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Heaven is Empty: A Cross-Cultural Approach to Religion and Human Agency in Early Imperial China


This dissertation is about the religious (extra-human) legitimation of political power during the Western Han dynasty (206 BCE- 9CE). It reexamines the correlation between religious, cultural, and political unity, closely analyzing Sima Qian's (ca. 145-86 BCE) Records of the Grand Historian (Shiji), the first universal narrative of Chinese civilization from its origins through the first century of the Western Han empire. This text became the model for all dynastic histories until 1911, when the imperial age came to an abrupt end. The contrast between Sima Qian's treatment of religious practices, official and unofficial, and accounts in the classical Greco-Roman historiography about imperial cults and propaganda provides an intriguing point of departure from which my thesis questions the applicability of paradigms imported and applied to the case of early China from the ancient Mediterranean world (e.g., “religion,” “metaphysics,” “divinity,” “sacred vs. secular,” “scripture,” “myth,” and “ritual”). This dissertation contributes to our understanding of the relationship between “religion,” “morality,” and “cultural identity” in China by calling into question those very categories. By adopting a comparative approach, it shows how the discourse on the sacred by historians and philosophers has been often informed by intellectual prejudices and pre-formed conceptions that have hindered the mutual understanding between East and West. To overcome these obstacles, this dissertation proposes a new trans-cultural attitude aimed both at the deconstruction of these ethnocentric biases and at the reconstruction of Sima Qian's own analytical criteria and concerns.

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