Rites of Spring

At a quarter to eight in the morning on the first auspicious day of the second month of spring, the gongs atop the Meridian Gate sound. The emperor of China, clad in azure silk, emerges from the Forbidden City. He is accompanied by a multitudenous entourage, among his attendants, three dukes and nine princes, chosen to take part in the ceremony by a Board of Rites the month before. Once ensconced in his dragon carriage, the emperor is transported to Xiannontang, a vast altar complex just south of the Forbidden City to perform rites in honor of Xiannong, revered throughout China as the father of agriculture. Upon arrival, the emperor ascends the steps leading to the Altar of the First Agriculturist. There he kowtows, reads from Xiannong’s Holy Tablet, and sacrifices a cow, a goat, and a pig. Following these acts, the emperor retires to Ju Fu Hall to change clothes in preparation for the Tilling Ritual. During the Tilling Ritual, the emperor plows three furrows in a field. Two officials steer the oxen pulling the plow. Behind the emperor is the governor of Beijing Prefecture, who holds a box of seeds, and the president of the Board of Revenue, who plants the seeds, which will be covered with earth by an old peasant. It was said that the emperor’s plowing “set an example of industry to his subjects, thus dignifying the toil of the poorest agricultural laborer.” Once the Tilling Ritual is completed, the emperor retired to the Hall of Feasting to celebrate the end of the sacrifices to the First Agriculturist.

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