Tang Emperor Taizong

According to the National Palace Museum, Taipei: “The emperor was considered endowed with the power of authority from the heavens, following the will of its mandate to take responsibility for governing among and for the people on its behalf. The emperor, as the Son of Heaven receiving the mandate to rule, was the unquestioned and supreme leader of all the land, so he came to assume an aura of ultimate loftiness and mystery within the high walls of the palaces built for him. This is why, becoming so remote and unfathomable, he was likened to the spirit dragon, roaming the skies and seas of its domain, but never appearing in full or for very long. [Source: National Palace Museum, Taipei,]

Dr. Robert Eno of Indiana University wrote: ““One of the most notable features of early Chinese history is "the emergence of bureaucratic government" — that is, of a government of stipended (salaried) functionaries with distinct roles and privileges who occupy their offices at the pleasure of the state, or ruler. The Classical period, around the 5th century B.C., represents a transitional era where hereditary privilege and office were increasingly rare and appointment according to merit was becoming the political norm.” [Source: Robert Eno, Indiana University /+/ ]

Punishment consisted of the “five mutilations”: “execution, castration, cutting off the foot, cutting off the nose, and tattooing. These were established forms of legal punishment in early China. Banishment, another form of punishment, in the context of contemporary society, seems far less severe and more humane. /+/

Chinese dynasties were not like the royal houses of England, branches of a single line. It was possible for the founder of a new dynasty to be a commoner or have come from a non-Chinese ethnic group. Their legitimacy was based on their ability to restore or maintain order and govern. Years in China were traditionally marked by the number of years a certain ruler reigned. There were three ruling Empresses in the history of Imperial China.

Imperial symbols included the colors yellow and purple. The Emperor wore yellow robes and lived under roofs made with yellow tiles. Only the Emperor was allowed to wear yellow. No buildings outside those in the Forbidden City were allowed to have yellow-tiled roofs. Purple represented the North Star, the center of the universe according to Chinese cosmology. The dragon symbolized the Emperor while the phoenix symbolized the Empress. Cranes and turtles — traditional longevity symbols — associated with the Imperial court represented the desire for long reign. The numbers nine, associated with male energy, and five, representing harmony, were also linked with the Emperor.


Emperor and Cosmic Order in Imperial China

Tang Empress Wu Zetain

According to Columbia University’s Asia for Educators: “The emperor's personal worship of Heaven at the Temple of Heaven took place during the winter solstice and on New Year’s Day (from 1742 on). The Record of Ritual states that “the sacrifice to Heaven is the highest expression of reverence.” As with most other Chinese ceremonies, great symbolic emphasis was placed on color, form, number, position, music, and sacrificial objects. The color of the jade and silk offerings to Heaven was blue-green, the altar was circular (yang) in shape, and the associated number was nine (also yang). [Source: adapted from Richard J. Smith, China’s Cultural Heritage: The Qing Dynasty, 1644-1912, 2nd ed. (Boulder: Westview Press, Inc., 1994), p. 158; Asia for Educators, Columbia University afe.easia.columbia ]

“Appropriately, nine pieces of music were played at the sacrifice, and the emperor faced north, reversing his usual orientation. Contemporary accounts of the elaborate ritual — preceded by a dramatic imperial procession from the Forbidden City to the Temple of Heaven complex the night before — describe a solemn spectacle of awesome splendor. Attended by an entourage of imperial princes, high officials, and other state functionaries, and flanked by the spirit tablets of his ancestors and various deities of nature, the emperor paid his respects to the tablet representing Heaven with prayers and offerings — all accompanied by hymns, instrumental music, and ritual posturing undertaken by literally hundreds of performers.

According to Archaeology magazine, the Altar of Heaven in Xi’an, which was excavated in 2000, has been dated by archaeologists to as early as the Sui dynasty (581-618 CE) and is the oldest known site where Chinese emperors are thought to have performed religious ceremonies. It is estimated that seventeen Chinese emperors “worshipped Heaven” here. [Spencer P.M. Harrington, “Vintage Altar of Heaven,” Archaeology 53:2, March/April 2000]

Mandate of Heaven

Early Chinese monarchs were both priests and kings. The Chinese people believed that their rulers were chosen to lead with a "mandate of heaven" — -the Chinese belief that a dynasty was ordained to rule, based on its demonstrated ability to do so. It was a kind of political legitimacy based on the notion that the overthrow of ruler was justified if the ruler became wicked, lost the trust of the people or double-crossed the supreme being.

According to Columbia University’s Asia for Educators: “In the Chinese tradition, the emperor did not necessarily have the absolute power that is associated with the traditional monarchies of Europe. The emperor’s actions had to be tempered by basic political expectations, and he had to act properly as an integral part of the cosmic order. The expectation was that an emperor should be an exceptional being — a sage king — and his right to rule was contingent upon his ability to skillfully mediate the cosmic forces. As mediator between Heaven and Earth, the emperor was thought to be a major participant in all cosmic actions, and as such he had to conduct himself accordingly, or the repercussions, in terms of cosmic dislocation, could be very serious. If things went wrong — a bad crop year, for instance — the emperor could be held responsible. He could be overthrown, and this would be considered legitimate. When such an overthrow occurred, it would be understood that the emperor had “lost” the Mandate of Heaven. In this way the notion of imperial legitimacy was fundamentally linked to the notion of maintaining the cosmic order. [Source: Asia for Educators, Columbia University ]

Mandate of Heaven

The “mandate of heaven” was first adopted during the Zhou Dynasty (1100-221 B.C.) and was described as a divine right to rule. The philosopher Mencius (372-289 B.C.) wrote about it at length and framed it in both moral and cosmic terms, stating that if a ruler was just and carried out the prescribed rituals to the ancestors then his rule and the cosmic, natural and human order would be maintained.

Dynastic Rule in China

Until the 1911 Revolution led by Sun Yat-sen, Chinese history had consisted of 24 dynasties. Broadly speaking, the founding emperor of a dynasty seized power by force and eventually passed the reign to his son. The dynasty would continue until faced with serious problems such as famine, war or revolution. Ultimately, the old dynasty would be overthrown by a new regime, which in many cases was headed by the leader of usurping revolutionaries. [Source: Sun Wukong, Asia Times, July 31, 2008]

Sun Wukong wrote in the Asia Times, “Two points can be taken from this. First, Chinese have historically accepted that “whoever has fought on horseback to seize all under Heaven” is entitled to rule, but such acceptance is not automatically extended to the offspring or relatives of the ruler. Second, because the legitimacy of successive rulers is questioned, Chinese are inclined to replace leaders who fail to run the nation well. As another saying puts it: “People take turns becoming the emperor, and this year it may be my turn.”“

“It was through violence that Sun Yat-sen founded the Republic of China, and the same is true for Mao Zedong and the People's Republic of China. Neither man, however, passed their power to their sons. Mao and Deng had fought “on horseback” to seize power and thereby gained the legitimacy to rule. But leaders after them have had to justify their right to rule through performance. President Hu Jintao and his predecessor Jiang Zemin were handpicked by Deng.”

Victory Banquet given by Emperor Qianlong

Official Rites and Duties of the Chinese Emperor

According to Columbia University’s Asia for Educators: “The State Cult gave powerful ritual emphasis to key elements of state ideology and to the basic political organization of the state. Participants in the official rites were the emperor, his bureaucracy, and other degree-holders. There was no independent priesthood, for worship — guided by bureaucrats according to government regulations — was considered an official duty. [Source: adapted from “Religion in a State Society: China,” by Myron L. Cohen; Asia for Educators, Columbia University ]

The prayers and rituals that accompanied the many duties of the emperor were not designed by any one emperor. Rather, classic ritual texts were debated and revised under every dynasty. It was incumbent upon a sitting emperor to perform these rituals in order to demonstrate that he was the rightful emperor — to validate his own position within the system, and at the same time, to validate the system itself. The emperor needed to express his commitment to the ideas that were behind these rituals, and so it was that every Chinese emperor worshipped Heaven and Earth at the Temple of Heaven and also at the sacred Mount Tai.

“One of the emperor’s annual religious responsibilities was the ceremony at the Temple of Heaven. When the emperor, as the Son of Heaven (Tianzi), with the Mandate of Heaven (Tianming) to rule over human society, worshipped at the Temple of Heaven, he was worshipping Heaven and Earth as his symbolic parents and in expression of the anciently established Chinese state ideology which held that the emperor was not divine but divinely appointed.

“The emperor’s duty was to insure that society expressed its natural order, which was but an aspect of the cosmic order of humanity (society), heaven, and earth. The emperor also worshipped his own ancestors, expressing the Confucian ethic of filial loyalty, which was an obligation that all Chinese, regardless of social position, had to honor. Other objects of imperial worship were the sun, the moon, Confucius, the emperors of earlier dynasties, the god of agriculture (in a ritual which included the symbolic plowing by the emperor of the first furrow of the new farming season), and other divinities representing important natural or social forces (such as the god of learning).

Imperial Tours of Chinese Emperors

Dr. Robert Eno of Indiana University wrote: “Touring was a central part of the kingship at many times in early Chinese history. It is important to recall the enormous size of the territories that were, at least nominally, under the rule of the dynastic king at the center. Communications and roads being primitive, it was essential that the king devote significant time to making his presence personal to those who managed his government throughout the empire. Moreover, the king was the axial figure of those aspects of religious practice that grew to a level of “state religion” by the early Zhou. His periodic physical participation in the religious rites parceled out to his various regional representatives sustained their legitimacy and inspired awe among those who were ruled. The notion of the king’s tour, basically a late Zhou creation, becomes even more central to the actual practice of government after the unification of China under a single ruler in 221 B.C..” [Source: Robert Eno, Indiana University /+/ ]

Imperial Tour in 3rd century BC by Qin Shi Huang, China's first emperor

“The "Book of Documents" records that the great emperors at the beginning of Chinese history made regular tours of their realm, traveling far and wide to allow the charismatic influence of their virtue to have its full transforming effect, and to perform sacred rituals to the spirits of the land that only the Son of Heaven could properly perform. We now know that even the late Shang kings made such tours. “ /+/

Chinese Emperors and Religion

State religion dates back at least to the Han Dynasty (206 B.C. to A.D. 220) and may date back to the Western Zhou Dynasty (1100 to 771 B.C.). It involved worship of heaven and the emperor. The latter was perceived as an intermediary between the gods and the people

The emperor presided over special religious ceremonies conducted over a special Altar of Heaven that only he alone was allowed to perform. During these ceremonies the emperor approached the altar barefoot, accompanied by an orchestra playing hymns, and prostrated himself before the celestial deities. It was believed that fate of the coming year as good or bad was determined by how skillfully the emperor performed the ritual. The performance of these ritual was critical to receiving the mandate of heaven.

Before the ceremony the Emperor went to The Palace of Abstinence at the Forbidden City or the Temple of Heaven to pray and fast. During the three-day fast the emperor could not eat meat or drink wine, have contact with women, make merry or take care of legal matters.

Qing Emperor Qianlong at the Hall of Supreme Harmong

An Altar of Heaven constructed during the Sui Dynasty (A.D. 581-618) was unearthed in Xian in the late 1990s. Constructed of rammed earth and composed of four platforms that rose 26 feet high, the altar was covered by a layer of yellow clay topped by a layer of gray paste, strengthened with seed husks and straw. The platforms were five feet to 7½ feet high and measured from 177 feet in diameter at the bottom to 65 feet in diameter at the top. The altar had 12 staircases and is the oldest known Altar of Heaven. Ming and Qing era altars, like the one at the Temple of Heaven in Beijing, were more ornate. See Temple of Heaven in Beijing

There was also a lot of superstition associated with Chinese emperors. Emperors sometimes made decisions based on omens reported to them such as dogs giving birth to snakes, roosters laying eggs, turtles giving birth to adult offspring, frogs eating humans and even strangely-shaped clouds. Students and the their parents still thank the emperors today if the students do well on their university entrance exams.

Imperial Rituals

Dr. Robert Eno of Indiana University wrote: In ancient China, “the five jade tallies were brought to the imperial court by lords at the time of audience, the silk cushions on which they were placed distinguished the rank of each lord; live geese and goats were visiting gifts among officers of noble pedigree, and the slaughtered chicken was the visiting gift of the ordinary officers of court. Such ritual rules appear in wide variety among early texts and commentaries, and while each set of rules is presented as orthodox, the differences among them suggest that uniform ritual practices were likely a late emergence in many respects.” [Source: Robert Eno, Indiana University /+/ ]

Mt. Tai
The "fengshan" sacrifice was the most sacred of all the sacrifices to Heaven. It was well known that every sage king since the predecessors of Fu Xi, many dynasties before the Yellow Emperor, had journeyed to Mt. Tai to offer this supreme sacrifice to Tian. Only the holder of the Mandate of Heaven could perform this holy rite. Only at the summit of the sacred peak of Mt. Tai, on the border of the regions of Qi and Lu on the Shandong peninsula, could this solemn ritual be enacted. Only, records of the specifics of the sacrifice were somewhat scanty, perhaps owing to the fact that the entire idea of the fengshan was in all likelihood the invention of some third century charlatan at the court of Qi!”

Taishan (Mt. Tai)

Taishan (near Jinan and Qufu in Shandong Province) is China's most sacred mountain and one of China's most popular tourist sites. Revered by Taoists and Confucians, it covers an area of 426 square kilometers and is 4,700 feet high. Many emperors came here to make offerings and pray to heaven. Poets and philosophers drew inspiration from it. Pilgrims prayed on an alter said to be the highest in China.

Confucius is said to have climbed the mountain and proclaimed “I feel the world is much smaller” when he reached the top. The Emperor Wu Di ascended it in his quest for immortality; the great 16th century historian Zhang Dai wrote how he was besieged by souvenir sellers when he made the trip. When Mao reached the summit for sunrise, the story goes, he commented that the "East is Red."

Taishan means “big mountain” or “exalted mountain” It is the eastern peak among the five holy mountains associated with the cult of Confucius. The five peaks represent the directions — north, south, east, west and central — and Taishan is considered the holiest because it is in the east, the direction from which the sun rises. For many Chinese it is like Mecca. Climbing it is as much a nationalist and spiritual experience as a recreational one.

Three Prostrations and the Nine Kowtows

Qing Emperor Yongzheng offering sacrifices at the Altar of the God of Agriculture

According to Columbia University’s Asia for Educators: “When the emperor worshipped at the Temple of Heaven, he worshipped through a ritual called the “three prostrations and nine kowtows.” The emperor would be commanded by a high-ranking bureaucrat to prostrate himself, which he would do. He would then be told to kowtow once, then to kowtow a second time, then a third time. Each time he did so, he would touch his head to the ground. (The word “kowtow” is an Anglicized rendering of the Chinese word ketou, meaning “to knock the head” against the ground.) The emperor would then be told to arise, then to prostrate himself again and begin another cycle of this sequence, which would have to be repeated a total of three times — three successive prostrations, each with three kowtows, for a total of nine kowtows. [Source: Asia for Educators, Columbia University ]

“This ritual of the Three Prostrations and the Nine Kowtows was an important one, for it was also what an ordinary farmer would perform at the funeral of his father. Indeed, the phrase “from the imperial court down to our village” was commonly found in widely circulated documents during those days. People used this phrase again and again to express the interconnection and commonality amongst all Chinese people, regardless of social position.

“The fact that high government officials were commanding the emperor himself to kowtow during the ritual of the Three Prostrations demonstrates how these two key institutions — the imperial and the bureaucratic — were intertwined and in fact, interdependent. Consider that by the time of the Qing dynasty the governmental bureaucracy in China had already been around for hundreds of years. The ceremonies that the new Qing emperors were taking up were not invented by the Qing, or even the Ming who preceded them. These rituals were ancient, and the continuity of these rituals and the traditions they expressed were in the hands of an enduring bureaucracy.”

Temple of Heaven

The Temple of Heaven in Beijing is where the Ming and Qing Emperors worshiped to heaven and prayed for bumper crops during an important ritual held once a year. Described as "the noblest example of religious architecture in the whole of China" and known to Chinese as Tiantan, it was built in 1420 during the reign of the Ming dynasty Emperor Yongle and expanded and reconstructed during the reigns of the Emperor Jiajing and Emperor Qianlong. In 1998 it was recognized as a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

The Temple of Heaven is comprised of several buildings and walls with numerous gates. Each piece of architecture has symbolic meaning. The four central columns, for example, represent the four seasons. The square ends represent the earth, and the semicircles, the heavens. Among the interesting sights in the park are the Imperial Vault of Heaven with a gilded cupola and the three-tiered Circular Alter. The imperial north-south axis runs from the Temple of Heaven to the Forbidden City to the main Olympic site.

The northern parts of the outer surrounding walls of temple are semicircular, representing the heavens, while the southern parts are square, representing the earth. A double wall separates the temple into two parts — the inner temple and outer temple, with the main structures being in the inner one. The whole area covers 273 acres.


Temple of Heaven Ceremony

Each year, on the winter solstice, the Emperor offered a sacrifice to bring good fortune in the coming year and maintain harmony with heaven. It was the most important event on the emperor's calendar. In the spring the Emperor presided over a harvest ceremony, intended to ensure good harvests in the following autumn. Each ceremony was held at its own altar at the Temple of Heaven.

Before the Worshiping Heaven Ceremony on the winter solstice the Emperor entered the Hall of Abstinence at the Imperial Palace in the Forbidden City to pray and fast. For three days the Emperor could not eat meat or drink wine, have contact with women, make merry and take care of legal matters. After that he spent some time in the Imperial Vault, ritually communicating with the gods before spending the night in the Hall of Prayer for Good Harvest

On the day of the ceremony the Emperor traveled with an entourage that included elephant chariots, flagbearers, horse chariots, noblemen, musicians and acrobats to the altar where the ceremony was held. In a ceremony that was closed to the public the emperor chanted prayers and presided over sacrifice of animals on sacred tablets on a round Altar of Heaven.

Image Sources: Mandate of Heaven: Clinic 007 webiste; Forbidden Cit; , Louis Perrochon; Hall of Abstinence, Nolls China website; Altar of Heaven, Nolls China website; Others; Wikimedia Commons

Text Sources: Robert Eno, Indiana University/+/ ; Asia for Educators, Columbia University ; University of Washington’s Visual Sourcebook of Chinese Civilization, /=\; National Palace Museum, Taipei; Library of Congress; New York Times; Washington Post; Los Angeles Times; China National Tourist Office (CNTO); Xinhua;; China Daily; Japan News; Times of London; National Geographic; The New Yorker; Time; Newsweek; Reuters; Associated Press; Lonely Planet Guides; Compton’s Encyclopedia; Smithsonian magazine; The Guardian; Yomiuri Shimbun; AFP; Wikipedia; BBC. Many sources are cited at the end of the facts for which they are used.

Last updated November 2021

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