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Harmful Ancestors or Friendly Ghosts: Looking at Our Early Evidence on the Chinese Notion of Gui 鬼

Barend J. Ter Haar


Pages 269 - 306



Chinese religious culture changed considerably over time. The notion of gui, for instance, evolved from a term for often harmful ancestors to a more general term for ghosts. Ancestors changed from threatening creatures into a much more sedate form only in the early imperial period. When we study this complicated and evolving religious culture, we need to keep some methodological issues in mind. One is that we should rely primarily on excavated texts for our understanding of early Chinese religious culture, because they have not been tampered with after being put into the ground. Transmitted texts on the other hand have been edited, expanded and finalized during the early imperial period (starting with the Qin dynasty in 221 BCE). They can only be used as a source for earlier periods with great circumspection. In addition, we need to be much more careful in our use of existing translations, such as the late 19th century corpus created by the Scottish missionary James Legge. Generally, this article advocates the continued consultation of original Chinese texts in addition to the use of existing translations, even if these translations are of increasingly high quality. Every translation brings with it its own preconceptions, which therefore influences our analysis in all kinds of ways. Finally, we should leave behind old labels such as “popular” for those parts of religious culture that are strange to us, because they suggest a split between (some) elite philosophers and actual religious life that is not borne out by unprejudiced analysis.



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