The Layered Sacrifices In Emperor Wu’s Alter Of The Great Unity


Emperor Wu of China (r. 141-87 BCE) constructed an elaborate altar to the “Great Unity” during his reign. It was a three-level structure where, besides the Great Unity, the entities of the sun, moon and the Five Heavenly Emperors were also worshipped. Each of these deities had a uniquely-outfitted priestly order at the altar, dressed in robes that corresponded to their religious focus. It must have been a vibrant and colorful scene—the sun priests wore red and moon priests dressed in white, while the devotees of the Five Heavenly Emperors (known as the Green, Red, White, Black, and Yellow Emperors) wore the color of their respective heavenly deity. Each priesthood of the various Heavenly Emperors operated from different shrines that encircled the base of the overall structure.

One of the duties of the various priests at the altar of the Great Unity was to conduct offerings and sacrifices to their respective celestial beings. The Great Unity was offered several bloodless sacrifices, including the typical culinary dishes of the time, thick wine and jujubes. The Five Heavenly Emperors were similarly given offerings of rich wine, poured from special ceremonial vessels. Yet, not all of the offerings were inanimate. Red-robed priests sacrificed a yak or ox to the sun, while white-robed priests sacrificed a ram or pig to the moon. A deer was also sacrificed, although to what or whom this creature was offered is vague compared to the other victims.

The slaughtering of the sacrificial victims was only half of the ceremony. After the blood was spilled, the priests had an interesting way of disposing of the animal carcasses. According to Emperor Wu’s Grand Historian and palace secretary, Sima Qian (c. 145-90 BCE), the smaller sacrificial remains were stuffed into the larger carcasses, and they were all ceremoniously burned together. More specifically, the sacrificed pig or ram was placed inside the remains of the deer, and then the stuffed deer was subsequently crammed into the remains of the ox or yak. When this procedure was complete, the layered sacrifices were given a ritual cremation. To add more ceremony to the process, the priests would sprinkle drops of water, or other such liquids, onto the crackling fire as it burned.

Written by C. Keith Hansley

Picture Attribution: (Temple and landscape scene painted by Li Cheng (c. 919 – 967), [Public Domain] via Creative Commons).


  • The Records of the Grand Historian (Shi ji) by Sima Qian, translated by Burton Watson. New York: Columbia University Press, 1993.

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