The fires of Shang
The fires of Shang burned long; they may be smoldering still.
David N. Keightley, Late Shang Divination
I fantasized this morning that one afternoon in February 2003, the Sinologist David Keightley passed me on his bicycle while I was struggling to climb up Pinehurst Road, a popular transit route for cyclists crossing the East Bay hills between Berkeley and Oakland and the wilds of Contra Costa county.
I don’t know for sure that this happened, but it’s not impossible. When the 54-year-old Keightley received his MacArthur award in 1986 for his contributions to the study of the origins of Chinese civilization, he reportedly spent a portion of the cash on “a red, hand-crafted, steel-frame, Italian road bike.” In a Daily Cal obituary, his son said Keightley used to ride 90-100 miles a week in the Berkeley hills.
In 2003 he would have been just one of a multitude of septuagenarians spinning their wheels on and around Grizzly Peak road. And my recollection of the concerned visage of the man who offered me some water on that day (I was seriously over-matched by the ride I had chosen to tackle) matches nicely with photographs of him.
So I choose to believe this is so. Where connections cannot be proven they must be imagined.
I have concocted this confabulation partly out of embarrassment. Keightley was chair of the History Department at UC Berkeley while my sister was completing her PhD and chair of the Center for Chinese studies when I was pursuing a joint master’s degree in Journalism and Asian Studies. And yet I don’t ever recall meeting one of the world’s greatest authorities on Shang dynasty oracle bones in person. Shame on me. It has only been over the past few weeks that I have begun familiarizing myself with his work on the Shang Dynasty (1600-1046 B.C.) .
And yes, there is a connection to food. The archaeologist K.C. Chang believed that the extraordinary bronze cauldrons buried with Shang kings evolved into the ultimate symbol of state authority in ancient China. Even earlier, the stratification of culinary utensils in burial offerings in Neolithic grave sites suggests, according to Anne Underhill, that class division and inequality in ancient China emerged from “competitive feasting” in which elaborate bronze cauldrons were crucial indicators of high status. The pull of these bronze cauldrons has dragged me away from Sichuan. Now I must know more about the Shang.
But that’s not the only reason for this diversion. Yesterday, a friend’s plug of my newsletter on Twitter resulted in the happy outcome of a flood of new subscriptions to this newsletter. Unfortunately, I’ve been bogged down lately laboring on a post about the Chinese writing system that was supposed to be a quick riff on Jing Tsu’s recently published Kingdom of Characters, but as often happens around here, has instead morphed into a considerably more ambitious project that is still a few weeks away from fruition. Even further away is the post on bronze cauldrons and class struggle, some thoughts (and a recipe for) twice-cooked pork belly home fries (yes, it’s as good as it sounds) and a mad attempt to make sense of the interconnections binding together Leibniz, Philip K. Dick and the Book of Changes.
I didn’t want to leave new subscribers in the lurch, wondering what this newsletter is up to.
So! This morning I was reading an essay by Keightley connecting the structure of Shang divination to persistent traits in Chinese culture. I was struck by his effort to connect the style of divination practiced by the Shang with enduring authoritarian tendencies in Chinese society.
That Shang ancestor worship was essentially a family affair not only had metaphysical consequences, lessening any division between the human and the spiritual; it also meant that the hierarchies of the family tended to be imposed upon the larger world, whether of man or the spirits. And this “human” dimension to Shang religion had further consequences, I would suggest, for the character of later Chinese humanism. In the west... humanism developed in response to (or against) religious authoritarianism. In China, on the other hand, it appears to have evolved smoothly from ancestor worship; magical care of the ancestors (ex-humans) leads to quasi-religious care of the parents (living humans), and may lead to ethical concern for other humans. And the humanistic values never lost the primacy attached to the religious ones. But, on the other hand, evolving smoothly from, rather than against, religious belief, Chinese humanism was not anti-authoritarian, not anti-hierarchical. And this is one reason, perhaps, why Chinese social and political theory, even to this day, has encouraged the development of an “authoritarian humanism,” benevolent, concerned with the social well-being of all, but dependent on, and administered by, a central, magico-religious father-figure, both priest and official -- emperor, hsien-magistrate, sage, chairman -- who confers assistance as the Shang ancestors did, whose role was religious as well as secular, and whose wisdom was mantic as well as conventional.
I tend to be leery of essentializing generalizations and whenever someone raises the relentless cultural logic of “Asian value”-style authoritarian rule, I like to point out that present-day Taiwan offers a rather compelling counter-example. But it’s hard to read that excerpt and not think about the enormous, all-encompassing role played in China today by Xi Jinping. One could range even more widely and wonder whether the ability of the Chinese state to enforce drastic lockdowns on the massive scale of what is currently transpiring in Shanghai can be connected to cultural patterns etched into Chinese society by the Shang and Zhou dynasties so many thousand years ago.
I don’t know the answer to that, and, in fact, the Daoist philosophical currents that resonate most strongly with me personally inspire outright revulsion at the very idea of such ironclad cultural determinism, but as Keightley writes, “every idea, every pattern of thought, has its genealogy....” Further research is required.
In any case, tracing the genealogy of thought patterns is one of my favorite things to do here at The Cleaver and the Butterfly. I hope all of my new readers will stick around to see where this bicycle rider is headed.