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Waiting for the Unicorn: Perception of Time and History in Early Chinese Writings


In this dissertation I examine temporality as conceived in early Chinese historiography, through a systematic examination of four key works: the Mozi, the Zuozhuan, the Rishu;, and the Chu Silk Manuscript, all of them written during 4th through 1st century BCE. Each presents from a different perspective ideas about the mechanism of time and history. While only the Zuozhuan is commonly categorized as historical narrative, all four of these texts depend on records of the past to convey their worldview. In particular, I examine the ritual, performative, and supernatural elements that play a central role in these writings, as they are key to acquiring a deeper understanding of the prevailing concepts of time that shape thinking about history, and the narratives constructed to convey that history.

The dissertation, inspired by the "untimely" (bu shi) coming of the unicorn at the end of the Zuozhuan, traces the complex temporal issues surrounding the expected emergence of the ming jun, conventionally translated as "illuminated ruler". By teasing out the workings of prediction and prognostication that ground a shifting present in the imagined realms of a stable past and dependable future, I hope to uncover, not only how political and ethical questions contribute to the conceptualization of time, but also how time determines the nature and mechanism of history itself, as seen by the early writers.

My work in this area owes much to David Schaberg and Li Wai-yee, whose studies on the readability of written history and the decoding of the messages transmitted in the text through patterns and signs show that the pursuit of the past is not for the purpose of mere recording, but is instead a conscious effort to find answers applicable to the present. I argue that history writing aspired to the control and manipulation of historical time; by creating a narrative of the past and consolidating its multiple links to the future, the early Chinese writers of history--like (and in concert with) the diviners they wrote about--were able to explain it and, thus, to conquer it. Seen in this light, "knowing history" implies understanding and mastering the mechanisms that drive it; and, looking into the past is tantamount to "knowing" the future.

By studying philosophical and occult texts, such as Mozi and Rishu, I trace ideas of time that shape the historical narrative of Zuozhuan: where the ideas about the working of the universe come from, how they inspire history writing, and how they inform our reading and understanding of it. These features of time and history are part of a larger worldview and not confined to strictly historiographical writings. I explore the mechanistic nature of the time-agent in the Mozi treatise on ghosts "Ming gui"; and the Mohist religious doctrine. I demonstrate how the supernatural powers are believed to determine the course of history, and how this belief shapes the way history is recorded; a person, by collaborating with the supernatural, can assure a desired turn of events, and in this sense ghosts and spirits personify time. For example, I argue that Mohist thought reflects the mechanistic worldview of the contemporary daybooks, such as the Chu Silk Manuscript and Rishu, and uses preexisting beliefs and practices to build its own religious system. It is in the Rishu especially that the system of

timeliness and the power of prognostication are clearly exposed.

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