Jan 12, 2018 in Informative

Education and the Way of the Former Kings

The main idea of Constance Cook’s “Education and the Way of the Former Kings” is that the Zhou dynasty became the source to a variety of poetic and literary traditions in ancient China. Cook provides an account of how literature and education practices evolved in different traditions that stemmed from the Zhou and summarizes their common features. The advancement of cultural practices and certain rhetorical norms is explored up to end of the Warring States period. Cook reveals the major pattern that the spread of these practices followed historically: literacy that came from the Zhou tradition dispersed around four regions and several courts; by the end of the Warring States period, literacy reached the edges and the peripheries of the imagined empire of the Zhou. It shifted from mere knowledge of lineage narratives to knowledge of common literary approaches. Literary texts became the tool of political manipulation. 

From the research by Constance Cook, it becomes evident that the poetic and literary tradition in ancient China developed in its unique way. By the end of the period of Warring States, its major feature was domination by literati that came from the elite. Literature knowledge was interpreted as a sign of power. Other distinctive features were: domination of a clan elder in literacy control; formation of the core of literary awareness through knowledge of lineage narratives; the spread of the literary tradition in the manner inspired by the Zhou tradition; special role of ritual teachers as independent creators of the texts; and the height of literary knowledge represented by the ability to create long texts and operate numerous theories, both political and religious. 

After the disintegration of the Zhou state, Zhou rhetoric was gradually losing its significance in literary tradition. In the Eastern Zhou period, the move from the so-called Zhou ancestral model took place. Spring and Autumn inscriptions either included a pre-Zhou sage or none. Music and active social setting became increasingly important for literary tradition of Qin, Jin, and Chu. The general demise of the Zhou structure was followed by new cosmic ideologies. Namely, understanding oneself as a certain superior incarnation of ancestral “dé” was replaced by the mode when one started to perceive oneself as a coagulation of qi – “the cosmic vapour that composed all material objects” (p.312).

In Qin court, the coming-of-age inscriptions followed the structure of Western Zhou model of response narratives. The response narrative began with a patriarch’s address to the audience which contains referrals to his lineage empowerment. Secondly, the patriarch provided testimony of accurately following the earlier described ancestral model. Thirdly, he focused on the successful ascendance to leadership position and prayed for control of the world. Despite the fact there are a few radically different features, Qin literature is said to be closely related to Zhou tradition.

In Jin court, the literary tradition was related to that of Qin, as well as to that of Chu. The structure and style of coming-of-age inscriptions were very close to Qin, yet included traces of Chu. Similarly to Qin, Jin’s coming-of-age ceremony was structured in tripartite way, included lots of binoms, and had clear relation to the Book of Poetry and Book of Documents. Yet, the contents of the second and third parts were a bit different, besides, Jin clearly attributed themselves to Zhou founders, unlike Qin.

In Chu court, the linguistic features bore clear resemblance to the courts in Zhou homeland, namely Jin and Qin. At the same time, there were significant differences in literary tradition. That was especially evident in Yizhe’s record. It had no reference to Zhou. It had its own concept of governmental dé. Moreover, its specific feature was the use of dance descriptors and a peculiar structure of a linear narrative (which was embedded in prayer). References to the ritual sounds display some connections to Zhou tradition, but there is a greater emphasis on bells role and bell descriptions than in Jin and Qin. This role of music was a unifying feature for the three.  Another unifying feature was emphasis on ancestral worship. 

In Qi court, the bell tradition of inscriptions differed from the one in Chu. The Qi inscription along with the response included the award speech. In later variants, the lineage history was provided by the gift giver rather than placed in the response section. Its distinctive feature was the so-called “polyvocal structure” found in award statements (p.326).  The major difference was lineage alliances. They linked their lineage to pre-Zhou ancestry and then to Shang. At the same time, main phrases used by Qi display their connection to the style of the Zhou.

The Yue style, similarly to the one found in Qi, was related to “archaic ring” (p.330). Similarly to Chu, the Yue linked their lineage to the king rather than patriarch. The inscriptions demonstrate that they used the shared knowledge of Qin and Jin.  Yet, their inscription did not follow the response style.     

In summary, despite there were regional variations in literary traditions across the regions, all of them bore certain similarities with the Zhou tradition. These similarities may be found in the text structure, linguistic features, use of bells, and tracing their lineage. Despite the fact that these traditions were nurtured in the periphery of the former Zhou state, they reached the high level of literary development.

Related essays