Late in 705, newly enthroned emperor of the freshly restored Tang dynasty Zhongzong 中宗 (r. 684, 705–710) went to the southern gate-tower of Luoyang by chariot to observe “cold-splashing barbarian plays” (pohan huxi 泼寒胡戏). Several months later, a low-ranking minister, Lü Yuantai 吕元泰, drafted a memorial, contending, “If governance is proper, cold will follow its proper season. Why is it necessary for naked savages to drum and dance?” While the Zhongzong did not cancel the performance of these “barbarian plays,” Lü Yuantai’s criticism set in motion a decade-long debate reflecting the rapidly changing discursive terrain of ethnicity, rulership, and religion. This paper will explore the nature of the debates and the surprisingly high stakes surrounding these so-called barbarian plays (huxi 胡戏) in the early eighth century.
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For the Northern Zhou 北周 (557–581) performance of the “cold-splashing dramas” in 579, see Zizhi tongjian 173.5401-02 and Beishi 10.377. After emperor Xuandi 宣帝 (r. 578–579), Yuwen Yun 宇文赟 had turned the throne over to his son, feckless child-emperor Jingdi 静帝 (r. 579–581), the retired sovereign—then known as Zhou Tianyuan 周天元, Heaven’s Origin of the Zhou, continued to dominate the court. In Chang’an, during the twelfth lunar month of 579, because of repeated anomalies and catastrophes, the retired emperor dismissed troops and discarded weapons and went to Tianxing Palace. His officials presented a memorial urging him to eschew banqueting on delicacies and viands. Undeterred, the first day of the sexagenary cycle, he stated a spectacle, going by chariot to his Zhengwu Palace and gathered all his court officials, the palace women, and wives of eminent officials to watch a grand array of actors and musicians. Unlike the dramas staged in the streets and markets in the eighth century, this performance took place in the court.
A number of scholars from mainland China have investigated different aspects of these “cold-splashing barbarian plays including Ren (1984), Li (2004), Wan (2006), Ding (2011), Wang (2005a, b), 11–15; Wang Fengxia. Western scholars have also examined some elements of these plays: see Hartman (1995), Serruys (1981) and Wolpert (1990), 497–506. Though all of these scholars are well aware of this court debates triggered by the performances of the cold-splashing plays, none of these articles narrowly focus on these debates.
For a succinct account of these court intrigues, see Guisso (1979): 321–328.
See the “Appendix” for a chronological listing of the performances of the “cold-splashing plays.”
This performance of the rite fell on the 13th day of the 11th lunar month of the first year of the Shenlong 神龙 reign era.
This passage comes from a poem, “Rhapsody of the Eastern Capital” (Dongjing fu 东京赋), a composition by literary master-statesman-scientist Zhang Heng 张衡 (78-139 AD) in the Eastern Han; see Quan Hou Han wen, chapter 53.
After citing the “Grand Plan” from the Book of History, Lü sought to draw further canonical moral weight by paraphrasing a section of the “Monthly Ordinances” (yueling 月令) from the Book of Rites. See Liji zhengyi 16.523.
There is a shorter version in THY 34.628. Also see TD 146.3724, XTS 118.4276-77, and Wenxian tongkao 148.1294 for other abbreviated versions of Lü’s speech. While other sources give the impression that Lü was present at the 705 performance and protested there, in fact his complaint, the Tang huiyao explicitly reports, was levied three months later.
Translation modified from “The Great Plan” in Shangshu 尚书, 132–133. This blueprint of virtuous and sagely governance was passed on from Jizi 箕子, a Shang elder, to King Wu of Zhou 周武王.
Dong Zhongshu 董仲舒 (179-104 BC), the famous Han dynasty Confucian scholar-statesmen, helped systematize and amplify the idea of “mutual responsiveness between Heaven and man.”
TD 146.3724 also places these rites in the second year of Jingyun.
This story appears in the Zhuangzi and in the Shuoyuan, among other places. Yu Qie was a fisherman who shoots a divine white dragon, a river god, in the eye, while the draconian is in fish form. See Sterckx (2002): 300 fn. 32.
Shi ji 3.100 contains an account of the mulberries and grain that grew up in a single night in Shang emperor Taiwu’s audience hall. Fearing it was an inauspicious influence, Taiwu consulted with his minister Yi Zhi, who purportedly told him that his virtue would trump evil omens. The potency of his virtue, presumably, caused the unlucky omens to wither and disappear. Also see the Watson (1993: 5) translation of “Feng and Shan,” chapter 28 in Shi ji.
For more on Duke Jing of Song’s (r. 517-452 BC) speech—taking full accountability for the fate of the empire, rather than shifting responsibility to his ministers or the common people, see Huainanzi, 461–462, 12.28.
There are shorter versions in XTS 118.4273; in THY 34.629, the date is given as the Jingyun 3, the lunar year beginning February 12, 712; TD 146.3724 also contains a shortened rendition of the speech.
We know from XTS 36.946 that the residence of the Taiping Princess was in this ward.
Han Xuanzi was a Jin diplomat who travelled to Lu in the late sixth-century BC and discovered the intact Rites of Zhou, prompting him to exclaim, “I only now know the virtue of the Duke of Zhou and the reason that the Zhou became kings.” See Lewis (1999): 217, c.f. Zuozhuan.
This sentence refers to an episode that appears in the Analects—see Lun yu XVIII.4, 149, when Qi ruler Jihuanzi 季桓子 accepted a gift of singing girls and female musicians, prompting him to suspend court for 3 days. Disgusted, Confucius resigned his post and left Qi.
Juzhi was a Spring and Autumn era Rong chieftain, who, in an episode in the Zuozhuan. His speech has been translated in Li Feng (2006): 288. See also Poo (2013): 171–172. In 559 BC, Juzhi purportedly gave an eloquent speech—responding to accusations coming from Jin ministers of the treachery of these western savages—proclaiming to a Jin minister and diplomat that the Rong had been loyal and steadfast vassals to the Jin rulers. He concluded by pointedly singing a verse from the Book of Songs intimating that slanderers in the Jin court were to blame for the rift.
Youyu was a bilingual Rong emissary whose family (likely Han Chinese) had come from the state of Jin. He went to the court of Duke Mu of Qin during the Spring and Autumn era and expounded upon principles of moderation, contrasting the simple and virtuous governance of the Rong with the arrogance of the Qin. Shi ji 5.192-94.
The full memorial is recorded in QTW 223.2256-57. Abridged versions appear in JTS 97.3052 and XTS 125.4406-07.
For an abbreviated version, see TD 146.3725. QTW 254.2572 contains a draft of the imperial order composed by Su Ting that is virtually identical.
This memorial by Fu Yi was written in 626. This is a translation modified from Abramson (2008: 59, c.f. QTW 133.1346). Sao 臊 intimates that the fur garments of the western barbarians possessed a certain malodorous, urine-saturated reek, but yaomei 妖魅 suggests that this peculiar stink possessed a certain titillating demonic allure.
Translation modified from Picken (1985): 47; c.f. Yuefu shiji, chapter 96.
Though Xianzong 宪宗 (r. 806–820) emphatically rejected Han Yu’s “Memorial on the Bone of the Buddha” and exiled Han Yu, a quarter-century later Wuzong 武宗 (r. 840–846) launched the Huichang—era 会昌 persecution of Buddhism.
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Appendix: Early Eight Century Performances of the Cold-Splashing “barbarian plays” Found in Official Records
Appendix: Early Eight Century Performances of the Cold-Splashing “barbarian plays” Found in Official Records
Shenlong 1, 11th month, 13th day, ji-chou, December 3, 705
*3rd month 706, Lü Yuantai remonstrates
Jingyun 2, 12th month, 7th day, ding-wei, January 19, 712
*Han Chaozong remonstrates after performance
Ruizong (Emperor Emeritus)/Xuanzong
Xiantian 1, 12th month, 14th day, yi-chou, January 15, 713
*10th month 713: Zhang Yue remonstrates
*Kaiyuan 1, 10th month 713, Xuanzong’s first ban, December 31, 713
*Kaiyuan 2, 12th month 715, Xuanzong’s second ban, January 27, 715
The irregular festival did not correspond with the Sogdian calendar or the Old Iranian/Zoroastrian ritual calendar—both of which had regular 365-day hemerological cycles (12- to 30-day months, plus five holy days that were lumped together). Nor did it correspond with the Chinese ritual calendar.
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Rothschild, N.H. Why is it Necessary for Naked Savages to Drum and Dance? Early Tang Imperial Responses to a Sogdian Hibernal Festival. Fudan J. Hum. Soc. Sci. 8, 65–80 (2015). https://doi.org/10.1007/s40647-015-0061-3
- Sogdian plays (hu xi 胡戏)
- Tang Zhongzong 唐中宗
- Tang Xuanzong 唐玄宗
- Zhang Yue 张说
- tianren ganying 天人感应