If you ever visit the Temple of Heaven in Beijing—ancient China’s largest center for high-level rituals—you might be struck by its lack of Buddhist and Taoist idols. The design of the Chinese place of worship displays some of the characteristics of the ancient Chinese tradition of ritual sacrifice to heaven, which seem to bear many similarities to the rituals for worshiping God recorded by Moses in the Pentateuch of the Old Testament.
No known records exist suggesting that Judaism inspired Chinese spirituality. In fact, a second-century B.C. Confucian classic, The Rites of Zhou (周禮 Zhouli), records these acts of worship, and archaeologists have discovered the bronze ritual vessels with Chinese characters depicting sacrifices of animals such as ox and sheep, confirming that these practices are thousands of years old.
Conducted by the royals until the end of the imperial dynasties in the early 20th century, these official rituals gradually drifted from their Confucian origins. But as a Chinese Christian, rather than grieve this separation, I’m grateful that I know Jesus, whose death supersedes these ancient sacrifices and whose resurrection offers redemption for eternity.
The will of heaven
In 1982, the Chinese American scholar Ray Huang released 1587: A Year of No Significance (萬曆十五年). The bestselling book highlighted the Ming dynasty’s religious practices, including a famous example from 1585 of an emperor using the Temple of Heaven to pray for rain. After months of drought, Emperor Wanli fasted for three days before leading his officials from the imperial palace to the temple and holding a special ceremony for the weather change. Upon arriving at the Temple of Heaven, the Ming dynasty emperor knelt on the lowest step of the Circular Mound Altar, burned the sacrificed animals, prayed, offered incense, and prostrated to the “God of the Highest Heaven” (皇天上帝 huang tian shang di). (上帝 or shang di are the characters used for “God” in many Chinese versions of the Bible.)
After the ritual, Wanli spoke to his officials at the Altar of Heaven. He explained that he believed the great drought had come because he and his officials had failed to be virtuous and had allowed corrupt officials to exploit commoners. As he understood it, this behavior disturbed heaven’s harmony and caused heaven to withhold rain. To show he understood heaven’s will and intention, the emperor expressed remorse over his own moral failure and his expectation that the corrupt officials would repent and change their ways. The emperor’s act of worship offers a window into how Chinese spirituality understood the relationship between heaven and earth.
In his remarks to his officials, Wanli used a name for God that had been adopted in a 1538 ceremony performed by his grandfather, Emperor Jiajing. To reinforce his legitimacy to the throne (as he was only a nephew to his predecessor, who had died without a male heir), Jiajing replaced the name God of the Vast Heaven (昊天上帝, hao tian shang di)—which had been used for several thousand years—with God of the Highest Heaven (皇天上帝, huang tian shang di).
Although both huang (皇） and hao (昊） contain the meaning of “grand, great, or magnificent,” huang (皇） is more frequently used in the words related to the royal family (皇室) or the emperor (huang di, 皇帝), underscoring a close connection between heaven and the royal power. Through this name change, then, the emperor was elevating his own authority over heaven, which at that time was regarded as the most symbolic and powerful source in Confucian politics.
As part of the 1538 sacrificial ceremony, officials sang 11 songs of praise to this God. One of these was titled “The Coming of God” and included a description of the beginning of the universe reminiscent of the first chapter of Genesis:
Of old in the beginning, there was the great chaos, without form and dark. The five elements [planets] had not begun to revolve, nor the sun and the moon to shine. In the midst thereof there existed neither forms nor sound. Thou, O spiritual Sovereign, camest forth in Thy presidency, and first didst divide the grosser parts from the purer. Thou madest heaven; Thou madest earth; Thou madest man. All things with their reproducing power got their being.
‘To the God of heaven’
Despite their newer venue, the practices of these emperors were similar to rituals initiated by people from the Western Zhou (1045–771 B.C.) dynasty, which also reflected the various animal sacrifices described in the Book of Exodus.
Ancient Israelites’ burnt offerings, sin offerings, and peace offerings all involved the butchering of unblemished animals—bulls, sheep or goats, doves or pigeons, depending on the sacrifice. After the animal was killed, the priest burned its carcass. As part of sin offerings, priests sprinkled the animal’s blood on the altar, representing the washing of the believer’s sins with the blood of the sacrifice. Priests also butchered cattle and sheep as part of ancient Chinese rituals of sacrifice to heaven.
By the time of the Ming dynasty, the annual ritual sacrifice to heaven was considered a great ceremony. Five days before the sacrifice, the emperor himself would go to the place where sacrificial animals were kept and personally study their appearances and states of health, ensuring that the animals were unblemished and without defect.
Afterward, the emperor fasted and purified himself for three to five days leading up to the ceremony, before burning the selected animals as part of the event. People hoped that the smoke from the burning animals would rise up to the God of heaven so that he would send down blessings. The Confucian classic Shijing (Classic of Poetry), whose earliest contributions date back to the 11th century B.C., contains a hymn with the line “The fragrance of the sacrifice rises; the God of heaven is surrounded by the fragrance; how wonderful is the fragrance!” After describing the entire process of the ritual, the last line says, “After Houji established the sacrifice ceremony (to heaven), people no longer feel guilt.”
The Shijing commentary suggests that the Zhou people began sacrificing to the God of heaven to “no longer feel guilt for their sin,” to express respect of the divine, to seek his protection, and to pray for peace and prosperity for the country.
The real sacrificial lamb
Under the surface of these cosmetic similarities lie nuanced differences in the meanings of Israelite sacrifices in the Old Testament and ancient Chinese ritual sacrifices to heaven. The former sought God’s forgiveness and pardon. In contrast, the original motivation for the latter was to stop feeling guilt for sin—and even this goal was gradually de-emphasized over time.
China had established an official ritual system since before the time of Confucius (551–479 B.C.). But while the philosopher affirmed these practices, he also held that human beings could transform the world by observing five particular virtues. This focus on the temporal greatly influenced Chinese society. Over time, royal authority slowly transferred from the “will of heaven” to political succession ostensibly based on virtue.
Yet how does the ethical system of Confucianism interact with the entire Confucian system of ritual, including ritual sacrifice to heaven? And how do the will of heaven and the virtue of humanity interact with each other? The Confucian classic Mencius, Lilou II, which dates back to when Chinese leaders still practiced sacrifices regularly, said, “Though a man is evil, if he fasts and cleanses himself, he might yet offer sacrifices to God.” In other words, whether through fasting and cleansing or by slaughtering the cattle or sheep and burning sacrifices to heaven, in the ancient Chinese worldview there was no permanent way to solve humanity’s sinful nature.
How do we as Christians look at the sacrifice ceremony to God? In the Book of Hebrews, the author explores at length the relationship between the Old Testament sacrificial rituals and Christ on the cross.
Hebrews 9:8 says, “The way into the Most Holy Place had not yet been disclosed as long as the first tabernacle was still functioning.” According to the writer of Hebrews, then, before Jesus’ birth and crucifixion, the Hebrews’ sacrificial rituals could not take lasting effect. The high priest’s sacrifices in the Most Holy Place could not truly and completely remove people’s sins. Instead, his actions only foreshadowed what was to come through Christ.
For humanity to indeed be rid of sin, we had to wait for our only truly effective sacrificial lamb—Jesus, whose death tore the tabernacle curtain separating human beings and God. Because of this, people can now enter the Holy of Holies and meet God when covered by Jesus’ blood.
If we trace the source of the traditional Chinese characters, we can find the origin of the butchering of cattle and sheep for sacrifice to the heavenly God. The Chinese character for “ritual” (禮) has a radical on the left representing an altar (示) and a container (“豆”) on the bottom right; above the container is a representation of the offering.
Shuowen Jiezi, an early and authoritative Chinese dictionary, defines the word ritual (禮) as “serving the divine in order to prosper.” And the word for righteousness (義) has a lamb on the top, with “a hand holding a weapon in order to kill the sheep” on the bottom—literally meaning people can become righteous by butchering the lamb. According to the writer of Hebrews, the ancient Israelites’ sacrifice ceremonies foreshadow the coming of Jesus as the real Lamb for atoning human beings’ sins.
I personally believe that these ancient Chinese rituals foreshadow Christ in a common grace sense and that their presence serves as a reminder that he is the sacrificial Lamb of God offered on behalf of all. Yet we believe that the blood of Jesus Christ not only saves us from feeling guilty but also redeems us from our sins. We all have personal access to Jesus, not mediated by an emperor or priest. Thanks be to the true God of the highest heaven!
Jixun Hu has a master of divinity from Garrett-Evangelical Theological Seminary and is a minister of East Bergen Christian Church in New Jersey.