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  • Daoist Priests and Imperial Sacrifices in Late Imperial China: The Case of the Imperial Music Office (Shenye Guan), 1379–1743*
  • Yonghua Liu (bio)

Established in 1379, the Imperial Music Office (Shenyue guan) remained intact until 1743 when the Qianlong emperor (1711–1799, r. 1735–1795) ordered that it be reorganized into the Shenyue suo.1 This institution provided ritual specialists, musicians, and dancers for, and thus had a close connection to, imperial sacrifices. During its 364 years, Daoist priests who had received certificates served as staff rather than gentry-officials. This group of Daoist priests not only controlled the Imperial Music Office, but also had a remarkable presence in the Court of Imperial Sacrifices (Taichang si) and even the Board of Rites (Libu). They played an indispensable part in imperial sacrifices, [End Page 55] either as Confucian masters of rites (lisheng) who directed sacrificial rites, or as musicians and dancers (yuewusheng) who played music and performed ritual dances. A study of this institution thus provides a rare opportunity to understand the interaction between Daoist priests and imperial sacrifices, which were informed by Confucianism.2

I “discovered” the Shenyue guan several years ago, when I attempted to reconstruct the history of the Confucian masters of rites, the most important ritual specialists for Confucian rituals, and of imperial sacrifices.3 In imperial sacrifices the Confucian masters of rites, called managers of ceremonies (dianyi), ceremonial assistants (zanlilang), transmission assistants (chuanzan), or chief assistants (tongzan), were appointed from among the Daoist priests of the Shenyue guan from 1379 to 1743. It soon became obvious that an inquiry into the institution and its role in imperial sacrifices was in order. The current essay presents the primary findings of this investigation.

Based on information collected from the veritable records (shilu), imperial statutes, collected works, miscellanies, and local gazetteers, this article attempts to present a detailed examination of the Shenyue guan and its role in imperial sacrifices. It is divided into five parts: the first part describes the establishment of the institution and its officials and clerks; the second part explores the Daoist background of these officials and clerks; the third part discusses the roles the Daoist priests affiliated with the institution played in the performance of imperial sacrifices; the fourth part examines the discourse concerning the institution among scholar-officials from the mid-Ming to its reorganization in 1743 and the legacy of Daoist religion in the Shenyue guan after the 1743 reorganization; the last part highlights some implications of the study.

1. The Institutional Structure and Personnel of the Shenyue Guan

During the thirty-odd years of his emperorship, the Hongwu emperor (Zhu Yuanzhang, reigned 1368–1398) made a series of institutional innovations.4 As far as his religious policy is concerned, he tightened control over the Daoist and Buddhist religions and reformed imperial ledgers of sacrifices (sidian). The [End Page 56] sub-canton (lijia) system was instituted in the countryside, and sacrifices to the gods of soil and grain (sheji) and orphan spirits (lia) were to be performed even at the lowest semi-official level, the lib.5 It was in this environment of innovation that the Hongwu emperor established the Shenyue guan.

Work began on the Shenyue guan in the second month of 1379, in Nanjing, which was then still the imperial capital. Construction was completed in the twelfth month of the same year. According to the Veritable Records of Ming Taizu (Ming Taizu shilu), “The emperor thought that Daoists devote attention to non-action and purity (wu wei qingjing), and so he appointed them to take part in sacrifices. It became necessary to erect a building to accommodate them. Thus he ordered the establishment of the Shenyue guan to the west of the Suburban Altar (Jiaosi tan).”6 This implies that Daoist priests participated in imperial sacrifices even before the establishment of the Shenyue guan. The Sequel to the Evidential Study of the Court of Imperial Sacrifices (Taichang xukao) indeed notes that, “In the seventh month of 1367, orders were given to recruit refined musicians (yayuesheng) from among young and elegant Daoist youths (daotong). In the early years of the Hongwu era, orders were issued to recruit musicians and dancers...


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