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Spirits and the Soul in Confucian Ritual Discourse

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Journal of Chinese Religions

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As early as the Tang 唐 (618–907), Confucian scholars drew from classical sources to articulate a conception of spirits and the soul that provided a canonical foundation for imperial sacrifices performed by members of the court and bureaucracy to the end of the Qing 清 (1644–1911). Contrary to modern accounts, imperial-era commentaries on the Analects 論語 disclose the figure of Confucius as committed to pious sacrifices to gods and spirits. In commentaries on the Record of Rites 禮記 in the imperial edition of the Five Classics (Correct Meaning of the Five Classics 五經正義, 653), Kong Yingda 孔穎達 (574–648) propounds a detailed conception of spirits, ghosts, and the soul based on statements attributed to Confucius. Confucians from the Song 宋 (960–1279) through the Qing, including Zhu Xi 朱熹 (1130–1200) among others, built on this and other classical sources to formulate feasting rites 祭祀 devoted to gods and spirits. Confucian ritual discourse conceived of the soul as constituted by anima (hun 魂), which animated the body in life, and corporeal soul (po 魄), which constituted the physical senses. As a yang 陽 entity, anima was released from the body upon death and floated upward, whereas the yin 陰 corporeal soul decomposed into the earth. By realizing a state of ritual purity defined by integrity of will, inner reverence and piety, the filial descendant communed with the spirits by means of a process of his affection and the spirits’ response.

Hamilton Areas of Study

Asian Studies, History