On the So-Called Zhaomu System

Social Sciences in China (Chinese Edition)

No. 1, 2022


On the So-Called Zhaomu System



Zhu Fenghan


The Zuozhuan and the Guoyu were composed in the early to mid-Warring States period, but are based in the main on histories dating from the Spring and Autumn period. In these texts, the term zhaomu describes the clan patrilineal order. It is used either as a rhetorical device, identifying one’s seniority in the family, or in the form of the “zhao of A” and the “mu of B (B here is the zhao of the last quote),” where both zhao and mu broadly referred to the sons’ generation. Ritual texts composed during the mid-Warring States period and the Han dynasty commentaries on them preserved this meaning, but they also took a step further, interpreting zhao and mu as terms that indicated rank order, assigned rotationally to a clan’s male members according to their respective patrilineal standing. This order was repeated every other generation in what is known as the zhaomu system. Correspondingly, zhaomu became the system of rules for the arrangement of clan temples and tombs and for the use of representatives of the dead in sacrificial rituals. What we call the zhaomu system deviated somewhat from the term’s original meaning, and to date has not been supported by inscriptions, archaeological excavations or investigative material. The system should be regarded as a Confucian derivation and interpretation of the term zhaomu from the mid-Warring States period and the Han dynasty, used in order to strengthen ethical concepts and the rule of ritual and to maintain social and political order and the patriarchal hierarchy.