Lecture: Concepts of polity and space in Early Chinese epigraphy (by Maria Khayutina)

Date of event:   22/03/2022 − 22/03/2022

Title: Concepts of polity and space in Early Chinese epigraphy
Format: Online and in person
Speaker: Maria Khayutina (Ludwig-Maximilians-University)
Date: 22 March (Tuesday) 2022
Time: 10:15 am (CET)
Organized by: Ca’ Foscari University, Venice, Italy
Venue: Sala A, Ca’ Vendramin dei Carmini, Venice


Political terminology used by contemporaries reflects discursive aspects of polities as “imagined communities.” Understanding the key political terms is substantial for reading historical documents and studying political organization and political thought of any society. In this presentation, I examine and compare the Chinese concepts bang 邦 (“domain, polity, state”) and guo 國 (“principality, kingdom, realm, state”). During the Han period, due to political reasons, these terms were deliberately made interchangeable. Guo later overshadowed bang, partly replacing the latter in Han receptions of transmitted pre-imperial texts, including some Classics. As the result, guo became the major key word of the present-day political vocabulary, making part of the modern composite concept guojia 國家 (“state” both as a socio- and geopolitical organizational entity). Based on the analysis of bronze inscriptions from the Western Zhou (ca. the mid-11th -8th c. BCE, I demonstrate that in the Zhou political vocabulary, bang was the generic term embodying both geo- and sociopolitical aspects of political entities of any nature, size and organizational complexity. Inscriptions from the 7th-5th and 4th-3rd centuries provide a somewhat narrower range of contexts but corroborate that bang remained the standard term for principalities and kingdoms, used throughout the whole early Chinese interaction sphere. In contrast, guo (or, rather, huo 或) only gradually and slowly evolved from a vague Western Zhou cosmographic “region” (yu 域) into a more localized Eastern Zhou “territory,” but still played a marginal role in the political vocabulary before the foundation of the empire. This can be regarded as a warning against doing a pre-imperial conceptual history based on transmitted texts, which have been so heavily edited under the Han dynasty, and, at the same time, an argument for dedicating more efforts to the study of excavated texts. Considering the different connotations and uses of bang and guo in epigraphy, I test the hypothesis that during most of the Zhou period, territoriality was not the most distinctive aspect of polity and that it came to the foreground in the result of socioeconomic and political processes during the later third of the 1st Millennium BCE.

Maria Khayutina is a Guest Professor at the Institute of Sinology of the Ludwig-Maximilians-University of Munich. She has published broadly on social and political history of Early China, and especially on early polity formation and kinship organization, on the production of social and political structures, historical geography, memory culture and the history of concepts. She recently published an article in Early China (44, 2021) titled “The Beginning of Cultural Memory Production in China and the Memory Policy of the Zhou Royal House During the Western Zhou Period (Ca. Mid-11th–Early 8th c. BCE).” Her forthcoming book Kinship, Marriage and Politics in Early China (13-8 c. BCE) in the Light of Ritual Bronze Inscriptions is planned for publication with Routledge.


For more information about the lecture and registration, please visit the website here.