Research Project


Disasters and Celestial Phenomena in 11th Century Political Discourse in China

Dr. Martin Kroher

It was a frequent strategy in 11th century political discourse to bolster one’s arguments by referring to recent natural phenomena and disasters. In the case of several of the most important political projects of this period, such as the qingli and the xining reforms, celestial ‘replies’ to the mistaken policies of the current regimes played a prominent role in discrediting the reforms and their proponents. It would be tempting to conclude that the political discourse at the time was locked in and held back by superstitious beliefs, and to infer that agency and discourse in this period were in fact seriously inhibited by traditional views of cosmic resonance.

The proposed project will examine the diverse theories and explanations offered in this period concerning how heaven responds to or pre-empts government policies and ‘mistakes.’ These ideas were expressed in both theoretical texts and court memorials that argued for or against a specific law or measure, by diverse authors such as Han Qi, Wang Anshi, and Sima Guang.

The larger point to be made is that there was no sense that the response to heaven was unambiguously dictated by tradition or the classics; instead, the debate spanned the full range from ignoring heaven to using it for one’s political purposes. In addition, it turned out that both public opinion and heaven’s will could play a similar role in discursive strategies, as external, ‘objective’ arbiters of the correct decision.

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