Skip to main content

Why is it Necessary for Naked Savages to Drum and Dance? Early Tang Imperial Responses to a Sogdian Hibernal Festival


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.

This is a preview of subscription content, access via your institution.


  1. 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.

  2. 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.

  3. For a succinct account of these court intrigues, see Guisso (1979): 321–328.

  4. See the “Appendix” for a chronological listing of the performances of the “cold-splashing plays.”

  5. 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.

  6. 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.

  7. 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.

  8. 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.

  9. 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.

  10. 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.”

  11. TD 146.3724 also places these rites in the second year of Jingyun.

  12. 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.

  13. 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.

  14. 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.

  15. 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.

  16. We know from XTS 36.946 that the residence of the Taiping Princess was in this ward.

  17. 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.

  18. 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.

  19. 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.

  20. 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.

  21. The full memorial is recorded in QTW 223.2256-57. Abridged versions appear in JTS 97.3052 and XTS 125.4406-07.

  22. Ibid.

  23. 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.

  24. 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.

  25. Translation modified from Picken (1985): 47; c.f. Yuefu shiji, chapter 96.

  26. 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.



  • Beishi. 1997. 北史 [History of the Northern Dynasties], 100 chaps., comp. Li Yanshou 李延寿 (7th Cent.). Beijing: Zhonghua.

  • Chunqiu zuozhuan. 1999. 春秋左传正义 [Correct meanings of the spring and autumn annals and the chronicles of Zuo]. In Shisanjing zhushu 十三经注疏, ed. Li Xueqin 李学勤. Beijing: Beijing University Press.

  • De Bary, William, and Irene Bloom. 1999. Sources of Chinese Tradition. Vol. 1, From Earliest Times to 1600. New York: Columbia University Press.

  • Huainanzi: A Guide to the theory and practice of government in early Han China, comp. Liu An (171–129 BC), (trans: John Major, Sarah Queen, Andrew Meyer, and Harold Roth.). New York: Columbia University Press, 2010.

  • Jin shu. 1997. 晋书 [History of Jin], 130 chaps., comp. Fang Xuanling 房玄龄 (578–648). Beijing: Zhonghua.

  • Jiu Tang shu. 1997. 旧唐书 [Old Tang History], 200 chaps., comp. Liu Xu 刘煦 (887–946). Beijing: Zhonghua. [JTS].

  • Liji zhengyi. 1999. 礼记正义 [Orthodox commentary on the book of history], comp. Kong Yingda 孔颖达 (574–648). In Shisan jing zhu shu [Commentaries and Notes on the Thirteen Classics], ed. Li Xueqin. Beijing: Beijing University Press.

  • Lun yu. 1979. 论语. The Analects, Confucius, (trans: Lau, D.C.). New York: Penguin.

  • Maoshi zhengyi. 1999. 毛诗正义 [Correct meaning of the book of songs] comp. Kong Yingda 孔颖达. In Shisan jing zhu shu, ed. Li Xueqin. Beijing: Beijing University Press.

  • Quan Hou Han wen. 1999. 全后汉文 [Complete Anthology of Latter Han], comp. Yan Kejun 严可均. Beijing: Zhonghua.

  • Quan Tang shi. 1905. 全唐诗 [Complete anthology of Tang Poetry], 900 chaps., comp. Peng Dingqiu 彭定求 in 1705. Beijing: Zhonghua. [QTS].

  • Quan Tangwen. 1996. 全唐文 [Complete anthology of Tang Prose], 1,000 chaps., comp. Dong Gao 董诰 (1740–1818) in 1814. Beijing: Zhonghua. [QTW].

  • Shangshu. 1998. 尚书 [The Book of History]. Ji’nan: Shandong Friendship Press.

  • Shi ji. 1993. 史记 [Records of the grand historian], 130 chaps., comp. Sima Qian 司马迁 (145–86 B.C.). Beijing: Zhonghua, 1995. See also Records of the Grand Historian, (trans: Burton Watson). New York: Columbia University Press.

  • Sui shu. 1996. 随书 [History of the Sui Dynasty], 85 chaps., comp. Wei Zheng 魏征 (580–643). Beijing: Zhonghua.

  • Taiping guangji. 1996. 太平广记 [Miscellaneous records of the Taiping Era], 500 chaps., comp. Li Fang 李昉 (925–996). Beijing: Zhonghua.

  • Tang da zhaoling ji. 1968. 唐大诏令集 [Edicts and imperial decrees of the Tang], 130 chaps., completed in 1070 by Song Minqiu 宋敏求 (1019–1079). Taiwan: Huawen.

  • Tang huiyao. 1998. 唐会要 [Essential Institutions of the Tang], 100 chaps., comp. Wang Pu 王溥 (922–982). Beijing: Zhonghua.

  • Tongdian. 1996. 通典 [Comprehensive Manual of Institutions], 200 chaps., comp. Du You 杜佑 (735–812). Beijing: Zhonghua.

  • Wenxian tongkao. 1999. 文献通考 [A comprehensive examination of writings and documents], comp. Ma Duanlin 马端临. Beijing: Zhonghua shuju.

  • Xin Tang shu. 1997. 新唐书 [New History of the Tang], 225 chaps., comp. Ouyang Xiu 欧阳修 (1007–1072). Beijing: Zhonghua.

  • Yuefu shiji. 1998. 乐府诗集 [Collected songs from the Bureau of Music], comp. Guo Maoqian 郭茂倩. Shanghai: Shanghai guji.

  • Zizhi tongjian. 1995. 资治通鉴 [Comprehensive mirror for the advancement of governance], 294 chaps., comp. Sima Guang 司马光 (1019–1086); commentary by Hu Sanxing 胡三省 (1230–1302) from the Yuan edition. Beijing: Zhonghua.


  • Abramson, Marc. 2008. Ethnic identity in Tang China. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press.

    Book  Google Scholar 

  • Ding, Shuwei 丁淑梅. 2011. Tangdai jin pohan huxi de xijuxue kaocha 唐代禁泼寒胡戏的戏剧学考察 [An Investigation of the role of drama in the Tang Dynasty Ban on cold-splashing barbarian plays]. Minzu yishu yanjiu 民族艺术研究: 40–46.

  • Elvin, Mark. 1998. Who was responsible for the weather? Moral meteorology in late imperial China. Osiris. 2nd series. Vol. 13: 213–237.

  • Guisso, Richard. 1979. The reigns of the empress Wu, Chung-tusng, and Jui-tsung (684–712). In Cambridge History of China, ed. Denis Twitchett. Vol. 3: Sui and Tang China, 279–328. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press.

  • Hartman, Charles. 1995. Stomping songs: Word and image. Chinese Literature: Essays, Articles, Reviews 17: 1–49.

    Google Scholar 

  • Hinsch, Bret. 2003. Textiles and female virtue in early imperial Chinese historical writings. Nan nü 5(2): 170–202.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  • Hsieh, Shelley Ching-yu. 2013. Gold and jade filled halls: A cognitive linguistic study of financial and economic expressions in Chinese and German. Leiden: Brill.

    Google Scholar 

  • Lewis, Mark. 1999. Writing and political authority in early China. Albany, NY: SUNY Press.

    Google Scholar 

  • Li, Feng. 2006. Landscape and power in early China: The crisis and fall of the Western Zhou, 1045–1771 BC. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press.

    Google Scholar 

  • Li, Weizui 李未醉. 2004. Zhang Yue yu pohan huxi 张说与泼寒胡戏 [Zhang Yue and the water-splashing barbarian plays]. Jiaoxiang: Xi’an yinyue xueyuan xuebao 交响西安音乐学院学报 [Symphony: The Journal of the Xi’an Conservatory of Music] 23(2): 32–35.

  • Needham, Joseph. 1951. Human laws and laws of nature in China and the West (II): Chinese civilization and the laws of nature. Journal of the history of ideas 12(2): 194–230.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  • Pan, Yihong. 1997. The son of heaven and the heavenly Qaghan. Bellingham, WA: Western Washington University Press.

    Google Scholar 

  • Picken, Laurence (ed.). 1985. Music from the Tang court., vol. 2. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

    Google Scholar 

  • Poo, Muchou. 2013. To become Chinese: Cultural consciousness and political legitimacy in early medieval China. In Migration and Membership Regimes in Global and Historical Perspective, ed. Ulbe Bosma 167–189. Leiden: Brill.

  • Ren, Bantang 任半塘. 1984. Tang xinong 唐戏弄 [Play and Drama in the Tang]. Shanghai: Shanghai guji.

  • Serruys, Henry. 1981. “Hun-t’o: Tulum”, floats and containers in Mongolia and Central Asia. Bulletin of the School of Oriental and African Studies 44(1): 105–119.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  • Skaff, Jonathan. 2012. Sui-Tang China and its Turko-Mongol neighbors. New York: Oxford University Press.

    Book  Google Scholar 

  • Sterckx, Roel. 2002. The animal and the Daemon in early China. Albany, NY: SUNY Press.

    Google Scholar 

  • Wan, Lingyan 万凌艳. 2006. Luelun “Pohan huxi” zai Tangdai de shengshuai 略论寒胡戏在唐代的盛衰 [A brief discussion of the rise and fall of the cold-sprinkling barbarian plays in the Tang Dynasty]. Shangluo xueyuan xuebao 商洛学院学报 [Journal of Shangluo University] 20(4): 87–89.

  • Wang, Fengxia. 王凤霞. 2005a. Cong pohan huxi dao sumuzhe 从泼寒胡戏到苏幕遮 [From cold-sprinkling barbarian plays to the sumuzhe]. Guangzhou daxue xuebao 广州大学学报4(3): 11–15.

  • Wang, Fengxia. 2005b. “Ye tan pohan huxi ru-Hua yu liubian” 也谈破哈寒胡戏入华与流变 [Another discussion of the transmission of cold-splashing barbarian dramas to China and their circulation]. Yishu baijia 艺术百家 [Hundred Schools in Art] 2: 7–9.

    Google Scholar 

  • Wolpert, Rembrandt. 1990. Frogs, more Frogs…. In XXIV Deutscher Orientalisteneg, ed. Werner Diem, and Abdoldjavad Falaturi, 497–508. Stuttgart: Fran Steiner Verlag.

    Google Scholar 

  • Xiong, Victor Cunrui. 2000. Sui-Tang Chang’an: A study in the urban history of medieval China. Ann Arbor: Center for Chinese Studies, University of Michigan.

    Google Scholar 

Download references

Author information

Authors and Affiliations


Corresponding author

Correspondence to Norman Harry Rothschild.

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

  1. 1.


    Shenlong 1, 11th month, 13th day, ji-chou, December 3, 705

    *3rd month 706, Lü Yuantai remonstrates

  1. 2.


    Jingyun 2, 12th month, 7th day, ding-wei, January 19, 712

    *Han Chaozong remonstrates after performance

  1. 3.

    Ruizong (Emperor Emeritus)/Xuanzong

    Xiantian 1, 12th month, 14th day, yi-chou, January 15, 713

  1. 4.


    *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.

Rights and permissions

Reprints and Permissions

About this article

Verify currency and authenticity via CrossMark

Cite this article

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).

Download citation

  • Received:

  • Accepted:

  • Published:

  • Issue Date:

  • DOI:


  • 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