Confucianism, the Literati, and Chinese Imperial Traditions

Customs and Rituals

How did CIT structure its main ritual activities?

CIT rituals were arranged in a symbolic hierarchical order that coordinated the authority of those performing the rituals with the various ranks of the CIT pantheon. To symbolize universal dominion, the emperor would make offerings to the powers controlling all four cardinal directions, to all mountains and rivers, and to the “five domestic sacrifices.” On lower levels, ritual responsibilities reflected a division of labor and authority. Imperial princes made offerings only to the power ruling their own quarters of the universe and the associated mountains and rivers, and to the five domestic sacrifices. These took place at regional sacred sites. In turn the princes’ chief officers were to perform only the domestic offerings, and their subordinates only the offerings to their own ancestors. These last rituals occurred in home settings and in cemeteries.

Specific rituals include many of the same kinds of actions Daoists or practitioners of CCT engage in. Ritual specialists generally purified themselves for the ceremonies by fasting and ablutions. Before making offerings to divine powers of the top level in the pantheon, specialists fasted for three days, and for second-level deities, two days. During times of fasting, ritualists were especially careful to avoid certain strong foods (garlic and onions) and fermented beverages. An essential ingredient in the preparatory period was avoidance of contact with death and disease. Festivities and music were put aside. Central to the actual worship ceremonies was the offering of food, wine, and incense, along with prayers of petition and physical prostration before the deities.


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