can get that background as s/he goes along. It's a little work, but it's well worth it.

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