An Encyclopaedia on Chinese History, Literature and Art

xunshou 巡狩, inspection tour

Apr 30, 2018 © Ulrich Theobald

Inspection tours (xunshou 巡狩), literally "touring and hunting", were travels of the kings of Zhou 周 (11th cent.-221 BCE) or later the emperors to take an eye on the local administration of the one or other region. Yet apart of being an instrument of control, rulers also used these tours to bring sacrifices to mountains or rivers, or just to show their presence in economically important areas. The Confucian Classic Mengzi 孟子 (chapter Liang Huiwang 梁惠王 B) explains that when the Son of Heaven (tianzi 天子) visited the regional rulers (zhuhou 諸侯), it was called a tour of inspection, that is, the king/emperor surveyed the states under the care of the regional rulers (xun [zhuhou] suo shou 巡[諸侯]所守). Note that the word "to take care" (shou 守) is a homophone to the word "to hunt" (shou 狩).

According to belief, the emperors of mythological times already carried out inspections tours, like Yao 堯 and Shun 舜, who travelled in the second lunar month eastwards to Mt. Taishan 泰山, in the fifth month southwards to Mt. Hengshan 衡山, in the eighth month westwards to Mt. Huashan 華山, and in the tenth month northwards to Mt. Hengshan 恒山, and had thus visited four of the Five Sacred Mountains (wuyue 五嶽).

The book Mengzi even quotes a popular verse allegedly stemming from the period of the Xia dynasty 夏 (21th-17th cent. BCE). According to this poem, the enforcement of the virtuous conduct of the ruler brought happiness to the common people (therefore also called xunxing 巡幸 "touring to bring happiness").

Quotation 1. Ancient popular saying to the royal inspection tours
If our king made no excursion,
How could we be well?
If our king felt no elation,
How could we get help?
With each excursion, each elation,
He sets a measure for the lords.
Transl. Robert Eno, This translation grasps the rhymes better than James Legge's translation does.

The Zhou dynasty had the rule that one inspection tour was to be carried out every twelve years, to begun in the second lunar month. The regional rulers welcomed the Zhou sovereign at the borders of their territories, and the king was also greeted on his way by the common populace. On the way, the Grand Preceptor (taishi 太師) used to collect songs of the people and to inspect the local customs and habits. The *Administrator of Markets (dianshiguan 典市官) had to inspect the prices of all commodities, and the *Administrator of Rites (dianliguan 典禮官) the climate and astromical conditions. At the same time, notice was taken of the robes, chariots, rituals, ritual music, and the performance of sacrifices of all the regional rulers, and whether they corresponded to the prescribed rules.

The Later Han-period 後漢 (25-220 CE) encyclopaedia Baihu tongyi 白虎通義 explains that xun 巡 "to tour" meant, "to keep to rules" (xun 循), while shou 狩 (=守) meant, "to shepherd" (mu 牧). For this reason, the sovereign had to inspect the rituals and ceremonies (kao liyi 考禮義), to rectify the standards and measures (zheng fadu 正法度), to unify musical harmonies and the calendar (tong lüli 同律歷), and to calculate seasons and months (ji shiyue 計時月), in order to benefit the people (wei min 為民 "for the people").

Apart from the Confucian interpretation of the character 狩 "to hunt" as 守 "to protect, to guard", it can also be taken literally. Hunting was in premodern times a sport for military training, and the combination of inspection tours with hunting excursions demonstrated to the regional rulers the military strength and vigilance of the sovereign.

The ritual aspect lost its importance in imperial times, and administrative performance became the focus of inspection tours. The First Emperor of Qin 秦始皇帝 (r. 246-210 BCE) carried out several inspection tours, during which he also had erected steles with inscriptions praising the majesty of his rule. He also used his tours to search for "immortals" (shenxian 神仙) helping him to obtain the herb of immortality. During one of his tours, the First Emperor died.

Emperor Wu 漢武帝 (r. 141-87 BCE) of the Han dynasty 漢 (206 BCE-220 CE) is believed to have travelled as much as 18,000 li (c. 9000 km). He also combined inspection tours with the extraordinary fengshan offerings 封禪 to Heaven and Earth of Mt. Taishan.

From that time on, emperors used first to bring sacrifices to Heaven, the imperial ancestors, and the grain altars (sheji 社稷, see also Hou Ji 后稷), before setting off to an inspection tour. Inspection tours in early imperial history were carried out by Emperor Guangwu 漢光武帝 (r. 25-57 CE), founder of the Later Han, Emperor Ming 魏明帝 (r. 226-239 CE) of the Wei dynasty 曹魏 (220-265), Emperor Yang 隋煬帝 (r. 604-617) of the Sui dynasty 隋 (581-618), Emperor Gaozong 唐高宗 (r. 649-683) of the Tang dynasty 唐 (618-907), and the multiple inspection tours of the Kangxi 康熙帝 (r. 1661-1722) and the Qianlong 乾隆帝 (r. 1735-1796) emperors during the Qing period 清 (1644-1911). The Manchus in particular revived the connection of hunting and inspection, and used the tours to create better ties between the ruling dynasty and the scholarly elite in the lower Yangtze region. For this reason, the inspection tours into that region were also known as "Southern Tours" (nanxun 南巡).

Li Qinde 李勤德 (1998). "Xunshou 巡狩", in Tang Jiahong 唐嘉弘, ed. Zhongguo gudai dianzhang zhidu da cidian 中國古代典章制度大辭典 (Zhengzhou: Zhongzhou guji chubanshe), 950.
Li Xiangjun 李祥俊 (1997). "Xunshou 巡狩", in Pang Pu 龐樸, ed. Zhongguo ruxue 中國儒學 (Shanghai: Dongfang chuban zhongxin), Vol. 4, 384.