To eat or not to eat? Animals and categorical fluidity in Shang society

Yitzchak Jaffe, Roderick Campbell

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


In Shang scholarship, animals have frequently been understood in terms of religion. Animals are viewed as powerful totemic symbols of clans or fantastic vehicles connecting shamans to the spirit realm, or the central components of ritual sacrifice. Such discourses take modern Western ontological assumptions concerning human– animal and religious-secular distinctions for granted, however. Incorporating new textual and archaeological data, as well as theoretical advances made in related disciplines, we examine the consumption of animals to shed new light on the nature of Shang being, society, and animality. A wide theoretical stance is taken to untangle some of the underlying assumptions that have governed research on the Shang. The Shang world that emerges was characterized by a fluid sense of being. Some creatures were especially mutable and so assumed many functions in Shang society, from prized companions to offerings and food sources. Our findings call into question the reification of religion and ritual as spheres of action fundamentally separate from daily activities, as has often been implicitly assumed by Shang scholars. We argue that divination and offerings to the spirits and the dead were important practices of the general social economy of the Shang.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)157-177
Number of pages21
JournalAsian Perspectives
Issue number1
StatePublished - 2020

Bibliographical note

Publisher Copyright:
© 2021 by the University of Hawai‘i Press.


  • Animals
  • China
  • Consumption
  • Shang

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Archaeology
  • Ecology, Evolution, Behavior and Systematics
  • History
  • Anthropology
  • Archaeology


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