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Gold Slip of Wu Zetian

The gold slip of Wu Zetian is 36.20cm in length, 8cm in width, and 223.5g in weight, containing more than 96% gold. It is plain on the whole, and is engraved with 63 characters in three lines. Discovered at Junji Peak of Mount Songshan, it is now in the collection of Henan Museum.

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Name:Wang Ning
About the Writer: Majoring in Chinese Language and Literature with an BA degree, librarian of Henan Provincial Youth and Children Library, Wang Ning is dedicated to researches on library science, literature, etc.
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In May 1985, a farmer from Tangzhuang village of Dengfeng stumbled across a gold slip engraved with characters at Junji Peak of Mount Taishi of Mount Songshan. He submitted it to Dengfeng People’s Government that delivered it to Henan Museum later. The inscription reads: “Wu Zetian, monarch of the Great Zhou Dynasty, favors Taoism, hence casts a gold slip to pray to Deities at Mount Songshan for eliminating disasters and living a long life on the seventh day of the seventh lunar month (700 CE), commissioned to my attendant Hu Chao.” The slip is the only movable artifact left by Wu Zetian personally and related to her, and is of great significance for studies of the Tang history, the political thoughts and calligraphy of Wu Zetian, ancient system of Toulongjian (sin-exempting incantation casting ceremony), ancient ceremony of Fengshan (the imperial sacrifice to Heaven and earth on sacred mountains), etc.

The inscription on the gold slip of Wu Zetian conveys lots of cultural and historical information. It mainly indicates that the slip is devoted to Taoist Deities at Mount Songshan(one of China's five sacred Taoist peaks) to praying for absolution from her sins. The “Three Deities and Nine Palaces” mentioned here refer to Taoist Deities of Heaven, Earth and Water as well as their abodes. According to Rites of the Audience in the Book of Etiquette and Ceremonial, “silk and sacrifices shall be burned for worshipping Heaven, worshippers shall climb high to offer sacrifices to mountains, sacrifices shall be sunk into water to worship rivers, and be buried to worship the Earth”. After Taoism was founded, Deities of Heaven, Earth and Water were defined as Three Deities to cure diseases and ward off evil spirits, and each of them has three abodes, totaling nine.

The inscription reveals that the slip is cast by Wu Zetian, and is an icon devoted to the “Three Deities and Nine Palaces” to pray for eliminating disasters and living a long life. The event is an important part of the Taoist ceremony. In ancient times, when emperors organized Taoist sacrificial ceremonies, they usually engraved their prayers on three slips to communicate with the Three Deities in the divine world and pray for blessings and eliminating disasters. This is named as Toulongjian.

The inscription on the gold slip indicates that Wu Zetian believed in Taoism. Before ascending the throne, she believed in Buddhism, and used to make public opinions for her enthronement by counterfeiting the Mahamegha Sutra and the Annotations to Mahamegha Sutra via the Taoist incantations. After her enthronement, she gradually turned to Taoism and organized many Toulongjian ceremonies. According to the records on the Stele of Daiyue Taoist Temple dating from 691, the 2nd year of Tianshou period, “on the tenth day of the second lunar month, Ma Yuanzhen, head of Jintai Taoist Temple at Mount Songshan, cast slips to worship Deities of sacred mountains and rivers by imperial order of Great Zhou Dynasty.” The Stele of Taishang Laojun in Fengxian Taoist Temple also bears an inscription saying that Ma Yuanzhen, head of Jintai Taoist Temple, cast slips to worship Deities of sacred mountains and rivers by imperial order in the 3rd year of Tianshou period.

After that, people were sent to cast such slips respectively in 698, the first year of Shengli period, 701, the first year of Chang’an period, and the ninth and 11th lunar months in 704, the fourth year of Chang’an period. In 699, the second year of Shengli period when Wu Zetian passed by Goushi, she personally composed an article and inscribed characters meaning “Stele of Shengxian Taizi” on a stele in the Temple of Shengxian Taizi, showing her respect to Taoism and longing for becoming an immortal.

At the end of the inscription on the gold slip is the date when it was cast: the seventh day of the seventh lunar month in the year of Taisui Gengzi, according to the dating method of Taisui or Suixing in ancient China. Besides it, there were two more dating methods: the reign title dating and the Heavenly Stems and Earthly Branches dating. The latter started in the Eastern Han Dynasty, and has still been used in the lunar calendar today. In ancient times, the reign title dating method was mainly used on bamboo slips, and the Taisui dating method prevailed in the Tang Dynasty. Besides the gold slip of Wu Zetian, there were other cases adopting such dating method: the bronze slip of Emperor Xuanzong of Tang, the silver slip cast by Qian Liu of the Wuyue Kingdom during the Five Dynasties at the age of 65. In addition, Qian Liu cast another slip at the age of 77, which mixed the reign title and Taisui dating methods. Such combination is also found on the jade slip of Emperor Shenzong of the Song Dynasty discovered in Jidu Temple.

Among the inscription on the gold slip, there are five characters invented by Wu Zetian: “圀” (Guo), “瞾” (Zhao), “日” (Ri), “月” (Yue) and “臣” (Chen). After she ascended the throne, she invented a total of 19 characters to manifest her uniqueness and political intention as well as her ruling thoughts.