Overseen by hungry gods on the one hand or structured by impersonal cyclic forces on the other, the Eastern Han cosmos eluded a single consistent model accepted by everyone. Yet these cosmological perspectives were not competing arguments held by different people; they were inconsistent genres of discourse found within the same people and sometimes even within the same texts. Late Eastern Han mountain inscriptions may ritually appease sacrifice-eating gods with their hymns of praise, but they simultaneously describe the cosmos as a single pervasive system of qi-vapors, yinyang, and the five phases. How could these two models coexist?
Dated to 183 C.E., the “Stele to the Spirit Lord of Baishi Mountain” (baishi shenjun bei 白石神君碑) demonstrates how certain compromise positions existed between a universe overseen by external agencies and that consisting of resonating cycles. The inscription explains why this mountain deity merited sacrifice, describes the official process in which permission to sacrifice was secured, and identifies this hungry deity as one component within ritualized systems within spatial lineages and geographic bureaucracies and so he is not recognized as an entirely free agent. In addition, the inscription systematizes him by obligating him to participate in mechanical rituals of recompense and by reducing him to a ritualized Classicist stereotype, further diminishing his independence and individuality. The stele inscription s focus on ritual demonstrates how ritual lessens any perceived inconsistency between cosmic agencies and cosmic system.
This article first surveys the Han history of mountain sacrifices and mountain stelae, thereby placing the Spirit Lord of Baishi Mountain into historical context. The translation of the inscription dedicated to him follows, which for the purpose of analysis I divide into eight sections that address themes such as rituals of recompense, the generation of rain, and the transformation of the god into a Classicist hero. The conclusion summarizes how human structures such as lineage and bureaucracy fill in the gaps between these inconsistent genres of discourse human structures that result in impersonal qi-vapors becoming more human and personalized mountain deities becoming more structured.