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A Precis of Thomas A Wilson’s Sacrifice and the Imperial Cult of Confucius

Thomas A. Wilson, in his paper, Sacrifice and the Imperial Cult of Confucius, (History of Religions, Vol. 41, No.3, Feb. 2002 pp. 251-287), argues a two part hypothesis: 1) that the notion of ritual purification in Chinese sacrifice is a state of clear, single-minded purpose and concentration on the spirit who is receiving the sacrifice and that this process does not require confession and atonement of sin or transgression; and 2) that the sacrifice of the victim is not the pinnacle religious moment but simply a part of the overall sacrificial process designed to nourish the spirit present so that Heaven and Earth operates correctly. Wilson concludes with an exploration of how the cult veneration of Confucius could expand our view of it as a religion, arguing that inner spiritual transformation through moral self-cultivation is a defining aspect of Confucian theology but it misses the importance of the ritual feast and the symbiotic relationship of mortals and spirits to maintain order in the universe.

To support his argument, Wilson re-constructs the liturgy of the sacrifice to Confucius, as performed during the Ming and Qing dynasties. First he explains the imperial pantheon of gods and highlights the ritual logic involved in venerating them. Next, he establishes classical precedent that legitimizes the cult of Confucius and explains where it fits into the scheme of ritual hierarchy. Third, Wilson dissects the ritual sacrifice itself, analyzing its various components and noting the comparative differences between Chinese, Vedic and Hebrew sacrifice.

Wilson explains that the imperial gods and spirits were ordered hierarchically in the temples and alters throughout the empire. Temple cults were regulated by the Ministry of Rites and the Court of Imperial Sacrifice; serviced by ritual officers of the court; and sanctioned by the Confucian canon.

Wilson addresses several problems that existed for the court liturgist such as: where to place Confucius in the spiritual hierarchy; what spirit would be most analogous to Confucius; what kind ritual was most appropriate, and what technical activity was required to effectively carry out the ritual. It was decided, based on ritual precedents from the Confucian canon, previously recorded sacrifices to cult of Confucius, the court sanction and promotion of Confucius to the status of Exalted King of Culture and later Ultimate Sage, and the removal of the Duke of Zhou as Sage from the temple,to place Confucius akin with the gods of grains and soils. Placing Confucius on the secondary tier of ritual hierarchy gave the Confucian literati access to the temple. This is important as Confucius and his teachings were considered a personification of the empire's orthodoxy—the foundation and framework that cultivated all literate men who served the Emperor. Like the altars of soils and grains, the Confucian temple also legitimized the state. This subsequently, gave the Confucian literati a vested interest in maintaining the cult from which they could draw power and prestige. Moreover, through the spirit of Confucius, the Confucian literati could establish a role for themselves in the spiritual hierarchy and orderly workings of the cosmos.

The particulars of the ritual were drawn from basics of similar sacrifices to analogous spirits, which determined costume and ceremony details. A master of ritual canons and liturgy, the ritual officer would be familiar with the details of sacrifices to Confucius, having participated many times in such ceremonies from his early school years.

Wilson primarily focuses on two key areas of the ritual: 1) celebrant purification through fasting that occurs prior to the day of sacrifice, and 2) the purpose of the sacrificial victim. Wilson challenges the ideas presented in Sacrifice: Its Nature and Functions, by Henry Hubert and Marcel Mauss, who claim that a universal sacred-profane dichotomy exists between god and man. According to Hubert and Mauss, Vedic sacrifice aims to make man better, dissolving differences between god and man for communion to occur. Hebrew sacrifice reiterates this dichotomy. The victim represents the sacrificer, and upon its slaughter, the sins of the sacrificer are expunged as he communes with god. This highlights the slaughter of victim as defining moment of the ritual.

The sacrifice to Confucius required celebrants to prepare by bathing and fasting. Wilson argues that there is no recompense in this preparatory ritual but, rather, an attitude of inner piety and outer reverence towards the spirit. Moreover, the fast is a means by which the sacrificer empties his mind of all distractions that might disrupt his concentration on the spirit who is to receive the sacrifice. Although the slaughter of the victim is a central part of the sacrifice, it is not the most important moment. After the victim is slaughtered, the meat is cooked for a feast of aromas so that the revered smelling vapors may be consumed by the spirit present. The emphasis here, Wilson argues, is ensuring cosmic order by properly nourishing the spirits.

Wilson concludes his paper by stating the crux of the sacrifice--the religious moment--was not the inner spiritual purification of the celebrants as in Vedic and Hebrew sacrifice, but the exchange that occurred when corporeal beings and celestials spirits work harmoniously together to maintain the working order of the universe.