Notes: Son of Heaven Chinese Emperor’s cosmic ritual of sacrificing to the mountains


Announcements from the Mountains: The Stele Inscriptions of the Qin First Emperor 


To the First Emperor, the sites of his stele inscriptions were both old and new: old in the cultural sense that they belonged either to the northeastern areas of the former Zhou oikumene where the ritualist ru tradition was at home or, in the case of Kuaiji, represented an important symbol of political mythology (see below); new in the political sense that these territories were now, for the first time in history, conquered by Qin. With their continuous references to both the Zhou tradition and the military success of Qin, the inscriptions conveyed a powerful message: the First Emperor did not put an end to the tradition of the sage kings but, on the contrary, established  himself as their true successor. When the “August Emperor” conducted his progress through the east, he was aware of the traditions attached to his various destinations and to the political act proper of “touring” newly conquered regions. The inscriptions were performances of political rhetoric not only through their contents, that is, their emphasis on the overall conquest, the foundation of the state, and the enforcement of social order. They also claimed to be the ultimate expression of a well-established demonstration of sovereignty, the tour of inspection.

In the early empire, the venerated model of a cosmic ruler who had mounted the peaks of the four directions, measured out the empire, and set up an all-embracing order was the cultural hero Shun as he is described in the “Yao dian” chapter of the Shangshu. The significance of this famous passage can be grasped from its inclusion in the monographs on imperial sacrifices in both Shi ji and Hanshu.

The record of Shun’s initial tours of inspection matches all too perfectly what we are told about the First Emperor:

In the second month of the year,27 [Shun] went east to visit [for inspection] those under his protection and arrived at [Mt.] Venerable Tai.

He made a burnt offering [to Heaven] and performed wang sacrifices in the correct sequence to the mountains and streams. Then he gave audience to the lords of the east, regulated the [calendar of the] seasons and months, rectified the [designations of the] days, and made uniform the pitchpipes and the measures of length, capacity, and weight.

After perfecting the different rites according to the ranks of nobility and hence establishing the correct social order, Shun went home. In the same year he performed the identical set of rites and regulations during subsequent tours to the south, the west, and the north; 30 each time, his destination proper was the main peak of the respective direction. Prominent features in the Shangshu account are the recurring initial sacrifices to Heaven and to the important mountains and streams of the region. As a prerogative of the universal ruler, the ordered, and ordering, sequence of sacrifices formally structured and demarcated the world under control:

The Son of Heaven sacrifices to the famous mountains and great streams All under Heaven, regarding the five peaks as his three high ministers, regarding the four streams as his feudal lords. The feudal lords sacrifice to the famous mountains and great streams within the borders of their territory.

Modern scholarship on the Shangshu has established that an originally earlier “Yao dian” chapter evidently underwent a redaction in Qin imperial times, leading to significant textual changes and additions, among the latter including the account of Shun’s tour of inspection. The transmitted Han version of the Shangshu—the “New Text” version provided by the former Qin erudite Fu Sheng (born 260 BC)—was most likely the Qin version of the text, prepared by the officially appointed erudites at the imperial court.

It is indeed distinctly possible that the First  Emperor in both his most solemn representation of political sovereignty, the feng and shan sacrifices, 33 and in the design of his tours of inspection might have created the very tradition that he purported to revive.

The Eastern state of Qi had been subjugated in 221 BC as the last of the former six states conquered by Qin. This may explain why the First Emperor concentrated his first series of inscriptions of 219 and 218 BC precisely in this area; in conjunction, he performed a series of different sacrifices to all four mountains and presented additional wang offerings to the other “famous mountains and great streams” (mingshan dachuan) of the realm.

These wang sacrifices served to manifest the spatial extension of legitimate sovereignty. They were by definition directed not to outlying regions in general but to the demarcated space under control, and only a universal ruler like Shun enjoyed the prerogative and actual power to perform them during his far-flung tours of inspection.

That the First Emperor recognized this model, furnished by his own official erudites, appears from the fact that he honored the legendary sage ruler Shun himself with a wanG sacrifice.

Against this background, the concentration of stele inscriptions and related sacrifices in the most recently conquered territories must have been self-evident: presenting his offerings to the mountains and rivers of the east and incorporating the former sacrificial sites of Qi into his own cosmic ritual system, the First Emperor integrated the former territories of Qi into the empire. Qi was thus ritually transformed from a subject of its own history into an object of Qin history—which was the fundamental message to be deciphered from the stelae, written in Qin script.

As is related in the Shi ji “Basic Annals” and “Book on the feng and shan Rituals” (“Feng shan shu”) for the emperor’s visits to Mt. Tai and Mt. Yi, the First Emperor, on arrival at a mountain, faithfully emulated the allegedly old pattern and presented sacrifices before the officials inscribed the stele. Although the act of erecting a stele and inscribing it with a eulogy appears to be embedded in a ritual context designed after the model received from (or invented for) Shun, there remains a difference: unlike Shun, the Qin emperor did not transform chaos into cosmos but obtained control over already ordered regions which only had to be re-ordered to constitute the unified world under heaven. Thus, in choosing the places for the stele inscriptions, the emperor did not attempt to define a whole new set of sacred locations; instead, he purported to revive the sacrifices of old at established sites and to attach himself to the culture heroes of antiquity. Yet this posed a problem: after centuries of political disunion, there was little ritual practice to represent universal rulership. The rhetorical solution to this problem was a simple claim, based on the assumption that the inherent meaning of the rites did not reside in their outward shape: although the forms of the ancient rites had dimmed and faded, their names and supposed meanings were still clear and comprehensible and could be revived by a new or even improvised set of formal devices.

This was true for the feng and shan rituals as well as for the sacrifices at Mt. Zhifu and Mt. Langye, the next two localities favored with stele inscriptions: these sites were regarded as links in a chain of eight peaks located in the former state of Qi where the “eight [cosmic] spirits” (bashen) received their offerings. According to Shi ji and Hanshu, the “eight spirits” existed of old, but the remote origins of their cults, purportedly dating from the founding of the Zhou dynasty, lay in obscurity after the sacrifices had been discontinued at some point in the past. Allegedly reviving lost tradition, the Qin emperor sacrificed to the spirit of the yang cosmic force at Mt. Zhifu and to the spirit of the four seasons at Mt. Langye, integrating the two places into his overall system of cosmic ritual. In sum, of the four mountains on former Qi territory to bear an inscribed stele, it is only Mt. Yi—located in the home county of Mencius and not far from Confucius’s birthplace—for which the sources fail to provide us with a significant real or fictive ritual tradition. But they do not fail to note that the emperor actually sacrificed to Mt. Yi, thereby endowing the place with a superior status in the ritual geography of the empire. A location for an inscription was never just somewhere.

In Lewis’s words: “In placing these inscriptions on peaks in the newly-conquered Eastern states, the First Emperor completed his conquest by inscribing the reality of his power, in the newly created imperial script, into the sacred landscape of his new subjects.”41

Thus, here again the act of erecting the stele is embedded in a broader religious tradition. Yu the Great, like Shun at Mt. Jiuyi, was as much a part of the cosmos as he was part of history. Sage rulers transformed into nature spirits, Shun and Yu were political ancestors of old who now resided 

on mountain peaks. In pre-imperial times, ancestral and cosmic sacrifices alike were governed by rules of prerogative: as the ancestral spirits would accept offerings only from their legitimate descendant, a ruler could also address only the spirits of the mountains and rivers of his own domain. In sacrificing to Yu and Shun, the First Emperor, being the one living human endowed  with the prerogative to address these legendary rulers as both political ancestors and cosmic powers, expressed and enacted his own universal sovereignty. As human spirits, Yu and Shun represented the political model to emulate; as mountain spirits, they were approachable by the wang sacrifice.

Thus, through his offerings the First Emperor linked the historical to the cosmic dimension of imperial representation—displaying his accomplishments to the cosmic powers whom at the same time he appropriated as political ancestors.

When the emperor connected himself to the mythical heroes of the past and had his merits recited and inscribed on mountain peaks, he simultaneously historicized his own ritual performance.

Chinese steles: pre-Buddhist and Buddhist use of a symbolic form

By Dorothy C. Wong

China’s Archaeological Oscars: The Top Ten Discoveries of 2006

Fig. 1
Fig.1 Pointed stone tool unearthed at the Dahe palaeolithic cave site in Yunnan province. Source: Zhongguo wenwu bao (China Cultural Relics News), 11 April 2007, p.5.

Fig. 2
Fig.2 Beaker of white pottery (now discoloured) unearthed from the Xiantouling neolithic site in Shenzhen, Guangdong province. Source: Zhongguo wenwu bao, 11 April 2007, p.5.

China’s massive construction program over the past few years has seen a proliferation in the number of archaeological excavations that are necessitated by non-scientific excavations. It is difficult to keep abreast of the vast number of finds. Although it is not quite a red carpet event, the annual awards for the Top Ten Archaeological Discoveries of the previous year generate public interest in archaeology that professionals in many other countries would welcome. The State Administration of Cultural Heritage (SACH), as the former State Cultural Relics Bureau is now known, announced the top ten discoveries of 2006 in April 2007, and in the months since then a great deal of publicity has been given to these finds.

These ten significant finds were selected from 24 nominations in the annual competition held by the Chinese Society of Archaeology and the administration’s newspaper China Cultural Relics News. A total of 46 archaeological institutes participated in the 24 short-listed excavations, because most excavations are joint undertakings by strong central- or provincial-level institutes and local teams often based in county-level museums. All archeological excavation and investigation projects in China over the previous year are eligible to be candidates for the preliminary selection of 24 excavations. The panel claims that, rather than being prompted by the ‘treasure’ principle, the selection was based on whether an excavation was properly conducted and scientific knowledge of the past was advanced.

The Top Ten Archaeological discoveries of 2006 were announced in Lanzhou, Gansu province, highlighting the fact that two of the major discoveries were in that province and demonstrating that the powerful hand of Beijing does not wish to be seen to be exercising cultural hegemony over regional archaeological bodies.

Fig. 3
Fig.3 Aerial photograph of the Guye site under excavation. Source:Zhongguo wenwu bao, 11 April 2007, p.5.

The long-standing rift between professional archaeologists and the bureaucrats of SACH inevitably resurfaces each year, and despite the brave face put on events, the Archaeology Institute of Chinese Academy of Social Sciences (CASS) has already initiated its own, rival system of evaluations. However, this year SACH strove to conduct lengthy meetings and briefings with archaeologists across China and a truce seems to have effected. This year the evaluation committee was dramatically expanded to 19 members, and secret ballot is now the order of the day, with an independent team counting the votes.

The finally selected top ten archaeological discoveries of 2006 ranged widely in date. Although the most recent excavation was of a site in Shanghai dating back to the Yuan dynasty (1271-1368), the earliest site, the Dahe cave site at Fuyuan in Yunnan province, was more than 30,000 years old.

The successful ten, which are by tradition arranged chronologically, were:

1. The Palaeolithic Cave Site at Dahe, Fuyuan County, Yunnan province. (Fig.1)
Excavating team: Yunnan Provincial Cultural Relics and Archaeology Institute.
Team leader: Ji Xueping.

The lowest layers of this palaeolithic cave site are dated to between 41,000 and 44,000 years BP. Since 2002, stone tools have been discovered here which were made using the Levallois technique of stone working. This provides evidence of cultural exchanges across the now largely discredited Movius Line that was once held to separate east and west. This interchange across Eurasia happened earlier in southern China than in the north. Archaeologists believe that the site provides evidence of the existence of more communication routes across Eurasia than pre-historians formerly believed.

Fig. 4
Fig.4 Grave at the mid Yangshao culture site at Xipo in Lingbao, Henan province. Source: Zhongguo wenwu bao, 11 April 2007, p.5.

Fig. 5
Fig.5 Aerial photograph of tamped earth areas at the Shang dynasty site at Gaohong in Shanxi province. Source: Zhongguo wenwu bao, 11 April 2007, p.8.

2. Xiantouling neolithic site, Shenzhen, Guandong province. (Fig.2)
Excavating team: Shenzhen Municipal Cultural Relics and Archaeology Evaluation Institute and Shenzhen Municipal Museum.
Team leader: Li Hairong.

The remains at Xiantouling, which date back from 6,000 to 7,000 years, provide important criteria for archaeologists preparing a model of the stages of social development during this millennium in the Pearl River Delta. The finds also shed light on interpretative problems in Lingnan prehistoric culture, and archaeologists now posit the existence of the transitional Xiantouling culture named for this site.

3. Shell midden site at Guye in Gaoming, Guangdong province. (Fig.4)
Excavating team: Guangdong Provincial Cultural Relics and Archaeology Institute and Foshan City’s Gaoming District Museum.
Team leader: Cui Yong.

This late neolithic site, dating back 4,500 years, is now regarded as China’s best-preserved shell midden. It has provided archaeologists with valuable information on the diet of the neolithic inhabitants of the area and the various plants exploited as sources of food.

Fig. 6
Fig.6 Bronze cup with winged handles unearthed from an earth tumulus grave in Pucheng, Fujian province. Source: Zhongguo wenwu bao, 11 April 2007, p.8.

4. Neolithic cemetery at Xipo, Lingbao, Henan province. (Fig.3)
Excavating team: CASS Institute of Archaeology, Henan Provincial Cultural Relics and Archaeology Institute, Sanmenxia Municipal Archaeology Institute, Lingbao Municipal Cultural Relics Management Office.
Team leader: Chen Xingcan.

The excavation of these neolithic graves has advanced archaeologists’ understanding of the society and economy of the Mid Yangshao culture (5,000-3,000 BCE). During the fifth and sixth excavation conducted in 2005 and 2006, 34 tombs were found with a large amount of funerary objects, including jade, pottery and bone items. The excavation represented the first discovery of graves of Mid Yangshao Culture in this area of Henan province.

5. The relics of Shang dynasty found at Gaohong, Liulin county, Shanxi province. (Fig.5)
Excavating team: Shanxi Provincial Archaeology Institute, Lüliang Municipal Cultural Relics Bureau, Liulin County Cultural Relics Management Office.
Team leader: Ma Sheng.

This is the first discovery of a late Shang dynasty (c.16th century-11th century BCE) bronze culture habitation site in the Lüliang Mountain region of Shanxi province, where 20 sites with tamped earth foundations were found. The discovery is of great value for the study of the unique Lüliang Mountain bronze culture. Late Shang bronzes had previously been discovered in the area, but all examples were found in graves. This excavation has made it clear that late Shang bronze culture had a local social base.

Fig. 7
Fig.7 Photograph of an accompaniment burial of a horse-drawn chariot at the Majiayuan Warring States cemetery in Zhangjiachuan, Gansu province. Source: Zhongguo wenwu bao, 11 April 2007, p.8.

Fig. 8
Fig.8 A view of the ‘bronze musical instrument pit’ at the Dabaozishan site in Lixian county, Gansu province. Source: Zhongguo wenwu bao, 11 April 2007, p.8.

6. Tumulus tombs found in Guanjiu village, Pucheng county, Fujian province. (Fig.6)
Excavating teams: Fujian Museum; Fujian Minyue Royal City Museum.
Team leader: Yang Cong.

Tumulus tombs are considered to be characteristic of the Wuyue Culture of the Spring and Autumn (770-476 BCE) and Warring States (475-221 BCE) periods. These tumulus tombs found at Guanjiu, Pucheng, in 2006, were the first discovered in Fujian province. A total of 72 bronze funerary articles were excavated from the tombs, making the excavation the largest discovery of bronze items in Fujian’s archaeological history.

7. Cemetery of the Warring States period found at Majiayuan, Zhangjiachuan county, Gansu province. (Fig.7)
Excavating team: Gansu Provincial Cultural Relics and Archaeology Institute and the Zhangjiachuan Huizu Autonomous County Museum.
Team leader: Wang Hui.

The value of excavating these tombs, which had been stripped by robbers, lies in their special structure and the five chariots found inside (four in the burial chambers and one in the tomb passageway). Such elaborately decorated chariots are very rare among Chinese archaeological discoveries.

Fig. 9
Fig.9 Aerial view of a Han tomb, showing the elaborate system ofticou timber construction that is a feature of Han dynasty tombs, at Lu’an in Anhui province. Source:Zhongguo wenwu bao, 11 April 2007, p.8.

Fig. 10
Fig.10 The partially restored Yuan dynasty sluice port unearthed in the Putuo district of Shanghai. Source:Zhongguo wenwu bao, 11 April 2007, p.8.

8. The bronze musical instrument pit of the Qin dynasty found at the Dabaozishan site, Lixian county, Gansu province. (Fig.8)
Excavating teams: Gansu Provincial Cultural Relics and Archaeology Institute, Shaanxi Provincial Archaeology Institute, Peking University, North-western University and the National Museum.
Team leader: Zhao Huacheng.

The discovery of the musical instruments pit may help reveal the identity of the tomb’s owner, believed to be one of the kings of the early Qin state, when the geographical centre of the Qin state was in Gansu province. The excavation also provides rare materials for researching the early history of China’s ritual and music system, as well as the origins of the imperial system of sacrifices and the techniques of bronze casting of the early Qin state prior to the founding of the Qin dynasty (221-206 BCE).

9. The Shuangdun cemetery at Lu’an city, Anhui province. (Fig.9)
Excavating team: Anhui Provincial Cultural Relics and Archaeology Institute.
Team leader: Yang Lixin.

The discovery of this tomb of the Han dynasty (260 BCE-AD 220) and the royal cemetery of the Lu’an Kingdom sheds further light on the system of princely houses that extended across China in the Han dynasty.

10. The remains of a Yuan dynasty sluice gate at Zhidanyuan, Shanghai. (Fig.10)
Excavating team: Shanghai Museum.
Team leader: Song Jian.

The Zhidanyuan water gate, located in the Putuo district of Shanghai, has a history of 700 years. This hydraulic facility of the Yuan dynasty (1271-1368) is regarded as the finest example of such an ancient engineering project discovered in China

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