Michael Puett

Walter C. Klein Professor of Chinese History; Harvard College Professor

Michael Puett


Michael Puett (普鸣) is the Walter C. Klein Professor of Chinese History and Chair of the Committee on the Study of Religion. He is also a non-resident long-term fellow for programs in anthropological and historical sciences and the languages and civilizations of East Asia at the Swedish Collegium for Advanced Study, Uppsala.

Puett joined the Harvard faculty in 1994 after earning his M.A. (1987) and Ph.D. (1994) from the Department of Anthropology at the University of Chicago. His interests focus on the inter-relations between religion, anthropology, history, and philosophy. In his research, Puett aims to bring the study of China into larger historical and comparative frameworks. He has published many articles on early Chinese history (c. 1200 B.C. – c. 755 A.D.), and on classical Chinese ritual, social, and political theory.

Puett is the author of The Ambivalence of Creation: Debates Concerning Innovation and Artifice in Early China (Stanford, 2001) and To Become a God: Cosmology, Sacrifice, and Self-Divinization in Early China (Harvard, 2002), as well as the co-author, with Adam Seligman, Robert Weller, and Bennett Simon, of Ritual and its Consequences: An Essay on the Limits of Sincerity (Oxford, 2008). Puett has received multiple awards for his teaching and advising. In 2013 Puett was one of five named Harvard College Professors in recognition of his dedication to undergraduate education. Since 2012 his General Education course, “Classical Chinese Ethical and Political Theory,” has been the third most enrolled undergraduate course at Harvard.

Selected Publications


  • Ritual and its Consequences: An Essay on the Limits of Sincerity. Co-authored with Robert Weller, Adam Seligman, and Bennett Simon. (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2008.)
  • To Become a God: Cosmology, Sacrifice, and Self-Divinization in Early China. (Cambridge: Harvard University Asia Center, 2002.)
  • The Ambivalence of Creation: Debates Concerning Innovation and Artifice in Early China. (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2001.)
  • The Huainanzi and Textual Production in Early China. Co-edited with Sarah A. Queen. (Leiden: Brill, 2014.)
  • Narrative, Authorship, and Historiography: Studies on Sima Qian’s Shiji (Records of the Historian), editor. (Forthcoming from the State University of New York Press.)

Recent Articles and Chapters

  • “The Work of Appropriation, Domestication, and Substitution: Theories of Sacrifice in the Liji.” Autour du Traité des rites: De la canonisation du rituel à la ritualisation de la société. Edited by Anne Cheng, Stéphane Feuillas, and Joseph Ciaudo. (Paris: Hemispheres, 2021), pp. 35-54.
  • “Creating Worlds: Imagination, Interpretation, and the Subjunctive.” Living with Concepts: Anthropology in the Grip of Reality. Edited by Andrew Brandel and Marco Motta. (New York: Fordham University Press, 2021), pp.181-196. 
  • “Knowledge, Interpretation, and the Self: Notes on Textures of the Ordinary: Doing Anthropology After Wittgenstein by Veena Das.” Critical Inquiry, In the Moment. May 21, 2021. 
  • “Formations of Knowledge in Chinese Late Antiquity.” Wissensoikonomien: Ordnung und Transgression vormoderner Kulturen. Edited by Nora Schmidt, Nikolas Pissis, and Gyburg Uhlmann. (Wiesbaden: Harrassowitz, 2021), pp. 123-133.
  • “Impagination, Reading, and Interpretation in Early Chinese Texts.” Impagination – Layout and Materiality of Writing and Publication. Edited by Ku-ming (Kevin) Chang, Anthony Grafton, and Glenn Warren Most. (Berlin: De Gruyter, 2021), pp. 93-110.
  • “Ritual as Theory, Theory as Ritual.” HAU: Journal of Ethnographic Theory. 10.3 (2020): 1106–1108.
  • “Wittgenstein on Frazer.” The Mythology in Our Language: Remarks on Frazer’s Golden Bough by Ludwig Wittgenstein, edited by Giovanni da Col and Stephan Palmié. (Chicago: Hau Books, 2020), pp. 135-151.
  • “Life, Domesticated and Undomesticated: Ghosts, Sacrifice, and the Efficacy of Ritual Practice in Early China.” HAU: Journal of Ethnographic Theory. 9.2 (2019): 439-460.
  • “Genealogies of Gods, Ghosts and Humans: The Capriciousness of the Divine in Early Greece and Early China.” Ancient Greece and China Compared, edited by G. E. R. Lloyd and Jingyi Jenny Zhao. (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2018), pp. 160-185.
  • “Who is Confucius in Today’s China?” The China Questions: Critical Insights into a Rising Power, edited by Jennifer Rudolph and Michael Szonyi. (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2018), pp. 231-236.
  • “In Conversation: Michael Puett and Sir Richard Sorabji Discuss Chinese and Greek Philosophy.” The Philosophers’ Magazine. 82 (2018): 70-88.
  • “Foreword.” The Analects: An Illustrated Edition, by Confucius, illustrated by C. C. Tsai, translated by Brian Bruya. (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2018).
  • “Text and Commentary: The Early Tradition.” The Oxford Handbook of Classical Chinese Literature, edited by Wiebke Denecke, Wai-Yee Li, and Xiaofei Tian. (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2017), pp. 112-122.
  • “Early China in Eurasian History.” A Companion to Chinese History, edited by Michael Szonyi. (Malden, MA: Wiley-Blackwell: 2017), pp. 89-105.
  • “Manifesting Sagely Knowledge: Commentarial Practice in Chinese Late Antiquity.” The Rhetoric of Hiddenness in Traditional Chinese Culture. Edited by Paula M. Varsano. (Albany: State University of New York Press, 2016), pp. 303-331.
  • “In Praise of Play.” Foreword to Why We Play: An Anthropological Study, by Roberte Hamayon (Chicago: HAU Books, 2016), pp. xv-xix.
  • “Periodization and ‘The Medieval Globe’: A Conversation.” Kathleen Davis and Michael Puett. The Medieval Globe 2.1 (2016): 1-14.
  • “Ritual and Ritual Obligations: Perspectives on Normativity from Classical China.” The Journal of Value Inquiry 49.4 (2015): 543-550
  • “Constructions of Reality: Metaphysics in the Ritual Traditions of Classical China.” Chinese Metaphysics and its Problems. Edited by Li Chenyang and Franklin Perkins. (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2015), pp. 120-129.
  • “Ghosts, Gods, and the Coming Apocalypse: Empire and Religion in Early China and Ancient Rome.” State Power in Ancient China and Rome. Edited by Walter Scheidel. (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2015), pp. 230-259.
  • “Ritual Disjunctions: Ghosts, Philosophy, and Anthropology.” The Ground Between: Anthropologists Engage Philosophy. Edited by Veena Das, Michael Jackson, Arthur Kleinman, Bhrigupati Singh. (Durham: Duke University Press, 2014), pp. 218-233.
  • “Sages, Creation, and the End of History in the Huainanzi.” The Huainanzi and Textual Production in Early China. Edited by Sarah A. Queen and Michael Puett. (Leiden: Brill, 2014), pp. 269-290.
  • “Introduction,” by Sarah A. Queen and Michael Puett. The Huainanzi and Textual Production in Early China. Edited by Sarah A. Queen and Michael Puett. (Leiden: Brill, 2014), pp. 1-19.
  • “Classical Chinese Historical Thought.” A Companion to Global Historical Thought. Edited by Prasenjit Duara, Viren Murthy, and Andrew Sartori. (Oxford: Wiley-Blackwell, 2014), pp. 34-46.
  • “Critical Approaches to Religion in China.” Critical Research on Religion. 1 (2013): 95-101.
  • “Economies of Ghosts, Gods, and Goods: The History and Anthropology of Chinese Temple Networks.” Radical Egalitarianism: Local Realities, Global Relations. Edited by Michael M. J. Fischer, Felicity Aulino, Miriam Goheen and Stanley J. Tambiah. (New York: Fordham University Press, 2013), pp. 91-100.
  • “Introduction to the English Edition.” The History of Chinese Civilization, Volume I: Earliest Times – 221 B.C.E. Edited by Yan Wenming. English text edited by David Knechtges. (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2012), pp. 31-38.