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I came across the character 歃 , namely in the sentence:

葵丘之會諸侯,束牲、載書而不歃血

it is glossed as "to smear one's mouth with the blood of a victim to take an oath".

I have searched for further details on this custom, but I was limited to sites only in Chinese, which I do not understand well enough.

Could you explain the meaning of 歃 , when it was used, by whom, for which purpose, where did it come from, when did it extinguish, who could do this, what significance did it have, how was it performed, did the owner of the blood been killed etc. ?

  • I am not sure if a "victim"'s blood was used, but what I know from history is that in some ancient nomadic cultures this was a rite to form an alliance among people who were not blood relatives. The ceremony included all parties cutting their hands, spilling some blood in a drinking vessel and then taking turns in drinking the blood to establish a pact of brotherhood or alliance. – Drunken Master Oct 13 '15 at 17:24
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Lord Pingyuan was a Zhao chancellor involved in the Warring states factions. When the state of Zhao was in trouble in 257 BCE, the capital Handan under siege by Qin troops, lord Pingyuan was sent to the state of Chu to ask for assistance . King Kaolie of Chu and lord Pingyuan then performed the custom of 歃血为盟, or symbolically smearing blood around the mouth to establish an alliance and display mutual trust. The allies of Zhao, Chu and also Wei were able to lift the siege, and thus delay the final victory of Qin.

It was not human blood, but from cattle. Kangxi: http://www.zdic.net/z/1c/kx/6B43.htm and Shuowen: http://www.zdic.net/z/1c/sw/6B43.htm hint that the tradition has been known since the Spring and Autumn period (~700/400 BCE).

Huainanzi (139 BCE) tells: 故胡人弹骨,励志故事,越人契臂,中国歃血也,所由各异,其于信一也。

After Qin united the kingdoms, there seems to have been less reason to make alliances and keep the tradition.

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The passage is punctuated slightly wrong, it should be 葵丘之會,諸侯束牲、載書而不歃血: At the assembly at Kuiqiu, the feudal lords bound the sacrifice and placed their written pledges on it, but did not make blood oaths (i.e. they did not kill animals as part of the ceremony of allegiance).

The assembly at Kuiqiu marked the ascendance of Qi Huan gong 齊桓公, the first of the five feudal leaders (五霸) of the Spring and Autumn period, and the decline of the Zhou royal house. It was a meeting convened by Qi, at that point the most powerful of the feudal states, to make an alliance between the major rulers of the time.

The expression sha xue is often used in the longer phrase 歃血為盟. An animal sacrifice was killed and its blood wiped on the lips. The written agreement was then placed on the sacrifice and the whole thing buried. This action was part of the regular ceremony of alliance between states, and was performed either by the leader of the state or his representative. It could also occur between lesser figures, and different animals were supposedly used, depending on their status

The idea was that putting blood on the mouth solemnified the words of the treaty of alliance, and signified the punishment that would come on whoever broke the agreement (or at least that's one interpretation).

This passage is from Mengzi, who felt that Qi Huan gong's decision not to use blood in the ceremony of allegiance between the feudal lords was superior to later practice using blood, which involved the idea of divine retribution, and thus departed from the mutual trust that was essential for the allegiance.

On the other hand, according to Mengzi, Qi Huan gong, by convening the assembly, arrogated to himself a power that belonged to the Zhou royal house, and had therefore also offended against virtue.

Later note: There is an article that discusses the significance of these "covenant tablets" here

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The original meaning of 歃 is "to sip". It is most frequently seen in the phrase 歃血 which means "to smear one's mouth with blood or to sip some blood and take an oath (usually in the ritual to form an alliance)", it doesn't imply where the blood comes from. It can be blood from a sacrifice, a victim, those who take part in the oath, etc. You can just smear the blood or sip a bit, there is no formal procedure for it.

It is a fairly archaic character that is seldom seen nowadays.

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