God and Ritual Governance in Late Imperial China

May 26, 2015 | 06:00 PM c.t. - 08:00 PM

From the seventh century to 1911, the emperor of China and an entourage of Confucian officials processed to the Altar Terrace of Heaven to offer elaborate feasts to Heaven-God 昊天上帝. This talk examines three interrelated themes: (1) Despite their recent reputation as skeptics about gods, Confucians nonetheless performed cult rites devoted to an extensive pantheon of deities, including Heaven-God. (2) These rites played a central role in the discourse on ritual governance, which drew from the ancient canon to formulate proper ritual interactions between the court and bureaucracy on one hand and powerful cosmic agents that governed the universe on the other. (3) Although the imperial court insisted upon the singularity of this deity, the feasting rites of this cult belie an underlying ambiguity concerning the nature and identity of this deity, which occupied the pinnacle of the imperial cults. Moreover the lecture shows that the three-tiered Altar Terrace where Confucian officials invoked Heaven-God and host of secondary and tertiary deities was exactingly constructed in order to replicate the celestial sphere of the cosmos itself. The arrangement of the niches for spirit tablets arrayed on the Altar Terrace where Confucian officials offered cult rites devoted to Heaven-God is not merely a second-order, symbolic representation of a presumably more real universe, but rather an exactingly crafted reproduction of the celestial cosmos as it should be.

Thomas Wilson is Elizabeth J. McCormack Professor of History at Hamilton College. He earned his Ph.D. from the University of Chicago, studied Chinese at the Stanford Center in Taiwan, and was a student in the graduate department of history at National Taiwan University. He has been a member of the School of Historical Studies at the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton, and has received multiple fellowships from the National Endowment for the Humanities and Fulbright-Hays. Among his recent publications is On Sacred Grounds: Culture, Society, Politics, and the Formation of the Cult of Confucius (Harvard, 2003, editor & contributor). With Michel Nylan of Berkeley, he co-authored Lives of Confucius (Doubleday, 2010), which will be published in Chinese by the Chinese University Press next year. He has published a number of articles in the Journal of Asian Studies, Journal of Chinese Religions, and History of Religions, on the ancestral and imperial cults of Confucius. He maintains a website on the cult of Confucius at http://academics.hamilton.edu/asian_studies/home/autumnalsacrifice/index.html.

Time & Location

May 26, 2015 | 06:00 PM c.t. - 08:00 PM

Holzlaube, room 1.2002
Fabeckstr. 23/25
14195 Berlin