The Way(s) of the Former Kings

Constance A Cook, Lehigh University
The Creation of the Way(s) of the Former Kings
WSWG 17, Leiden University, 17 September 2003

Constance A Cook

Beginning and First Section

This paper briefly explores the change in the meaning of "Way of the Former Kings" from the period of Zhou hegemony (politically ended in 771 BCE but culturally dominant throughout the Chunqiu period) and the Warring States period. The change is two-fold: (1) the identities of the Former Kings (xianwang) expands from the early Zhou kings to include all expands from the early Zhou kings to include all Zhou and pre-Zhou Sage Kings (shengwang), and (2) their social role evolved from being lineage cult objects of external worship (with internalized worship limited to particular lineage members at specified times) to objects of internalized worship or models of behavior and self-cultivation of a "way" (dao) to be followed constantly by anyone (who had been instructed, xue or jiao). This paper assumes that these changes accompanied the abstraction of religious terms earlier associated with more concrete practices and were the result of the conflict between the Ruists who attempted to preserve Zhou cultural norms and other groups, such as the Mohists, who did not.

The Former Kings

Until recently, scholars understood the identity of the Former Kings as represented by Western Zhou period bronze inscriptions to be limited to the Zhou kings, primarily Kings Wen and Wu. The recent discovery of a bronze vessel with an inscription dated by Chinese scholars to the early ninth century BCE challenges this view and has led some scholars to claim that chapters of the Shangshu previously dismissed as later forgeries should now be re-evaluated. This inscription begins with Heaven's command of Yu. In other Western Zhou inscriptions, the authority to rule began when Heaven commanded King Wen and descended from king to king down the Zhou lineage. In this inscription, there is the vague mention of wo wang "our king(s)" but his/their identity/ies remain anonymous; with no specific spirits named, none but Yu could be invoked into the ceremony for which this bronze was cast. Yu, not the Zhou kings, was the recipient of Heaven's mandate and had the subsequent authority to institute sacrifices "on his own" (zizuo) to Heaven and to inspect the de ("accumulated merit") of the "people" (min, understood to be elites and therefore possibly a reference to the Zhou)-but these rather late seeming sentiments are one of many reasons this is a highly unusual inscription. The only other inscriptions that mention Yu were made in Qin (early Chunqiu) and Qi (late Chunqiu) in the post-Zhou period. They, like this "Western Zhou" inscription, were dedicated by a gong (this place was not an emerging state power, but a small Zhou locality) and made no mention of former Zhou kings. Since these inscriptions are our earliest sources for the legend of Yu and his role as a Former King (outside of transmitted texts of unknown or dubious antiquity), we can fairly safely say that before the Warring States period there seemed to be at least two sets of Former Kings, one made up of the early Zhou kings and worshipped by those connected to the royal Zhou lineage, and one made up of (at least) Yu and worshipped by elites outside the Zhou lineage.

Next to Last Section

The Way

By the beginning of the Warring States period (and perhaps earlier), the word dao had clearly taken on the abstract sense of "course of action" in contrast to the earlier literal meaning of a "path" (in between fields as in the Western Zhou San Shi pan, or weed-covered as in the road to Zhou so difficult to travel as bemoaned in the Shijing). For the keepers of the Ru cult, the only course of action was that of Zhou ritual (li) and decorum (yi). Mengzi was offended by the music, outfits, and beliefs of his contemporaries. Proper sacrifices and ceremony-outer symbols of worship were essential to good government and a settled society. On the other hand, self cultivation and the development of the Unmoved Mind, a sign of the Junzi, was the inner aspect of this path. Passages in the Lunyu-possibly later interpolations -attest to a belief in Dao as a euphoric mental state. Appearing in what is now the first section, the disciple Youzi is credited with exclaiming that although many claim to understand and even to have reached a state of "harmony" only those who walk the path of the Former King have really achieved it. Here the dao was a path to an enlightened state of "harmony" (a word that originally described the music of chime bells), an acceptable state of being for the Daoist cultivation of natural forces-but the method is through a Zhou style of walking or practice. By the end of the Warring States period, the word dao connoted a process much broader than simply a power transmitted through cult worship of the Former Kings. The democratizing popular movements epitomized by the Mohist and Daoists understood the way as not only a moral pathway but a causeway of natural forces that anyone, like the Former Kings, could learn to cultivate and control. I would suggest that the transition from a concrete to abstract dao was aided not only by the Ruist need to assimilate competing philosophies into their "way" but also by the fact that the Zhou "way" was indeed so obscured by time and "weeds" that it was impossible to recover and, therefore, had to be reinvented.


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