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Institute of Asian and Oriental Studies

"From 'Desire' to 'Customs': Tracing the Lexicalization of an Anthropological Concept in Pre-Qín China"


Prof. Uffe Bergeton (University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill)

Date and Time

November 13, 2018, 4 - 6 pm


While the term sú 俗 and the concept of ‘customs’ in Warring States (481-221 BCE) texts have been discussed in previous studies (see, for example, Lewis 2003), I argue that existing interpretations of sú as ‘customs’ in pre-Warring States texts are anachronistic projections of later meanings onto the past. The first unambiguous uses of sú in the meaning ‘customs’ appear in Mid-Warring States period texts such as the Mòzǐ 墨子 and the Mèngzǐ 孟子 and in excavated texts from the same period. The graph <俗> does occur in pre-Warring States period bronze inscriptions and, according to some interpretations, is found in the meaning ‘customs.’ Chén (2004:778), among many others, cites passages from the Shǐjì 史記 and a post-Hàn chapter of the Shàngshū 尙書 as evidence for reading <俗> in Western Zhōu inscriptions as ‘customs.’ I argue that such readings are anachronistic and that <俗> in those instances is used to write (a form of) the word yù 欲 ‘desire, want.’

Adopting Baxter and Sagart’s (2014) reconstruction of Old Chinese morphophonology, I argue that the words yù ‘desire’ and sú ‘customs’ derive from the same root. The lexicalization of the word sú in the meaning ‘customs’ emerged as part of the technical vocabulary of thinkers of the Warring States period, who were confronted with a politically fragmented realm in which local differences in conventional behavior formed part of the comparative discussion of the different modes of governance embraced by the various Central States. 


University of Zurich, Institute of Asian and Oriental Studies, Room ZUB 416, Zürichbergstrasse 4, 8032 Zürich


Institute of Asian and Oriental Studies - Sinology