Qing abstinence plaque

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The cartouche of the tablet displays two words on either side. There is no front or back to the tablet, rather, there is a Manchu side and a Chinese side. The inscription reads zhāijiè 齋戒 on the Chinese side, and bolgomi targa on the Manchu side. Der Ling explains that

the meaning [is] just like Chin Tan --- not to eat meat but to pray three times a day.

In fact, its meaning is more extensive than just not eating meat. The Daiqing Huidian prescribes that during the days of abstinence one could not pass judgment, hold meetings, listen to music, have sexual intercourse, see a doctor, visit the mourning, drink alcohol, eat meat, make sacrifices, or sweep tombs. Exceptions were made for those on military duty or who were ill. These regulations were in place three days before the sacrifice. For example, a short entry in the Veritable Records recounts the regulations for a sacrifice for rain, as was the case in Der Ling’s description:

From this day, the Emperor has begun the preparations for the Rain Sacrifice. He will make a sacrifice to Heaven at the Round Elevation [the Temple of Heaven]. Thus, abstinence is now observed for three days.

The ancient beginnings of the imperial observance of abstinence can be traced to descriptions in the Book of Rites (Ch. liji 禮記). The Book of Rites writes that "[t]he Master said: “Vigil and fasting are required (as preparation) for serving the spirits (in sacrifice)” and

[s]acrifices were for the purpose of prayer, or of thanksgiving, or of deprecation. The dark-colored robes worn during vigil and purification had reference to the occupation of the thoughts with the dark and unseen. Hence after the three days of purification, the superior man was sure (to seem) to see those to whom his sacrifice was to be offered.

These early descriptions correspond remarkably closely with the rituals held in the Qing dynasty. In correspondence with the dark robes in “reference to the occupation of the thoughts with the dark and unseen,” Der Ling also describes the plain robes worn by Cixi during the sacrifice. Several aspects of the abstinence ritual were still close to the descriptions of the Book of Rites. Yet, the nature of abstinence had become more clearly defined. Buddhism had become mixed up in the ritual. When Chinese translations of Buddhist concepts were made, the character zhāi 齋 was used to translate the meaning of Sanskrit poṣadha or upavāsa. For lay Buddhists, the observance of poṣadha entails a prohibition of eight sinful actions:

(1) killing, (2) stealing, (3) sexual conduct, [...] (4) [...] lying, [...] (5) drinking, [...] (6) using of cosmetics, adornments, dancing, singing or music, (7) sleeping on raised or large beds, and (8) eating out of regulation hours.

These prohibitions match nearly perfectly with abstinence as defined by the Huidian. This Buddhist dimension was cause for some ritual discord at the Qing court. The imperial ritual of abstinence, infused with the Buddhist concept of ahiṃsā, forbade killing. Yet, the Manchu shamanic weqembi rituals at the Tangse in the palace required the sacrifice of black pigs. When schedules of both rituals conflicted, or when conflict in the ritual schedules arose through a necessary sacrifice (such as a sacrifice for rain), the Kangxi emperor had decided that the rule that forbade killing during the abstinence days should not apply to the weqembi sacrifice. However, his successor Emperor Yongzheng then revoked this decision. From 1733 on, the state ritual of abstinence thus outweighed the highest Manchu shamanic rites, the weqembi sacrifices.