12 Pages


On January 12, 1270,1 in the reign of Khubilai (1215-1294; r. 1260-1294), khan of theMongols and the ruler of northern China, an imperial ritual took place at the new political center of the empire, Dadu大都, or Grand Capital (present-day Beijing).2

The ceremony was requested by the khan’s principal consort, Chabi, and consisted of presenting offerings to the river god on the banks of the Golden Water River (Jinshui he金水河) running though the west of the city.3 An altar was set up, the crowd assembled, and then, out of nowhere, a snake, a species that hibernates in winter, appeared in the river. This abnormal occurrence astonished everyone at the ceremony, including the imperial delegate. In response, he burned incense, presented a plate and made a kowtow to invite the snake to approach. The snake apparently understood the gesture, swam toward the crowd, landed on the plate, and turned its head around nodding, as if acknowledging the veneration. After roughly two hours, the snake departed. The next day, a similar manifestation occurred, but this time it was a turtle, another species that is supposed to be in hibernation. The turtle, too, was treated with great respect. Just like the snake, it appeared to enjoy the ritual and lingered around the site for a long while before disappearing into the water. The appearance of two hibernal animals at the ceremony two days in a row was

too much of an aberration to be taken lightheartedly for the imperial delegate. He dutifully reported the event to Empress Chabi, who had decreed the ritual. A long-time astute companion to Khubilai (Rossabi 1988: 16, 67-69; Yuanshi 114.2871-2), Chabi again demonstrated her political shrewdness. Instead of simply associating the turtle and snake with the river god of the Golden Water, she sought Chinese scholar-officials at the court to give their opinions. The courtiers, well versed in the classics, quickly reached the conclusion that the two creatures were no ordinary snake and turtle. Citing a classical Confucian apocrypha or weishu 緯書 (lit. “weft book,” so named as they were complementary to the canonized classics, jingshu 經書 or “warp books”), they determined that the pair was really Xuanwu玄武 (“Dark Martiality/Warrior”) who was, according to their understanding, a divinity of the north. The north, based on the correlative cosmology of Five Phases (metal, wood, water, fire, earth), is associated with the cyclical cosmic phase of water. The manifestation of Xuanwu was a sign of the cosmic force of water in full play, asserted the scholars, and thus an omen for the Great Yuan to