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Han Imperial Cult under Emperor Wu Robinson, Rebecca


During the reign of Han Emperor Wu (141 – 87 BCE), the imperial government sponsored the worship of a large number of cults, many of which were connected to the emperor’s pursuit of immortality. Many of these cults were inherited from earlier, Qin, practice, others were adopted from regional cults of the former Warring States, and others were entirely new. Rather than being a formalized group of religious specialists/practitioners, Emperor Wu’s imperial cult, meaning cults sponsored by the emperor, is better understood as a collection of religious practices, which were brought together under the auspices of the Han court, in order to access powerful spirits for both the emperor and his empire. The cults worshipped by the emperor, or on his behalf, were spread out across the empire, and the emperor frequently travelled to perform sacrifices or visit sacred locations. The number of cults grew over the course of Emperor Wu’s reign, and there were frequent changes to sacrificial locations and sacrificial rites. This period of imperial cult is thus characterized by experimentation rather than as a coherent cult with a standardized pantheon. Emperor Wu’s pursuit of cult was closely connected to his pursuit of immortality as well as to his imperial ambitions – the two cannot be separated. We cannot say for certain what type of immortality the emperor pursued, whether it was the avoidance of death altogether or transcendence, or some combination of the two. It is evident that the emperor believed that one of the clearest paths to immortality could be found by emulating the sage rulers of antiquity, particularly the legendary Yellow Thearch 黃帝, Yao 堯, Shun 舜, and Yu 禹, as well as following precedent set by the First Emperor of Qin. Significantly, the emperor believed that it was important for him to rule over a unified territory in order to perform the legendary Feng 封 and Shan 禪 sacrifices, which he was told, were performed by the Yellow Thearch before he became an immortal. As such, the emperor took over control of territory containing important cult locations, removing regional lords 諸侯 and kings 王 from governing over territories containing the Five Sacred Peaks 五嶽. The emperor also attempted to access the powers of local spirits, mostly in the eastern parts of the empire, to not only access their mantic powers, but to demonstrate his authority over the spirits and land of the empire. Emperor Wu sought the advice on spiritual affairs from both within his own court and by recruiting outsiders who claimed access to mantic knowledge. These outsiders, whom Sima Qian classifies as Fangshi 方士 (Masters of Methods), claimed to have specialized knowledge about immortality. Sima Qian, and others, were highly critical of the emperor’s reliance on these Fangshi, and many of the cults that they established were disbanded after the emperor’s death. We have no information about the practice of these cults when the emperor was not involved, nor if they continued in some form after the period of imperial patronage.

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