The Shape of the Turtle: Myth, Art, and Cosmos in Early China

The Shape of the Turtle: Myth, Art, and Cosmos in Early China

The Shape of the Turtle: Myth, Art, and Cosmos in Early China

The Shape of the Turtle: Myth, Art, and Cosmos in Early China

Synopsis

Many Chinese philosophic concepts derive from an ancient cosmology. This work is the first reconstructions of the mythic thought of the Shang Dynasty (ca. 1700- 1100 B.C.) which laid the foundation for later Chinese patterns of thought. Allan regards the myth, cosmology, divination, sacrificial ritual, and art of the Shang as different manifestations of a common religious system and each is examined in turn, building up a coherent and consistent picture. Although primarily concerned with the Shang, this work also describes the manner in which Shang thought was transformed in the later textual tradition.

Excerpt

This work has had a long gestation period and, as some readers will recognize, parts of it have been published previously in articles. It is essentially an attempt to answer certain questions which have puzzled me. Some of these questions were first brought to my attention when I was a graduate student at the University of California at Berkeley, studying with Peter Boodberg and Wolfram Eberhard, such as why is there so little myth in early Chinese texts and what was the shape of the cosmos in the minds of the early Chinese? Others I trace back to my undergraduate days at U.C.L.A. where I studied archaeology with Richard Rudolph and took a course in Chinese art history with J. Leroy Davidson, such as what is the meaning of the taotie on Shang Dynasty bronzes and what is the relationship between their decor and their ritual purpose? To David Keightley and David Nivison, I owe the problem of how Shang divination worked and to David Keightley, the admonition that I should be able to trace the origin of the structures of Warring States thought which I described in The Heir and the Sage: Dynastic Legend in Early China, although if I had taken this admonition seriously at the time, I would still be working to obtain my doctorate.

Some of these questions lead to even more fundamental ones. We cannot understand the problem of myth in early China without understanding the relationship of myth to the structure of religion, nor can we understand the meaning of the taotie without considering the problem of meaning in primitive art more generally. No attempt to answer such questions can be definitive. Indeed, any attempt is necessarily both speculative and incomplete and I offer my own solutions herein with a sense of trepidation, and in the belief that such questions must be addressed directly if we are to progress in our understanding of the development of early Chinese thought and if we are to achieve the more complete understanding of the range of possibilities of the human mind which the study of ancient China should allow us. However faulty my own solutions may be, they should at least provoke others to consider these problems.

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