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Presence and Praise: Writing the Imperial Body in Han China


The ruler’s body in early Chinese literature—whether silent and tranquil or bearing the scars of restless public toil; whether emanating light from the depths of the palatial chambers or displaying charisma while traversing the empire—has served as an idiom for the articulation of competing ideals of rulership, governance, and bureaucratization. This work takes the idiom of the ruler’s body and the language of imperial representation as the primary object of scrutiny. It analyzes prevalent rhetorical and literary patterns in light of observations gained in the cross-cultural study of the royal body, metaphor in political discourse, and theories of representation. In particular, I am interested in the way top-down representation, of the ruler by his officials, was conceptualized and advocated in bodily terms, giving rise to some of the most common figures in early Chinese literature. This attention to the work of language in the political discourse of the early imperial period reveals some of the unique features of Chinese theories of monarchy, and brings to light paradigms that structure the literary representation of rulers and rulership across seemingly incompatible genres.

The main texts that drive the inquiry in the three core chapters date from two middle points in the long span of the Han dynasty (206 BCE – 220 CE): the reign of Emperor Cheng成帝 (r. 33 – 7 BCE) in the late Western Han, and the reign of Emperor Zhang章帝 (r. 75 – 88) in the early Eastern Han. The first chapter takes Liu Xiang’s劉向 (79 – 8 BCE) Shui yuan說苑 as the gate to an ongoing intertextual discourse of rulership and bureaucratization, looking in particular at metaphors that take the ruler’s body as the source domain. I show, in the second chapter, that some of the conceptual paradigms that structure such figurative constructions in the discourse of authority and delegation underlie literary strategies that support the goals of the ruler’s encomiasts. At the center of analysis in this chapter is Cui Yin’s崔駰 (d. 92) “Four Panegyrics for the Imperial Tours” 四巡頌—a text that fell under the radar of most early-China scholars, East and West, due to a long interruption in its transmission. In the third chapter, focusing on the summaries and evaluations Ban Gu 班固 (32 – 92) had appended to the imperial chronicles of the Han shu 漢書 (History of the Han), I argue that awareness to the poetics of praise is instrumental to the study not only of the rhetorical construction of the ruler’s body but also the language of imperial historiography.

This work thus examines the relation between metaphor and politics, body and representation, and history and praise so as to highlight features of the early Chinese discourse of rulership that will have hermeneutical and analytical value for scholars of Chinese literature, political thought, and theories of monarchy across cultures.

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