An Encyclopaedia on Chinese History, Literature and Art

wusi 五祀, the Five Sacrifices

Apr 30, 2018 © Ulrich Theobald

The term Five Sacrifices (wusi 五祀) refers to religious ceremonies carried out by the ruling family and delivered to the spirits in the house. According to the chapter Da zongbo 大宗伯 in the ritual Classic Zhouli 周禮, the Five Sacrifices belonged to the blood offerings (xueji 血祭), along with that to the local god of the Earth (see sheji 社稷) and the offerings to the Five Sacred Mountains (wuyue 五嶽).

In this context, the Five Sacrifices were delivered to the Five (Celestial) Officials (wuguan 五官), which were the assistant spirits Gou Mang 句芒 (spirit of Spring, rectifier of wood, muzheng 木正), Zhu Rong 祝融 (spirit of Summer, rectifier of fire, huozheng 火正), the Goddess of the Earth (Hou Tu 后土, rectifier of earth, tuzheng 土正), Ru Shou 蓐收 (spirit of autumn, rectifier of metal, jinzheng 金正), and Xuan Ming 玄冥 (spirit of winter, rectifier of water, shuizheng 水正). The relation of the offerings to the Five Agents (wuxing 五行) is confirmed by a quotation of a phrase of the (lost) book Hanguanyi 漢官議 in the Song-period 宋 (960-1279) encyclopaedia Taiping yulan 太平御覽.

The Classic Liji 禮記 (chapter Quli 曲禮 B) also mentions the Five Sacrifices, carried out by the Son of Heaven (i. e. the king of Zhou 周, 11th cent.-221 BCE). The Later Han-period 後漢 (25-220 CE) master Zheng Xuan 鄭玄 (127-200) comments that the Five Sacrifices took place in the spots where protective spirits were believed to dwell: at the door (hu 戶), the stove (zao 灶, also written 竈, see Kitchen God), the central courtyard ("atrium", zhongliu 中霤, 中溜 or 中廇, zhongshi 中室), the entrance gate (men 門, see Menshen 門神), and for spirits wandering around on the streets passing the house (xing 行).

Table 1. The Five Sacrifices (wusi 五祀)
Five Agents Correlation
Gou Mang 句芒 (Zhong 重) spring wood
Zhu Rong 祝融 (Li 黎) summer fire
Hou Tu 后土 late summer earth
Ru Shou 蓐收 (Gai 該) autumn metal
Xuan Ming 玄冥 (You 脩 and Xi 熙) winter water
to the spirit of longevity (Siming 司命)
to the spirit of the central courtyard (Zhongliu 中霤)
to the spirit of the city gate (Guomen 國門)
to the spirits of the urban streets (Guoxing 國行)
to wandering spirits (Taili 泰厲, Gongli 公厲)
to the spirit of the door (hushen 戶神)
to the spirit of the stove (zaoshen 灶神, Kitchen God)
to the spirit of the central courtyard (zhongliu 中霤)
to the spirit of the entrance gate (menshen 門神, Door Gods)
to wandering spirits (xingshen 行神)

In the same book, the chapter Jifa 祭法 says that the Son of Heaven delivered sacrifices to the spirits Siming 司命, Zhongliu 中霤, Guomen 國門, Guoxing 國行, and Taili 泰厲, and to the spirits of the door and the stove. The regional rulers (zhuhou 諸侯) delivered sacrifices to the spirits Siming, Zhongliu, Guomen, Guoxing, and Gongli 公厲. Siming was either the spirit of a star (simingxing 司命星) influencing the lifespan or the spirit of the dining room. Zhongliu was the name of a house spirit (zhaishen 宅神) or the spirit of the earth (tushen 土神). Taili and Gongli were evil spirits (ghosts) of deceased persons to whose souls no offerings were delivered.

In Wang Chong's 王充 (27-97 CE) book Lunheng 論衡 (chapter Jiyi 祭意), the sacrifices were explained as follows: Doors and gates were places where people entered their homes; the well and the stove were places to prepare food and drinking, and the inner courtyard (zhongliu) was the place where they lived.

The chapter Wangzhi 王制 of the Liji says that the Son of Heaven brought sacrifices to Heaven and Earth, the regional rulers to the local granary deity (sheji 社稷, see Hou Ji 后稷), and the Grand Masters (dafu 大夫) carried out the Five Sacrifices.

The Later Han-period encyclopaedia Baihu tongyi 白虎通義 includes a chapter of its own on the Five Sacrifices, yet lists somewhat different locations for the offerings, namely the entrance gate (autumn), the door (spring), the well (jing 井, winter), the stove (summer), and the central room (sixth lunar month). The locations roughly correspond to the pattern of the Five Agents theory, the hot stove corresponding to summer, and the cold well to winter. The doors receive the increase of sunlight in spring, and the entrance gate welcomes the harvest. Zheng Zhong 鄭眾 (d. 83 CE) was therefore of the opinion that the Five Sacrifices were used to venerate the spirits or "emperors" of the five colours or seasons (red, yellow, green, white, and black).

During the Han and Wei 曹魏 (220-265) periods the Five Sacrifices were carried out in seasonal sequence (called la wusi 臘五祀), with a general sacrifice in the first winter month (mengdong 孟冬). The emperors of the Tang 唐 (618-907) and Song 宋 (960-1279) dynasties carried out Seven Sacrifices (qisi 七祀) instead, namely to the spirits Siming, Zhongliu, Guomen, Guoxing, Taili, the spirit of the door, and the spirit of the stove.

In the early Qing period 清 (1644-1911), the spring offering to the Protector of the Door (simenshen 司戶神) took place outside the palace gate, those to the Protector of the Stove (sizaoshen 司灶神) in summer in front of the kitchen, those to the Central Spirit (zhongliushen 中溜神) in late summer on the platform of the Hall of Superior Harmony (Taihe Dian 太和殿), those to the Protector of the Gate (simenshen 司門神) in autumn west of the Meridian Gate (Wumen 午門) of the Imperial Palace, and those to the Protector of the Well (sijingshen 司井神) in winter in front of the well of the imperial kitchen. During the Kangxi reign-period 康熙 (1662-1722) the sacrifices were reduced to just one (that to the Kitchen God), performed at the end of the year, under the western eaves of the imperial ancestral temple (taimiao 太廟). The offerings to the spirit of the stove were carried out on the 23rd day of the last lunar month (layue 臘月).

The term Five Sacrifices was sometimes used (for instance, Guoyu 國語, chapter Luyu 魯語 A) to refer to the seasonal offerings in the ancestral temple (di 禘), the suburban offerings (jiao 郊), the offerings to the dynastic ancestors (zong 宗), to the souls of parents (zu 祖), and offerings delivered when reporting (bao 報) to the ancestors.

Cai Yong's 蔡邕 (132-192) short statecraft manual Duduan 獨斷 uses the term wusi for yet another set of sacrifices, namely such carried out when "law was promulgated among the people" (fa shi yu min 法施於民), persons had died for the state (yi si qin shi 以死勤事), when the state was strengthened by great efforts (yi lao ding guo 以勞定國), when natural disasters had been averted (neng yu da zai 能禦大災), and great danger was warded off (neng wu da huan 能扤大患).

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