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The Rhetoric and Ritual of Celestial Signs in Early Imperial China


The Rhetoric and Ritual of Celestial Signs in Early Imperial China investigates the circulation of signs such as planets in retrograde motion, comets, oddly-shaped clouds, inclement weather, and rainbows in the Western Han (206 BCE–8 CE) and Eastern Han (25–220 CE) dynasties. Building on scholarship in the history of science and previous historical studies of omenology, the present work focuses on the rhetorical and ritual dimensions of celestial signs within broader political, literary, and technical networks. It examines technical treatises in the standard histories, manuscripts on astro-omenology from the tombs of the ruling family of Dai at Mawangdui (terminus ad quem 168 BCE), memorials to the throne, liturgical repertoires, poetic celestial journeys, and early exegetical works to illuminate how celestial signs both created discursive possibilities and were themselves shaped by generic contexts and performative goals. The dissertation argues that celestial signs became meaningful always in relation to surrounding contexts, as they were read against the constellations in which they appeared, historical circumstances, present conditions in the empire, and through the voices of the deities, supplicants, rulers, and ministers that invoked them. By examining a broad range of contexts in which celestial signs appeared, this dissertation contributes to a fuller and more balanced appreciation of the variegated roles celestial signs played in the shifting culture of early imperial China.

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