The Chinese University of Hong Kong Department of History Department of History
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Empowered by Imperial Ancestors: Ritual Politics and Ritualists in Northern Song Reforms

Principal Investigator

CHEUNG Hiu Yu Jack

Total Fund Awarded


Funding Source

Early Career Scheme

Abstract of Project

  Ancestral ritual serves as one of the key elements of Chinese culture. Considering the pivotal role played by ancestral ritual in shaping Chinese identity and traditional political culture in China, the proposed research explores the relationship between ritual and politics in Northern Song China (960-1127), during which ritual scholarship and statecraft underwent fundamental changes. With a focus on imperial ancestral rites, this research aims to demonstrate how Northern Song scholar-officials interpreted imperial ancestral rites as an effective ideological tool to influence real politics, such as the legitimacy of the ruling house, the degree of governmental centralization, and the role of the emperor. Specifically, this research examines scholar-officials’ endeavors to promote appropriate rituals in ancestral worship. By scrutinizing the writings of Song scholar-officials, this research shows how scholar-officials with different political stances actively participated in the discussions on various imperial rites, including the arrangement of ritual spaces, the performance of state sacrifices, and the creation of new ritual utensils. It elucidates not only the shifts in ritual scholarship throughout the eleventh century, but also the political interests underlying these discussions. It deepens our understanding of the mentality of Song scholar-officials by revealing the tension between their intellectual interests and political ends. A better understanding of their mentality contributes to a rethinking of Song political conflicts, especially the factional politics in the two celebrated reforms of the Northern Song period, the Minor Reform of the Qingli era 慶曆新政 and the Major Reform of the Xining-Yuanfeng eras 熙豐變法. Additionally, this research presents what has been a missing link in Chinese intellectual history by analyzing the interactions among Northern Song scholar-officials in terms of ritual theories. In addition to memorials and face-to-face debates at the court, commentaries and annotations on Confucian ritual Classics served as a significant way for Song ritualists 禮臣 to communicate with one another and present their own opinions. In this light, this research provides an insightful example of traditional Chinese scholars inventing new intellectual traditions based on the adaption and revision of established ones.

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