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The emperor’s four bodies: Embodied rulership and legal culture in early Ming China

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This essay explores how the emperor’s body was perceived in the imperial rulership and treated uniquely in legal culture in early Ming China. It argues that the ruling elite articulated four types of imperial bodies, i.e., the body cosmic, the body politic, the body social, and the body physical, each of which exemplified a specific dimension of rulership. The emperor’s four bodies are manifested in the imperial laws. The imperial laws place the emperor’s body cosmic inferior to Heaven, ensure the emperor’s sole authority in communicating with Heaven, require the officials’ faithful service to the ruler, urge the ruler to observe rules, and strictly protect the emperor’s physical body. The imperial laws, by regulating the different relationships in the embodied rulership, serve as the essential instrument to create the ideal cosmic order.


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