Professor Tsai plays detective with “A Han Dynasty Murder Mystery”

Editor’s note: This article was initially published in The Daily Gazette, Swarthmore’s online, daily newspaper founded in Fall 1996. As of Fall 2018, the DG has merged with The Phoenix. See the about page to read more about the DG.

Yesterday, Julius Tsai ’91 returned to Swarthmore to speak on the themes of “secrecy, power and immortality” in Chinese religions. He framed his talk around the titular “murder mystery,” involving an emperor, a servant, a secret ritual, and a lonely mountain in China.

After graduating from Swarthmore, Tsai went on to earn his masters in divinities at Harvard Divinity School, and then his Ph.D last year from Stanford. He amassed a variety of experiences in that time, including spending two years as the disciple of a Daoist priest. Currently, Tsai teaches courses on East Asian religions at Texas Christian University.

Once introduced, Professor Tsai dove right into the story. It was in 110 BCE that Emperor Wu traveled to the mountains in order to perform the sacred rights to the heaven and earth. Tsai equated these rights, or sacrifices, to the “Chinese sword in the stone,” as only six rulers in history have attempted them. There were five sacred mountains, one for each direction and the center, but it was the eastern mountain, Taishan, that historically had the most significance. It was to Taishan that Emperor Wu journeyed to perform his ritual.

At the foot of Taishan, the emperor performed his sacrifice and sealed away jade tablets on which were written messages to heaven. All of this was well-documented. However, once that sacrifice was complete, the emperor took one servant with him and ascended the mountain to perform the ritual again at the summit. This time, the event was kept secret. On the way down from the mountain the next day, the servant was stricken with a violent sickness and died that day. The question of course is, what happened? Did the emperor kill the servant somehow, and if so, why?

Tsai offered two explanations in wide circulation. The first, the “cynical one,” is that clearly the servant must have seen everything that had happened. Suppose that the emperor simply made up a whole slew of bogus rituals to create this mysterious aura about his position. In that case, it seems natural that the servant would be killed to preserve the secret. This story, Tsai cautioned, was promoted by later dynasties, so it should be taken with the same kind of consideration as an evaluation of Bush, Sr., by the Clinton administration would necessitate.

Another explanation was that Emperor Wu was concerned very much with his own immortality, which is largely condemned by historians as having been a distraction from the public good. Perhaps then the emperor killed his servant in order to keep him from finding out about “esoteric immortality practices.”

Professor Tsai drew the focus back to the caskets in which the jade tablets were sealed during the ritual. What was the significance of these caskets? Through additional examples of such rituals and the caskets used in them, Tsai concluded that they were covenants to the divine, sources of revelations, and a form of petition. The act of sealing the tablets in some sort of casket even became an act of creating a “sacrificial double” in some instances.

Returning to the murder mystery, Tsai told of how popular lore tried to explain the servant’s death. The story went that the box was not sealed by human hands; rather, it was a gold box on top of the mountain having been sent from heaven with jade slips inside. If one read the jade slips, one would learn whether or not a long life awaited. When Emperor Wu read the jade, he saw that he had eighteen years left.

The story goes that he switched the characters around and made it so that he would have eighty years, thereby manipulating fate and finding immortality in a sense. Having changed his fate, the emperor re-sealed the gold box with his official seal, which his servant held for him. Because the seal was the emperor’s authentication of power, Emperor Wu killed the servant, lest he find a way to blackmail or otherwise undermine the emperor.

Whichever story was actually the truth, Tsai impressed upon the audience the importance of power and immortality in all of the stories, as well as how timeless of themes they really are.

And remember, as Professor Tsai remarked, “never be the servant that witnesses the secret esoteric rituals.”

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