Confucianism, the Literati, and Chinese Imperial Traditions

Signs and Symbols

What signs or symbols distinguish Confucian and CIT ritual specialists?

Even today, leaders of Confucian rituals are typically also government officials. When they function as ritual specialists, they don the garments once worn by representatives of the imperial household and administration. As for CIT, since there is no longer any official imperial religious worship, there are no longer CIT ritual specialists. Prior to 1911, however, CIT ritualists, from the emperor on down to the humblest assistant, simply wore the garments that signified their respective bureaucratic ranks and offices. In this case, the Literati did double duty as custodians of both civil and religious ritual.

For especially important events, officials wore various garments known generically as “dragon robes,” each decorated with emblems of the wearer’s administrative rank. Imperial robes worn by the ruler during rituals were once festooned with an array of symbolic decorative motifs known collectively as “The Twelve Ornaments (or Symbols).” Symbolizing Heaven and its wisdom were the sun, shown with a three-legged raven inside its red disc; the blue or green moon surrounding a hare grinding the elixir of immortality with mortar and pestle; and the constellations. Images of mountains symbolized Earth and strength. Standing for all living things, the dragon symbolized resilience; the pheasant, culture and literary accomplishment. In images of bronze ritual vessels celebrants saw filial devotion, in cereal grains abundant harvest, in flame illumination, and in the water plant purity. Along with the mountains, the latter four also corresponded with the five elements. Finally, the “fu,” a geometric form meaning good fortune, and the axe, referred respectively to the imperial prerogatives of judgment and punishment. When displayed together, the twelve were done in combinations of the five symbolic colors associated with the five directions. None but the emperor’s ritual vestments could depict all twelve ornaments, since they constituted a symbolic summary of the whole cosmos.


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