Confucianism, the Literati, and Chinese Imperial Traditions

Customs and Rituals

What were some of the principal CIT sacred times?

Ritual responsibilities of the emperor and his official delegates included ceremonies at various major state sacred sites: the Altar of the Spirits of Land and Grain, the Imperial Ancestral Temple, the temples of Heaven and Earth, of Sun and Moon, and within the audience halls of the Forbidden City. At the Altar of the Spirits of Land and Grain (she ji tan) the emperor performed sacrifices in spring for fertile fields and in the fall for plentiful harvest. At the Imperial Ancestral Temple (tai miao), he led ceremonies associated with the anniversaries of his own ancestors back through the history of the dynasty. There, the ancestors were said to grant audiences with their royal public much as the emperor himself did from his own audience halls. At the Temple of Heaven, the imperial officials offered harvest prayers on New Year’s Day, rain prayers at the onset of summer, and announced royal events, such as the designation of the heir to the throne. Within the Forbidden City, various important rituals occurred at the new year, the winter solstice, and the emperor’s birthday. Subjects acknowledged the emperor’s lofty authority in the various audience halls of the City’s outer court, located just south of the more private palaces of the inner court.

The ceremony began early in the morning outside the Meridian Gate, the southern entrance to the Forbidden City. At the sound of two drum beats, three thousand officials in nine ranks processed into the courtyard before the Hall of Supreme Harmony. Once they were arranged, three drum beats announced that the emperor would enter from the Hall of Middle Harmony, just to the north, and take his seat on the throne. Music accompanied his entry and continued as the officials paid homage. Military leaders lined up on the west and civil authorities on the east, both groups facing the central axis of the courtyard. Bird and animal symbolism was arranged on the robes so that the birds and animals of both groups were facing north, honoring the emperor as he sat on the dragon throne within the hall. All of creation was thus symbolically ordered toward the emperor, who represented Heaven. After the announcement of the specific occasion for the ritual, music resumed for another round of obeisance to the emperor. Once the emperor had departed, the ceremony ended with an exit procession of all present.


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