The Center for Hellenic Studies

Can You Take the Hellenic out of the Panhellenic? The Case of Zhou China

Alexander J. Beecroft, University of South Carolina
Like many teaching fellows in “The Concept of the Hero in Greek Civilization” before and after me, I recall discussing with my students one of the key phenomena which Gregory Nagy elucidates for his students, and for his scholarly readers: the phenomenon of Panhellenic culture, where that strange assemblage of democracies and tyrannies, oligarchies and monarchies that is the Archaic and Classical Greek world find common ground through a shared set of cultural practices. In "Heroes," Nagy presents students with three key vehicles through which Panhellenism gets expressed: through the Olympic Games, through consultations of the Delphic oracle, and through Homeric epic. Greeks know they’re Greek, in other words, because they compete at Olympia, seek the gods’ help at Delphi, and integrate their diverse mythic pasts through the mechanism of the Troy tale. In The Best of the Achaeans, he goes into somewhat more detail, adding the experiences of colonization and the development of the alphabet, and describing all of these phenomena as “monumental feats of intersocial organization and also of intercultural synthesis.” [1]
As with so many of Nagy’s other graduate students, past, present, and future, I’ve found his work on Panhellenism both useful and inspirational, not only when I teach my own Classical Mythology course (where my students learn about the same three core Panhellenic phenomena), but also in my own scholarship. Something that I’ve found particularly interesting about Greg’s understanding of Panhellenism is that it seems like something that might be generalized to other historical and cultural contexts. In particular, as someone who studies Early China as well as Ancient Greece, I’ve long been interested in the structural similarities between Archaic Greece on the one hand, and the contemporary eras in China—the so-called “Spring and Autumn” and “Warring States” eras—on the other. A quick explanation of terminology may be in order. Most people are probably familiar with the fact that Chinese history is conventionally periodized according to dynasties, and a simple list of the dynasties in historical sequence will begin with the Xia, then the Shang, and then the Zhou (traditional dates, respectively, ca. 2070–1600 BC, 1600–1046 BC, and 1045–256 BC). The Xia are known exclusively through the transmitted mytho-historical record, and archaeologists have not securely connected that record with any materially-attested state. The Shang, however, are now quite thoroughly attested, in part due to the discovery of the so-called “oracle bones,” tortoise-shells on which divinatory inscriptions were written. Although farmers had been discovering these relics for centuries, it was only in 1900 that scholars became aware that they represented a priceless trove of information on the Shang dynasty, confirming among other things that the sequence of names in historically-transmitted king-lists, along with the number of regnal years, was quite accurate, at least for the latter part of the dynasty. While this increased the confidence of many in the accuracy of traditional history, other archaeological evidence has tended to suggest that what is now China was in fact far more fragmented during the Shang (and, for that matter, during the Zhou), than the histories imagine it to have been.
It appears that, while the transmitted historical record gets many of the details right, it gets the big picture wrong, projecting back onto the Shang and the early Zhou the kind of strong, centralized state that later dynasties, like the Han (206 BC–220 AD) and the Tang (618–907 AD) came much closer to achieving, and that a handful of political and ritual theorists of the last few centuries BC began to dream of achieving. Instead, both Shang and Zhou appear to have held genuine control over comparatively small areas, attempting to control more distant territories by establishing members of the royal clan in power there, but in reality being able to do little to influence day-to-day events in locations many days’ journey from their capitals. Other territories in the agricultural regions of the Yellow and lower Yangtze valleys were always under the control of other, related clans (indeed, the Zhou themselves had long held regional power in the west, and the Shang continued to rule for some time after their ostensible downfall, albeit in the restricted area of the regional state of Song 宋. While traditional historiography represents the Shang’s regional survival as an act of clemency and ritual piety by the conquering Zhou, an alternative, and perhaps more plausible, account would suggest that in the mid-eleventh century BC the power balance of northern China shifted, against the Shang and towards the Zhou, but that both remained essentially regional powers afterwards as before. Beyond the presence of states ruled by rival clans, there were also substantial sedentary populations not speaking the standard language, ancestor to modern Chinese languages, though such groups are poorly attested in the transmitted tradition, as well as more remote and nomadic peoples of the steppes and mountains, whose frequent incursions into “Chinese” territory further complicated matters. It should be noted in passing that the ethnonym “Chinese,” derived ultimately from the name of the Qin dynasty, is anachronistic for the period under discussion, when the term Huaxia was used. [2]
It is in the midst of this complex terrain (which, I suggest, bears more than a passing resemblance to Archaic Greece), that the Zhou dynasty existed. Traditional historiography represents the centralized state as falling apart in the 770’s BC, as a result both of invasions from the steppes and of internal struggles, to be succeeded by an era, lasting half a millennium, in which the Chinese world was divided into regional polities of various sizes. The prelapsarian, pre-770’s portion of the dynasty is known as the Western Zhou, because the dynastic heartlands were in the west, near modern Xi’an. The second half of the Zhou is known generally as the Eastern Zhou; in that period, the Zhou ruled an area downstream on the Yellow River, near modern Luoyang. The Eastern Zhou, however, is more commonly divided into two periods, each named after the major historical narrative text for the era: the “Spring and Autumn” era from 770–476 BC, and the “Warring States” era thereafter. Over the course of the five centuries of the Eastern Zhou, the historiographical narrative shows a gradual transition, from a territory covered by a large number of very small states, each at least notionally recognizing the supremacy of the Zhou, to an environment with fewer and fewer states, each ruling more and more territory, and usurping more and more of the privileges of the Zhou, until finally, in the mid-third century BC, the western state of Qin conquers all the remaining states and establishes itself as supreme. Again, the historical record is colored by the desires of later generations of intellectuals to project a stable imperial system onto the distant past, to provide a source of legitimacy for their own political theories, and to minimize the accomplishments of the Qin, who, far from restoring imperial rule, rather impose it for the first time.
Stripped of its later accumulation of historiographic wish-fulfillment, then, the Spring and Autumn and Warring States eras look a great deal like Archaic and Classical Greece politically, with a large number of tiny polities gradually yielding to a smaller number of more powerful states, until finally Macedon (like Qin, a power from the periphery) arrives on the scene and, at least initially consolidates nearly all the Greeks under common rule. But what about the cultural level? Did the states of Eastern Zhou-era China share a common cultural framework, superimposed over political fragmentation, creating in the process some sense of a shared identity?
The short answer, I believe is “yes,” and the longer answer, in a certain sense, is the subject of my first book Authorship and Cultural Identity in Early Greece and China (Cambridge, 2010), which emerged out of the chrysalis of a dissertation I wrote under Gregory Nagy’s supervision, and which owes much to his work. In what follows, I hope to sketch something of a “medium answer,” bracketing most of the detail in the book to give a more general overview of the similarities I find between Archaic and Classical Greece and the (nearly contemporary) world of the Eastern Zhou. To give this answer, we need to move in several directions at once, in a manner I believe is also inspired by Nagy’s work: we need to consider both literary and archaeological evidence if we are to make sense of the cultural world of Zhou China. In the process, I hope to suggest why it is not only my Hellenist side, but my Sinological side, that owes so much to Nagy.
That the literary evidence is insufficient on its own should be clear even from what I’ve said already. The foundational texts in the Chinese tradition are the so-called “Confucian Classics,” a collection of thirteen works (themselves often clearly assembled from other materials), ranging from ritual manuals (the Zhou Li, Li Ji and Yi Li) to historical records (the Shang Shu, or “Book of Documents,” and the Chunqiu, the so-called “Spring and Autumn Annals”, with its three (pseudo-) commentaries, the Gongyang, Guliang and Zuozhuan), from divination (the Yi Jing) to song (the Shi Jing), from philosophical treatise (the Analects of Confucius, the Mencius) to proto-dictionary (the Er Ya). Of these works, five collections formed the earlier core of the tradition: the Changes, the Documents, the Songs, the Rites and the Spring and Autumn Annals; each of these five was said either to be directly authored by Confucius (in the case of the Annals), or at least redacted, edited and improved by him (the other four). Also sometimes considered as part of this collection is the Music, said to be a lost work, but also, perhaps, simply the music of the era, easily lost to posterity in an age before musical notation. Together with the Analects, said to represent Confucius’ own words, these five collections, or traditions, provided a totalizing compendium of elite male education, containing everything such men needed to know in order properly to regulate their actions, their words, and even their thoughts.
In reality, the picture of these texts is much more complicated than the tradition asserts. None can be dated with confidence to the era of Confucius himself (traditional dates 551–479 BC), though certain of the Documents, for example, contain astronomical detail which suggests either much earlier composition, or at least composition by someone with access to much older historical materials, long since lost; that this detail can occur in texts otherwise clearly forgeries of the first century AD, is a sign of how complex the textual history of the Classics actually is. The Songs are traditionally thought to date from the four centuries before Confucius’ life, and (as I discuss below) some seem to make reference to concrete historical events and individuals of the eighth century BC, as corroborated by archaeological finds, though in general it is difficult to prove much about the age of these Songs, some of which may have had an oral-traditional origin. Certainly, we know that the shape of the collection as a whole remained fluid until at least the fourth century BC, and the texts of individual poems, even later. Most of the material in the Rites likely long post-dates Confucius, though again probably some much earlier data is interpolated among the later inventions. The basic structure of the Changes is probably quite old, though much of the text as we know it will be younger. The Spring and Autumn Annals may well be a genuine historical document, though its spare records convey little without the much more voluble (and clearly much later) commentaries, which probably date to the fourth century BC or thereabouts. And while even the Analects themselves claim to be gathered by Confucius’ disciples, rather than composed by the man himself, it is in fact rarely clear just which parts of the text date to which period. [3]
The student of these texts, in other words, is faced with a problem familiar to those who study Archaic Greek literature and the biographical, historical and literary-critical texts which surround that literature. The “Confucian Classics” are what Michael Nylan has called “sedimented texts,” a term analogous in many respects to Nagy’s notion of the “crystallization” of Homeric epic over time. The sedimented classics, in other words gradually accreted content around cores of older material—sometimes through the mechanism of adding chapters or sections, but at least as often by expanding or altering existing material. Sometimes specific details within a text provide some clarity, as when reference to a known astronomical event confirms that a text was written either by a contemporary or by someone with access to genuine historical records; or when the avoidance of a particular character as a taboo-form shows that a text was created or transformed no earlier than the reign of the king or emperor whose name invoked the taboo. Even in these cases, however, the sedimented nature of the texts makes it difficult to be certain how much material can be attached to a particular date. That kernel of astronomical detail may have attracted a later, and wholly fictional, account of pseudo-historical events, [4] while the avoidance of a tabooed character may only mean that the text in question was re-copied during a later era, and much, even all, of the neighboring material may be of a genuinely earlier date.
There are thus genuine challenges inherent in attempting to understand whether or not the Eastern Zhou constituted a culturally-unified or unifying field, even as it remained undeniably politically fragmented. In particular, the ideology of the Confucian classics, especially as they enter their final form, and undergo their most authoritative commentarial processes, in the Eastern Han dynasty (AD 25–220), are heavily invested in making just such a claim. [5] The mythico-historical narrative of the later Confucian tradition was that the early Western Zhou represented an idealized, harmonious, unitary and bureaucratic state, triumphantly but mercifully defeating the corrupt and venal late Shang dynasty, and ushering in a sort of Golden Age, in which much of the material of the Songs, Documents, Rites and Changes is said to have been composed. [6] In reality, archaeological and epigraphical evidence increasingly makes clear that the Western Zhou did little more than to place members of the royal clan in charge of distant cities downstream from the capital—a fairly loose form of imperial rule which naturally degenerated rapidly as the generations loosened the (in any event mostly symbolic) bonds between core and periphery. [7] What the later tradition saw as the breakdown of central authority (and attributed to a decline in virtue at the central court), then, was likely nothing more than the gradual weakening of large-scale symbolic power, and its replacement with more durable, if smaller-scale, polities built around regional centers. Over time, and particularly in the Eastern Zhou, the number of these regional polities diminished, so that by the era of the Warring States, there were only seven major states left—one of which, Qin, would eventually achieve a genuine imperial consolidation of power. The historical trajectory of much of the Zhou era was thus almost exactly opposite to that posited by the Confucian tradition: rather than the gradual disintegration of a centralized bureaucratic state into a larger number of local and regional polities, the era instead saw the gradual consolidation of real political power on larger and larger scales, reaching, during the Han, something recognizably like (though still smaller than), the modern borders of China.
Given that the archaeological and epigraphical record belies the claims of the Confucian tradition to be reporting the political, ritual and cultural practices of the early Western Zhou, we clearly must also be skeptical about the claims made for cultural unity during the larger era of the Zhou dynasty. And, sure enough, archaeology provides evidence for less continuity, and more change, in ritual practice than the Confucian tradition would like to admit. While the Confucian tradition would like to see the Western Zhou as implementing new and correct ritual practices at the start of their dynasty, practices accurately transmitted in the classics, the archaeological evidence suggests a rather different ritual history. It seems that, judging by the assemblages of ritual vessels which have been found in tombs (and which, therefore, were used in forms of ancestor-worship), the Zhou continued to use Shang ritual vessels (and, presumably, similar ritual practices) for its first two and a half centuries, only adopting its own distinct ritual assemblages during the so-called Late Western Zhou Ritual Reform of c. 899–858 BC. [8] This ritual reform was in turn succeeded by the so-called Middle Spring and Autumn Ritual Restructuring of around 600 BC. [9] Both of these ritual reforms had the effect of increasing stratification, as Lothar von Falkenhausen argues: the earlier reform having the effect of marking the lower levels of the elite clans as distinct from a small upper echelon; the later reform merging those lower levels of the elite in with the commoners. Such ritual changes, are, of course, entirely consistent with the concentration of political power in fewer hands, rather than with its dispersal to ever-larger numbers of regional centers. A further irony is that the Middle Spring and Autumn Ritual Restructuring took place just a few decades before Confucius’ birth, so that when the later tradition seeks to represent Confucius as transmitting and purifying the rituals of the early Western Zhou, that tradition betrays its own ignorance of the fact that the rituals Confucius would have known in his own time were in fact twice removed from the early Western Zhou. Further still to this point, ritual bronzes uncovered in Qufu, the capital of Confucius’ home state of Lu (in modern Shandong province) from the late Western Zhou onwards show an increasing tendency to local ornamental variations on general vessel forms adopted from the Zhou court. [10] The rituals Confucius himself would have known, then, would have differed substantially from those of the early Western Zhou court, for both chronological and geographic reasons.
The well-documented fact of these historical changes in ritual practice serves also as a reminder that we cannot simply assume that the textual tradition, though sedimented, reflects anything like a constant and unchanging cultural backdrop. Indeed, it is clear from archaeology that the level of change in Zhou China is in fact much greater than that implied by the textual tradition, and cannot simply be equated with secular decline. As such, we must be very careful in using the texts of the Confucian classics as historical evidence for cultural practices in any period—we can never be certain whether the texts in question are accurate for the period they purport to describe, for the date of their final compilation, or for any intermediate date; nor, usually, can we date the transformations of non-material cultural practices with enough precision to clarify our understanding.
At the same time as archaeology has ably demonstrated that the Confucian tradition misunderstands (whether willfully or no) the early Western Zhou, and its transformation in later centuries, the same discoveries confirm an important element of the claim for cultural unity across the territory of the Zhou. Across the various regional polities of the era, both inside the royal clan and beyond, we find replicated virtually-identical ritual assemblages (even if, as noted above, the vessels are sometimes subject to regionally-inspired ornamental details). At least some aspects of ritual practice, then, do seem to have been very similar across the Zhou world, in both the Western Zhou era and afterwards, with the two eras of reform likewise being implemented everywhere. Moreover, we should remember that many of the ritual bronze vessels in question bear written inscriptions, overlapping considerably both in content and in the graphic forms used; such differences in the graphic form of characters as is found seems the result of either a semi-literate inscriber, or a vessel made outside the Chinese-speaking context. [11]
With this archaeological evidence in mind, then, we can see that at least some forms of cultural unity indubitably existed even in the Western Zhou: the use of uniform assemblages of ritual vessels, the presence of ancestor-worship built around a small number of interrelated clans, the use of a relatively uniform system of writing, implying at least some semblance of a shared language. With this in mind, we can turn, with appropriate caution, to the textual tradition. In what follows (which is an abbreviated version of a discussion in my book), I will argue that, in the fourth century BC if not earlier, a shared awareness of a common body of poetry, later compiled as the Canon of Songs, does in fact seem to have existed.
The so-called Shi Jing 詩經, or Canon of Songs, is the earliest collection of poetic texts in the Chinese tradition. It is an anthology of mostly anonymous poems in four generic categories: the Guofeng 國風, or “Airs of the States,” the Xiaoya 小雅, or “Minor Court Songs,” the Daya 大雅, or “Major Court Songs,” and the Song 訟, or “Temple Hymns.” The Shi Jing is traditionally said to have been edited into its current form by Confucius (551–479 BC). There is little reason to take this attribution seriously; texts composed significantly later than Confucius include, as canonical, poems not in our Shi Jing, suggesting that the canon was not yet closed; further, it has been suggested that the earliest compositional layers of the Lunyu 論語 or Analects of Confucius make little or no reference to the Shi Jing, or to the other texts traditionally identified as the Confucian Classics (i.e. the Documents, Rites, Changes and Spring and Autumn Annals). [12] Further, our evidence for the claim of Confucian editorship is itself late, with no text in the transmitted tradition making the claim prior to about 100 BC. [13] The dating of the poems within the Shi Jing itself is even more problematic: most scholars would suggest that the poems date from approximately 1000–600 BC, but there have been suggestions that they may in fact date to no earlier than the fourth century BC. [14] That said, certain of the poems in the anthology appear to make reference to political events of the 770’s BC, including personal names known archaeologically but not otherwise attested in the transmitted textual tradition. These poems represent themselves as composed by political figures of the era; although such attributions may have been projected backwards by later poets, they do suggest at least composition in an era more familiar with the politics of the mid-eighth century than our fourth century BC and later texts appear to be. Some part of the collection, therefore, may well be genuinely old.
Even accepting this more conventional (and earlier) dating for the poems of the anthology, it is extremely difficult to date the compilation of the anthology as such. In part, this is due to a feature of the classical Chinese written language: citations of the Shi Jing in early texts (such as the historical text Zuozhuan 左傳, which probably dates from the fourth century BC) tend to take the form shi yue 詩曰, “the poem says,” where it is difficult to know whether or not the poem in question is being thought of as a part of a closed and canonical anthology. Certainly, the Zuozhuan cites in this fashion a variety of poems, both inside and outside our anthology, frequently as parts of reported speeches by historical actors, and often with textual variants. [15] The earliest known commentary on the Songs is the recently-recovered Confucius’ Discussion of the Songs (Kongzi shi lun)孔子詩論, thought to date from approximately 375 BC; this text does divide the songs it discusses into the four generic categories of our anthologies, but like the Zuozhuan it includes poems not in our anthology; moreover, where our Shi Jing divides the Airs of the States into fifteen subsections by the states to which they are associated, the Confucius’ Discussion of the Songs leaves the category (which it labels as the bangfeng 邦風, using an earlier terminology unaffected by a taboo surrounding the given name of the founding ruler of the Han dynasty) undivided. Later texts, such as the Shuanggudui manuscript, recovered from a tomb sealed in 165 BC, do identify each of the Airs as coming from specific states; further, of all the states represented in the Mao edition, only the state of Gui 檜 is not found in the remains of the Shuanggudui manuscript. This latter text, however, has sufficient textual variation and apparent changes in the sequence of poems within the collection to show that it represents a distinct strand of textual transmission, not only from the Mao edition (the only edition to have survived), but from the editions of the Lu, Qi and Han schools (the other schools known from the Han era) as well. [16]
While the available evidence is scattered and inconclusive, then, we have enough information at least to suggest a little about the history of the Shi Jing as an anthology. The poems themselves seem to have been in circulation at least by the fourth century, with at least some poems possibly centuries older. In the course of the fourth century, there seems to have been a gradual shift (whether a total paradigm shift across all users of the Songs or rather the victory of one approach over another) from an amorphous and unbounded collection of songs to a closed canon of particular Songs, a canon which, over the ensuing centuries, becomes ever more clearly fixed as to sequence, arrangement and text. Over time, the interpretation of the poems seems to have become more fixed as well; we know that each of the Han-era “schools” of interpretation offered their own comprehensive accounts of the meanings of the Songs. Of these, the Mao interpretation, embodied in the Mao Preface (which may date from around 150 BC, or later), increasingly became canonical; this text begins with a general discussion of the social function of poetry, and continues with brief introductions to each of the individual poems. These introductions generally seek to situate the poem in question within a political and historical context, usually through the devices of praise and blame. The canonical significance of the Mao Preface increased greatly as it acquired new layers of authoritative commentary in editions compiled under Zheng Xuan 鄭玄(127–200 AD) and Kong Yingda 孔穎達 (574–648). Indeed, recent research increasingly suggests that it was in the era of Zheng Xuan in particular that the orthodox “Confucian” [17] interpretation of the Songs and the other Classics acquired the patina of dynastic approval that it was to hold for the remainder of imperial history, although to be sure dissenting views are to be found even in Zheng Xuan’s commentary, and become an important part of the hermeneutic tradition with the Neo-Confucian philosopher Zhu Xi 朱熹 (1130–1200).
It is in this context that I introduce an anecdote, which I discuss in more detail in Authorship and Cultural Identity in Early Greece and China, an anecdote typical of the historical text in which it is found—the Zuozhuan. This text is presented as a commentary on the Spring and Autumn Annals, and thus on political affairs of the eighth–fifth centuries BC, but was likely compiled independently in the fourth century BC, and then re-assembled as a commentary. The Zuozhuan represents a number of occasions on which diplomatic negotiations are said to have taken place through the performance of Songs, a context which of course assumes a shared Panhuaxia culture within which these songs, and their interpretations could circulate. The anecdote I discuss takes place, in the thirteenth year of the reign of Duke Wen of Lu (613 BC). The occasion was a summit between the state of Zheng and the state of Lu, at which Zheng hoped to persuade Lu to accept peace with Jin. Zheng was particularly eager to achieve such a peace, because they were themselves secretly planning on defecting from supporting Jin to supporting Chu, and wanted Lu to support Jin in order to placate Jin and prevent Jin from attacking them. The goals of each state were thus complex, and not entirely transparent to the other side. [18] According to the Zuozhuan, part of this summit meeting was a state banquet, at which Zijia 子家 and Ji Wenzi 季文子, senior officials from Zheng and Lu respectively, sang portions of the Canon of Songs. Both men are important figures in their own right. Zijia of Zheng would (six years later) kill his ruler and relative, Duke Ling, over a dispute which began with turtle soup, while Ji Wenzi, seen as a paragon of virtue and a sedulous minister, was himself effectively to take over rule of Lu from 601 till his death in 568. [19] His descendants would continue in power in Lu for several generations, marginalizing the Dukes of Lu as effectively as the regional rulers had themselves marginalized the King of Zhou a century earlier.
We are now ready to turn to our diplomatic anecdote, which is almost certainly composed many years after the historical events it is said to gloss:
The Earl of Zheng met with the Duke of Lu at Fei, and he also [20] asked for peace with Jin. The Duke accomplished this for both of them. The Earl of Zheng feasted with the Duke of Lu at Fei. Zijia (of Zheng) performed The Wild Geese, and Ji Wenzi (of Lu) said, “My humble lord does not altogether lack this quality.” Wenzi then performed The Fourth Month, and Zijia performed the fourth stanza of Galloping. Wenzi performed the fourth stanza of Gathering the Thornfern. The Earl of Zheng bowed, and the Duke of Lu bowed in reply.
(Wen 13 [613 BC] p. 332–3)
While this passage simply narrates the fact of performance, with little commentary and no explicit statement of the result, the clear implication is that both states and their leaders here participate in a shared community of understanding. When Zijia sings The Wild Geese, Wenzi is able to read this as a message of praise for his ruler, and Zijia’s silence would seem to imply that he accepts this interpretation. Moreover, the interchange of song for song seems to imply some sort of matching or exchange, a carrying on of a diplomatic dialogue by means of Canon of Songs recitation. The bows exchanged by the rulers at the end of the banquet performances would seem to suggest a satisfactory resolution of the conversation. As the anecdote is presented to us, it seems to model perfectly the linguistic and cultural competence which constitutes Huaxia identity in this period. Episodes such as this one represent the ideals of Panhuaxia culture in another sense; in spite of the political disunity of the era (the fact of diplomatic negotiations belies claims of unity), there is sufficient shared culture that, not only can the poems recited be recognized, but their meaning can be communicated seamlessly. The commentarial tradition of the Han and later requires, of course, that these things be spelled out; we are told that the first poem makes a request for help to Zheng from Lu, and the second poem indicates that Lu has too many problems of its own to get involved. The third poem heightens the urgency of Zheng’s request, and the fourth indicates Lu’s agreement to come to Lu’s assistance.
Despite the commentaries’ assurances, this anecdote is, from the perspective of the reader, ainetic. [21] We are not offered explanations of what each of the poems is supposed to mean in context, or of what the substance or result of the negotiation is. We are not even given the texts of the poems themselves. The anecdote, and others like it, seems to invite us into its world, to interpellate us as members of the Huaxia elite of the Spring and Autumn period, even as it fails to give us the tools we would need to do so. The text represents a performative act of cultural negotiation and self-identification, creating a language which allows its characters to discuss their differences in shared terms. The text also enacts that performance for us as readers, allowing us to test our own level of cultural integration into Huaxia norms. Its pedagogical function in cosmopolitan terms is thus both as a paradigm and as a test.
As such, this anecdote, and the others like it, perform the notion of Panhuaxia identity they seek to establish. Whether or not elites of the sixth century BC Zhou world shared a consistent enough body of songs for such a negotiation actually to have taken place is unclear, and perhaps unlikely. But by the date of the composition of this anecdote in the fourth century, such a situation was at least imaginable to both the author of the Zuozhan passage, and to his readers, even if, as we have seen, the songs were still only gradually crystallizing into the Canon of Songs. Whether those fourth-century readers experienced that notion of shared culture as an emergent phenomenon, or as a long-standing, and perhaps even imperiled, tradition, is unknowable, though the archaeological evidence for a shared culture among the Huaxia states adds some plausibility to the traditional claim that that shared culture involved the Songs. Whether this was true or not, it is meaningful to say that, by the fourth century BC, this was a legitimate way of reading the Songs, and by extension the other classics, still only gradually emerging as such.
In this, of course, the Eastern Zhou resembles Classical and Hellenistic Greece, its contemporary civilization, where texts from the past could be read (and were read) in ways that emphasized both Panhellenic and local concerns. But are there other regions, other chronologies, that can be illuminated through this rubric? My answers here must necessarily be more speculative, and it should be clear that the paradigm of the panchoric is not universally applicable, and most certainly does not reflect a stage of development through which all civilizations must pass. Panchoric ecologies are unlikely to thrive in regions where unrelated languages coexist side-by-side, and resist integration into a larger regional system. They are also unlikely to exist in regions where literacy and literary culture are imported from outside at a stage of small-scale development. The number of potential sites for the panchoric ecology is therefore not unlimited, and I consider the leading candidates in what follows below. My aim here is naturally not to pronounce dogmatically on fields outside my own expertise, but rather to start a dialogue on points of commonality and difference, where the latter will be much more illuminating than the former. [22]
One literature which certainly shares features of the panchoric is the pre-Islamic poetic tradition. The legendary account of the first anthology of qasida poetry in Arabic, the Mu’allaqat, traces its origins to an annual fair held in pre-Islamic times near Mecca, where there was a competition among poets representing different Bedouin tribes, with the winning odes suspended from the Ka’ba; the surviving collection of seven to ten qasida odes being drawn from among these poems. [23] This account has been dismissed as a folk-etymologic narrativization of the title of the collection, which can be translated as “the suspended ones.” [24] From a mythic perspective, however, this device of competition (which mirrors devices of poetic circulation found in Greece and China), certainly reads very naturally as a narrativization of the emergence of a panchoric reading practice for the pre-Islamic qasida, regardless of the truth-value of the story. Moreover, the poems themselves contain descriptions of caravan routes, as well as mockery of other tribes, certainly lending themselves to both epichoric and panchoric reading practices.
South Asia prior to the cosmopolitan era represents another possible site for a panchoric ecology, although the evidence for the period is scanty and difficult to interpret. Certainly, Sheldon Pollock argues that Sanskrit, even in the era of composition of the Mahābhārata and Ramayana, is never a local language, based rather in the Brahminic community, [25] though not all Sanskritists would agree. As such, one could certainly argue that Sanskrit epic language functions in something of the same way as Homeric epic and archaic lyric, or the Canon of Songs, as a Kunstsprache and a repertory of narratives which provide a means of communication across a larger dialect region. Further, there are a number of ways in which the text of the Sanskrit epics establishes the geographic space within which its narratives take place (the Āryavārta), achieving some of the same effects, arguably, that I describe for the genealogies, anthologies and catalogues of the Hellenic and Huaxia traditions. For example, when in Book 3 of the Mahābhārata Yudhiṣṭhira is sent on a pilgrimage to the sacred fords, [26] J.A.B. van Buitenen, the noted translator of much of the epic, observes that “not many of the places … can be identified. The text itself describes a number of them as hard to find, and suggests that one should go there “mentally.” [27]
Ancient Near Eastern literature, especially of the Sumerian period, offers several possibilities. Certainly, the Sumerian King-List provides a suggestive parallel to the mythical history of early China as discussed above: the millennia-long universal rule of early mythical kings gradually gives way to more plausible reign-lengths found in dynasties where supreme rule shifts from city to city over time, although it has been noted that the author of the King-List seems to have taken liberties with the sequence of his material, dividing into distinct chronological periods what seems to have been the continuous hegemony of one city. [28] Slightly later, and in another text more documentary than avowedly literary, we find the “Genealogy of Hammurabi,” where the many of the ancestors of the great Babylonian king of the 18th century BC share the names of Amorite tribes, possibly constructing some sort of ideological claim that the Babylonian monarchy symbolically represented the whole of which the tribes were parts. [29] As translated by Finkelstein, the text concludes as follows:
The palū of the Amorites, the palū of the Ḫaneans, the palū of Gutium, the palū not recorded on this tablet, and the soldier(s) who fell while on perilous campaigns for their (lit: 'his') lord, princes, princesses, all "persons" from East to West who have neither palū nor s., come ye, eat this, drink this, (and) bless Ammisaduqa the son of Ammiditana, the king of Babylon.
The palū of this text is the “turn” at rule of a particular dynasty or region; the Genealogy of Hammurabi thus concludes by tracing backwards in history a chain of hegemony over Western Semitic peoples into which Babylon can fit as the next link. Typically panchoric devices of the catalogue and the genealogy are obviously at work here, but note also that the earliest palū is that “not recorded on this tablet,” i.e. (for Finkelstein) a placeholder for past rulers unknown in the writer’s time. Further, it is worth noting with Finkelstein that what is represented as a chronological sequence of West Semitic hegemonies conceals complex relationships with other centers of power in the region (such as the dynasty of Akkad, which significantly overlapped with the Gutians), and that the seamless whole of history which the document represents is as much a geographical-historical fabrication as the Catalogue of Ships or the Airs of the States.
In his comparative study of early state-formation, Norman Yoffee compares the early Mayan world to that of early Mesopotamia, as a region where a “common ideology… stretched over politically independent states … marked in material culture and literature and played out in economic and political interactions among the independent city-states.” [30] Others have noted, for example, the presence of similarly-formatted “Emblem Glyphs” in the archaeological remains of Mayan city-states, which indicated the names of local rulers and demarcated the territories they ruled. [31] The textual tradition, including the Popol Vuh, makes extensive use of the device of genealogy to link divine ancestors to leading families of the here-and-now. [32] All of these features are certainly suggestive of something like a panchoric ecology; as more epigraphical evidence becomes available and is studied, it will be interesting to think further on whether the Mayan world might be another instance of a panchoric environment; better understanding of the spoken language environment of the classical Mayan city-states would be of particular interest.
The Mayan case also acts as a reminder of the particular challenges of thinking comparatively about these panchoric contexts. In many cases, our evidence for these cultures is spotty; moreover, the categories of evidence available in one case are often unavailable in another. Without extant literary texts, it is of course impossible to say much about a particular literary ecology, but discrepancies in the kinds of texts available (and in the prestige associated with different texts) can also make it difficult to draw general conclusions. My purpose in linking these cultures (pre-Islamic Arabic, Vedic Sanskrit, ancient Near Eastern, Mayan) to the panchoric ecology I have identified in early Greece and China is not to force each of these quite distinctive cultural worlds onto a Procrustean bed of theory. Rather, it is my intention to provide a basis for further discussion. Each of these contexts seems to involve a linguistic and literary world which is larger than the local horizons of the polity; a lively comparative discussion of the different textual and hermeneutic strategies employed in these contexts (made possible, in no small measure, by Nagy’s thinking on the Panhellenic) can only, I think, enrich the study of each.


[ back ] 1. Gregory Nagy, The Best of the Achaeans: Concepts of the Hero in Archaic Greek Poetry, Revised. (The Johns Hopkins University Press, 1998), 7.
[ back ] 2. Chun-shu Chang, The Rise of the Chinese Empire: Nation, State, & Imperialism in Early China, Ca. 1600 B.C.–A.D. 8 (University of Michigan Press, 2007), 39. In what follows, I refer to the shared culture of the Huaxia world as “Panhuaxia,” a coinage I discuss at Alexander Beecroft, Authorship and Cultural Identity in Early Greece and China: Patterns of Literary Circulation (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2010), 9n17.
[ back ] 3. For an attempt to separate out the chronological layers of the Analects, see E. Bruce Brooks and A. Taeko Brooks, The Original Analects: Sayings of Confucius and His Successors (Columbia University Press, 1998) In general, the attempt is as fraught with difficulties as attempts to do the same with Homeric epic.
[ back ] 4. For an example, see Beecroft, Authorship and Cultural Identity in Early Greece and China: Patterns of Literary Circulation, 23.
[ back ] 5. Michael Nylan, “Classics Without Canonization: Learning and Authority in Qin and Han,” in Early Chinese Religion: Shang Through Han (1250 BC–220 AD), ed. John Lagerwey and Marc Kalinowski (Brill Academic Publishers, 2009), 721–776.
[ back ] 6. For a discussion of the Zhou conquest of the Shang as a “charter-myth,” see Beecroft, Authorship and Cultural Identity in Early Greece and China: Patterns of Literary Circulation, 242–44.
[ back ] 7. For an excellent survey of the period, paying attention to recent archaeological developments, see Li Feng, Landscape and Power in Early China: The Crisis and Fall of the Western Zhou, 1045–771 BC (Cambridge University Press, 2006).
[ back ] 8. Lothar Von Falkenhausen, Chinese Society in the Age of Confucius (Monumenta Archaeologica) (Cotsen Institute of Archaeology Press, 2006), 2.
[ back ] 9. Ibid., 293–325.
[ back ] 10. Li Feng, Landscape and Power in Early China, 120–21.
[ back ] 11. Li Feng, “Ancient Reproductions and Calligraphic Variations: Studies of Western Zhou Bronzes with ‘Identical’ Inscriptions,” Early China 22 (1997): 1–42; Li Feng, “Literacy Crossing Cultural Borders: Evidence from the Bronze Inscriptions of the Western Zhou Period (1045–771 B.C.),” Bulltein of the Museum of Far Eastern Antiquities 74 (2002): 210–42.
[ back ] 12. Steven Jay Van Zoeren, Poetry and Personality: Reading, Exegesis, and Hermeneutics in Traditional China (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1991), 48.
[ back ] 13. Michael Nylan, The Five "Confucian" Classics (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2001), 6.
[ back ] 14. E. Bruce Brooks and A. Taeko Brooks, The Original Analects: Sayings of Confucius and His Successors (New York: Columbia University Press, 1998), 7.
[ back ] 15. On the typology of these episodes, see David Schaberg, A Patterned Past: Form and Thought in Early Chinese Historiography (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Asia Center, 2001), 72–80, 234–43. See also chapters five, six and seven of Alexander Beecroft, Authorship and Cultural Identity in Early Greece and China: Patterns of Literary Circulation (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2010).
[ back ] 16. Kern, Martin. 2005. “The Odes in Excavated Manuscripts.” in Kern, Martin, ed. Text and Ritual in Early China. Seattle, University of Washington Press, 2005, 152.
[ back ] 17. Henceforth, I use “Ruist” in place of “Confucian,” in order more accurately to characterize an ideological approach rather than a lineage descended from a common teacher. See Nicolas Zufferey, To the Origins of Confucianism: The Ru in Pre-Qin Times and During the Early Han Dynasty (Bern: Peter Lang Publishing, 2003), 359–68 on the ru, originally ritual specialists. When the “Confucian” classics were institutionalized as such in the Han, the term ru was used for specialists in those classics. The term Ruist thus refers to specialists in classical exegesis, and those who adhered to the ideologies associated with the classics, a group who traced their origins to Confucius despite having a somewhat different project.
[ back ] 18. Our account of this episode is inevitably slanted towards Lu, the source of the Spring and Autumn Annals; the tradition of the classics is made cosmopolitan in part through the elevation of the status of Lu.
[ back ] 19. Pines (2002) 315.
[ back ] 20. We hear a few lines earlier of a similar request from the Marquis of Wei.
[ back ] 21. Nagy’s understanding of the ainos is, I argue, helpful for understanding the function of this, and similar anectoges. Nagy, The Best of the Achaeans, 234–42. For further discussion of the ainos in the context of this anecdote, see Beecroft, Authorship and Cultural Identity in Early Greece and China: Patterns of Literary Circulation, 173–75.
[ back ] 22. The discussion which follows is taken from Alexander Beecroft, An Ecology of Verbal Art: Literature and Its Worlds, from Local to Global (Verso, 2013).
[ back ] 23. Michael Anthony Sells and ʻAlqamah ibn ʻAbadah, Desert Tracings: Six Classic Arabian Odes (Wesleyan University Press, 1989), 3.
[ back ] 24. A. F. L. Beeston et al., Arabic Literature to the End of the Umayyad Period, 1st ed. (Cambridge University Press, 2010), 111–13.
[ back ] 25. Sheldon Pollock, The Language of the Gods in the World of Men: Sanskrit, Culture, and Power in Premodern India, 1st ed. (University of California Press, 2009), 39–42.
[ back ] 26. For a discussion of these sacred fords, or tirthas, and the role of Sanskrit epic in the construction of sacred geography, see Diana L. Eck, “India’s ‘Tīrthas’: ‘Crossings’ in Sacred Geography,” History of Religions 20, no. 4 (May 1, 1981): 323–344.
[ back ] 27. J. A. B. van Buitenen, The Mahabharata, Volume 2: Book 2: The Book of Assembly; Book 3: The Book of the Forest (University Of Chicago Press, 1981), 186–87.
[ back ] 28. See the discussion at J. J. Finkelstein, “The Genealogy of the Hammurapi Dynasty,” Journal of Cuneiform Studies 20, no. 3/4 (January 1, 1966): 105.
[ back ] 29. Finkelstein, “The Genealogy of the Hammurapi Dynasty” has a further discussion of this text. See also Piotr Michalowski, “History as Charter: Some Observations on the Sumerian King List,” Journal of the American Oriental Society 103, no. 1 (January 1, 1983): 237–248.
[ back ] 30. Norman Yoffee, Myths of the Archaic State: Evolution of the Earliest Cities, States, and Civilizations (Cambridge University Press, 2005), 44.
[ back ] 31. Nikolai Grube, “The City-States of the Maya,” in A Comparative Study of Thirty City-state Cultures: An Investigation, ed. Mogens Herman Hansen and Københavns universitet. Polis centret (Kgl. Danske Videnskabernes Selskab, 2000), 547–66.
[ back ] 32. Dennis Tedlock, Popol Vuh: The Mayan Book of the Dawn of Life (Simon and Schuster, 1996), 194ff.