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fengshan 封禪, offerings to Heaven and Earth of Mt. Taishan

Apr 13, 2018 © Ulrich Theobald

The fengshan offerings 封禪 were sacrifices brought to Heaven and Earth. They were performed on the summit of Mt. Taishan 泰山 in the province of Shandong, but only in rare occasions. The offerings consisted of two parts, namely the feng 封 and the shan 禪 (a special reading) offerings. The former were held on the main summit, and the latter on the Liangfu summit 梁父山 (the Da Dai Liji 大戴禮記 writes 梁甫) some 40 km away, close to Xintai 新泰, or on smaller summits like Mt. Tingting 亭亭山, Mt. Yunyun 雲雲山, Mt. Shedao 社首山 or Mt. Suran 肅然山. The altar on Mt. Taishan was, as usual, called tan 壇, and that on Mt. Liangfu shan 墠.

The height of Mt. Taishan, which rises high from a plain, was believed to be an ideal means of establishing contact with Heaven, while the "thickness" (hou 厚) of Mt. Liangfu was resembling the earth, and thus also a good linkage to the terrestrial spirits.

The universal history Shiji 史記 includes a special treatise on the offerings, 28 Fengshan shu 封禪書. The encyclopaedia Baihu tongyi 白虎通義 also includes a chapter (18) on the sacrifices. According to the reports in these two books and other historiographical texts, the First Emperor of Qin 秦始皇帝 (r. 246-210 BCE) was the first historically attested ruler who performed the fengshan sacrifices. Others were Emperor Wu 漢武帝 (r. 141-87 BCE) and Emperor Guangwu 漢光武帝 (r. 25-57 CE) of the Han dynasty 漢 (206 BCE-220 CE), the Emperors Gaozong 唐高宗 (r. 626-649, together with his spouse Wu Zetian 武則天) and Xuanzong 唐玄宗 (r. 712-755) of the Tang dynasty 唐 (618-907), and Emperor Zhenzong 宋真宗 (r. 997-1022) of the Song dynasty 宋 (960-1279).

The Qing-period 清 (1644-1911) scholar Ruan Yuan 阮元 (1764-1849) critically remarked on the early performances that both the First Emperor and Emperor Wu were seeking for immortality (see magicians), while Emperor Guangwu believed in the statements of apocryphal writings – all three were thus driven by vain aspirations instead of the genuine desire to establish contact to "Heaven".

The Fengshan shu chapter in the Shiji holds that already in ancient times, as many as 72 rulers had paid homage to Heaven and Earth by the fengshan sacrifices, but no names are mentioned. It must therefore be assumed that this number is only legendary. Some sources, like the book Guanzi 管子 (ch. 50) at least name the local hero Wuhai 無懷氏, as well as Fu Xi 伏羲, the Yellow Emperor (Huang Di 黃帝), and the mythological emperors Zhuan Xu 顓頊, Di Ku 帝嚳, Yao 堯, and Shun 舜 as rulers who had performed the offering rituals on Mt. Taishan, with the intention to announce to Heaven the beginning of a new dynasty. Emperor Wu of the Han at least proclaimed a new reign motto, Yuanfeng 元封. The fengshan offerings were usually accompanied by a general amnesty.

The fengshan tour of Emperor Wu in 110 BCE was initiated by an immense propaganda campaign. It was said that a sacred tripod (ding 鼎) had been discovered in 116 BCE in the floods of River Fen 汾, an auspicious event causing the emperor to proclaim a new reign motto (Yuanding 元鼎) and to prepare the performance of the fengshan offerings. During that occasion, Emperor Wu had an inscription in large characters (3 zhang 丈 high, see weights and measures) applied to a rock of Mt. Taishan. The altars are reported to have had a length of 12 zhang.

Much more famous is the inscription of the First Emperor, called Taishan shike 泰山刻石. Its text is attributed to Counsellor-in-chief Li Si 李斯 (d. 208 BCE), and is preserved in the annals-biography of the First Emperor (6 Qin Shihuang ji 秦始皇紀) in the Shiji, as well as in other sources and as rubbings from the original, each with slightly different wording.

The Southern Song dynasty 南宋 (1127-1279) declared the unison of the fengshan offerings with the suburban offerings (jiaosi 郊祀), and gave up the custom. The equalization of the two series of rites became apparent under Emperor Gaozong of the Tang in 666. The liturgy of the fengshan offerings and that of the suburban offerings were the same, for instance, with a round (fengsitan 封祀壇) and a square altar (jiangshantan 降禪壇), or different sacrificial animals. Gaozong also had an assembly altar built (yuchaojintan 御朝覲壇), the ceremony in front of which resembled a court audience at which the highest ministers attended. Before Emperor Zhenzong of the Song performed the rituals in 1008, he forbade for one month the slaughtering animals and the performing of music. The rituals were praised in several hymns, like Fengsitan song 封祀壇頌, Sheshoutan song 社首壇頌 and Chaojintan song 朝覲壇頌.

Already in earlier times, the fengshan sacrifices were praised, like in Sima Xiangru's 司馬長卿 (179-117 BCE) Fengshan wen 封禪文, or in Ma Dibo's 馬第伯 Fengshan yiji 封禪儀記 on the offerings from 56 CE.

In very rare occasions, commoners performed the rituals, like Huo Qubing 霍去病 (d. 117 BCE), who held the feng rites on Mt. Langjuxu 狼居胥山 and the shan offerings on Mt. Shixan 始衍. During the Liang period 梁 (502-557), Emperor Wu 梁武帝 (r. 502-549) allowed to perform similar sacifices on Mt. Guiji 會稽 (close to Shaoxing 紹興, Zhejiang) and Mt. Guoshan 國山. Wu Zetian also performed the rituals on the "central summit" (zhongyue 中岳) Mt. Songshan 嵩山 and Mt. Shaoshi 少室山.

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Wu Xuhua 王煦華 (1992). "Fengshan 封禪", in Zhongguo da baike quanshu 中國大百科全書, Zhongguo lishi 中國歷史 (Beijing/Shanghai: Zhongguo da baike quanshu chuanshe), Vol. 1, 223.
Xu Weimin 徐衛民 (2000). "Fengshan 封禪", in Zhonghua Qin wenhua cidian bianweihui 《中華秦文化辭典》編委會, ed. Zhonghua Qin wenhua cidian 中華秦文化辭典 (Xi'an: Xibei daxue chubanshe), 522.
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Further reading:
Zhou Shance 周善策 (2015). "Fengshan li yu Tangdai qianbanqi jili de biange 封禪禮與唐代前半期吉禮的變革", Lishi yanjiu 歷史研究, 2015/6.
Zito, Angela (2003). "Feng shan (royal sacrifices to heaven and earth)", in Yao Xinzhong, ed. RoutledgeCurzon Encyclopedia of Confucianism (London/New York: RoutledgeCurzon), 212-213.