Place and Ritual in Early Imperial China: A Comparative Perspective
In light of recent studies on the centrality of religion in defining the conceptual boundaries of the Roman empire, this talk will closely analyse different sets of rituals that were debated during Han Wudi’s reign (141-87 BCE) and that illustrate competing conceptions about the relationship between center and periphery, human and extra-human realms.
Wudi’s reign is conventionally associated with the political and economic stabilization of the Han dynasty and with new grandiose programs of imperial propaganda. While “Confucian” scholars, roughly a century after the Legalist rule of the Qin (221-206 BCE), returned to occupy relevant positions at court, Wudi surrounded himself with alchemists (*fangshi*) from Qi and Yan, as he seemed to become increasingly obsessed with the pursuit of immortality. According to the *Shiji* these *fangshi*, whose teachings were at odds with the classical tradition, eventually overcame the sway of the “Confucians” at court and exerted a profound influence on the emperor’s religious programs. This presentation will argue that Wudi’s apparently incoherent ceremonial reforms represented an unsuccessful attempt at ritually legitimizing political and economic centralization against devolution and its influential advocates. In doing so, Professor Marsili will focus on rituals that the historical sources respectively associate with traditional values (the Shou ci tu) and heterodoxy or exoticism (Shenjun, Taiyi and Houtu), analyses pieces of archeological evidence that have been connected with these ceremonies, and finally compares the propagandistic use of religion under Wudi and the emperors of the Julio-Claudian dynasty (27 BCE – 68 CE) in Rome.
Filippo Marsili is Assistant Professor in the Department of History at St. Louis University. His primary focus is early China, and he is particularly interested in the ways imperial authority was represented and justified in the historiography, literature, and material culture of the Western Han Dynasty (3rd-1st century BCE). His current research concentrates on discourses about the legitimation of power and on the relationship between human agency and metaphysical forces. Through a cross-cultural analysis that involves the ancient Mediterranean world and Greco-Roman historiography, I historicize different approaches to divinity, monotheism, public and private ritual behaviors, and institutionalized religion. His final goal is the establishment, between East and West, of a shared vocabulary for the "sacred," and of an open dialogue that entails different understandings and practices
concerning the perceived moral bases of societies and individual rights. He teaches courses on ancient Asian civilizations as well as on comparative political, cultural, and religious history