The ox and the ritual plow in springtime

The ox and the ritual plow in springtime

Throughout the imperial era, every year the beginning of agricultural work was celebrated by a solemn ceremony called the Plowing Festival. «The emperor himself would take a yellow plow attached to a yellow ox (yellow was the imperial color under the Manchu dynasty); the head of the Ministry of Finance would stand on his left with a whip, and the governor of Hebei on his right with a sack of seed. The emperor personally made the first furrow, then the princes and ministers took his place, and the work was finished by the peasants. The grain from this field, situated south of Peking, just opposite the Temple of Heaven, was then used for all the imperial sacrifices of the year.» (Maspero 139).

This is a custom that lasted until the end of the imperial era, whose origin goes back to centuries before our era, for already the Book of Rites indicates: «This is the month in which the son of Heaven, on a favorable day, prays for a good harvest to Shang Di. On a fortunate day the son of Heaven takes a plow and places it between the military officer in charge of the shield and the driver of the chariot… he takes the cup and toasts: «Drink the wine as a reward for your work» (Hodous 1929).

And just like the emperor, the high pontiff of the official Chinese religion, the magistrates of the different districts, who at the ritual level acted as his priests, performed a similar activity: the mandarins, in the presence of the elders of the neighborhood and various officials, proceeded to set an example for the farmers to imitate. First they caress the ox, which is already attached to the plow. Then they take the handle of the plow, to which a piece of red silk has been tied, and, with the whip in one hand, they direct it a short distance, giving the ox a few strokes. Then they let go the plow and taking a hoe weed the ground a little. The purpose is to enlighten the villagers in the practical nature of farming and to show them (ritually) how the work is to be done during the year ahead (Doolitle, 1865: 52). 

In Fuzhou and other cities, the ceremony was preceded by a sacrifice to Shen Nong, and took place outside the eastern gate in the second or third month of spring. It was performed by civil and military officials. Two days before the event the officials practiced abstinence. The altar was swept and repaired.  On the day of the sacrifice, the officials placed a table in the center of the altar facing south. On it they arranged thirteen dishes with broth, grain and fruits. In front of the table were two large pits, one with a goat and one with a pig. In front of them was a small table with a censer and candles. To the east of this table was placed another with a roll of paper representing silk, a vessel for libations, three cups of wine, sacrificial meat and sacrificial wine. The viceroy, or his deputy, would approach the altar and raise three times the incense given to him while kneeling.  The ceremonial usher would read the prayer:

«Thou, Spirit, didst bring forth the sowing and the reaping. Thou didst establish the people. We exalt thy power of invention.  Thou art associated with Heaven. We remember thy merit, which nourishes all beings. We exalt your name with strength. At this time the agricultural activities begin. All men gather in their ancestral fields. Great art thou, for ever the exalted emperor performs the ceremony of plowing three furrows once a year. He reverently cares for the land. He dares not forget the laborious farmer, so he offers the sacrifice respectfully and performs the ceremonies. We hope for wind every five days and rain every ten. May we continually receive the benevolent gifts of your Spirit. Then we will have nine grains in an ear of wheat and each grain will be double. May our good fortune cause us to continually record a bountiful harvest. May our sacrifice be enjoyed.»

When the sacrifice was over, the officials would go to the field. The ox was harnessed to a plow. The viceroy would take the plow with his right hand and the whip with his left, advance one or two steps and hand the plow to a farmer who would make nine furrows in the field. The viceroy would then take the hoe and dig the soil nine times. When this was done, the officials would bow before the altar. When the ceremony was over, the cavalcade would return home. (Hodous 1929).

By this simple ceremony, the emperor and his representatives throughout the empire ritually made possible the beginning of agriculture for that year.

This great ceremony presided over by the emperor, initiated a great ritual wave that reached to the farthest corners of the empire, and even in the humblest villages, under the direction of the village chief, much simpler ceremonies were also performed to initiate the agricultural year, in which the sacrifice was often only a chicken or a piglet.

In fact, since the proper development of the agricultural activity was necessary for the survival of the people, each of its phases was accompanied by its corresponding ritual, which generally ended with the ceremonies of tasting the new grain and welcoming the god of the granary. Ceremonies still ubiquitous today among the minorities of southern China.


Doolittle, Justus. Social life of the Chinese. Vol. II. Harper and Brothers. New York. 1865.

Hodous, Lewis. Folkways in China. Arthur Probstain. 1929

To cite this post: Ceinos-Arcones, Pedro, "The ox and the ritual plow in springtime," in Ethnic China, 1 febrero 2021,
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