1902 Encyclopedia > China > Imperial Sacrifices

(Part 56)


Imperial Sacrifices

The whole theory of government is the embodiment of parental and filial piety. As the people are the children of the emperor, so is he the Teen-tsze or the Son of Heaven ; and standing in this intermediary position, it pertains to him, and to alone, to mediate between his father, Heaven, and his children, his subjects. His sacrifices and prayers to Heaven are conducted with great parade and ceremony. The chief of these state observances is the sacrifice at the winter solstice, which is performed before sunrise on the morning of the 21st of December at the altar of Heaven. The form of this altar is peculiar. "It consists of a triple circular terrace, 210 feet wide at the base, 150 in the middle, and 90 at the top…. The emperor, with his immediate suite, kneels in front of the tablet of Shang-tis (The Supreme Being, or Heaven), and faces the north. The platform is laid with marble stones, forming nine concentric circles ; the inner circle consists of nine stones, cut so as to fit with close edges round the central stone, which is a perfect circle. Here the emperor kneels, and is surrounded first by the circles of the terraces and their enclosing walls, and then by the circle of the horizon. He then seems to himself and to his court to be in the centre of the universe, and turning to the north, assuming the attitude of a subject, he acknowledges in prayer and by his position that he is inferior to Heaven, and to Heaven alone. Round him on the pavement are the nine circles of as many Heavens consisting of nine stones, then eighteen, then twenty-seven, and so on in successive multiples of nine till the square of nine, the favourite number of Chinese philosophy, is reached in the outermost circle of eighty-one stones." On this occasion, also, a bullock of two years old, and without blemish, is offered as a whole-burntoffering in a green porcelain furnace which stands close beside the altar.

But though occupying the lofty position described, the power wielded by the emperor of China is circumscribed by ceremonial laws and hampered by precedents. His whole life is one continual round of ceremonial observances. From the day on which he ascends the throne to the time when he is carried to his tomb in the Eastern Hills, his hours and almost minutes have special duties appointed to them by the Board of Rites. He never leaves his palace except on state occasions, and every relaxation from the cares of sovereignty must therefore be found within its walls. It is thus the temptations of harem life have been the ruin of so many emperors, and it is rarely the case the such sovereigns are to be met with as Kang-he and Keen-lung, who reigned in the last two centuries, and each of whom devoted the sixty years of his reign to the high duties of his position and to the charms of literary pursuits.

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