The animals to be offered were prepared the night before the ritual took place and are now mounted on stands inside the temple where the libations take place. In addition to the animal sacrifices, the Autumnal Sacrifice centers around a feast laid out for the spirits. These offerings are prepared ahead of time and, in the first two hours after midnight on the morning of the ceremony, the ritual officers, instructors, and assistants arrange the vessels and offerings in front of the altar. Once offered to the spirits by the consecration officer, these offerings are regarded as blessed.

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Sacrificial Offerings

The most important aspect of ritual is sacrifice. The offering of animal victims were "the richest tributes for the palate from all within the four seas and the nine provinces." (Legge, 1968). According to the Rites of Zhou, three grades of sacrifice exist: the grand sacrifice (jade, silk, and animals), the medium sacrifice (animals and metal), and the small sacrifice (only animals). In this ceremony, Kongzi is offered wine, silk, and animals, along with a feast.

Other Offerings

Some of the ten bowls of dried food

The offerings, aside from the main sacrificial offerings, consist of three pots of unsalted broths and soups, ten baskets of grains, dried fish and venison, dates, nuts, honey cakes, and ten wooden bowls of sauces, leeks, celery, edible grasses, and bamboo shoots. These offerings are carefully selected for their mild flavors; spirits did not enjoy rich foods with strong flavors and instead preferred simple foods.

According to Xunzi, the unflavored soup and raw meat show honor to the unadorned basis of food and drink and indicate respect for the basic materials of the meal (Xunzi, A Discussion of Rites). Xunzi further says the joy and sorrow accompanying auspicious or inauspicious occasions are naturally expressed in food and drink.

Ritual Purity

“If I am not present at the sacrifice, it is as though there were no sacrifice” – Analects, 3.12

Ritual was critical to Confucians’ understanding of the world. Xunzi posted that the origin of ritual arose out of disorder; desires caused men to seek satisfaction, which caused disorder. To combat this disorder, ancient kings established ritual principles and provide a structured order, leading to a peaceful and balanced world. Ritual is thus more than empty action; proper performance of ritual is considered necessary to ensure harmony, happiness, and prosperity.

In order to properly perform ritual, Confucians believed that one must be purified prior to offering sacrifices to the spirits. One must study the spirit and be able to fully envision the living person for ancestral rites. Furthermore, the ritual officer must be pure and virtuous. In the Analects, Kongzi asks, "Without the feeling of reverence, what difference is there?" suggesting the underlying idea that all rites must be performed with respect and reverence in order to be authentic and effective.

Prior to the ceremony, the members of the Court of Imperial Sacrifices, Director of Studies of the Directorate of Education, and senior officials from the Ministry of Rites abstained from “meat, contact with wives and concubines, funerals criminal cases, punishments, and music” for three days. The day before the ceremony, they inspected the sacrificial offerings and supervised the rehearsals. The purification of oneself prior to participating in the sacrificial offering was crucial and allowed one to be fully present and invested at the sacrifice. If they were not pure, the ritual would lose efficacy.

“This is the most important goal of your purifications now: to devote your thoughts entirely to the ancestors so that when you enter the temple you may glimpse the spirits at the altars. This requires your solemn reverence of the ancestors. To offer the sacrifice without reverence is like not offering the sacrifice at all.” (Wilson, Lives of Confucius, 169). The last part of this quotation is clearly taken from the passage in the Analects, which states “If I am not present at the sacrifice, it is as though there were no sacrifice” (3.12).

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