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To Become a God

To Become a God: Cosmology, Sacrifice, and Self-Divinization in Early China

Michael J. Puett
Volume: 57
Copyright Date: 2002
Edition: 1
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  • Book Info
    To Become a God
    Book Description:

    Evidence from Shang oracle bones to memorials submitted to Western Han emperors attests to a long-lasting debate in early China over the proper relationship between humans and gods. One pole of the debate saw the human and divine realms as separate and agonistic and encouraged divination to determine the will of the gods and sacrifices to appease and influence them. The opposite pole saw the two realms as related and claimed that humans could achieve divinity and thus control the cosmos. This wide-ranging book reconstructs this debate and places within their contemporary contexts the rival claims concerning the nature of the cosmos and the spirits, the proper demarcation between the human and the divine realms, and the types of power that humans and spirits can exercise. It is often claimed that the worldview of early China was unproblematically monistic and that hence China had avoided the tensions between gods and humans found in the West. By treating the issues of cosmology, sacrifice, and self-divinization in a historical and comparative framework that attends to the contemporary significance of specific arguments, Michael J. Puett shows that the basic cosmological assumptions of ancient China were the subject of far more debate than is generally thought.

    eISBN: 978-1-68417-041-8
    Subjects: Religion, History
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Table of Contents

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  1. Front Matter (pp. i-xii)
  2. Table of Contents (pp. xiii-xviii)
  3. Introduction (pp. 1-30)

    Long ago, in the time before there existed Heaven and Earth, there was only figure without form. Obscure, dark, vast, and deep—no one knows its gate. There were cwo spirits (shen神) born together; they aligned Heaven, they oriented Earth. So vase—no one knows its end or limit! So overflowing—no one knows where it stopped! Thereupon, they divided and became yin and yang, separated and became the eight pillars. Hard and soft completed each other, and the myriad things were thereupon formed. The turbidqi奇 became insects, and the refined qi became humans.¹

    The passage is...

  4. 1 Anthropomorphizing the spirits: Sacrifice and Divination in Late Bronze Age China (pp. 31-79)

    In both strains of the secondary literature discussed in the Introduction, a common reading of the Chinese Bronze Age prevails: humans and spirits were seen as continuous and were perceived to be harmoniously linked. Moreover, this period is repeatedly seen as the formative era in Chinese his tory, the period when one first finds the assumption of a continuity between the human and divine realms that, the argument goes, thereafter pervades Chinese history.

    Weber saw this as a restricting aspect of Chinese culture, as did Roetz, who argued that it ultimately reversed the transcendental breakthrough of the Axial Age. Most...

  5. 2 Gaining the powers of spirits: The Emergence of Self-Divinization Claims in the Fourth Century BC (pp. 80-121)

    The fourth-century BC authors of this passage from the “Neiye” chapter of theGuanziare arguing for aqi-based cosmology in which spirits can understand the future not because they control it but because, as concentratedqi, everything resides within them. In a similar fashion, those humans who can concentrate theirqito the same degree as a spirit will also gain an understanding of auspiciousness without resorting to the arts of divination. As we will see, this statement is only one of a number of such claims voiced in this period about the abilities of humans to gain access...

  6. 3 Accepting the order of heaven: Humanity and Divinity in Zhuangzi and Mencius (pp. 122-144)

    In the previous chapter, I explored the emergence in the fourth century BC of claims that humans could gain divine powers or, more explicitly, of claims that humans had more direct access to divine powers chan was accepted in contemporary ritual practices. It is within this context, I will argue, that we must understand the thought of Zhuangzi and Mencius. I begin with Zhuangzi, focusing on his critique of the ritual specialists of the day and tracing his elaboration of the potentially divine aspects of humans-notions whose vocabulary is directly reminiscent of that of the “Neiye”—and his explanation of...

  7. 4 Descendants of the one: Correlative Cosmology in the Late Warring States (pp. 145-200)

    Let us return to the origin of the cosmos:

    Heaven and Earth had a beginning. Heaven was subtle so as to complete, and Earth blocked so as to give form. Heaven and Earth combining and harmonizing is the great alignment (jing) of generation (sheng).¹

    In the cosmogony sketched in the “Jingshen” chapter of theHuainanzi—the passage with which I opened this book—spirits aligned (jing) the cosmos.² This passage from the “Youshi” chapter of theLüshi chunqiu, a text that dates to around 240 BC, posits neither spirits nor Heaven as active agents in the formation of the cosmos....

  8. 5 The ascension of the spirit: Liberation, Spirit Journeys, and Celestial Wanderings (pp. 201-224)

    TheShiwen(Ten questions), one of the texts discovered at Mawangdui, discusses how one becomes a spirit, becomes liberated from one’s form, and as; cends to the heavens:

    Long life is generated through storing and accumulating. As for the increasing of this life, above one explores the Heavens, and below one distributes to the Earth. He who is capable will invariably become a spirit. He will therefore be able to be liberated from his form. He who clarifies the great way travels and traverses the clouds.¹

    Although this text was discovered fairly recently, the themes of liberation and ascension appear...

  9. 6 A theocracy of spirits: Theism, Theomorphism, and Alchemy in the Qin and Early Han Empires (pp. 225-258)

    In 218 BC, the First Emperor, in the twenty-ninth year of his reign, had an inscription carved on Mount Zhifu. It read in part:

    The bright potency of the August Thearch (Di) aligns (jing) and arranges (li) all within the universe.¹

    The Qin ruler, having entitled himselfhuangdi(lit. “august god”), notes that he has aligned the universe and given it patterns to follow. As we saw in Chapter 4, the termjingwas widely utilized to describe both the spontaneously generated alignment of the cosmos and, in the ascension literature, an adept’s surveying of the cosmos. Here, the claim...

  10. 7 Aligning and orienting the cosmos: Anthropomorphic Gods and Theomorphic Humans in the Huainanzi (pp. 259-286)

    A passage that we looked at briefly in the Introduction from the “Dixing” chapter of theHuainanzidescribes the process of self-cultivation in terms of a metaphor of climbing high mountain peaks:

    If one climbs twice as high as Kunlun, [the peak] is called the Mountain of Liang-feng. If one ascends it, one will not die. If one climbs twice as high, it is called Xuanpu. If one ascends it, one will become numinous and be able to control the wind and the rain. Twice as high, it stretches up to Heaven. If one climbs it, one will become a...

  11. 8 The sacrifices that order the world: Divine Kingship and Human Kingship in the Western Han (pp. 287-316)

    Following the destruction of the kingdom of Huainan, Emperor Wu enlarged the Han empire and created a new sacrificial system. Less than a century later, however, over the course of a series of extraordinary court debates, a group of ministers succeeded in eradicating significant portions of this sacrificial system and putting in its place cults to Heaven and Earth explicitly modeled on early Western Zhou practices described in theShangshu. In this chapter, I trace the history of these sacrificial systems and seek to understand what was at stake as well as the significance of the final outcome.

    I begin...

  12. Conclusion: Culture and History in Early China (pp. 317-324)

    At the end of the Western Han, the dominant conception of the cosmos was of a world organized by humans, ritually separate from, yet correlated with, Heaven and Earth. Kuang Heng’s model was a cosmological reading of narratives from theShangshuconcerning the Duke of Shao’s aligning of Luoyang: the king places his capital and thus determines the positions of Heaven and Earth. Heaven, Earth, and man are harmonized when each performs its proper cosmological duty. But it is only if we know the significance these ideas possessed in the early Han that we can understand the real concerns behind...

  13. Bibliography (pp. 327-344)
  14. Index (pp. 345-358)
  15. Back Matter (pp. 359-366)