Confucianism: The Imperial Cult

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From early imperial times to the twentieth century, the emperor and officers of the court and civil bureaucracy offered cult sacrifice to the gods that governed the cosmos. The rituals that serviced these gods were based on and authorized by the ritual canons of the Confucian classics, and, as such, were the privileged domain of classically educated men called Ru, or "Confucians," who mastered that canon. Sacrifices were performed according to a regular calendar in temples inside the imperial capital, at open altars outside of the capital walls, and at ritual spaces throughout the empire down to the county level. The geographic expanse of these ritual complexes constituted the most visible signs of the extent of the Chinese imperium and provides concrete evidence of interaction between elite and popular religious practices. Successive dynasties drew from the precedents of the ancient canon to define and regulate imperial cults by specifying the amount and type of foods offered to each god, the rank or status of the sacrificer, the music played, hymns sung, and prayers chanted during the ceremony. The aim of sacrificeor what might be more appropriately understood as ritual feastingwas to satiate the gods to enlist their cooperation in the proper maintenance of the cosmic order in ways favorable to the well-being of the living. In addition to realizing these aims, the effect of proper performance of these rites was the demonstration of the sovereign's virtue and affirmation of the dynasty's legitimacy in ruling the empire.

Formation of the Imperial Cult

Prior to the imperial era, which began with the unification of China under a single emperor in 221 bce, there were numerous royal cult traditions associated with the courts that ruled various parts of China. These traditions were distinguishable by the language of their practitioners and their liturgical arrangements, as well as by their basic conceptions of the gods and their relationships with the living. Shamanism and trance-induced, intimate commingling between gods and mortals characterized some of these early courtly traditions, whereas studied separation and reverent distance between humans and gods predominated in other traditions, particularly those that eventually formed the basis of Confucian ritual.

Inscriptions on bones and, later, on bronze vessels provide material evidence of an ancient royal cult during the Shang dynasty (c. 15001050 bce) based on divination, oracular communication with the royal ancestors, and sacrifice to gods and ancestors. While the use of oracles had declined by the Zhou dynasty (c. 1150256 bce), inscribed bronze vessels for sacrifices to gods and ancestors were used in a thriving royal cult. Ritual specialists of the late Zhou and early Han (206 bce220 ce) dynasties variously selected, co-opted, omitted, and redefined elements of these heterogeneous cults to form the imperial cult that thrived until the end of the nineteenth century and then dissolved in the early twentieth century. Detailed elaborations of and critical reflections upon Zhou ritual traditions appear throughout the ritual canonsprincipally in the Li ji (Record of rites) and the Zhouli (Rites of Zhou)of the Five Classics. The most salient characteristic of the royal cult as codified in the classics was the primary role of Heaven as the highest deity ruling the cosmos and the most exalted in the ritual hierarchy to receive sacrifice from the king. Another conspicuous feature of imperial cults was the central role of royal ancestors as crucial mediators between the reigning emperor and the highest gods. The Han conquest of the empire brought about the unification of these royal and regional cults under the authority of a single court, although many inconsistencies, contradictions, and redundancies persisted. The Han dynasty nonetheless probably marks the first period about which one can speak of a single pantheon, understood as a conception of the gods coexisting collectively within a relatively cohesive whole.

During the period of disunity that followed the fall of the Han, ritual specialists debated cult liturgies at the royal courts of regional kingdoms. By the eighth century the Tang court (618907) systematized these liturgies into a coherent official ritual system that would remain the foundation of the imperial cult until the end of the imperial era, although virtually every aspect of cult practice continued to be subject to frequent debate and reform, especially during the Song (9601279) and Ming (13681644) dynasties.

The most far-reaching changes to the system of imperial cults took place in the sixteenth century, largely precipitated by repercussions of a succession crisisor complicationthat led to Ming Shizong's (r. 15211567) coronation as emperor. Although historians are suspicious of his personal motives in provoking a series of important reforms known by his reign name, Jiajing, it is clear that he tapped into controversies over the imperial cult's canonical precedents that had erupted intermittently and with fierce intensity among ritual scholars both in and out of the court for at least five hundred years. The description of the pantheon that follows is largely based on the Jiajing reforms, which were retained with few major changes until the early twentieth century.

The gods of the imperial pantheon governed specific realms of the cosmos. The correlation between gods and mortals was painstakingly regulated through exact prescriptions of the locations and type of ritual space where each god was to receive sacrifice and the person by whom it would be offered. The hierarchical system of cults, ranked into three tiers of great, middle, and miscellaneous, makes clear that the power of the gods and the realms over which they governed at times overlapped, usually because a more ancient god's power was superseded by that of another, more recent, one. By reading the pantheon of the Ming dynasty as a guide, it is possible to gain insight into the cosmic order that enveloped the gods, the stars, the natural forces, and the world of the living.

Cult of Heaven/Shangdi

Heaven occupied the pinnacle of the imperial pantheon. Heaven received Great Sacrifice (dasi) on the winter solstice at a round open-air altar (yuanqiu, "round mound") south of the city only from the Son of Heaven, the emperor. The spirit seat upon which the god was invited to sit bore the name "Lofty Heaven Lord on High" (Hao Tian Shangdi). The altar was open so that all celestial spirits, such as Heaven, could gain access to the ritual feast at the altar only after it was rendered into smoke and dispersed into the ether. The altar was round because Heaven was itself construed as round. Only the emperor could offer a Great Sacrifice because he was the highest living being and because he had exclusive access to Lofty Heaven Shangdi through the intermediary presence of his own ancestor, the founding emperor of the dynasty, whose spirit tablet faced west next to that of Heaven on the highest platform of the altar. The presence of lesser deities invited to share in this ritual feast as correlates suggests that the cosmic realm over which Heaven reigned was further subdivided into other subordinate realms. The sun received secondary sacrifice as Great Light, and the moon as Evening Light. Gods of the stars occupying the twenty-eight heavenly spheres, the five planets (Venus, Jupiter, Mercury, Mars, and Saturn), Lord Wind, and commanders Cloud, Thunder, and Rain received secondary sacrifice at the Great Sacrifice. The power of these gods affected the human world from above as it circulated throughout the heavens, above the world of the living. All of these correlate deities also received Middle Sacrifice from officers of the court as the chief deities at their own altars.

Cult of Earth

Heaven was not omnipotent in the cosmos, it was simply the highest of all gods. As a yang force, it initiated all things and thus required a receptive yin forcethe Earthto bring all things to fruition. Earth received sacrifice as August Earth God (Huangdi chi) on the summer solstice at an open square mound/altar (because Earth was seen as square) north of the city. As in the cult of Lofty Heaven Shangdi, the emperor observed a three-day purification fast, then offered Great Sacrifice to Earth, again with the intermediary presence of his ancestor, the dynastic founder. The presence of lesser gods who received correlate sacrifice at the square altar reveals the properly terrestrial quality of the cosmos governed by Earth. The Five Sacred Peaks and other lesser mountains, the Four Seas and the Four Rivers (Yangzi, Yellow, Huai, and Ji) constituted subservient, more particularized forces subsumed under the power of Earth. Some of these, such as Mount Tai among the Five Sacred Peaks, were historically more ancient objects of cult veneration than Earth, an overtly less particularized cosmic force associated with things terrestrial. These cosmic forces exerted powerful, yet more circumscribed, influence in relation to celestial gods, along Earth's "square" surface.

These separate sacrifices to Heaven and Earth at altars dedicated to each during the Ming and Qing (16441911 ce) were based on the precedents established in the Record of Rites and the Rites of Zhou. During most of the imperial era, however, Earth received joint sacrifice with Heaven at the round altar in the southern suburb. The rationale for joint sacrifices was initially not based on canonical precedent but on the intuitive conviction that as coeval forces in the cosmos they should be combined. The joint rites were vigorously debated in the Song, when opponents appealed to the canonical authority of the Rites of Zhou, and proponents to the less lofty, but apparently more compelling, argument of precedents set by long-standing dynastic practice. Joint sacrifices were continued in the Yuan and early Ming dynasties, although vigorous debate began anew in the first year of the Ming and culminated in the ritual reforms of the Jiajing era, when separate liturgies were formulated. Even after these changes, and in spite of the zealousness of the debates, sacrifice to Earth was not, in practice, scrupulously observed, while that to Heaven most certainly was.

Cult of imperial ancestors

The cults of Heaven and Earth shared the status of the highest-ranking Great Sacrifice in the Ming ritual statutes with the imperial ancestors. The ancestors of Ming emperors and their principal consorts received sacrifice five times a year in a walled complex in the southeastern quarters inside the imperial city. The main gate of the Imperial Temple opened from the south into the compound where three enclosed halls were arrayed along a north-south axis that paralleled the layout of the imperial city. The first hall called the Great Shrine (taimiao ) was the location of combined rites for former emperors (dixia ). The second building, the Inner Apartments (qindian ), housed the spirit tablets of no more than seven imperial ancestors, kept in niches housed in seven halls according to the ritual precedents found in the Record of Rites. Behind the Inner Apartments was the Hall of Removed Tablets (tiaomiao ) for the dynastic founder's ancestors, extending back five generations; other former emperors who were removed from among the seven emperors housed in the Inner Apartments as the most recently deceased rulers were also installed there.

The arrangement of the tablets in the Ming Imperial Temple clearly illustrates the intersection of cult practice and court politics. The founding emperor, Ming Taizu (r. 13681398), occupied the middle, superior position in the Inner Apartments, followed by his successor, seated to his left, then the five most recent ancestors of the reigning emperor, who led the ceremony. The tablet to Taizu's left was that of Ming Taizongthe Yongle emperor (r. 14021424), later canonized as Ming Chengzuwho killed his nephew, the second emperor, burned the palace in Nanjing, and relocated the capital in Beijing. The reign of the second emperor was expunged from the court annals and his name tabooed in the hallowed ancestral halls. The conventions of imperial succession are again interrupted in the sequence of tablets with the presence of an ancestor who never reigned at all. He was posthumously granted the status of emperor, amid tumultuous court controversy, after Ming Shizong succeeded his cousin, who had left no heir, as emperor. Rather than allow himself to be adopted into his cousin's line, Shizong insisted upon retroactively inserting his parents into the line of emperors. Historians have debated his motives for centuries, but at the very least, filial piety, ancestral cult devotion, and political legitimation are inextricably tangled together in this affair.

The official ancestral cult of the imperial court descends from ancient rites that date to as early as the Shang dynasty. Extant oracle-bone inscriptions record sacrifices to the royal ancestors and entreaties by kings for their ancestors to intercede in their requests to the gods to bring rain, bountiful harvests, or military victories. By the Zhou dynasty, the cult of ancestors was widely practiced among the lower hereditary lords, when ritual scholars began to codify these rites. By the Song dynasty, ancestral cult practices were nearly universal among virtually all people throughout China. Even before the Mingwhen the court began to regulate cult practices of commoners for the first timethe canonical rites of serving the spirits of the ancestors found in the Confucian classics profoundly influenced the religious consciousness of peasants. Commoners, Confucian literati, and the Son of Heaven all believed that the spirits of departed ancestors required sustenance, which only male descendants could proffer. The ritual feasting of ancestral spirits by the living constituted the primary means of communication with the spirit world. Cult feasting served to sustain the ancestors in the netherworld, which they requited by exercising influence over the fate of their living descendants. In addition to material benefits and emolument, high status among the living brought expanded privileges to offer sacrifices to ever-greater numbers of ancestors.

Notwithstanding Confucian criticisms of popular customs as licentious, it is often difficult to distinguish elite from popular religious practice, particularly on the crucial level of the relationship between the living and the spirits of their ancestors. Licentiousness largely referred to the mixing of sexes across lineage and affinal lines or to noncanonical, usually sexual, relations between gods and shaman priestesses. The religious sensibilities of commoners tended to be more overtly intertwined with local and noncanonical religious ideasin the specific sense of ideas not found in the Confucian canonfrom Daoism and Buddhism than those of the classically educated elite. But the Confucian literati were hardly free from such influences. Were one to distinguish elite from popular religion at all, one would need to do so as a difference of degree of "strict canonical purity" at one end of a spectrum and increasingly dense saturation of regional, local custom or Daoism and Buddhism at the other, rather than as a difference of kind. Although Confucian classical learning and philosophy no doubt influenced commoners, particularly through the examination system, it was largely through the spread of ancestor worship into virtually every household in China that Confucianism had its most profound and permanent impact.

Cult of soils and grains

A fourth cult ranked as Great Sacrifice is that of the gods of soils (she ) and grains (ji ), which are among the most ancient of the imperial cults. They are also among the most complex in that they are simultaneously localgrounded in the very soils of the communityand overtly tied to the ruler's sovereignty. In ancient times, the she altar was synonymous with the king, the land of his kingdom, and the welfare of his subjects. To destroy the altar once used to honor the soils gods was unthinkable, and to use it was either usurpation or confusion of different polities. The she cult of many ancient ritual traditions substituted for, or overlapped with, the cult of Earth as Heaven's counterpart, as seen in the "Single Victim Suburban Sacrifice" (jiao tesheng ) chapter of the Record of Rites, which states, "She sacrifice takes the way of Earth as the deity." In the second month of the spring and autumn during Ming times, Great Sacrifice was offered by the emperor to gods of soils and grains on separate altars at a two-tiered open, square altar (thus replicating Earth's square mound in the northern suburbs) within a walled complex inside the imperial city. Rites at the she altar, built on an earthen mound with different colored soils from the five cardinal directions (North, South, East, West, and Center), included correlate sacrifices to Lord Soil (Houtu goulong). Rites at the ji altar for grains, built on an earthen mound with yellow soil and (at least during the Yuan dynasty) no spirit tablet, included correlate sacrifices to Lord Millet (Houji), ancestor of the Zhou royal family.

The cults of Heaven, Earth, the imperial ancestors, and soils and grains occupied the highest level of the imperial pantheon. As recipients of Great Sacrifice, they are distinguishable from all other cults in at least four interrelated ways: (1) they were the most exalted and powerful gods ruling the cosmos, and thus the emperor alone could offer sacrifice, except under extraordinary circumstances when either the heir apparent or a high-ranking official acted as surrogate; (2) they were most closely tied to the virtue and legitimacy of the ruler who led the rites, and any ruler who was not virtuous was not legitimate; (3) they were all located in the imperial city or outside its wallstheir exact location was geographically and cosmically fixed not only by the surrounding terrain as ascertained by geomancy, but also by their proximity to the emperor's throne; and (4) they were all sanctioned by the Confucian canon. Although the canonical sources contain more than one version of some of these cultswhich partly explains why controversies about them never ceasedthere was no doubt in anyone's mind that they originated in the golden era of the Zhou dynasty.

Middle-level and miscellaneous cults

The second level of the imperial pantheon was occupied by lesser gods that received middle-level sacrifices (zhongsi ) from officers of the court, and, on some occasions, by the emperor or the heir apparent. Some middle-level cults were regional variations of the higher cults, such as soils and grains, stars, wind and rain, mountains and rivers. Other middle-level cults developed later, with little, or at best a tenuous, canonical foundation. Two agricultural cults began in the Eastern Han (25220 ce). The First Farmer received sacrifice at a shrine, followed by the principal consecration officer's ceremonious turning of the first three furrows of the planting season. Although court debates questioned if this was not a conflation with the soils god, it continued, with occasional participation by the emperor, until the Qing dynasty, when Manchu rulers performed this rite assiduously. Parallel sericulture rites performed by the empress also date to the Eastern Han period.

Confucius was venerated as the principal deity in a middle-level cult of civil culture. Initially a local cult observed by Confucius's descendants and disciples in Qufu, Shandong, where he lived, the cult of Confucius was patronized by imperial entourages since the early Han. By the Tang dynasty it was integrated into the imperial pantheon, with a temple cult in the capital. From the Tang until the early Ming, Taigong Wang, a general who served the founders of the Zhou dynasty, was the primary deity of a military cult. He was enshrined as a correlate in the cult of past rulers in 1388 and replaced by Guandi, a heroic minister at the end of the Han dynasty to whom miraculous powers were attributed and who had acquired an enormous popular following throughout the empire. The kings and emperors of past dynasties also received cult sacrifice in the Temple of Former Dynasts beginning in the Ming. This consolidated various local rites performed since the Sui (581618) at tomb sites of past rulers scattered throughout north China, beginning with the legendary sage-kings of high antiquity. The liturgy and temple layout followed that of the Imperial Temple, except that court officials were usually dispatched to perform these rites. The gods of walls and motes (usually referred to as "city gods" in English), and those of the flags and banners of the southern wall and instruction halls of provincial capitals, also received middle-level sacrifice.

Most of these middle cults had counterparts as miscellaneous cults (qunsi ) and received minor sacrifices (xiaosi ) from local officials at the district and county levels. Local officials also offered sacrifices to the ghosts of abandoned ancestors and those who died violent deaths at special altars outside the walls of towns and cities. In addition to these official cults, the Ming court also passed sumptuary prescriptions regulating private cults, such as those for the gods of soils and grains of individual plots of land, for ancestors extending back two generations at altars in the homes of commoners or shrines operated by larger clan organizations, and for the spirits that inhabited kitchen stoves. The Ming court was more inclined than its predecessors to prescribe ritual duties to commoners, thereby formally linking the loftiest of imperial cults, which were tended by the emperor at the center, with cult activities of merchants and artisans in towns, as well as cultivators in villages, within a cohesive, overarching pantheon.

Ritual Purity

In the Confucian world of cults, the orderly operation of the cosmos required proper performance of the rites of sacrifice to the gods. Proper performance of the rites entailed observing distinctions among the gods, who were divided into a three-tiered hierarchy based on criteria of antiquity, canonicity, and cosmic power. Ritual distinction was marked by a number of indicators: the kind and location of the ritual space where a cult was practiced; the kind and amount of offerings; the music, dance, and prayers of the liturgy; and the position or rank of the person who offered the sacrifice. And what of the living persons who came before the gods offering gifts of supplication at the altar? What qualifications must the sacrificer possess to earn such a privilege? A key to understanding the religious import of the rites of the imperial cult is that the sacrificer did not act for his own benefit but for that of the entire community for which he was responsible. An imperial cult conducted by a formal, governing body, by definition, is public; it is "civil," not private. The sacrificer acts for the well-being of a people and does not seek nor expect personal gain, such as salvation, enlightenment, or inner, spiritual transformation. It is clear from the relationship between the living and the gods that such things were not in the offing, even if the sacrificer sought them.

How are we to understand the inner state of the sacrificer? Surely there was a range of interpretations of cult rites among those who practiced them, but the canonical description of the inner state of the sacrificer found in the Record of Rites was repeatedly endorsed in later ritual texts and discussions of the rites, which emphasize ritual efficacy. These sources stress the necessity of undergoing purification rites before the sacrifice in order to realize a state of reverence and single-minded concentration on the spirit that is to receive sacrifice. This state of ritual purity makes it possible to communicate the sacrifices to the gods. Ritual purity is realized in the days before the actual sacrifice through observing regulations and a fast. A ritual specialist explained the process to the first emperor of the Ming by saying:

The regulations delimit the external and the fast orders the internal. The regulations prescribe a bath and change of clothes. In your comings and goings, do not drink wine, eat meat, inquire about the illness of others, observe mourning, listen to music, or pass judgment on criminals. The fast concentrates the mind on the sacrifice; it is to be strict, cautious, and fearful. Think only of the spirit that is to receive the sacrifice, as if it is there above you or to your left or right. The fast means to be perfectly pure and completely sincere without a moment's lapse. (Mingshi 47.12391240)

Thus the ritual purity of the sacrifice is not achieved through extirpating defilement or purging sina concept that is noticeably absent in writings on imperial cultsbut by so concentrating one's consciousness on the spirits that one can "almost certainly see them at the altar." The virtue of one's reverence toward the spirits is a precondition of the rite. Upon completing the rite, what one has accomplished or gained is the success of communicating the feast to the gods.

Political Legitimation and the Imperial Cults

Some twentieth-century social scientists have argued in a functionalist mode that imperial cult rituals were simply a means employed by the ruling elite to control the populace. As with other religions with direct connections to regimes of political power, successful performance of the rites of the imperial cult brought prestige and enhanced political legitimacy to those who performed them. Not to perform the rites was a clear indication of illegitimacy, and they were apparently rarely if ever abandoned by ruling dynasts, except in times of grave trouble when it was not possible to perform them. As such, these cult rituals were a sine qua non of legitimate rule during imperial times because the gods were believed to possess great power and their assistance was deemed necessary.

Suburban Sacrifice to Heaven/Shangdi at the Round Altar

The following description of the sacrifice to Heaven is based on the imperial liturgy of the Ming dynasty after the Jiajing reforms. Understanding a complex ritual such as this depends not only upon grasping its numerous details, but also obtaining a clear sense of the sequence of its parts and of the duration of ritual time involved in performing the liturgy. Although all elements of the rite were necessary, some carried more weight, as demonstrated by, for example, the emperor's repeated visits to the Imperial Shrine to notify his ancestors of his intention to perform this rite and to request the founding emperor's presence at the altar. The materials offered to the god, such as jade and the animals used for the feast, were carefully selected and inspected. Incense was used to attract the gods, who were invited to partake in the feast no less than three times. The fastidious attention to the person of the sacrificer, his clean and proper clothes, pure mental state, and appropriate corporeal demeanor all attest to the singular importance of each.

Preparation for the ceremony began ten days beforehand when the Office of Imperial Sacrifice sent officers to inspect the animals to be used in the sacrifices: nine calves, three sheep, and three pigs. Five days before the ceremony, imperial guards escorted the emperor to the cleansing pen to inspect the victims. Imperial sacrifice focused on presenting food to the godsnot on killingand thus these animals were not slaughtered at the altar, but were carefully prepared in the temple kitchen in advance as part of a feast for the gods. The night before this the emperor, wearing ordinary dress, went to the Imperial Shrine inside the Forbidden City, where he offered incense to each of the imperial ancestors, beginning with the dynastic founder. He then announced his intention to offer sacrifice to August Heaven Shangdi. Four days before the ceremony, erudite members of the Office of Imperial Sacrifice drafted the prayer that was to be read at the ceremony.

Three days before the ceremony, the emperor, wearing ritual garb, resided in the bedchambers of the Imperial Shrine. Holding a jade scepter tablet that identified him, the emperor formally greeted the ancestral spirits at the main incense table by prostrating himself and offering incense. Before the niche of the founding emperor's spirit tablet he offered libation and read a prayer stating his intention to offer sacrifice to Shangdi, and his request for the founding emperor's presence at the ceremony. On this same day, the emperor and other celebrants began to follow regulations to bathe, wear clean clothes, and refrain from engaging in any activity that might distract them from concentrating on the impending ceremony, such as consoling the bereaved, drinking wine, listening to music, and interacting with their wives. They also observed a purification fast that aimed to bring unified order to their hands, feet, and mind.

On the day before the sacrifice, the emperor went to the Hall for Receiving Heaven in the inner court of the Forbidden City to personally write out the prayer on a new green mulberry-wood board. At this time he also placed green jade and green silk in boxes (shades of blue-green were associated with the color of the heavens). He then offered incense three times and performed one set of three kowtows. Wearing ritual dress, the emperor informed the spirits of his ancestors that he was heading to the Altar of Heaven, then he rode the carriage to the Round Altar. After inspecting the victims, he went to the fasting quarters attached to the altar complex, where he observed a strict fast during which he devoted himself entirely to the pending sacrifice.

Before dawn on the morning of the sacrifice, the minister of rites led the collected officers to the incense altar before the spirits. All knelt to perform three kowtows, then took the spirit tablets out of their niche cupboards, beginning with the lowest-ranking spirit. The officers lined up along the spirit path leading to the Round Altar, and the drums were sounded three times; the emperor left the fasting quarters, entered the altar complex, and assumed his position at the foot of the stairs of the three-tiered Round Altar. A fire was set to stacked wood and the entire victim was cooked so that it was rendered into smoke. The emperor bowed while the minister for ceremonial said, "Having observed a fast and the regulations, sacrifice is offered this morning. With this cleansing, we come before the gods and spirits." The emperor put his jade tablet in his belt, washed and dried his hands, held his tablet and ascended the Round Altar. The minister then said, "The spirits are above us, observe the ceremony carefully!"

The emperor then approached the spirit tablet of Lofty Heaven Shangdi, which faced south on the north side of the highest of the three tiers. Arrayed in front of the tablet was a feast consisting of the single cooked calf, a dark green jade disc, twelve bolts of dark green silk, a bowl of broth, glutinous millets and millet grains, nuts and cakes, sauces and edible grasses, and three tripods for the libation offering (these same foods were offered in lesser amounts to other gods of the pantheon, so it is difficult to read particular symbolic significance into these items). The emperor knelt at the altar, and offered up incense three times; he then bowed, proceeded to the altar of the dynastic founder, and performed the same offerings, then returned to his position on the south side of the third tier. He repeated the same sequence of actions, then presented the first offering (chuxian ): He washed and dried a tripod, filled it with wine, knelt before the spirit tablet, offered incense, raised the tripod as offering (dianjue ), poured some of the wine at the base of the altar to guide the spirit to the precise location of the feast, and placed the tripod on the altar in front of the tablet. He performed the same sequence when presenting the first offering to the dynastic founder. The prayer was then read while the emperor prostrated himself, rose, bowed, then returned to his position.

At this point, the secondary consecration officers went to the altars for the other gods on the middle tier and offered incense, silk, and libation. The emperor then presented the second (yaxian ) and final offerings (zhongxian ) to Shangdi and the dynastic founder, which was followed each time by the secondary consecration officers' presentation of offerings to the other gods. The emperor drank some of the blessed wine and received a portion of the sacrificial meat; the viands were then cleared away and the spirits escorted away from the Round Altar. The text of the prayer and the silk were finally burned as a means of commuting them to the world of the spirits. Once these had been at least half consumed by fire, the ceremony ended.

See Also

Chinese Religion, overview article, article on Mythic Themes.


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The description of imperial cult rituals is based on the ritual treatises (lizhi ) in dynastic histories of the Han (Hanshu ), Latter Han (Hou Hanshu ), Tang (Jiu Tangshu ), Song (Songshi ), Ming (Mingshi ), and Qing (Qingshi gao ), and the following sources:

Li Dongyang and Shen Shixing, comps. Da Ming huidian. 5 vols. (1587 ed.). Taipei, 1976.

Long Wenbin. Ming hui yao. 2 vols. Taipei, 1956.

Mukedeng'e, Wang Tingzhen, et al., eds. Da Qing tongli. Rev. ed. 1824.

Wang Bo et al., eds. Tang huiyao. 2 vols. Shanghai, 1992.

Zheng Xuan and Kong Yingda, eds. Liji zhengyi. In Shisan jing zhushu, 3 vols. (1816), edited by Ruan Yuan. Beijing, 1980. vol. 1: 1221- vol. 2: 1696.

Thomas A. Wilson (2005)