Faculty

Constance Cook

In the last two decades, studies of excavated Chinese texts have illuminated ancient Chinese history. One of the formative eras of pre-imperial China, the Zhou (11th -3rd centuries BCE), was a time of tremendous political and social transformation—experiencing the rise and fall of political hegemonies and sacred kingships, the transition from simple to complex agricultural economies, extensive contact with other regional cultures, and increasing literary production. Such changes are reflected in written texts written on bone, bronze, and bamboo found in ancient caches and tombs. Constance Cook, professor of Chinese language and literature, director of Lehigh’s Asian Studies program and director of the Lehigh in Shanghai Internship Program, has been studying these texts since the 1970s. Recently, she has focused on texts excavated from tombs in Bronze Age China which reflect a hierarchical system of ancestor worship that was ultimately transformed by the followers of Confucius into a program for the education of youth and self-transformation.

As part of a project funded by the National Endowment for the Humanities, Cook is examining the concept of the Dao—the “path” or the “way” in Chinese philosophy—as it arose out of the worship of founder ancestors, particularly the Zhou founders, and was tied to the rise of clan-based states with a need for a “national” identity. Using ethnographic studies from other traditional cultures as well as transmitted and excavated texts from ancient China, Cook studies the role of founder worship rituals in the preservation and manipulation of social memory. For a ruler, fostering an ancestral or pseudo-ancestral connection to a mythical or semi-mythical ancient king through a lineage relationship bought a seat at the political negotiating table. It conferred authenticity as well as economic rights. For a disenfranchised elite male (as many young Confucians were), the ritual practices used to maintain these connections were a life-line to personal power beyond politics.

Using ethnographic studies from other traditional cultures as well as transmitted and excavated texts from ancient China, Cook studies the role of founder worship rituals in the preservation and manipulation of social memory.

Cook is focusing on the repetition and evolution of the ritual choreography, liturgy, and rhetoric that began with ancestor worship and ended with the Confucian institution of education. “The performance of forms of this ritual informed all secular and sacred relationships; they defined a person’s social and political identity,” she says. “Ritual had to do with the creation and maintenance of these identities.”

Cook says this “Way of the Former Kings” reached a peak of popularity towards the end of the Zhou period and was fundamental to the Confucian emphasis on education. Learning for the early Confucians was the path to recreating oneself in the model of a particular ancient sage king. The rhetoric of this “Way” can be traced right back through time to the earliest Zhou bronze inscriptions. In her book, she shows how the roots the Confucian practice are especially evident in the promotion ceremonies performed by elite youths when they were awarded the positions occupied by their fathers. She shows how while the majority of inscriptions testify an allegiance to the Zhou founders, minority traditions—such as one for women and others for non-Zhou clans with different founders—become increasingly evident over time. Some of these minority traditions may have been behind many of the anti-Confucian movements or the cacophony of different “Ways” in the later Zhou era. With the collapse of the Zhou kinship-based hierarchy and the rise of non-Zhou powers, such as the Chu people in the south (a culture studied in previous books by Cook), Cook says the meaning of Dao shifted away from following an ancestrally defined ritual practice to one of abstract forces of nature, such as the Five Phases (of elemental energies) and Yin and Yang.