Birth in Ancient China

A Study of Metaphor and Cultural Identity in Pre-Imperial China

By Constance A. Cook & Xinhui Luo

Subjects: Chinese Studies, Asian Studies, History, Chinese Religion And Philosophy, Women's Studies
Series: SUNY series in Chinese Philosophy and Culture
Paperback : 9781438467108, 172 pages, July 2018
Hardcover : 9781438467115, 172 pages, November 2017

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Table of contents

List of Illustrations
Introduction: A Chu Text

1. Words and Images
Chu Ancestral Names and the Word for Birth
A Lost Word for Birth
Suggestive Images

2. Controlling Reproduction: Fertility Prayers
Zhou Fertility Prayers in Bronze Inscriptions
A Warring States Prayer Preserved on Bamboo Strips

3. Mothers and Embryos
Embryonic Transformation

4. Controlling the Pregnant Body
Time and Divination
Curses, Stars, and the Gendered Cosmos
A Question of Thorns

5. Divine Origins and Chu Genealogical History

6. The Traumatic Births of Non-Zhou Ancestral Founders


Reveals cultural paradigms and historical prejudices regarding the role of birthing and women in the reproduction of society.


Using newly discovered and excavated texts, Constance A. Cook and Xinhui Luo systematically explore material culture, inscriptions, transmitted texts, and genealogies from BCE China to reconstruct the role of women in social reproduction in the ancient Chinese world. Applying paleographical, linguistic, and historical analyses, Cook and Luo discuss fertility rituals, birthing experiences, divine conceptions, divine births, and the overall influence of gendered supernatural agencies on the experience and outcome of birth. They unpack a cultural paradigm in which birth is not only a philosophical symbol of eternal return and renewal but also an abiding religious and social focus for lineage continuity. They also suggest that some of the mythical founder heroes traditionally assumed to be male may in fact have had female identities. Students of ancient history, particularly Chinese history, will find this book an essential complement to traditional historical narratives, while the exploration of ancient religious texts, many unknown in the West, provides a unique perspective into the study of the formation of mythology and the role of birthing in early religion.

Constance A. Cook is Professor of Chinese at Lehigh University and the author of Death in Ancient China: The Tale of One Man's Journey. Xinhui Luo is Professor of Chinese Ancient History at Beijing Normal University, China.


"…this book will be a compelling choice for scholars and graduate students of early Chinese culture and history. Scholars of religious, anthropological and gender studies in general will also find this book a valuable addition to their reading lists. " — Reading Religion