The suburban offerings (jiaosi 郊祀, jiaoji 郊祭, jiaoshe 郊社, qinjiao 親郊) were an important state ceremony carried out once a year by the emperor, in company of the highest dignitaries of the empire, the Three Dukes (sangong 三公) and the Nine Chamberlains (jiuqing 九卿). The emperor thanked Heaven (shangcang 上蒼, cangtian 蒼天) and Earth (dishen 地神, huangdiqi 皇地祇) for their benevolence and prayed for the welfare of the state and the people. There were basically two sacrificial ceremonies to be carried out, one in the southern suburbs (jiao 郊), where Heaven was brought offerings (ji tian 祭天), and one in the northern suburbs (she 社), where the Earth was venerated (ji di 祭地). While the suburban offerings to Heaven and Earth were called "great offerings" (dasi 大祀), those to other deities or spirits were called the "many [lesser] offerings" (qunsi 群祀).
The altars were until the mid-Former Han period 前漢 (206 BCE-8 CE) located in Fenyin 汾陰 (today's Wanrong 萬榮, Shanxi) for the offerings to the Earth, and in Ganquan 甘泉 (close to modern Yan'an 延安, Shaanxi) for the offerings to Heaven. In 32 BCE the altars were moved to the suburbs of the capital Chang'an 長安 (today's Xi'an 西安, Shaanxi), places which were reconfirmed and perpetuated by the usurper Wang Mang 王莽 (r. 8-23 CE). They remained in the suburbs of the respective main capital until the end of imperial times.
The "lesser offerings" were those to the Five Emperors (wudi 五帝), the Five Human Emperors (wurendi 五人帝: the rulers of the cardinal directions, or Tai Hao 太昊/Fu Xi 伏羲, Yan Di 炎帝/Shen Nong 神農, Xuan Yuan 軒轅/Yellow Emperor 黃帝, Shao Hao 少昊/White Emperor 白帝, and Zhuan Xu 顓頊/Black Emperor 黑帝), the "Five Officials" (wuguan 五官, i.e. the spirits Gou Mang 句芒/wood, Zhu Rong 祝融/fire, Ru Shou 蓐收/metal, Xuan Ming 玄冥/water, and Hou Tu 后土/earth), the Great Unity (taiyi 太一, i.e. Polestar), the Celestial Unity (tianyi 天一) and such to sun and moon, the five planets (wuxing 五星), the twenty-eight constellations (ershiba xiu 二十八宿), rivers and mountains, or to celestial phenomena like wind, rain, and thunder, with a total number (in late imperial China) of no less than 1514 deities (Xue 1998). Part of the "lesser offerings" were also the sacrifices to the dynastic ancestors in the Ancestral Temple (zongmiao 宗廟). During the Shang period 商 (17th-11th cent. BCE), the souls or spirits (rengui 人鬼) of dynastic ancestors (male xianzu 先祖, female xianbi 先妣) were deified and given the title di 帝, a term that later became a common word for "emperor".
According to the Confucian Classic Liji 禮記 "Book of Rites", it was common to burn sacrifices on an altar (tan 壇). Most famous is the Heavenly Altar or Temple of Heaven (tiantan 天壇) in Beijing. It is complemented by the Temple of Earth (ditan 地壇), the Altar of the Sun (ritan 日壇), and the Altar of the Moon (yuetan 月壇).
The Tang-period 唐 (618-907) commentator Kong Yingda 孔穎達 (574-648) explained that because the Heavenly spirits (tianshen 天神, shen 神) were high above, they could only be reached by the exhalations of fire (fanchai 燔柴), while the sacrifices to the Earth had to be buried (cuomai 痤埋) to reach the terrestrial spirits (dishi 地示, dishen 地神, qi 祇). The fire consumed three sacrificial animals (xisheng 犧牲) and precious objects like jade and silks. These were believed to ascend to Heaven (or to the dynastic ancestors) and please the deities. According to the chapter Zhongyong 中庸 in the Liji, the jiaoshe or jiaosi offerings were a means to "serve the High God" (shi Shangdi 事上帝). The canonized commentary Gongyangzhuan 公羊傳 made clear that offerings to Heaven were a prerogative of the king of Zhou 周 (11th cent.-221 BCE), while the regional rulers (zhuhou 諸侯) were only allowed to bring offerings to the Earth.
|燔柴於泰壇，祭天也；瘞埋於泰折，祭地也；用騂、犢。||With a blazing pile of wood on the Grand Altar they sacrificed to Heaven; by burying [the victims] in the Grand Mound, they sacrificed to the Earth; [in both cases] they used red victims.|
|埋少牢於泰昭，祭時也；相近於坎、壇，祭寒暑也。||By burying a sheep and a pig at the (altar of) Great Brightness, they sacrificed to the seasons. [With similar] victims they sacrificed to [the spirits of] cold and heat;|
|王宮，祭日也；||to the sun, at the [altar called the] Royal Palace;|
|夜明，祭月也；||to the moon, at the [pit called the] Light of the Night;|
|幽宗，祭星也；||to the stars at the Honoured Place of Gloom;|
|雩宗，祭水旱也；||to [the spirits of] flood and drought at the Honoured Altar of Rain;|
|四坎、壇，祭四方也。||to the [spirits of the] four quarters at the [place of the] Four Pits and Altars;|
|山林、川谷、丘陵，能出雲為風雨，見怪物，皆曰神。||mountains, forests, streams, valleys, hills, and mounds, which are able to produce clouds, and occasion winds and rain, were all regarded as [dominated by] spirits.|
|有天下者，祭百神。||He by whom all under the sky was held sacrificed to all spirits.|
|諸侯，在其地則祭之，亡其地則不祭。||The regional rulers sacrificed to those which were in their own territories; to those which were not in their territories, they did not sacrifice.|
Translation according to James Legge (1885).
The highest deity of the Zhou period was called Haotian shangdi 昊天上帝, Huangtian shangdi 皇天上帝, Huangdi 皇帝, Shangdi 上帝, Tian 天, Di 帝, Huangtian 皇天 or Haotian 昊天. Zhou-period offerings to the High God were called diji 禘祭. They included offerings to Heaven (waiji 外祀 "outer/public sacrifices") and such to the ancestors (neiji 内祭 "internal/private offerings"). Offerings at the altars of Heaven and Earth were called yinsi 禋祀. They included the jiao offerings to Heaven on the day of the solar term dongzhi 冬至 (approx. 21 Dec) or between that date and the Chinese New Year, and the offerings to the Earth on the day of the solar term xiazhi 夏至 (i.e. lixia 立夏, approx. May 5, see Calendar).
Historiographical sources report that the Xia dynasty 夏 (21th-17th cent. BCE) carried out the offerings to Heaven and Earth in the month yin 寅 (Heaven), and the seventh lunar month (Earth), the Shang dynasty in the month chou 丑 and the 6th months, respectively, and the Zhou decided to perform the Heavenly offerings in the month zi 子, and that to the Earth in the fifth month.
For the offerings to the Earth, there were several different methods, namely burying (cuomai), blood offerings (xueji 血祭), slaughering quadrupeds (xisheng), "bird offerings" (qinji 禽祭), and wine offerings (jiuji 酒祭).
The Classic Shangshu 尚書 "Book of Documents" describes that Emperor Shun 舜 "sacrificed specially, but with the ordinary forms, to the High God (Shangdi 上帝); sacrificed with reverent purity to the Six Honoured Ones (liuzong 六宗: Heaven, Earth, the four seasons, or: water, fire, thunder, wind, mountain, and swamp); offered their appropriate sacrifices to the hills and rivers; and extended his worship to the host of spirits (qunshen 群神)." (transl. James Legge) The ode Weiqing 维清 (commentary of Zheng Xuan 鄭玄) in the Classic Shijing 詩經 "Book of Songs" explains that King Wen 周文王 of the Zhou dynasty brought sacrifices to Heaven before beginning a military campaign. The ritual Classic Zhouli 周禮 explains in the chapter Dazongbo 大宗伯 that during the offerings to Heaven, old dances were performed (Yunmen 雲門, Dajuan 大卷, Daxian 大咸, Dashao 大韶, Daxia 大夏, Dalan 大漤, and Dawu 大武).
The treatise on the suburban offerings (25 Jiaosi zhi 郊祀志 B) in the official dynastic history Hanshu 漢書 interpretes the offerings to Heaven in the southern suburbs as an expression of a rise towards the sun/Yang (jiu [verb] yang zhi yi 就陽之義), while the offerings to the Earth (cuo di 瘞地) in the northern suburbs symbolized a travel to the shadows/Yin (ji [verb] yin zhi xiang 即陰之象). Chen Huan 陳奐傳 (1786-1863) commented on the ode Haotian you cheng ming 昊天有成命 "Heaven made its determinate appointment" in the Shijing that the offerings to Heaven took place on a round altar (huanqiu 圜丘), and those to the Earth on a square one (fangqiu 方丘, also called fangze 方澤). The round altar was believed to resemble the shape of Heaven.
The "main seat" (zhengwei 正位) on the altar was reserved to Heaven, while the dynastic ancestors were placed in lateral positions (peiwei 配位). The ceremony was carried out only with non-metallic vessels of ceramics and made of gourd, and the participants were sitting on straw mats. The fire for burning the offerings was placed in position bing 丙 (bingdi 丙地), which signifies the south (in the combination bing-ding 丙丁). The participants had to fast before attending. On the very day of the sacrificial ceremony, the king or emperor was riding a "jade coach" (yulu 玉輅), wore a ceremonial dress (gunmian 袞冕), and approached the altar on a grand coach (dajia 大駕) as part of a procession with insignia (lubu 鹵簿). The ceremonial jade (dianyu 奠玉) was a green disk (cangbi 蒼璧), the sacrificial animals (tailao 太牢) a cow, a sheep, and a pig (the "lesser animals" shaolao 少牢, a sheep and a pig, were used by the regional rulers during their offerings), and a "bluish" (gray) calf (cangdu 蒼犢). The types of vessels and sacrificial wine were also prescribed in great detail.
The offerings to the Earth were aimed at praying for a good harvest. The main seat of the Earthly altar was occupied by the deity of the Earth, the dynastic ancestors in lateral positions. The offerings also included the "Five Officials", the First Farmer (Xiannong 先農, i.e. Shen Nong), the Five Sacred Mountains (wuyue 五嶽: Mt. Taishan 泰山, Mt. Hengshan 衡山, Mt. Huashan 華山, Mt. Yueshan 嶽山, and Mt. Hengshan 恒山), the four seas (sihai 四海), the four streams (sidu 四瀆), the "Four Barriers" (sizhen 四鎮: Mt. Guiji 會稽山, Mt. Yishan 沂山, Mt. Yiwulü 醫無閭, and Mt. Huoshan 霍山), the terrestrial spirits of the provinces (shenzhou diqi 神州地祇), as well as mountains, forests, rivers, swamps, hills, mounds, tombs, sources, etc. The ceremonial jade was a yellow tube (huangcong 黃琮), and the sacrificial animals were "yellowish" calves (huangdu 黃犢). Ceremonies and implements were similar to the offerings to Heaven, but no fire was lit. Instead, the sacrificial objects were buried in a pit (kan 坎).
During the Han period, people believed that Heaven would positively answer to these offerings by sending a "unicorn" (yijiaoshou 一角獸, lin 麟) to prove the dynasty's "legitimacy". It was common to proclaim a general amnesty (she 赦) during the offerings to Heaven.
The emperor, as the "Son of Heaven" (tianzi 天子), had the function to connect the human world or the empire with the Earth and form a unity with Heaven (jue di tian tong 絕地天通), and was so a mediator between the human world and that of the spirits.
Emperor Wu 漢武帝 (r. 141-87 BCE) of the Han dynasty was the first who fixed complex rules for these ceremonies, which included quite a range of magic arts (fangshu 方術) to detect signs of Heavenly approval, like wandering immortals or coloured clouds. During the reign of Wang Mang, the rituals were reformed and integrated Confucian functionaries.
There was special type of chant performed during the offerings to Heaven, called jiaosi ge 郊祀歌. Nineteen of these are preserved from the Han period, some written by the famous poet Sima Xiangru 司馬相如 (179-117 BCE). They are found in the section Jiaomiao geci 郊廟歌辭, right at the beginning of the collection Yuefu shiji 樂府詩集.
During the Southern and Northern Dynasties period 南北朝 (300~600) the offerings to Heaven became an important instrument to announce the foundation of a new dynasty and seeking Heaven's "approval" for this change. The complex liturgy of the ceremonies was laid down in a book on the offerings to Heaven compiled during the Tang period, Wang Jing's 王涇 Da-Tang jiaosi lu 大唐郊祀錄, with a length of 10 juan (lost). The ceremonies included dances, songs and divinatory sessions. The expansion of the Tang empire to the west brought foreign influences which were aptly used during the offerings to Heaven.
The Yuan dynasty 元 (1279-1368) established in 1305 a Bureau for the Suburban Sacrifices (jiaosishu 郊祀署), which was subordinated to the Court of Ceremonial Propriety (liyiyuan 禮儀院), a division of the Court of Imperial Sacrifices (taichangsi 太常寺). A similar office (jiaosiju 郊祀局) had existed under the short-lived Northern Qi dynasty 北齊 (550-577).
Apart from at the suburban altars, there were offerings to Heaven and Earth during the fengshan 封禪 offerings which took place on the summit of Mt. Taishan in Shandong, yet they were rarely performed because of the logistical efforts.
The di 禘 sacrifice was an imperial ancestor worship. According to Wei Tao's 韋縚 Dixia nianshu yi 禘祫年數議 from the Tang period, the xia 祫 offerings were carried out once every three years, and the di offerings just once every five years. Yet the chapter Wangzhi 王制 in the Liji speaks of seasonal di offerings, namely the yue 礿 offerings in spring, the di offerings in summer, the chang 嘗 offerings in autumn, and the zheng 烝 offerings in winter. The use of the word di for the southern suburban offerings (as a counterpart to the northern zhi 祇 offerings to the Earth) is yet another meaning of this word.
The Qing dynasty 清 (1644-1911) only carried out the triennial xia offerings, and not the di offerings (in the sense of the offerings with a five-year frequency).
The chapter Jifa 祭法 of the Liji reports that Yu 虞 (i.e. Emperor Shun) delivered di offerings to the Yellow Emperor, and suburban offerings (jiao) to Emperor Di Ku 帝嚳 (who was by the Xia dynasty replaced with Gun 鲧). The high ancestor (zu 祖) of the Xia dynasty was Zhuan Xu, and its founding father (zong 宗) Yu the Great 大禹. The Shang dynasty delivered the di offerings to Emperor Di Ku, and the suburban offerings to the spirit Ming 冥 (Xuan Ming), while their high ancestor was Xie 契, and the founding father Tang the Perfect 成湯. The Zhou, whose high ancestor was King Wen and the founding father King Wu 周武王, exchanged the spirit Ming for Hou Ji 后稷, the Lord of Millet.
Kong Yingda remarks to this problem that the word di was indeed used with several different meanings. Hao Yixian's 郝懿行 (1757-1825) commentary quotes from the ritual Classic Zhouli, which includes the apocryphal statement of the five-year cycle, a statement also found in the commentary Gongyangzhuan (Wengong 文公 2). He Xiu 何休 (129-182) briefly lists all meanings of di, namely that of a seasonal offering (shi ji zhi di 時祭之禘, shidi 時禘), an offering to the ancestor of the Shang dynasty (Yin ji zhi di 殷祭之禘, Yindi 殷禘 – in combination with the xia 袷 offering), and the suburban offering (jiaoji zhi di 郊祭之禘, dadi 大禘). Concerning the use of di as an ancestral offering, it can be concluded that the ancestral spirits of the "high ancestor" gaozu 高祖 and his forebears were brought offerings at the Heavenly Altar, while those of lower descent were brought sacrifices in the ancestral shrine (zongmiao, benmiao 本廟). The commentary of Zheng Xuan to a sentence in the chapter Bayi 八佾 of the "Confucian Analects" Lunyu 論語 says that the di offerings had their origin in ceremony during which blood was offered (xuexing 血腥) to the deities (included in the collection Yuhanshanfang jiyi shu 玉函山房輯佚書, fragment of Lunyu Zhengshi zhu 論語鄭氏注).
The Manchus added to the traditional Chinese offerings to Heaven ceremonies that were part of the shamanic Jurchen culture, carried out in Jurchen/Manchu language. They were fixed under the Qianlong Emperor 乾隆 (r. 1735-1796), translated in to Chinese and published in the book (Qinding) Manzhou jishen jitian dianli (欽定)滿洲祭神祭天典禮.
Private offerings to Heaven only take place during the Dragon Boat Festival (duanwujie 端午節) on the fifth day of the fifth lunar month. The earliest source for this custom is the book Suishi guangji 歲時廣記.