University of Cambridge > > China Research Seminar Series > Witchcraft and the Rise of the First Confucian Empire (巫蛊之祸和儒家帝国的兴起)

Witchcraft and the Rise of the First Confucian Empire (巫蛊之祸和儒家帝国的兴起)

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This talk offers a new reading of the emergence of the first Confucian empire. It revives a hidden narrative in The Grand Scribe’s Records (Shi ji): the rich statistical data the founding father of Chinese historiography Sima Qian stored in his tabular charts and in voluminous fascinating stories. It shows that different from the standard paradigm that attributes Confucians’ political success to Emperor Wu (141–87 BCE ), only six of the seventy-seven officials—or 7.8 percent—who rose to prominence under his rule were regarded as Confucians by their contemporaries. Not only were Confucians a powerless minority in the political realm, but that during the first 120 years of the Western Han dynasty the learning community of the Five Classics also suffered from fragmentation. Endeavoring to negotiate and rectify this reality, Sima Qian invented a coherent ideological community that ignited Confucians’ collective consciousness and eventually contributed to its solidarity. This study argues that the eventual rise of Confucian officials and the emergence of Confucian schools took place only after a witchcraft scandal reconfigured the political power. Years of witch hunt at the end of Emperor Wu’s rule wiped out the established families in the court and gave birth to a new elite class, among whom was a group of Confucians. Providing a cosmological theory to legitimate the dictator Huo Guang and the commoner emperor Liu Bingyi, Confucians seized the right opportunity during the imperial crisis to realize their political dream, a dream that had been envisioned and pursued by the exemplary sage Confucius hundreds of years earlier.

This talk is part of the China Research Seminar Series series.

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