Ritual and Sacrifice

Emperor’s ‘moon white’ court robe, Yongzheng period (1723—35). Patterned silk. The Palace Museum, Beijing.

The Kangxi, Yongzheng and Qianlong Emperors all commissioned valuable records of their ritual activities, among them paintings and woodblock prints of their grand tours, birthday celebrations and solemn sacrifices, some of which honoured the life-sustaining work of agriculture and sericulture. In spring, the Emperor officially began the agricultural year by the ritual ploughing of furrows at an enclosure at the Altar of Agriculture (Xiannong tan), one of the only times in the year when he appeared in full public view. He also sacrificed to the God of Agriculture, the culture-hero Xiannong, an event memorialised in a painting of the Yongzheng reign. The empress, meanwhile, modelled appropriate womanly behaviour by feeding mulberry leaves to silkworms raised at the Altar of Silkworms (Can tan). These practical and definitively Chinese tasks were also celebrated in painted and printed albums commissioned by the Kangxi Emperor.

By far the costliest ritual burden that the Qing faced was the round of ancient Chinese sacrifices to Heaven, Earth, the Sun and Moon, sacred mountains, imperial ancestors, agriculture and sericulture, which were all designed to underscore the primary values of Confucian society: humility in the face of Heaven, filial piety, productive labour and appropriate gender roles. The Qing annals show that often the emperors themselves could not fulfil their ritual obligations, either because of periods of illness or mourning or because they were on tour or at war; their clansmen often served as surrogates. Later in life, the Qianlong Emperor (r. 1736—95) delegated his most solemn ritual responsibilities to his sons, on the grounds that ‘there must be no error in the rite’, complaining that ‘he was no longer up to the strenuous “ascendings and descendings, obeisances and bowings requisite for the expected reverence” at the grand sacrifices’.

None was more critical than the annual sacrifice to Heaven, which marked the beginning of the dynasty’s reign in China and was performed annually until its end. The sacrifice began the day before the Winter Solstice, when the Emperor went from the Forbidden City along a route blocked from public view to the inner enclosure of the Temple of Heaven. Crossing the 360-metre-long Bridge of Cinnabar Steps (Danbi qiao), he spent the night fasting in the moat-ringed Hall of Abstinence (Zhai gong). Two hours before daybreak, alerted that the proper sacrificial vessels and utensils were in place and the sacrifice of the victims complete, he dressed in plum-coloured robes embroidered with the twelve auspicious imperial symbols, proceeded to the altar enclosure, and waited in a yellow silk tent until the sacred tablets were brought from the Temple of Heaven. He ascended the altar’s three terraces, symbols of Man, Earth and Heaven, where, to the solemn music of a carillon and flanked by ancestral tablets, he faced the tablet of the Supreme Ruler of the Universe and watched as the offering was placed on the sacrificial furnace. He then prostrated himself nine times before the tablet and made offerings of silk and jade. After repeating this performance two more times, he waited in his tent until the tablets were safely enshrined, then returned to the palace along the same blocked route.