Heaven Is Empty

A Cross-Cultural Approach to "Religion" and Empire in Ancient China

By Filippo Marsili

Subjects: Chinese Studies, History, Comparative Religion, Classics
Series: SUNY series in Chinese Philosophy and Culture
Hardcover : 9781438472010, 344 pages, December 2018
Paperback : 9781438472027, 344 pages, July 2019

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Table of contents

Author’s Note

Introduction: An Empire without a “Religion”

1. Readings of the “Sacred”: Chinese Religion, Chinese Religions, and Religions in China

2. Writing the Empire: Ex Pluribus Plurima
3. Narrating the Empire: Metaphysics without God, “Religions” without Identity

4. Time, Myth, and Memory: Of Water, Metal, and Cinnabar

5. Place and Ritual: From Templum to Text

Conclusions: The Importance of Getting Lost


Offers a new perspective on the relationship between religion and the creation of the first Chinese empires.


Heaven Is Empty offers a new comparative perspective on the role of the sacred in the formation of China's early empires (221 BCE–9 CE) and shows how the unification of the Central States was possible without a unitary and universalistic conception of religion. The cohesive function of the ancient Mediterranean cult of the divinized ruler was crucial for the legitimization of Rome's empire across geographical and social boundaries. Eventually reelaborated in Christian terms, it came to embody the timelessness and universality of Western conceptions of legitimate authority, while representing an analytical template for studying other ancient empires. Filippo Marsili challenges such approaches in his examination of the reign of Emperor Wu of the Han (141–87 BCE). Wu purposely drew from regional traditions and tried to gain the support of local communities through his patronage of local cults. He was interested in rituals that envisioned the monarch as a military leader, who directly controlled the land and its resources, as a means for legitimizing radical administrative and economic centralization. In reconstructing this imperial model, Marsili reinterprets fragmentary official accounts in light of material evidence and noncanonical and recently excavated texts. In bringing to life the courts, battlefields, markets, shrines, and pleasure quarters of early imperial China, Heaven Is Empty provides a postmodern and postcolonial reassessment of "religion" before the arrival of Buddhism and challenges the application of Greco-Roman and Abrahamic systemic, identitary, and exclusionary notions of the "sacred" to the analysis of pre-Christian and non-Western realities.

Filippo Marsili is Associate Professor of History at Saint Louis University.


"…this readable and reliable volume is without any doubt a welcome contribution to the discussion of early Chinese religion. The attempt to analyze its characteristics from the perspective of practices that are situated within historical events and strategically implemented by historical figures deserves our full attention." — Religious Studies Review

"…[an] innovative study of the role of religion in early China's political history." — CHOICE

"Heaven Is Empty is a tour de force. It reveals Marsili's bold vision of early Chinese religion and his deft use of critical theory. The book will inspire scholars of early China for generations to come." — Miranda Brown, author of The Politics of Mourning in Early China and The Art of Medicine in Early China: The Ancient and Medieval Origins of a Modern Archive