Wednesday, September 28, 2011

23. Chinese Zhou Ritual Vessel (China, 1100-1000 BC)

Gods, Ancestors, and the Mandate of Heaven in the Middle Kingdom.
This bronze vessel (see entry on the Jomon Pot, above) was made by a son to honor his dead father. The idea was, every few days, at least once a week, you brought food and drink and other gifts to the most recently dead generation; they, in the afterlife, would continue honoring their ancestors with part of what you gave them, as they had done all their lives while they were alive, and so on and on through infinity. It reminds me very much of the 33,000 gods of Hinduism, which developed into its current state thousands of years later, but has the same up-close and personal relationship with what’s being worshipped, i.e. a local god or an ancestor. In this case, as noted on an inscription on the bottom part of the vessel, the departed father was a conquering warrior of the Zhou (pronounced ‘Joe’) people, low-tech invaders from the steppes of central Asia who took over China from the Shang and began calling it the “Middle Kingdom,” i.e. in the center of the world between earth and heaven.

One of the things that’s interesting about the Zhou conquest of the Shang is that the concept of the “Mandate of Heaven” first became a big deal at this point in Chinese history. It’s the Chinese answer to the “Divine Right of Kings;” or perhaps it’s America’s goofy nineteenth-century idea about “Manifest Destiny.” Basically, the idea is that since we’re strong and in power, the gods/ancestors/powers must like us; therefore we should be able to do whatever we want. If you get conquered/ousted/pillaged/royally screwed over, that must mean that the gods don’t like you. The kind of reasoning that dehumanizes, to facilitate slavery and/or genocide. Superstitious immaturity, sanctified by state and religion...gotta love it!

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