Popular Culture and Books of Fate in Early China Planning Meeting

The September 10, 2011, planning meeting at the University of Chicago Center in Beijing, attracted scholars from three continents.

All day


Description of the Project

Since the 1970s archaeological excavations in China have produced many examples of a type of manuscript called rishu 日書 “day book.” The title rishu is written on one of two manuscript examples discovered in 1975 in Shuihudi tomb 11 (burial dated ca. 217 B.C.), and occurs on several manuscripts discovered since 1975. Day book manuscripts dated between the fourth and first centuries B.C. have been found in tombs that range from the most basic (a coffin in the ground) to increasingly elaborate tombs belonging to low-level government office-holders, high officials and aristocrats. Among the currently available day books, the content and its arrangement on the manuscript are remarkably consistent: including sections on calendrical and hemerological systems, astrology and magico-religious activity. All of the information was clearly intended to be used by a broad range of social groups in the course of everyday life, and the manuscripts themselves show signs of use by their owners prior to being placed with burial goods in tombs. Close examination of the day book manuscripts reveals that they represent a type of manuscript miscellany whose exact content varied according to the needs and wishes of the makers, readers, and users.

The day books are invaluable sources for many aspects of ancient Chinese culture, including divination, religion, and correlative thought. These aspects are to be addressed in the Project. The primary focus of the Project, however, is to examine the day books as realia, as texts that played a significant role in the everyday life of people belonging to different social groups, yet who shared a world view expressed in the day books. Inasmuch as day books were a household vade mecum and were intended to guide daily activities to ensure beneficial outcomes, their function was similar to literature in other premodern cultures such as almanacs and grimoires or occult chapbooks. Looking at day books from the perspective of their cultural influence, the Project directly addresses the issue of what constituted popular culture in ancient China, situates day books within the larger conceptual category of “books of fate” in ancient China as well as in later periods and undertakes cross-cultural study of “books of fate.”

At the present time there is keen interest in the day books among scholars in China and other East Asian countries. There have been brief presentations in Western languages but not a full examination of the day books that includes their multifaceted content as well as their cultural significance. The research undertaken in the Project addresses an urgent need for greater awareness on the part of Western scholars of this critical body of evidence for ancient Chinese culture. The Project is intended to fill a gap in sinological studies as well as to open the way to comparative studies in popular culture, manuscript culture and popular ideas about fate.

Organization of the Project

Institutional Affiliation

The Project is conceived as part of the scholarly exchange programs of the IRCH, University of Erlangen-Nüremberg, Ulrich-Schalk-Str. 3a, 91056, Erlangen, Germany (Internationales Kolleg für Geisteswissenschaftliche Forschung, Friedrich-Alexander-Universität, Erlangen-Nürnberg). Directors: Michael Lackner, Klaus Herbers, Thomas Fröhlich.

Coordinators of the Project

Donald Harper (Prof., University of Chicago, U.S.A.)

Marc Kalinowski (Prof., École pratique des hautes études, Paris, France)