Daoist Ritual at the Imperial Court

This hanging scroll depicts a Daoist ritual at the court of the Qing dynasty in Beijing. On the altar, an aristocrat kneels beside the Daoist priest leading the ceremony, who is shown under an umbrella. Four additional priests of lower rank stand to the sides. Below the altar, there is an orchestra of chimes, bells, and wind instruments playing music, an essential part of many Daoist rituals. The most distinctive feature of this ritual is the altar, made from three levels of stacked tables. Daoist altars were usually made of pressed earth. These traditional earthen altars resemble the one shown here in that they were often temporary structures that would be dismantled after the ritual. The ritual depicted here was probably a repentance (zhai) ceremony. In such a ceremony, the participants would confess their faults and perform different acts of contrition.