An Encyclopaedia on Chinese History, Literature and Art

Offerings to the Sun and the Moon

May 1, 2018 © Ulrich Theobald

Sacrifices to the sun (jiri 祭日) and the moon (jiyue 祭月, baiyue 拜月, gongyue 供月) were part of the many offerings delivered by the sovereign. The chapter Jifa 祭法 "Rules of sacrifices" in the ritual Classic Liji 禮記 says that the sacrifices to the sun took place at an altar called the Royal Palace (wanggong 王宮), and those to the moon at a pit called Light of the Night (yeming 夜明).

The offerings to the sun were delivered in spring. The book Guanzi 管子 (ch. Qingzhongji 輕重己) explains that at the end of winter, the Son of Heaven (i.e. the king of Zhou 周, 11th cent.-221 BCE) left his residence and travelled 46 li (c. 23km) to the east, where he brought offerings at an altar (tan 壇). He wore green robes and a green cap (mian 絻, i.e. 冕), held a jade scepter in his hands and wore a polished jade piece (yujian 玉監) as adornment. All ministers, Grand Masters and servicemen (qing dafu lieshi 卿大夫列士) participated in the sacrifice. The sacrifices to the sun were performed in the early morning, and were therefore also called dawn sacrifices (chaoji 朝祭), while the sacrifice to the moon was known as the sunset sacrifice (xiji 夕祭).

The chapter on the fengshan offerings 封禪 to Heaven and Earth in the universal history Shiji 史記 makes clear that the offerings to the sun consisted of or included one or several cows (ji ri yi niu 祭日以牛).

On the term wanggong 王宮, the Later Han period 後漢 (25-220 CE) master Zheng Xuan (127-200) remarked that it was the name of the Altar of the Sun (ritan 日壇), and wang "king, sovereign" was just an epithet of the sun. His explanation is confirmed in the commentary of the Tang-period 唐 (618-907) master Kong Yingda 孔穎達 (574-648).

In the ritual Classic Zhouli 周禮 (ch. Zhangci 掌次) the correct placement of the royal tent during the spring offerings to the sun is described. Zheng Xuan explains that the tent was set up outside the Eastern Gate of the royal residence. The sacrifices responded to the Yang energies (yangqi 陽氣) ascending in early spring, and so feasted the return of spring. Apart from the spring offerings, the king of Zhou also brought seasonal sacrifices to the spirit of the sun. The sacrificial animal was a cow whose flesh was burnt at sunrise.

During the Qin 秦 (221-206 BCE) and Han 漢 (206 BCE-220 CE) periods, the importance of the sacrifices to the sun (chao ri 朝日 "paying reverence to the sun") became less important, and it became custom to carry out just one sacrificial ceremony for the sun, the moon, and the stars. Instead of to the sun, the rulers of the early imperial period venerated Heaven and Earth, or just delivered offerings to the moon and the seasons. The Song dynasty 宋 (960-1279) revived the sacrifices to the sun, calling them dasi 大祀 "grand offerings", and the Ming dynasty 明 (1368-1644) likewise carried out regular offerings to the sun (chaori) and to the moon (xi yue 夕月). The northern capital Beijing was therefore equipped with altars for the sun and the moon (ritan 日壇, yuetan 月壇). The Ming carried out offerings to the sun in spring and in autumn.

The term chao ri 朝日 is interesting so far as it seems that the veneration of the sun by facing it (chao 朝) during its rise was a paradigm for court audiences, during which the ministers and officials "faced" the king or emperor as if he were the sun.

The common populace used to venerate the sun on the first day of the second lunar month (see calendar) by lighting incense in the middle of the central court, presenting an image of the Deity of the Sun (Taiyang xingjun shenma 太陽星君神碼, sometimes symbolized by a horse), and offering three to five cups of cakes (gao 糕) made of red rice (hongmi 江米), while the people themselves used to fast on that day. It was also common to recite a text called Taiyangjing 太陽經 "Canon of the Sun" (which was influenced by Buddhist thought). The people of Beijing furthermore burnt pieces of silk and paper money.

Offerings to the moon were delivered in autumn, during the mid-autumn festival (zhongqiujie 中秋節). The Son of Heaven offered the moon a sheep and a pig. The chapter Qingzhongji 輕重己 in the book Guanzi holds that the altar of the moon was located 138 li (70km) west of the royal capital. The king used to wear white robes and a white cap, held a jade sceptre and was adorned with a polished piece of white metal (xijian 錫監). The offering ceremonies were accompanied by music played on ocarinas and pipes (xun chi 壎 箎), bells, and soundstones. The highest dignitaries of the royal court took place, as well a some commoners.

In Beijing, it was common that the people brought offerings to the moon as early as the night of the fifteenth day of the eighth lunar month, when the moon was rising. They lit incense in the courtyard, set up an offering table, and presented fruit cakes (guobing 果餅), offerings (gongpin 供品), set up a figurine of the rabbit in the moon (tu'erye 兔兒爺), and burnt "moonlight paper" (yueguang zhi 月光紙). The offerings to the moon were only performed by females (in remembrance to the "goddess of the moon", Chang E 嫦娥) and children – while those to the sun and the deity of the hearth (zaoshen 灶神, see Kitchen God) were only to be performed by males.

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