The Shengmin (roughly, “Birth of the People”) poem, found within the Shijing (Classic of Poetry) which was compiled around the year 500 BCE, describes ancient harvest-related sacrificial practices. The rites are said to have been founded by the culture hero and god Houji, “Sovereign Millet,” the mythical progenitor of the Zhou Dynasty. Here is an excerpt from James Legg’s translation of the Shengmin:
And how as to our sacrifices [to the god]? Some hull [the grain]; some take it from the mortar; Some sift it; some tread it. It is rattling in the dishes; It is distilled, and the steam floats about. We consult; we observe the rites of purification; We take southernwood and offer it with the fat; We sacrifice a ram to the Spirit of the path; We offer roast flesh and broiled: And thus introduce the coming year. We load the stands with the offerings, The stands both of wood and of earthenware. As soon as the fragrance ascends, God, well pleased, smells the sweet savour. Fragrant is it, and in its due season! Hou-ji founded the sacrifice, And no one, we presume, has given occasion for blame or regret in regard to it, Down to the present day.
There’s a lot of interesting information in just this little section of the poem, and also some information that takes some research. For example, the common names of herbs are oftentimes tricky, especially in translation. Southernwood is a common name for Artemisia abrotanum. According to Herbalpedia, the Chinese name for Artemisia abrotanum is ch’ing (or qing) hao. The word in the Shenming translated as “southernwood,” xiao, is no longer a common Chinese name for any plant. However, according to the 2nd century dictionary Shuo Wen Jie Zi, xiao is the same herb as ai hao, which is mugwort (Artemisia vulgaris). So clearly the plants they burned were of the genus Artemisia, even if there is a bit of confusion as to the actual species.
Image Credit: Xinhuanet. The statue is at the Yánglíng Agriculture Hi-Tech Industrial Zone in Shǎnxī Province. Shǎnxī is often considered the one of the “cradles of Chinese civilization.”