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Sacrifices humains

 | 
Pierre Bonnechere
, 
Renaud Gagné

“Yellow Bird” and the Discourse of Retainer Sacrifice in China

Griet Vankeerberghen

Texte intégral

1Anyone interested in human sacrifice in ancient China soon encounters “Yellow Bird,” a poem about the death of three members of the Ziju clan. The three were among a reported one hundred seventy-seven victims of the retainer sacrifice carried out at the funeral of Lord Mu 穆 of Qin 秦 (r. 659-621).

  • 1 B. Trigger, Understanding Early Civilizations: A Comparative Study, Cambridge, 2007, p. 88- 89. A. (...)
  • 2 Huang Zhanyue 黃展岳, Gudai rensheng renxun tonglun 古代人牲人殉通論, Beijing, 2004, p. 255-287.

2Retainer sacrifice, the slaying of retainers (servants/ministers, artisans, concubines with a personal relationship with the deceased) at the funerals of kings and high-ranking members of the nobility is a subset of human sacrifice generally.1 The archaeological record shows that in early China retainer sacrifice was widely practiced during the Anyang phase of the Shang period (ca. 1300-1050) and in rulers’ tombs in the state of Qin during the Spring and Autumn period (770-476). In other eras and areas retainer sacrifice was practiced as well, but on a much smaller scale. There are instances of retainer sacrifice even in late imperial China.2

  • 3 For introductions to the Odes, see S. Owen, “Foreword,” in A. Waley (trans.) and J. Allen (ed.), Th (...)

3“Yellow Bird” is part of the Odes, a canonical text in 305 poems, thought to have been largely completed around 600 BCE, that intimately reflects the history and values of the Zhou 周 dynasty. “Yellow Bird” is one of the ten “Airs of Qin” (Qin feng 秦風) a sub-section within the Odes’ longest section, the “Airs of the States” (guofeng 國風). As part of the Odes, the poem was widely known to subsequent generations of listeners and readers long after the practice of retainer sacrifice had virtually disappeared.3

  • 4 Particularly in the form of widow suicide; for an overview article on this issue, see P.S. Ropp, “P (...)

4In this paper I will revisit “Yellow Bird” for two reasons. First, given its inclusion in a classic, the poem served as an important medium through which Chinese scholars confronted and tamed the poem’s central topic, namely the practice of retainer sacrifice in the state of Qin during the Spring and Autumn period (771-481). As I see it, interpretation of the poem shifted dramatically towards the end of the Western Han when a “classicizing” impulse arose that, while insisting that the poem be read as criticism of Lord Mu for ordering the sacrifice, also began to regard the victims as self-sacrificing heroes. Thus, while apparently condemning the practice of retainer sacrifice, this interpretation endorsed, and probably encouraged the related practice of loyalty suicide, a practice that, in various forms, was to have a long life in imperial China.4 Second, I revisit “Yellow Bird” because I believe that new scholarly developments in archaeology, Odesscholarship, and ritual theory, make an alternative reading of the poem possible, one that bypasses both the early and classicizing interpretations, and tentatively reconstructs the role that elements of the sacrificial ritual itself may have played in the composition of the poem.

The Poem

5“Yellow Bird’s” three stanzas—one devoted to each of the three victims—follow an identical pattern. Each stanza opens with a stirring image of nature (xing 興) in which the yellow bird, crying or singing, halts its flight and perches upon a brush or tree. This image is followed by a question and answer sequence that identifies the victim by name: “Who goes with Lord Mu? Yanxi of the Ziju.” The next unit contrasts a portrait of the victim’s great prowess during life ( “And this man Yanxi was the finest of a hundred”) with a description of the terrible fear that grips him as he stands besides his tomb ( “but standing by the pit/ he trembled in his dread”). This is followed by a complaint against Heaven for “slaying our best men,” and the expression of a wish that, rather than sacrificing such a fine man, a hundred lesser men could have been substituted. Stephen Owen translates the poem as follows:

  • 5 Trans. S. Owen, An Anthology of Chinese Literature: Beginnings to 1911, New York, 1996, p. 26-27. I (...)

Jiao cries the yellow bird, it stops upon the briar.
Who goes with Lord Mu? Yanxi of the Ziju.
And this man Yanxi was the finest of a hundred,
but standing by the pit he trembled in his dread.
You Gray One, Heaven, you annihilate our best men. If this one could be ransomed, for his life, a hundred. Jiao cries the yellow bird, it stops upon the mulberry.
Who goes with Lord Mu? Zhonghang of the Ziju.
And this man Zhonghang could hold against a hundred, but standing by the pit he trembled in his dread.
You Gray One, Heaven, you slay our best men.
If this one could be ransomed, for his life, a hundred.
Jiao cries the yellow bird, it stops upon the thorn.
Who goes with Lord Mu? Qianhu of the Ziju.
And this man Qianhu could ward against a hundred,
but standing by the pit he trembled in his dread.
You Gray One, Heaven, you slay our best men.
If this one could be ransomed, for his life, a hundred.5

交交黃鳥止于棘
誰從穆公子車奄息
維此奄息百夫之特
臨其冢惴惴其慄
彼蒼者天殲我良人
如可贖兮人百其身

交交黃鳥止于桑
誰從穆公子車仲行
維此仲行百夫之防
臨其冢惴惴其慄
彼蒼者天殲我良人
如可贖兮人百其身

交交黃鳥止于楚
誰從穆公子車鍼虎
維此鍼虎百夫之禦
臨其冢惴惴其慄
彼蒼者天殲我良人
如可贖兮人百其身

  • 6 On the Spring and Autumn Period, see HSU Cho-yun, “The Spring and Autumn Period,” in M. Loewe, E.L. (...)

6“Yellow Bird” stands out in the Odes, particularly in the “Airs” section, because it deals with a precisely dateable historical event. The poem refers to Lord Mu, who reigned over Qin from 659-621 and strengthened his state to such an extent that Qin became, together with Jin 晉, one of the two most important states of the Eastern Zhou interstate order.6 More precisely, it refers to the sacrificial death of three men of the Ziju clan—Yanxi, Zhonghang, and Qianhu—at the time of Lord Mu’s funeral.

The Interpretation of “Yellow Bird” in Zuozhuan and Shi ji

  • 7 S. Van Zoeren, Poetry and Personality: Reading, Exegesis, and Hermeneutics in Traditional China, St (...)

7Early interpretations of the Odes often focused on determining the historical circumstances that led to a poem’s composition, so that a listener or reader could, through a process of sympathetic imagination, reconstruct for herself the feelings that spurred the author to write the poem.7 Given that the historical setting of “Yellow Bird” is supplied by the poem itself, it is not surprising that historical accounts of the Spring and Autumn period incorporated elements of the poem into their narrative. In doing so, these bits of historiography shaped what I will characterize as the poem’s “early” mode of interpretation.

  • 8 Zuozhuan treats the years between 722 and 468; recent monographs in English on the text are LI Wai-(...)

8In Zuozhuan, a multi-layered narrative of 255 years of Eastern Zhou history, edited out of written and oral materials in the fourth century BCE,8 the following is recorded:

  • 9 Chunqiu Zuozhuan zhu 546-549 (Wen 6).

Renhao, the elder of Qin, died. Yanxi, Zhonghang, and Qianhu, three sons of the Ziju clan were sacrificed. They were among the finest men of Qin. In grief, the men of the state composed the poem “Yellow Bird.”9

秦伯任好卒以子車氏之三子奄息仲行鍼虎為殉皆秦之良也國人哀之為之賦 《黃鳥》

9Shi ji, a text composed around 100 BCE that deals with all known history, echoes Zuozhuan’s statement:

  • 10 Shi ji 5.194-195.

In year thirty-nine, Lord Mu died, and was buried at Yong. There were one hundred and seventy seven people who went with him in death. Among Qin’s finest ministers, there were three men of the Ziju clan, named Yanxi, Zhonghang, and Qianhu. They were among those who went with [Lord Mu] in death. In grief, the men of Qin composed and sang the poem “Yellow Bird.”10

三十九年繆公卒葬雍從死者百七十七人秦之良臣子輿氏三人名曰奄息仲行 鍼虎亦在從死之中秦人哀之為作歌《黃鳥》之詩

  • 11 Yang Bojun, in his commentary to the Zuozhuan passage, is of the opinion that Shi ji, by using the (...)

10Shi ji adds some elements to Zuozhuan’s account: it identifies the ruler as Lord Mu of Qin, presumably for the benefit of Han readers who might no longer know who Renhao was; it tells us that the three men of the Ziju clan were not the only ones interred but were among a group of one hundred seventy-seven; it maintains that the three men were not just members (zi 子) of a prominent clan, but ministers or courtiers of Qin; and, whereas Zuozhuan uses the term xun 殉 “to sacrifice” to describe the manner of death of the three men, Shi ji uses cong si 從死 “to go with in death.” In doing so, it harkens back to the word cong “to go with” that also occurs in “Yellow Bird” where the poem asks, in each stanza, ‘who goes with Lord Mu?, ’ a choice of words that seems to subtly shift the interpretation from a sacrifice demanded by the deceased ruler to one in which the victim took a more active role.11

  • 12 In the context of the Zuozhuan this would actually mean “men of the capital or court,” those living (...)

11Despite these differences, there is a clear textual relation between the two texts. Both view the poem in much the same way. Both ascribe the composition of “Yellow Bird” to the men of Qin: in Zuozhuan they are called guoren or “men of the state,”12 which Shi ji understands as “men of Qin.” Neither source suggests that the poem was authored more narrowly by members of the victims’ Ziju clan, rather, the suffering is projected onto the Qin world as a whole. Moreover, both Shi ji and Zuozhuan point to grief (ai 哀) as the emotion that prodded the men of Qin to compose the poem. In the vein of many early Odes interpretations, they thus urge readers of the poem that the key to understanding “Yellow Bird” lies in sympathizing with the feelings of loss experienced by the men of Qin as a result of the death of the three men of the Ziju clan.

Confucian Critiques of the Practice of Retainer Sacrifice

  • 13 The noble man’s comments frequently interrupt the narrative of the Zuozhuan. See E. Henry, “‘Junzi (...)

12Zuozhuan and Shi ji complement their story about the composition of “Yellow Bird” with a quotation ascribed to the noble man (junzi 君子), whom readers would have readily identified with Confucius (551-479). The comments of the noble man are a regular feature of Zuozhuan, constituting one of the text’s many textual layers.13 Shi ji, which used Zuozhuan as a source, inserted an abbreviated version of the noble man’s comments into its account of “Yellow Bird.”

  • 14 The noble man’s point was certainly not universally accepted; Han and Tang commentators such as Gao (...)
  • 15 J. Van Dijk, “Retainer Sacrifice in Egypt and in Nubia,” in J.N. Bremmer (ed.), The Strange World o (...)

13The noble man, in both the Zuozhuan and Shi ji versions, roundly condemns Lord Mu’s retainer sacrifice. The former kings (xian wang 先王), exemplary rulers from the Western Zhou period and before, would never have acted like Lord Mu who, “when he died, discarded his own men” (si er qi min 死而棄民). Hence, the noble man continues, it is only fitting that Lord Mu of Qin, despite all his military and political successes, never made it to master of the covenant (mengzhu 盟主), i.e., was never formally recognized as a leader of the Spring and Autumn interstate world.14 The noble man offers mostly utilitarian reasons to condemn Lord Mu’s retainer sacrifice. He describes at length the extensive preparations the former kings made for their inevitable deaths: they chose and trained men who would be able to continue their legacy after they themselves died, and worked hard to bequeath to these men functioning institutions, inspiring teachings, good laws and rituals, and the very best precedents. In this manner, the noble man contrasts the former kings who invest in the future by training their chosen successors, and Lord Mu who, by demanding their deaths, deprives the men of Qin of the benefits that the three fine men of the Ziju clan might have offered Qin. In other words, Lord Mu differs from the former kings in that he is a bad manager who waste excellent human resources.15

  • 16 Liji zhuzi suoyin, 4.38/26/23-4; a similar story is found in Zuozhuan where Wei Ke 魏顆 opts not to c (...)

14In other Confucian critiques of retainer sacrifice, particularly those found in the classic Notes on Ritual (Li ji 禮記), the utilitarian edge of the noble man’s comments is softened, and the practice of retainer sacrifice is condemned more pointedly and sweepingly as “not in accord with ritual” (fei li 非禮). In one story found in the Notes on Ritual, a son refuses to obey his deceased father’s command to sacrifice two of his concubines because doing so would have violated his sense of ritual propriety; the story ends with the son not killing (sha 殺) his father’s concubines for co-burial.16 Thus, in Notes on Ritual retainer sacrifice, deemed a form of unauthorized killing, extends the critique of the practice beyond the utilitarian in that it condemns not just the killing of prominent men but also concubines who, following the death of their husbands, were more an economic liability than an asset.

  • 17 M. Nylan, “Classics without Canonization, Reflections on Classical Learning and Authority in Qin (2 (...)

15The noble man’s comments in Zuozhuan and Shi ji, as well as the passages from the Notes on Ritual, show that in early China an ideological movement took shape that opposed the practice of retainer sacrifice and, in so doing, invoked the authority of Confucius and the former kings to bolster its utilitarian and moral arguments. This kind of moral Confucianism, moreover, acquired prestige in early imperial China as the figure of Confucius increasingly became the object of the state’s attentions and as a classicizing movement took hold of the elites towards the end of the Western Han period (i.e., towards the end of the first century BCE).17

  • 18 This point is also noted, with indignation, in Chao Fulin 晁福林, “Shangbo jian Shilun yu Shijing Huan (...)

16Whatever the scope of this ideological movement against retainer sacrifice, it is significant that neither Zuozhuan nor Shi ji make the claim that authors of “Yellow Bird” were critical of the practice of retainer sacrifice as such; it is the noble man, not the men of Qin, who opposes the practice. This caution seems warranted by the “Yellow Bird” text itself. Indeed, each stanza ends with a wish, expressed by members of the group that claims the three men as one of their own, that they would gladly have offered a hundred (lesser) men to spare the lives of Yanxi, Zhonghang, and Qianhu of the Ziju clan. This wish, at first reading, seems to imply that those who voiced it did not a priori condemn the practice of retainer sacrifice.18

“Yellow Bird” in the Mao Version of the Odes

  • 19 Van zoeren, o.c. (n. 7), p. 84-95.

17Of the many competing interpretations of the Odes in existence during the Han dynasty (206 BCE-220 CE), the Mao version became authoritative and the only one to be transmitted fully. The Mao version of the Odes includes, besides a version of the text itself, a Commentary (Mao zhuan 毛傳) that provides glosses for characters and interpretations for individual lines, the “Great Preface,” which is a general preface to the text as a whole, and the “Small Prefaces,” attached to each poem. The Mao interpretative apparatus itself is thought to consist of various textual layers dating from around 150 BCE to the end of the first century BCE.19 The “Small Preface” attached to “Yellow Bird” reads as follows:

“Yellow Bird” expresses grief for the three fine men. The men of the state criticized Lord Mu because he had people go with him in death. Hence they composed this poem. 黃鳥哀三良也國人刺穆公以人從死而作是詩也

18The first sentence of the “Small Preface” follows Shi ji and Zuozhuan, and identifies grief as the interpretative key for the poem as a whole. The following sentence, however, introduces a new element by explicitly ascribing a critique of Lord Mu’s practice of retainer sacrifice to the men of Qin themselves. In other words, it narrows the interpretative range established by Zuozhuan and Shi ji, in that it rules out the possibility that Qin’s people, while saddened by the loss of the three men, accepted the necessity of the sacrifice. As we shall see, in making this claim, the “Small Preface” considerably raised the bar for those who sought to explain individual lines of the poem.

  • 20 Ibid., p. 86.

19The Mao Commentary, usually thought to belong to the Mao version’s early textual layer,20 offers its most substantial interpretative comment on the poem’s opening image, that of the yellow bird halting its flight on a tree or shrub. Identifying this sentence as the xing, the Mao Commentary continues:

The yellow bird comes and goes with the seasons, thus it obtains its place; men obtain their place by living out their lives to a ripe old age. 黃鳥以時往來 得其所人以壽命終亦得其所

20In other words, the image of the yellow bird perching on a tree or bush evokes a contrast between the tragic fates of the three victims whose lives were cut short and the bird that, from season to season, was allowed to find its own, natural, resting place. The Mao Commentary’s interpretation, therefore, conforms with the interpretation centering on the emotion of grief proposed in Shi ji and Zuozhuan; that grief, however, is directed at lives cut short, not necessarily, as the noble man would have it, about the loss of human resources.

Self-sacrifice and Trust

  • 21 Han shu, 81.335-6. If Kuang is indeed among the first to interpret the three men’s death as volunta (...)
  • 22 WangRongbao 汪榮寶, Fa yan yishu 法言義疏, 2 vols, Beijing, 1987, p. 395-397.

21By late Western Han, some authors were interpreting the deaths of the three men of the Ziju clan as a voluntary act, in the sense that they believed that the three men accepted their deaths as their moral duty. According to these authors, the virtue that motivated the men’s behavior, interestingly, was not loyalty (zhong 忠) but trust (xin 信). The earliest such reference is contained in a memorial to the throne by Kuang Heng 匡衡, a reformist politician from the time of emperors Yuan 元 (r. 49-33) and Cheng 成 (r. 33-7). In the memorial, Kuang Heng argued that rulers should carefully guard their own behavior, given the tendency of their underlings to mimic their deeds. One of Kuang Heng’s examples deals with Lord Mu: “Mu of Qin valued trust, and many of his men of service went with him in death. 秦穆貴信而士多從死” Given that all the examples provided by Kuang Heng in the memorial deal with behavior the people themselves initiated—albeit in response to their ruler’s behavior—we have to assume that Kuang Heng thought that Lord Mu’s retainers had consented to partake in the sacrifice.21 The consent, moreover, was a kind of moral consent, as through it they wanted to demonstrate their trustworthiness (xin 信) by being true to their word. Kuang Heng criticizes Lord Mu, not for having demanded the sacrifice but for having placed too much emphasis on the virtue of trustworthiness. The fact that he speaks of “many men of service” who followed Lord Mu in death indicates that he did not just have the three men of the Ziju clan in mind but also perhaps the one hundred seventy-seven persons mentioned by Sima Qian as sacrificial victims. Yang Xiong (53 BCE-18 CE), a contemporary of Kuang Heng, also refers to the virtue of trust when he hints at the events surrounding Lord Mu’s funeral. Asked by an interlocutor to name examples of trustworthy men, he mentions, among others, “Qin high ministers holed up at Lord Mu’s side 秦大夫鑿穆公之側,” citing these men as positive examples of men possessing that virtue. Yang Xiong defines trustworthiness in this passage as “not to go back on one’s word 不食其 言.”22 In the renderings of Kuang Heng and Yang Xiong, we seem to be dealing with self-sacrifice rather than sacrifice. The emphasis has shifted from Lord Mu as instigator of the event to the men of service or high ministers who chose to give their lives. While Kuang Heng registers some discomfort with the fact that so many men died, Yang Xiong presents the men as moral exemplars.

22Possibly, a story related by Zheng Xuan’s contemporary Ying Shao 應劭 (d. ca. 200 CE) can help explain why the men’s behavior was interpreted from the viewpoint of trust rather than from the perspective of loyalty to the person of the ruler. Ying Shao provides a fictional account of how the three men came to their decision to follow Lord Mu in death:

  • 23 Shi ji 5.195, n. 4; Han shu 81.3336, n. 3.

Lord Mu of Qin, merry after a drinking bout with a large group of followers, exclaimed: “If we can share such joy in life, let us also share sorrow in death.” Thereupon, Yanxi, Zhonghang, and Qianhu pledged themselves. When the Lord died, they all went with him in death. This is how the Ode “Yellow Bird” came into being. 秦穆公與群臣飲酒酣公曰生共此樂死共此哀於是奄 息仲行鍼虎許諾及公薨皆從死黃鳥詩所為作也23

23In Ying Shao’s version, the sacrifice of the three men of the Ziju clan was not a premeditated decision but something Lord Mu suggested in a drunken mood of joyous camaraderie. While most of his boon companions appear to have safely ignored his request, the three men of the Ziju clan pledged their lives. Once sober, they felt compelled to honor their pledge, spurred, presumably, more by a desire to appear faithful to their own words than by a belief that loyalty to Lord Mu demanded their self-sacrifice. Within Ying Shao’s perspective, Lord Mu does not deserve real blame: he did not order the suicides but merely fantasized about them at a party. It was the three men themselves who agreed to accompany their lord in death, and who then felt bound “not to go back on their word.” They sacrificed themselves not because they, in practical terms, had no choice but from a sense of moral duty.

Zheng Xuan’s Classicizing Interpretation

  • 24 Shisanjing zhushu, vol. 2, 64.5b-6a (p. 243).

24The fullest and most complex early interpretation that we have of “Yellow Bird” is that of the classical master Zheng Xuan 鄭玄 (127-200). Zheng Xuan used the Mao version of the Odes in commenting on the “Small Preface” and providing “Notes” (jian 箋) to various words or lines of the poem. Zheng Xuan, of course, was aware of earlier interpretative traditions (presumably including lost materials) and positions himself carefully towards them.24 One senses that his goal was not only to come to the most embracing interpretation of “Yellow Bird” but also to derive from the poem clues for action to guide his contemporaries in their moral choices and judgments.

25Zheng Xuan introduced a significant new element into the overall interpretation of the poem. In a gloss to the “Small Preface’s” use of the term cong si ( “to go with in death”), Zheng Xuan wrote:

‘To go with in death’ means ‘to commit suicide in order to go with in
death.’ 從死自殺以從死

  • 25 Shisanjing zhushu, vol. 2, 64.5b (p. 243).
  • 26 One element that I will not treat is the idea, mentioned by Kong Yingda, that the person criticized (...)

26That the three men died by suicide is a statement that would be repeated again and again, and became a standard way of reading the poem. Of course, the statement that the men committed suicide in itself did not mean much. Many men in the service of the state in pre-imperial and imperial China received and obeyed orders to commit suicide. If they “chose” to obey such an order, it is because the only other option available, being publicly executed, was far less honorable. Such men were not necessarily self-sacrificing heroes but men who, though condemned to die, were executing their privilege to initiate their own deaths. The assertion that the three men committed suicide does not of itself turn them into self-sacrificing heroes, rather, it fixes them as members of the ruling class, a class of men qualified to assist the ruler as he governed the people. The Tang scholar Kong Yingda 孔潁達 (574-648), who integrated the Mao and Zheng commentaries into his own, noted the opinion of a Zuozhuan specialist from the Eastern Han, Fu Qian 服虔 (c. 125-95) who defined xun “to sacrifice”—the term used in Zuozhuan to describe the deaths of the three men—in explicitly negative terms, as “to kill others for burial, so as to be surrounded by members of one’s entourage. 殺人以葬琁環其左右” Nonetheless, when Kong gives his own interpretation, he harkened back to Zheng Xuan’s understanding: “Lord Mu gave the order to follow him in death. Those ministers [who had received the order] committed suicide in order to follow him. 穆公命從己死此臣自殺從之”25 With Kong’s authoritative voice added to the chorus, the suicide theory, captured in Zheng Xuan’s reading of “Yellow Bird,” gained enduring favor.26 In contrast to the Mao Commentary’s understanding of the xing, the poem’s first line, where regret is expressed that the lives of the three men were cut short, Zheng Xuan’s “Note” indicates that he reads the xing in a more overtly political way.

That the yellow bird stops upon the briar is because it seeks to make itself safe. If the briar is not safe, it will move again. The xing, by analogy, makes the point that it is just the same with a minister serving his lord. In the case at hand, Lord Mu made his ministers go with him in death. The poem criticizes him for not understanding the basic meaning of “the yellow bird, it stops upon the briar.” 黃鳥止于棘以求安己也此棘若不安則移興者喻臣之事君亦然今穆公 使臣從死刺其不得黃鳥止于棘之本意

27Zheng Xuan agrees with the noble man that Lord Mu should be criticized for asking his men to follow him in death, but for different reasons. It is not that sacrificing well-trained ministers would draw away beneficent human resources from the state, but that such servants of the state have a fundamental right to insure their own safety. Like the yellow bird, ministers should be able to refuse unreasonable demands made upon them by their rulers and withdraw to a safe spot. Zheng Xuan is not saying that to die for one’s Lord is inherently wrong, but he implies that it should be done only on a voluntary basis. Only when initiated by men of service themselves are such acts of self-sacrifice justified and even commendable. Lord Mu erred in trying to cause (shi 使) their sacrificial death.

  • 27 Also noted in Chao, l.c. (n. 18), p. 138.

28In Owen’s translation, the lines “And this man Yanxi was the finest of a hundred, but standing by his tomb he trembled in his dread,” contrast the victim’s prowess in life and on the battlefield with his fears as he faced his own death. This reading would fit well within Zuozhuan and Shi ji’s interpretation of the poem, as the men of Qin—the presumed authors of the poem—must have been saddened by the sorry spectacle of seeing their bravest and strongest overwhelmed with fear. This reading also leaves open the possibility that the men did not commit suicide but were put to death through the agency of others.27 Zheng Xuan, presumably, was troubled by the idea that the three men, when facing death, were trembling with fear rather than possessed by a firm determination to die, and thus gives the lines a very different interpretation, one that would definitely demand an alternate translation. His “Note” reads:

The men of Qin grieved and were hurt by this. As Yanxi met his death, they approached his tomb, and, on his behalf, mourned and trembled in fear. 秦人哀傷此奄息之死臨視其壙皆為之悼慄

29In other words, the subject of these lines, according to Zheng Xuan, is not the man about to die, but the men of Qin who, after the suicide, gather around the tomb in mourning and in fear. He does not try to resolve how “trembling in fear” (li 慄) and “mourning” (dao 悼, presumably a substitute for the word grief ai 哀, the overwhelming emotion attributed to the men of Qin in the interpretations of the Zuozhuan, Shi ji and the Small Preface) can be combined. Perhaps the men of Qin, in mourning their heroes, were trembling at the thought of the tremendous sacrifices their men made, sacrifices that went far beyond anything that they, as lesser men, would be capable of. This note is the strongest indication that Zheng Xuan, following Yang Xiong, regarded the three men as heroic figures. Even though he admitted, by critiquing the fact that Lord Mu caused them to die, that the men did not have much choice in the matter, he seems to have been unwilling to attribute to them negative feelings such as fear, instead shifting the fear the poem describes so vividly to the men of Qin.

30Zheng Xuan’s reading of these lines is peculiar. Cao Zhi 曹植 (192-232), who had much more familiarity than Zheng Xuan with the reality of life and death on the battlefield, adopted Zheng Xuan’s view that the men committed suicide. But, in contrast to Zheng Xuan, he was able to admit that even heroes experience dread and fear when faced with death. In his poem on the subject, entitled “Three fine men” (san liang 三良), Cao Zhi reconstructs the complex web of emotions surrounding the three men as they were about to die:

  • 28 Cao Zijian ji 5.9b-10a.

Since we cannot actively pursue repute and fame,
loyalty and righteousness is what we settle for.
When Mu of Qin left this world,
The three ministers slew themselves.
Alive, they ranked among the glorious and happy;
In death, they shared in misery.
Who says that sacrificing one’s life is easy?
To kill oneself truly is the single most difficult thing to do.
Holding back their tears they climbed upon their Lord’s tomb,
Standing by the pit, they looked up to Heaven and sighed.
The eternal night, how dark!
Once one goes there, one is unable to return.
The yellow bird sang sadly on their behalf,
Such sadness I feel into my lungs and liver.28

功名不可為
忠義我所安
秦穆先下世
三臣皆自殘
生時等榮樂
既〔沒〕同憂患
誰言捐軀易
殺身誠獨難
攬涕登君墓
臨穴仰天歎
長夜何冥冥
一往不復還
黃鳥為悲(嗚)〔鳴〕
哀哉傷肺肝

31By highlighting loyalty rather than trust, Cao Zhi recast the deaths of the three men as loyalty suicides. He, however, admired them not because they faced death with equanimity—Who says that sacrificing one’s life is easy?—but because they so fully confronted the ugly reality of death. The profound dread that he believed the men experienced as they faced death is the emotion that gives structure and life to his poem.

32Cao Zhi, certainly, was less concerned than Zheng Xuan with the political aspects of the dilemma that the three men faced and more interested in the complex emotions of heroism itself. Zheng Xuan’s reading of “Yellow Bird” seeks to wed various older and newer interpretations of the poem, infusing these interpretations with preoccupations and concerns that were historically Zheng Xuan’s own. Zheng Xuan is a child of his time in that he shared his contemporaries’ widespread fascination with men and women who sacrificed themselves out of loyalty, piety, or chastity; in consequence, he could not help but read “Yellow Bird” as a poem about self-sacrifice. Zheng Xuan is also eager to confine the phenomenon, lest it spread to ministers and officials, and could, in a time of notoriously fickle rulers, place upon them the burden of suicide. Indeed men, particularly those serving in an official capacity, were emphatically allowed by Zheng Xuan’s interpretation of the xing to regard the self-sacrifice of the men of the Ziju clan as an exotic oddity, not as something they had even the slightest duty to emulate. Like the yellow bird, they should be allowed to fly away at will.

  • 29 See infra n. 32.

33The various readings of “Yellow Bird” offered after the poem’s composition until late Eastern Han times, left readers with a number of complex interpretative and moral puzzles. Everyone agreed that it was “the men of Qin” who had authored the poem. However, did they do so out of grief over losing these excellent men, or from admiration for their heroic deeds? Were they critical of the practice of retainer sacrifice as such or merely saddened by the results of a practice that they accepted as inevitable? Did Lord Mu order the men to die, or did the men choose to die for their lord? If the former, was the order given intentionally or was it a drunken pledge turned real by men who refused to betray their own word? If the latter, which was the dominant, motivating virtue: loyalty to their word (i.e., trustworthiness) or loyalty to their lord? Did the three face their death with equanimity or with fearful apprehension? What, if anything, distinguished the three from ordinary men? Was it the fact that, as members of the ruling classes, they enjoyed the privilege to choose suicide over execution? Or was it the fact that, by birth and training, they had acquired qualities of exquisite leadership? Poets and interpreters after Zheng Xuan confronted a bewildering maze of possibilities. Besides Cao Zhi, famous poets such as Tao Yuanming 陶淵 明 (365-427), Liu Zongyuan 柳宗元 (773-819), and Su Shi 蘇軾 (1037-1101) wrote on the three men featured in “Yellow Bird.” Generation after generation of aspiring scholars read the poem and the body of interpretation that had grown up around it. Sites were identified for the tomb of Lord Mu and for the tombs of the three men of the Ziju clan.29 It seems, however, that Zheng Xuan’s reading of the men’s death as suicide had decisively narrowed the field of interpretative options and inclined readers to some version of the theory that the men of the Ziju clan had died voluntarily and heroically. We will take up the story again in late Qing times, with Wang Xianqian.

Archaeological Discoveries

  • 30 Wang Xianqian 王先謙, Shi sanjia yi ji shu 詩三家義集疏, 2 vols, Beijing, 2009 [1987], p. 452-453. Wang’s wo (...)

34The classical scholar Wang Xianqian 王先謙 (1842-1917) dealt with “Yellow Bird” in his Three Interpretative Traditions on the Odes, Collected and Annotated (Shi sanjia yi ji shu 詩三家義集疏), a work in which he collects fragments from three early commentarial traditions to the Odes that were eclipsed by the Mao commentary. After having distributed various fragments that deal with “Yellow Bird” over the three commentarial traditions, he concludes that all three traditions agree that it was Lord Mu who demanded that there would be a retainer sacrifice at the time of his funeral, but that the three ministers had committed suicide in response to this request. Wang then provides a most curious remark. In a Western book, he writes, he read about the practice of retainer sacrifice in various African countries and how that practice only disappeared after the imposition of British Law. In conclusion, he exclaims that he finds the custom barbaric (gai yisu ru ci 蓋夷俗如此). It is unclear whether he is expressing relief at the fact that the Chinese, thanks to the selfless act of the three men of the Ziju clan, escaped the barbarism that characterized Africa before Britain’s civilizing influence, or whether there is some lingering worry that, despite the men’s noble suicide, the Chinese tradition still might be accused of having nurtured such a barbaric custom.30

  • 31 R.W. Bagley, “Shang Archaeology,” in M. Loewe, E.L. Shaughnessy (eds.), The Cambridge History of An (...)
  • 32 The tomb of Lord Mu was long believed to be within what is now Fengxiang city, at a site marked as (...)
  • 33 Jiao Nanfeng 焦南峰 reports one additional victim, a stable hand, found in 2006; Jiao, l.c. (n. 32), p (...)

35Wang Xianqian did not live to see the results of the archaeological excavations carried out in the 1930’s at Anyang, the capital of the Shang from ca. 1250 to 1045 BCE. These results would have shocked him because they provided evidence of the practice of retainer sacrifice and regular human sacrifice on a truly massive scale, an issue on which the transmitted histories are completely silent.31 Further revelations, pertaining more directly to “Yellow Bird,” occurred with the discovery of the largest cemetery for Qin rulers—an area of 21 square kilometers—located near the Qin capital of Yong 雍, in contemporary Fengxiang 凤翔 county, Shaanxi province. This cemetery, scholars believe, also holds Lord Mu’s tomb, even though there is no consensus as to where the latter is located precisely.32 The tomb of Lord Jing (r. 575-537), one of Lord Mu’s successors, however, has been located, and was excavated between 1977 and 1986. Lord Jing’s tomb provides ample evidence that the Qin rulers practiced both human and retainer sacrifice on a grand scale. Whereas Shi ji reports how one hundred seventy-seven retainers died with Lord Mu, one hundred sixty-six coffins with human remains—one person per coffin—were found buried around the tomb chamber of Lord Jing, all within an enormous tomb of approximately 60 by 40 meters, with a depth of 24 meters.33 There were an additional twenty victims, presumably the victims of a form of construction sacrifice, who were first dismembered and then placed directly—without a coffin—in the stamped earth.

  • 34 Huang, o.c. (n. 2), p. 235-236; Gan, l.c. (n. 32), p. 15.
  • 35 Tian Yaqi 田亞岐, “Guanzhong Qin mu xunzang zhidu yanjiu” 關中秦墓殉葬制度研究, in Qingguoji: Jilin Daxue Kaogu (...)

36Based on the manner of their burial, the victims of the retainer sacrifice appear to have been of two types. Ninety-four of the coffins were relatively large, lacquered, made of wooden boards, and contained small quantities of jewelry; the remaining seventy-four were more like boxes, made of thin wooden boards, smaller in size, containing no or few grave goods. Most assume that the occupants of the more luxurious coffins were the ruler’s women, ministers, and artisans, whereas the boxed victims would have been servants. There is no consensus on the manner of the victims’ death. Some scholars report that the victims in the more luxurious coffins were restrained with ropes or were managed in such a way that their remains became extremely contorted; they would also first have been placed in a wooden frame before being lowered into their coffins for burial, presumably alive.34 Another scholar merely notes that the bones of many victims are badly decayed but that all are buried in a flexed position with all their body parts intact. He suggests that the victims of the retainer sacrifice died in a relatively serene manner, perhaps due to drugs.35

  • 36 Huang Zhanyue 黃展岳, author of two monographs on human sacrifice in early China, disclaims this based (...)

37Strictly speaking, the evidence from Lord Jing’s tomb does not allow one to draw conclusions about the situation in Lord Mu’s tomb or even that the three men of the Ziju clan were among the victims of the retainer sacrifice at Lord Mu’s tomb.36 Still, the connection between Lord Jing’s excavated tomb and “Yellow Bird” was clear to all, and the chilling evidence of the tomb raised doubts about traditional ways of understanding the poem. At the same time, Wang Xianqian’s fears about how Chinese culture would be perceived by the West—albeit no longer in the context of a fear that China would be colonized in the manner of Africa—had not disappeared and seems to have fed a concerted effort on the part of some contemporary scholars to distance Chinese culture from the culture of Qin generally and from the practice of human sacrifice more particularly. In this manner, the interpretation of “Yellow Bird” acquired a nationalistic element.

  • 37 More and more scholars agree that the practice of retainer sacrifice implied that Shang had to be c (...)
  • 38 L. Von Falkenhausen, Chinese Society in the Age of Confucius (1000-250 BC): The Archaeological Evid (...)
  • 39 LIang Yun 梁雲, “Cong Qin muzangsu kan Qin wenhua de xingcheng” 從秦墓葬俗看秦文 化的形成, Kaogu yu wenwu 考古與文物 1 (...)
  • 40 Thus the presence or absence of human sacrifice becomes a yardstick of civilization; for example, t (...)
  • 41 Human and retainer sacrifice was also practiced in other parts of the Zhou world during the Spring (...)

38Since Guo Moruo’s 郭沫若 (1892-1978) initial attempts in the 1950’s, scholars had several decades to come to terms with human sacrifice as it was practiced during the late Shang period and they labored hard to fit the new archaeological data within Marxist classifications of history.37 In the case of Qin, given “Yellow Bird’s” position at the heart of the most important Zhou classic and given the Shi ji’s comments on Lord Mu’s funeral, it had always been known that retainer sacrifice was practiced; however, the excavation of Lord Jing’s tomb exposed, in the most concrete fashion, the terrible manner of individual victims’ deaths, making Zheng Xuan’s voluntaristic and heroic reading of “Yellow Bird” seem overly charitable. Even though the polities of Shang and Qin were historically and geographically quite removed from one another, scholars started to forge links between them. Working within the general theory that Qin’s origins lay in the East,38 some proposed that an ethnic Qin group had inherited the practice of human and retainer sacrifice from the Shang, taken it with them on their westward migration, and then continued it after they had established, some time after 770 BCE, a full-fledged state, recognized by Zhou, in the Western lands that the Zhou state had been forced to abandon.39 In this manner Shang and Qin became intimately linked through the practice of human and retainer sacrifice. While it was widely recognized that both states had made vital contributions to the Chinese world, the large-scale practice of human sacrifice also set them apart from the civilized Zhou world.40 In essence, scholars who forge these links are narrowing Chinese civilization to a purified Zhou culture, excluding from it eras, areas, and practices that had once formed an integral part of it.41

  • 42 Shi ji 5.183; Huang, o.c. (n. 2), p. 230-234.

39This link between Shang and Qin through the issue of human sacrifice becomes problematic when one considers that more than three centuries passed between the fall of the Shang and the appearance of large-scale human sacrifice in the state of Qin in the seventh century. According to Shi ji, retainer sacrifice was first practiced in the state of Qin at the time of the burial of Lord Wu (r. 697-678). The archaeological record clearly shows a marked rise in the number of human victims near the tombs of Qin’s rulers from the seventh century onward.42 It may therefore be more fruitful to try to understand the phenomenon of retainer sacrifice in Qin within the framework of its own particular political culture.

  • 43 Trigger, o.c. (n. 1), p. 89. According to Van Dijk “The custom occurs… only in societies with centr (...)
  • 44 Many of the poems in the “Airs of Qin” section make reference to the Qin rulers’ pattern of conspic (...)
  • 45 B. Trigger, Early Civilizations: Ancient Egypt in Context, Cairo, 1993, p. 98 and o.c. (n. 1), p. 8 (...)

40According to scholars who have written on the phenomenon of retainer sacrifice in other societies, retainer sacrifices on a grand scale tend to appear in societies that are characterized by a high differentiation in power between the ruler and his subjects. Retainer sacrifice was, in Bruce Trigger’s words “a form of conspicuous consumption and thus a symbol of the deceased’s high status.”43 If this is true, one should not be surprised at the scale at which retainer sacrifice was practiced in Qin, as both evidence from archaeological and literary sources points to the Qin rulers as monarchs who, in contrast to other rulers of the Spring and Autumn period, were unusually far removed from their subjects and displayed a general tendency to engage in conspicuous consumption.44 Indeed, pace the noble man, spoiling those excellent human resources might indeed have been the point. Trigger’s point that retainer sacrifice “occurred only in societies where human beings were regularly sacrificed to the gods,”45 indicates that, whereas the peak of retainer sacrifice in the tombs of Qin rulers during the late seventh and sixth centuries might be explained in terms of the state’s ostentatious political culture, the discussion about the origins of Qin’s practice of human sacrifice is not yet closed.

  • 46 Wang Xinlei 王鑫磊, “Qin feng huang niao yu Zhou Qin wenhua chongtu tanlun: Shijing Qinfeng Huangniao (...)

41The view that Qin was an island in an otherwise civilized Zhou world was embraced by literary scholars who began to apply the theory of Qin exceptionalism to their analyses of “Yellow Bird.” In a recent article, Wang Xinlei, for one, proposed to refine the thesis of the early interpreters according to whom “Yellow Bird” expresses the sorrow of the men of Qin. He posits that the ones who mourned the three men of the Ziju clan were not the men of Qin generally, but a well-defined ethnic subgroup, namely the Zhou people who remained in the Western lands when in 771 BCE the Zhou court was forced to migrate to the East leaving the rulers of Qin to fill the vacuum.46 Wang focuses on the Zhou people who remained in Qin because they were the only ones in a position to perceive the barbarity of the practice of retainer sacrifice: they alone were able to contrast it with earlier Zhou practices in their area and with the practices of their peers in other areas of the contemporary Zhou world, and, hence, bemoan it. Wang has no qualms about reading the poem as a complaint against the practice of human sacrifice as such. In attributing this critique to a Zhou ethnic subgroup within Qin, he only widens the gulf of civilization that separates Zhou from Qin, and, in a way, classifies Qin’s customs with those of the African barbarians Wang Xianqian had read about.

Voluntarism Revisited

  • 47 Tian, l.c. (n. 35), p. 212; T.H. Barrett, “Human Sacrifice and Self-sacrifice in China: A Century o (...)

42We have seen how, by the end of the Western Han dynasty (if not earlier), the view that the three men of the Ziju clan had met their deaths voluntarily had become generally accepted, and that this view, via Zheng Xuan’s designation of the men’s death as suicide, came to play an important role in “Yellow Bird’s” reception history. One would think that the unearthing of the many coffins coburied with Lord Jing would have dealt the voluntarist theory a fatal blow. Indeed, it seems hard to see why the fate of the three men at the time of Lord Mu’s funeral would have been different from that of victims in Lord Jing’s tomb, especially the higher-level victims buried in the lacquered coffins. And yet, even a scholar such as Tian Yaqi 田亞岐, eminently familiar with the contents of Lord Jing’s tomb, not only indicates that there is an ongoing debate on the issue among archaeologists but also states his own belief that the victims of the retainer sacrifice in Lord Jing’s tomb, contrasted with the dismembered victims of the construction sacrifice, felt that their own deaths were “up to a certain level honorable and voluntary 這些殉葬者對自己的殉葬感到一定的程度上的榮耀 和自愿”47 That care was taken to insure that the bodies of the victims of the retainer sacrifice remained intact and the fact that they were buried in coffins that, in the case of the nine-four more prominent victims, were lacquered and contained grave goods, indeed requires an explanation.

  • 48 For a philosopher’s attempt to pinpoint the difference between human interactions that involve “the (...)

43I suggest looking for such an explanation not in the victims’ psychology— the question of whether or not their deaths were truly voluntary is nearly impossible to answer— but in the ritual of retainer sacrifice itself. In other words, that the victims appeared to undergo their deaths voluntarily might be a crucial component of the ritual and may have determined the very nature and form of the ritual proceedings.48 What the victims really thought or felt about being sacrificed becomes of only secondary interest and importance: they played their role in a well-known ritual, and, given that they were, in all likelihood, chosen to be sacrificed while their Lord was still living, had time to be trained (or train themselves) on how to appear dignified on the day of their demise.

  • 49 Skorupski, o.c. (n. 48), p. 1-66; P. Moyaert, Iconen en Beeldverering: Godsdienst als Symbolische P (...)

44To understand, as Trigger does, retainer sacrifice against the background of the awesome yet lonesome power of the deceased, does not necessarily lead to a single explanation of the ritual. Philosophers, following developments in cultural and symbolic anthropology, have categorized theories of religion and magic—and by extension, ritual—as either intellectualist or symbolic-expressive: while intellectualists interpret religious beliefs and actions in traditional cultures as a primitive way in which humans, not yet fully rational, deal with the world, adherents of the symbolic-expressive view regard them as inherently human ways of coping with feelings or events that would otherwise completely overwhelm us.49 I will, in what follows, use these philosophical positions to disentangle the enormously complex interaction between beliefs, emotions, traditions, and relations of power that led people to kill others—in our present example in very great numbers—as companions in death, and, more specifically, to try to explain the element of voluntarism that the ritual of retainer sacrifice often seemed to contain.

  • 50 Trigger, o.c. (n. 45), p. 98.

45Those who advance an intellectualist understanding of ritual maintain that practitioners of a particular ritual must have had a good reason to engage in the ritual, even though they may have based these rationales on erroneous beliefs. They would posit that the practitioners of retainer sacrifice intended to extend into death a reality that already prevailed in life, so that the ruler, who was served by many in life, would receive a comparable level of service in his tomb. Such intent, they would further posit, requires that the ruler, as well as other participants in the sacrifice, believe that the dead would be able to serve the dead and that hierarchies that existed in life could be maintained in death. In order to explain the care that was taken to make sure that death would not mutilate the victims’ bodies and the fact that they were buried with some of the trappings of their rank and status in life, intellectualists would not need to posit that the victims died voluntarily. They might simply argue that these arrangements were necessitated by the participants’ beliefs about the afterlife, as, indeed, the dead make better servants when their bodies are left intact and when they can assume their same hierarchical positions in death as during life. Especially in the case of a ruler, these beliefs about service to the deceased might well be combined with a belief in the divine nature of the ruler.50

  • 51 Li ji zhuzi suoyin, 4.34/26/9-11.

46In one passage in Notes on Ritual, the wife and high minister of a recently deceased decide that a human victim should accompany their loved one in his tomb. In conveying their request for a human victim to the son of the deceased, who holds ultimate authority in the matter, they explicitly state their belief that the deceased, who was ill in life, will need continued care in the afterlife: “The master is ill, and has no one to take care of him below. Please arrange for a human victim. 夫子疾莫養於下請以殉葬” That they state their belief at all might be taken to confirm the intellectualist position: indeed, the passage makes it seem as if the motivation behind their search for a human victim is their belief that their loved one will continue to be sick after death and, hence, will require continued care. The son, while stating his opposition to the practice of retainer sacrifice as such ( “It is not in accordance with ritual. 非禮也”), does not try to dissuade them from their belief. Instead, he sarcastically and effectively tests the strength of their resolve by suggesting that the wife and the minister themselves would be the most suitable sacrificial victims. Thus challenged, the two abandon their plan, although the passage does not make it clear whether this is because their desire to please the deceased does not surmount their own desire to live or because their belief is not quite so firm after all.51 Passages such as these indicate that, in the view of critics of the practice of retainer sacrifice, beliefs did play a role, even though it is difficult to determine the extent of the power of these beliefs over people’s actions.

47Adherents of the symbolic-expressive theory would see the ritual of retainer sacrifice as a way of processing the emotions associated with the death of an enormously powerful individual. To participants—the ruler himself, or those who have busied themselves all their lives trying to please him—it might be a comfort to know that the ruler does not have to face death alone and that he can leave the world with as large an entourage as he had whenever he left his palace. The ritual of retainer sacrifice would, in this view, be part of a wider, ritual effort to face death as if it was a continuation of life, not because one believed that death was just like life but because one was painfully aware of the huge gulf separating life and death, and was therefore eager to tame the uncertainties surrounding that perception.

  • 52 Li ji zhuzi suoyin, 4.38/26/23-24. In most cases in the early Chinese archaeological record human v (...)

48In another passage in Notes on Ritual, a son refuses to comply with his father’s order (ming 命) to bury two of his maids with him, not only because he is, as a matter of principle, opposed to the practice of burying human victims with a deceased but also because he is disgusted by his father’s request that the two maids not only be entombed with him but be placed in the same coffin. The father’s desire for co-burial is of a clearly sexual nature, as he explicitly states that he wants to be squeezed in between his two maids (shi wu er bizi jia wo 使吾二婢 子夾我) in his coffin.52 Whereas the father may well believe that he will be able to enjoy his maids’ company in death as in life, his command can also be construed as his way of alleviating the sense of separation that death involves. Indeed, his deathbed order sought to insure—ultimately without success—that even after he left this world, his authority would be respected. Ordering the co-burial of his maids was the most certain way of preventing the women from providing sexual services to other men, and hence asserted his absolute authority of life and death over them. Indeed, here we find an illustration of the complex motives of a man who uses his deathbed order to not only seek to create a pleasurable environment for himself after death but who, through a kind of spoken will, also expects to continue to control the actions of the living by freezing them in their roles as his servants.

  • 53 Chunqiu Zuozhuan zhu, vol. 4, 1214 (Zhao 1); Shisanjing zhushu, vol. 6, 41.16 (p. 703).
  • 54 Even though Wang Hui is of the opinion that Lord Jing was making a very sound political judgment in (...)

49A short sentence in Zuozhuan, at least if we follow the contemporary scholar Wang Hui’s 王輝 interpretation, brings us closer to the world of the Lords of Qin and their large-scale practice of retainer sacrifice, and might also go some way in accounting for the element of voluntary death that, to many, was a crucial part of the sacrifice. Lord Jing of Qin, according to Zuozhuan’s account, had long been bothered by the fact that his younger brother Qian 緘 had been their father’s favorite and his personal rival. In the year 541, several decades into Lord Jing’s reign, Qian suddenly fled to Qin’s great rival, the state of Jin, where he stayed, in grand style, to await the death of his brother, still some four years off. Qian’s mother had urged him to flee from Qin: “If you don’t leave,” she said, “I am afraid you will be chosen. 弗去懼選” Traditional commentaries have provided fairly far-fetched explanations for the term “to be chosen” (xuan 選). An etymological dictionary dating to the second century had, with reference to this passage, glossed it as “to be exiled” (qian 遣), whereas the famed third century commentator to the Zuozhuan, Du Yu 杜預 (222 - 285), glossed it as “adding up” (shu 數), explaining further that “he (Qian) feared that all his crimes would be added up, and that he would be executed for them. 恐景公数其罪而加戮”53 In a 1989 article on Lord Jing, Wang Hui, undoubtedly impressed by the many human victims discovered in Lord Jing’s tomb, proposed a more straightforward reading of the term, suggesting that it refers to the process by which victims were chosen for co-burial. If he is right, the sentence—or even the term—offers a new glimpse into the strange world of retainer sacrifice. Indeed, “to be chosen” implies a kind of pact between the persons demanding the sacrifice and the victims, an hypothetical as if world in which the victims, whatever their true feelings, must pretend to be grateful for an honor they cannot refuse. It is imperative that they appear to subject themselves voluntarily to whatever is entailed by their membership in the select group of the chosen, even if this includes life burial. If Wang Hui’s reading is correct, given that Lord Jing died only four years after his younger brother fled, it seems that decisions about who would accompany a ruler in the tomb could be made years in advance. If that is indeed the case, one wonders how and to what extent the victims—those without Qian’s means to flee—were coached and prepared to become worthy participants in the ritual.54

A Third Interpretation: “Yellow Bird” and Ritual

  • 55 M. Kern, “Bronze inscriptions, the Shangshu, and the Shijing: The Evolution of the Ancestral Sacrif (...)
  • 56 In the case of some other poems, Confucius’ remarks on the Odes found in the Kongzi shilun 孔子詩論, an (...)

50Martin Kern has recently revised his views on “Thorny Caltrop,” a lengthy text contained in the “Minor court hymn section” (Xiaoya 小雅) of the Odes. No longer seeing it as “a genuine performance text,” Kern now qualifies his assessment, characterizing the text as “a versified commemorative narrative that aims to preserve the authentic expressions of an earlier sacrifice while also providing guidance for an audience, certainly postdating the Western Zhou, that was no longer familiar with the original sacrificial practice.”55 Even though Kern has, as far as I am aware, not attempted to extend this mode of analysis to poems in the “Airs” section, the possibility of interpreting “Yellow Bird,” like “Thorny Caltrop,” as a commemorative composition is intriguing.56

51That “Yellow Bird” is not a genuine performance text, in the sense of a text that is used as a script while carrying out a retainer sacrifice, is clear. Its neat strophic form, its use of the same stirring image at the beginning of each stanza, and its methodical use of rhyme—for example, the plant on which the yellow bird perches rhymes in each instance with the last part of the victim’s name—all indicate that it is a carefully composed poem. If it can be qualified as a commemorative poem, it would also not be in the strong sense Kern attributes to “Thorny Caltrop”: “Yellow Bird” does not seek to “provide guidance” for an audience “no longer familiar with the original sacrificial practice,” if that implies a later audience interested in taking up the half-forgotten practice of retainer sacrifice. What is possible, however, is to read it as a poem that seeks to evoke the practice of retainer sacrifice for commemorative purposes and that, in doing so, incorporates within itself actual phrases or scenes from the retainer sacrifice. In other words, what I propose is to transfer to the reading of “Yellow Bird” my earlier point that the retainer sacrifice itself should be analyzed as a ritual with its own inherent logic rather than in terms of the real-world feelings of its various participants. “Yellow Bird,” in that understanding, would be a composite of various elements important to the ritual of retainer sacrifice as it was carried out in Qin generally. As such, the poem would become an excellent locus to which to attach a variety of emotional reactions, as evidenced by the long and complicated reception history of the poem.

  • 57 Chunqiu Zuozhuan zhu, 1273 (Zhao 6).
  • 58 CHEN Zhi, The Shaping of the Book of Songs: From Ritualization to Secularization, Sankt Augustin, 2 (...)
  • 59 Nylan, o.c. (n. 3), p. 78-80; S. Davis, Song and Silence: Ethnic Revival on China’s Southwest Borde (...)

52Since, by most accounts the Odes formed a fairly stable collection by 600 BCE, we may assume that a version of “Yellow Bird” already circulated in the century following Lord Mu’s death in 621 BCE. If we further assume that the poem was composed for commemorative purposes by Qin authors for a Qin audience, it would follow that the poem’s authors and their audience would still have been familiar with the practice of retainer sacrifice. Indeed, as the discovery of Lord Jing’s tomb (closed in 537 BCE) shows, retainer sacrifice was a feature of Qin political life well after the death of Lord Mu. Somewhat in keeping with early interpretations of the poem, the poem might be seen as one of the ways in which a Qin audience commemorated the retainer sacrifices that were practiced at the funerals of its rulers, and came to terms with the inevitability and the losses entailed by them. However, authors and audience need not be placed in Qin. We know from the Zuozhuan that ministers (dafu 大夫) from other states, as required by diplomatic conventions of the time, attended the funeral of Lord Jing.57 Among these dignitaries, most likely, were observers from the Zhou royal court. It is also likely that similar parties attended the funerals of earlier Qin rulers as well, including Lord Mu’s. If so, they must have witnessed or at least known about the retainer sacrifices that accompanied the funeral. Hence, reports of these spectacular sacrifices at Qin must have circulated at the Zhou court and might have inspired court poets interested in giving poetic form to Qin’s particularities.58 In this scenario, the commemoration entailed by “Yellow Bird” can be seen as culturally and politically motivated in the sense that it might have been a way of consolidating and affirming Qin’s integration within a wider, increasingly cosmopolitan Zhou culture.59

53If “Yellow Bird” indeed commemorates the practice of retainer sacrifice, it might, given the usual modes of textual production in early China, very well incorporate, in relatively literal fashion, elements or phrases from the actual ritual proceedings. In this manner, the poem might provide us with clues as to what transpired during the actual ritual performances. Below, I will attempt a reading that seeks to maximize this possibility and read parts of the poem that are usually taken as reactions to the ritual, as inherent to the ritual proceedings. Since there is, as far as I know, no independent evidence in the form of bronze or other inscriptions relating directly to such sacrifices to substantiate my interpretative claims, I acknowledge that this alternative reading of “Yellow Bird” is speculative. I offer it, nonetheless, in the belief it might reveal potential problems with the traditional interpretations.

54I take each of “Yellow Bird’s” stanzas as depicting a ritual drama that unfolds in three phases: in the first phase, the victim is presented and identified; in the second, the victim is entombed; in the third, participants announce to the gods the completion of the sacrifice, stressing its magnitude and importance.

55The xing, the line at the beginning of each stanza in which the yellow bird perches on a plant or tree, in my reading, establishes a link between the ritual event and its commemoration in poetry: the yellow bird, about to inform the poem’s audience of what has transpired, assumes a good vantage point from which it can survey the ritual scene and transmit its observations. In ritual time, the appearance of the bird signals the moment when preparations have ended, when participants and observers alike are in their proper places and the ritual can unfold; in narrative time, the bird announces to the poem’s audience that the account to follow is based on something that was once observed in real time.

56The drama proper begins with the identification of the victims, one by one. Perhaps the question, “Who follows Lord Mu?” was posed by the ritual master in charge of the proceedings. Perhaps the victim then stepped forward and called out his own name in response: “Yanxi of the Ziju.” If we see the victims themselves as the respondents, the calling out of their own names would indicate that they are, within the context of the ritual, willing to assume their role and face death: they are answering the call.

  • 60 I thank Prof. J.N. Bremmer for suggesting this interpretative possibility during the conference.

57The following lines—at least if we set aside Zheng Xuan’s reading of them— contrast the victim’s great prowess in life with the terrible fear that grips him as he stands besides his tomb. Within the context of the ritual, this represents the moment of annihilation, the moment of death’s terrible and equalizing impact, in which, whatever one’s station in life, the prospect of looming death—possibly a slow and dark one—inspires unpredictable emotions. The lines are written from a third person’s perspective: someone is witnessing a great hero die in fear. The lines do not necessarily express sympathy with the victim or disbelief about what is happening. Could an impersonator of Lord Mu have spoken them during the actual sacrifice? On behalf of Lord Mu, the latter might have, with satisfaction and perhaps a touch of irony,60 acknowledged the sacrifice, thus taking note of the tangible power that Lord Mu exerted, even in death, and even over the most powerful and courageous of his subjects. Alternately, we could be listening to the yellow bird’s description of what it saw from its vantage point as the victims were actually entombed.

58The last part of each stanza contains an address to heaven, “you Gray One, Heaven, you slay our best men,” followed by the statement that if the life of that victim could have been ransomed, up to one hundred lesser men would have been needed. “If this one could be ransomed, for his life, a hundred.” The “our” (wo 我) before “best men” indicates that the speaker of these lines forms part of the community that had to give up its most excellent members. Presumably the “our,” more than any other word in the poem, guided the early commentators to read “yellow Bird” as an expression of the men of Qin’s grief. While I agree with the early interpreters that both the community and its grief are essential elements in the last lines of the poem, I believe that these lines too can be interpreted as a reference to an inherent part of the ritual and need not be seen as reactions after the event. It is significant that the lines are spoken to Heaven, not Lord Mu, and that they indicate no opposition to the practice of retainer sacrifice as such, but rather seek to quantify the cost in human resources entailed in the deaths of each of the three men. Could the lines be read as an announcement to the gods that the sacrifice they demanded had been made, and that it was, as required at a ruler’s funeral, a very dear and costly one? Could it be that in describing and quantifying the magnitude of the sacrifice demanded of them, the community not only absolved Lord Mu from all the blame—he too was either carrying out the will of the gods or was now one of them—but also highlighted, perhaps even with pride, the greatness of their polity and of their deceased ruler, a greatness that is commensurate with the extent of the gods’ demands? According to this interpretation of the poem’s last lines, the ritual, taken as a whole, would have united the community rather than, as traditional commentators postulated, divided it between Lord Mu, who benefited from the sacrifice as a recipient, and the men of Qin who mourned and/or criticized the loss. Both groups, indeed, would be complicit in seeking to counterbalance the death of their ruler with a commensurable offering of retainers. Hence, the ritual reading, in contrast to the early interpretation, refuses to separate Qin’s population from its ruler and postulates that the community as a whole supported the retainer sacrifice, however painful and however prominent the men that were sacrificed.

59The ritual reading, by its very nature, would also downplay the historical importance of the three men who were sacrificed. Rather than seeing them as men whose sacrifice caused a historical backlash against the practice, due to the men’s unique importance to the community, this reading regards them as exemplars who, by their very individuality, also represent the many other prominent men and women sacrificed at the time of various Qin rulers. In other words, while the fact that the men are named and historically located may well heighten the dramatic impact of the poem, the poem might, simultaneously, be an account of the sacrifice of Yanxi, Zhonghang, and Qianhu of the Ziju clan, and a commemoration of retainer sacrifice as practiced in Qin that goes beyond the individual fates of the three men.

  • 61 A.B. Seligman et al., Ritual and its Consequences: an Essay on the Limits of Sincerity, Oxford, 200 (...)

60In this manner, the ritual reading sheds light on both the early interpretation and the one proposed by Zheng Xuan. The early interpretation sees the sacrifice as an exceptional event in which the ruler of Qin, foolishly, causes the death of three excellent men who could have served the state well and provokes an outpouring of grief that sets the men of Qin against their ruler. This interpretation can be criticized for failing to address the wider phenomenon of retainer sacrifice and even for implicitly condoning the practice as long as its costs to society are kept within reasonable limits. Zheng Xuan’s classicizing interpretation, on the other hand, almost becomes a celebration of the practice of retainer sacrifice. While nominally criticizing Lord Mu, this classicizing interpretation admires the spirit of self-sacrifice that the ruler generated on his behalf. Compared to the ritual reading, Zheng Xuan’s understanding of “Yellow Bird” appears as one that puts undue emphasis on the sincerity of the victims’ emotions.61

Notes

1 B. Trigger, Understanding Early Civilizations: A Comparative Study, Cambridge, 2007, p. 88- 89. A. Testart, Les Morts d’accompagnement. La servitude volontaire I, Paris, 2004, on p. 40- 59, calls these “les morts d’accompagnement” and insists that they cannot be called sacrifices as they are not directed toward the gods; he surveys the evidence from ancient China.

2 Huang Zhanyue 黃展岳, Gudai rensheng renxun tonglun 古代人牲人殉通論, Beijing, 2004, p. 255-287.

3 For introductions to the Odes, see S. Owen, “Foreword,” in A. Waley (trans.) and J. Allen (ed.), The Book of Songs, xii vv, New York, 1996; M.E. Lewis, Writing and Authority in Early China, Albany, 1999, p. 147-193; M. Nylan, Five “Confucian” Classics, New Haven, 2001, p. 72-119.

4 Particularly in the form of widow suicide; for an overview article on this issue, see P.S. Ropp, “Passionate Women: Female Suicide in Late Imperial China: Introduction,” Nan Nü 3.1 (2001), p. 3-21.

5 Trans. S. Owen, An Anthology of Chinese Literature: Beginnings to 1911, New York, 1996, p. 26-27. I removed the hyphens in the proper names from the translation.

6 On the Spring and Autumn Period, see HSU Cho-yun, “The Spring and Autumn Period,” in M. Loewe, E.L. Shaughnessy (eds.), The Cambridge History of Ancient China: From the Origins of Civilization to 221 B.C., Cambridge, 1999, p. 545-586.

7 S. Van Zoeren, Poetry and Personality: Reading, Exegesis, and Hermeneutics in Traditional China, Stanford, 1991, p. 52-79; Nylan, o.c. (n. 3), p. 78-79.

8 Zuozhuan treats the years between 722 and 468; recent monographs in English on the text are LI Wai-yee, The Readability of the Past in Early Chinese Historiography, Cambridge-London, 2007; Y. Pines, Foundations of Confucian Thought: Intellectual Life in the Chunqiu Period, 722-453 B.C.E, Honolulu, 2002; and D. Schaberg, A Patterned Past: Form and Thought in Early Chinese Historiography, Harvard, 2001.

9 Chunqiu Zuozhuan zhu 546-549 (Wen 6).

10 Shi ji 5.194-195.

11 Yang Bojun, in his commentary to the Zuozhuan passage, is of the opinion that Shi ji, by using the term cong si, denies that the three men were murdered; Chunqiu zuozhuan zhu, 547. This is presumably because he accepts Zheng Xuan’s understanding of cong si, to be discussed in the next section, as ‘to commit suicide in order to go with in death 自殺以從死.’ Other passages in Shi ji that deal with the retainer sacrifice at the time of Duke Mu’s funeral nonetheless use the term xun, thus undermining Yang’s explanation; see Shi ji 14.602 and 130.3302.

12 In the context of the Zuozhuan this would actually mean “men of the capital or court,” those living within the walled city. However, I use “men of the state” to allow for continuity in the translation. Indeed, when the expression was adopted in the Han prefaces (see below) it was used as an equivalent of “the men of Qin.”

13 The noble man’s comments frequently interrupt the narrative of the Zuozhuan. See E. Henry, “‘Junzi yue’ versus ‘Zhongni yue’ in Zuozhuan,” Harvard Journal of Asiatic Studies, 59.1 (1999), p. 125-161 and LI, o.c. (n. 8), p. 405-407.

14 The noble man’s point was certainly not universally accepted; Han and Tang commentators such as Gao You 高誘 (d. 205 CE) and Yan Shigu 顏師古 (581-645) feature Lord Mu in their list of five hegemons. See Wang Liqi 王利器, Lüshi chunqiu zhushu 呂氏春秋注疏, 4 vols, Chengdu, 2002, p. 1100-1, and Han shu 14.391.

15 J. Van Dijk, “Retainer Sacrifice in Egypt and in Nubia,” in J.N. Bremmer (ed.), The Strange World of Human Sacrifice, Leuven, 2007, p. 153-156, puts forward the thesis that economic factors might have been more important than ideological ones in ending the practice of retainer sacrifice in the case of Egypt and Nubia. That the noble man, whose comments presumably constitute one of the earliest layers of criticism of the practice of retainer sacrifice in early China, offers mostly utilitarian arguments seems to confirm van Dijk’s point also for China. The Mozi 墨子 also mentions the practice of retainer sacrifice in its description of opulent funerals—citing sumptuary regulations that stipulate minimum and maximum number of victims the Son of Heaven, generals, or ministers can demand upon their deaths; however, the text does not return to the specific practice when it rehearses its utilitarian arguments against copious burials; Mozi zhuzi suoyin, 6.6/39/13.

16 Liji zhuzi suoyin, 4.38/26/23-4; a similar story is found in Zuozhuan where Wei Ke 魏顆 opts not to comply with his father’s order to sacrifice his sonless concubine by co-burying her in his father’s tomb; instead he follows an earlier order his father issued before he became incapacitated by illness to remarry the woman. Wei Ke is later rewarded for his decision by victory in battle; Chunqiu Zuozhuan zhu (Xuan 2), p. 763-764.

17 M. Nylan, “Classics without Canonization, Reflections on Classical Learning and Authority in Qin (221-210 BC) and Han (206 BC-AD 220),” in J. Lagerwey, M. Kalinowski (eds.), Early Chinese Religion, Part One, Shang through Han (1250 BC - AD 220), Leiden, 2008, p. 721-777.

18 This point is also noted, with indignation, in Chao Fulin 晁福林, “Shangbo jian Shilun yu Shijing Huangniao tanlun” 上博簡《詩論》與《詩經黃鳥》探論, Jianghai xuekan 江海學 刊 5 (2002), p. 138.

19 Van zoeren, o.c. (n. 7), p. 84-95.

20 Ibid., p. 86.

21 Han shu, 81.335-6. If Kuang is indeed among the first to interpret the three men’s death as voluntary, that would fit quite well with the findings of recent scholars who posit that a major scholarly transition occurred towards the end of the first century BCE ( “the classical turn”). See Nylan, l.c. (n. 17). Others do not make such fine differentiations within the Han dynasty. Yang Bojun, for one, is of the opinion that the view that the three men committed suicide is a Han invention tout court; Chunqiu zuozhuan zhu, 547. He also subsumes Shi ji’s interpretation among those Han interpretations. Also Chao Fulin 晁福林 would rather categorize Shi ji WITH ZHEng Xuan’s classicizing interpretation; he bases his view on Shi ji 130.3302 where Lord Mu is said to “have uprightness on his mind” si yi 思義; this, however, applies to an altogether different episode from Lord Mu’s biography in which he refrains from punishing generals who had suffered defeat because he realized the whole campaign was an unjust one; Chao, l.c.
(n. 18), p. 137; Shi ji 5.190-2.

22 WangRongbao 汪榮寶, Fa yan yishu 法言義疏, 2 vols, Beijing, 1987, p. 395-397.

23 Shi ji 5.195, n. 4; Han shu 81.3336, n. 3.

24 Shisanjing zhushu, vol. 2, 64.5b-6a (p. 243).

25 Shisanjing zhushu, vol. 2, 64.5b (p. 243).

26 One element that I will not treat is the idea, mentioned by Kong Yingda, that the person criticized in Yellow Bird is not Lord Mu, but his son and successor, Lord Kang, for actually carrying out the sacrifice. This reading not only absolves Lord Mu of blame, but also transforms the retainer sacrifice from systemic practice to random event.

27 Also noted in Chao, l.c. (n. 18), p. 138.

28 Cao Zijian ji 5.9b-10a.

29 See infra n. 32.

30 Wang Xianqian 王先謙, Shi sanjia yi ji shu 詩三家義集疏, 2 vols, Beijing, 2009 [1987], p. 452-453. Wang’s worry is understandable given that he lived at a time when China was overrun with foreigners eager to point out deficiencies in Chinese culture. The missionary Doolittle (1824-1880), for example, wrote the following, after an extensive description of a case of widow suicide that occurred in the area where he worked, “After a description of customs, not simply ridiculous and nonsensical, but manifestly injurious to society, as well as superstitious and sinful, I feel very often like making some improvement or reflections. I am sure, however, that at the end of this chapter it is quite unnecessary for me to take up time and space in doing so; for if the careful reader has not had his attention arrested and his indignation aroused while reading an account of some of these customs, it would be useless for me to attempt to say any thing now, designed to point out their horrible character and their pernicious influence;” J. Doolittle, Social Life of the Chinese: with Some Accounts of Their Religious, Governmental, Educational and Business Customs and Opinions, with Special but not Exclusive Reference to Fuhchau, vol. 1, New York, 1865, p. 115.

31 R.W. Bagley, “Shang Archaeology,” in M. Loewe, E.L. Shaughnessy (eds.), The Cambridge History of Ancient China: From the Origins of Civilization to 221 B.C., Cambridge, 1999, p. 192-194.

32 The tomb of Lord Mu was long believed to be within what is now Fengxiang city, at a site marked as such by the Qing scholar Bi Yuan 畢沅 (1730-1797), but one that is now regarded by archaeologists as architectural remains of the Warring States period within the Qin capital of Yong; JiaoNanfeng 焦南峰, “Shaanxi Qin Han kaogu wushi nian zongshu” 陜西秦漢考古 五十年綜述, Kaogu yu wenwu 考古與文物, 6 (2008), p. 102. The Kuodi zhi 括地志, quoted in a commentary to the Shi ji passage on “Yellow Bird,” provides locations for both the tomb of Lord Mu and for the three men of Ziju; the tomb of the three, according to the text, is not at the same site as Lord Mu’s; neither site mentioned in Kuodi zhi is close to the Qin rulers’ cemetery where Lord Mu’s tomb is believed to be; Shi ji 5.195, n. 2 and 4. For Xu Weimin’s 徐 衛民 identification of one of the tombs in the Qin rulers’ cemetery as Lord Mu’s, see Gan Xiaohua 甘小華, “Lüe lun Qin de renxun wenhua” 略論秦的人殉文化, Xi’an caijing xueyuan xuebao 西安財經學院學報 21.4 (2008), p. 15.

33 Jiao Nanfeng 焦南峰 reports one additional victim, a stable hand, found in 2006; Jiao, l.c. (n. 32), p. 109.

34 Huang, o.c. (n. 2), p. 235-236; Gan, l.c. (n. 32), p. 15.

35 Tian Yaqi 田亞岐, “Guanzhong Qin mu xunzang zhidu yanjiu” 關中秦墓殉葬制度研究, in Qingguoji: Jilin Daxue Kaogu Zhuanye chengli ershizhounian kaogu lunwenji 靑果集吉林大學 考古專業成立二十周年考古論文集, Beijing, 1993, p. 215-217.

36 Huang Zhanyue 黃展岳, author of two monographs on human sacrifice in early China, disclaims this based on the passages from Kuodi zhi referred to above; Huang, o.c. (n. 2), p. 235. However, given that the Kuodi zhi dates from the Tang period, and was certainly imbued with the classicizing interpretation, we cannot take it at face value.

37 More and more scholars agree that the practice of retainer sacrifice implied that Shang had to be categorized as a slave society; for an account of the evolution of these debates in the second half of the twentieth century, see Xie Ji 謝濟, “Guo Moruo Yin Shang renxun rensheng yanjiu de yiyi he yinxiang” 郭沫若殷商人殉人牲研究的意義和影響, Guo Moruo xuekan 郭沫若學 刊 68.2 (2004), p. 27-32. For the view that the Qin state, in contradistinction to the Eastern states, was also a slave society up till the reign of Lord Xian 獻 (r. 385-362), see Chen Shaodi 陳紹棣, “Dong Zhou Qinguo renxun rensheng yu shehui fengmao” 東周秦國人殉人牲与社 會風貌, Zhongyuan wenwu 中原文 物 2 (1989), p. 25-26.

38 L. Von Falkenhausen, Chinese Society in the Age of Confucius (1000-250 BC): The Archaeological Evidence, Los Angeles, 2006, p. 233-239.

39 LIang Yun 梁雲, “Cong Qin muzangsu kan Qin wenhua de xingcheng” 從秦墓葬俗看秦文 化的形成, Kaogu yu wenwu 考古與文物 1 (2008), p. 58-59. Other scholars suggest that Qin acquired the practice only during the Eastern Zhou period; Tian, l.c. (n. 35), p. 214; Huang, o.c. (n. 2), p. 230.

40 Thus the presence or absence of human sacrifice becomes a yardstick of civilization; for example, the fact that no evidence of human sacrifice was found at the newly discovered Jinsha site (in the capital of Sichuan province), reflecting a culture roughly contemporaneous with late Shang, spurred the authors of the museum’s catalogue to speculate that “sacrificial activities of this ancient Shu kingdom in a remote region in southwest China might have been more civilized and progressive than those in central China of the same period;” Chengdu Jinsha Site Museum (2006), p. 86.

41 Human and retainer sacrifice was also practiced in other parts of the Zhou world during the Spring and Autumn and Warring States periods, and different authors draw very different conclusions from that fact. Von Falkenhausen, excluding from the discussion the tombs of Qin rulers, notes that “the frequency of tombs with human victims and the numbers of victims per tomb (up to five, except for rulers’ tombs) do not seem to differ much from what may be observed contemporaneously and at comparable rank levels in other areas of the Zhou cultural sphere, especially in the east and south;” L. Von Falkenhausen, “Mortuary Behavior in Pre-Imperial Qin: A Religious Interpretation,” in J. Lagerwey (ed.), Religion and Chinese Society, Vol 1: Ancient and Medieval China, Hong Kong, 2004, p. 129. Chen, l.c. (n. 37), who included the Qin rulers’ tombs in his statistics, came to the opposite conclusion and posits that human sacrifice was practiced in Qin on a far grander scale than in the Eastern states; Ibid. 23vv. Liang Yun states that human sacrifice virtually does not occur in tombs belonging to aristocrats related to the royal Zhou Ji 姬 family; he classifies those places in the Zhou world where human sacrifice was practiced as Eastern barbarian (dong yi 東夷), thus emphasizing the communality between the cultures of Shang, Qin, and the Eastern barbarians; Liang, l.c. (n. 39), p. 58-59.

42 Shi ji 5.183; Huang, o.c. (n. 2), p. 230-234.

43 Trigger, o.c. (n. 1), p. 89. According to Van Dijk “The custom occurs… only in societies with centralized power in the person of a king or chief who has control over the lives of his retainers, and who is seen as having a special relationship with the supernatural, not in more equalitarian societies; VanDijk, o.c. (n. 15), p. 151.

44 Many of the poems in the “Airs of Qin” section make reference to the Qin rulers’ pattern of conspicuous consumption: A. Waley (trans.), and J. Allen (ed.), The Book of Songs, New York, 1996, p. 126-135. There is also a striking difference in scale between the tombs of the Qin rulers and those of even high-ranking aristocrats; see VonFalkenhausen, l.c. (n. 41).

45 B. Trigger, Early Civilizations: Ancient Egypt in Context, Cairo, 1993, p. 98 and o.c. (n. 1), p. 88.

46 Wang Xinlei 王鑫磊, “Qin feng huang niao yu Zhou Qin wenhua chongtu tanlun: Shijing Qinfeng Huangniao zhi wenhua beijing kaoxi” 《秦風黃鳥》與周秦文化沖突探論《詩經秦 風黃鳥》 之文化背景考析, Dong Yue luncong 東岳論叢 30.8 (2009), p. 83-87.

47 Tian, l.c. (n. 35), p. 212; T.H. Barrett, “Human Sacrifice and Self-sacrifice in China: A Century of Revelations,” in J.N. Bremmer (ed.), The Strange World of Human Sacrifice, Leuven, 2007, p. 252 is similarly torn by the issue of whether widows committed suicide voluntarily or not; on the voluntary nature of human sacrifice, see J.N. Bremmer, “Human Sacrifice: A Brief Introduction,” in J.N. Bremmer (ed.), The Strange World of Human Sacrifice, Leuven, 2007, p. 4.

48 For a philosopher’s attempt to pinpoint the difference between human interactions that involve “the expression of feeling” and purely ceremonious interactions, see J. Skorupski, Symbol and Theory: A Philosophical Study of Theories of Religion in Social Anthropology, Cambridge, 1976, p. 78-80.

49 Skorupski, o.c. (n. 48), p. 1-66; P. Moyaert, Iconen en Beeldverering: Godsdienst als Symbolische Praktijk, Amsterdam, 2007, p. 172-192 [Icons and Image Worship. Religion as Symbolic Practice].

50 Trigger, o.c. (n. 45), p. 98.

51 Li ji zhuzi suoyin, 4.34/26/9-11.

52 Li ji zhuzi suoyin, 4.38/26/23-24. In most cases in the early Chinese archaeological record human victims share the tomb but not the coffin.

53 Chunqiu Zuozhuan zhu, vol. 4, 1214 (Zhao 1); Shisanjing zhushu, vol. 6, 41.16 (p. 703).

54 Even though Wang Hui is of the opinion that Lord Jing was making a very sound political judgment in seeking to sacrifice his brother, insofar as, with one stroke, he would force his brother into submission and prevent him from claiming power after his own death; Wang Hui 王輝, “Lun Qin Jinggong” 論秦景公, Shixue yuekan史學月刊 3 (1989), p. 21-22.

55 M. Kern, “Bronze inscriptions, the Shangshu, and the Shijing: The Evolution of the Ancestral Sacrifice during the Western Zhou,” in Lagerwey – Kalinowski (eds.), o.c. (n. 17), p. 173 n. 94.

56 In the case of some other poems, Confucius’ remarks on the Odes found in the Kongzi shilun 孔子詩論, an archaeologically retrieved text dated to ca. 300 BCE that is housed in the Shanghai Museum, have been helpful in detecting alternative early interpretative traditions. While there are remarks in the text on a poem called “Yellow Bird,” they most likely pertain to another poem by that title in the Odes. Chao Fulin’s efforts to interpret these remarks in regard to the “Yellow Bird” of the “Airs of Qin” section seem forced; Chao, l.c. (n. 18).

57 Chunqiu Zuozhuan zhu, 1273 (Zhao 6).

58 CHEN Zhi, The Shaping of the Book of Songs: From Ritualization to Secularization, Sankt Augustin, 2007, p. 262-75.

59 Nylan, o.c. (n. 3), p. 78-80; S. Davis, Song and Silence: Ethnic Revival on China’s Southwest Borders, New York, 2005, p. 12-20.

60 I thank Prof. J.N. Bremmer for suggesting this interpretative possibility during the conference.

61 A.B. Seligman et al., Ritual and its Consequences: an Essay on the Limits of Sincerity, Oxford, 2008.
I substantially revised the original conference paper during a Sabbatical year spent at the Institute of Philosophy at the KU Leuven, Belgium. I thank Stefaan Cuypers for generously hosting me, and Carine Defoort, Nicolas Standaert, Michael Nylan, and Sara Vantournhout for commenting on earlier drafts.

Auteur

McGill University
Associate Professor at the Department of History and Classical Studies at McGill University. She specializes in the history of early China, particularly the intellectual, social, and political history of the early imperial period. She has published on texts such as Huainanzi, Shi ji, and Shangshu dazhuan, seeking to understand the intersection of these texts with the historical environments that gave birth to them.

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