Burning joss sticks (incense) and offering food are traditional practices meant to please gods and ancestors. PHOTO BY JOAN LEBOLD COHEN.
Devotees of nearly every religious tradition in China participate in ancestor worship, the rituals in which one commemorates, communicates with, or makes sacrifices to one’s deceased relatives. It is among the oldest and most enduring of Chinese religious practices.
Ancestor worship is the ritualized commemoration of, communication with, and sacrifice to one’s deceased relations. Even though the cult of ancestors frequently has been described as Confucian, devotees of nearly every religious tradition in China practice ancestor worship. Indeed, it is among the oldest and most enduring of Chinese religious practices, and whether Chinese participate in ancestor worship may function as an indicator of their “Chinese-ness.” For this reason Chinese Muslims and Christians, who historically have eschewed ancestor worship on doctrinal grounds, sometimes have faced questions about the authenticity of their ethnic or national identities.
Through the influence of Confucianism on China’s neighboring cultures, Chinese norms for venerating deceased kin have spread across east Asia. In spite of repressions of traditional religious activity in mainland China and forceful trends toward modernization and secularization throughout east Asia, ancestor worship remains a vital component of community life in China, its surrounding region, and throughout the worldwide Chinese diaspora.
The earliest known Chinese writings document the practice of ancestor worship among the rulers of the Shang dynasty (1766–1045 BCE). Shang court diviners used oracle bones (jiagu), cattle scapulas, and turtle plastrons heated over a fire to pose questions to Shang royal ancestors, to whom they erected temples and offered sacrifices. Shang ancestor cult and Shang divination shared a common purpose: to maintain harmonious relations between this world and the next for the benefit of the human community. The questions or charges (mingci) inscribed on oracle bones were formulated as possible outcomes of a current situation: “In the next ten days, there will perhaps be no disasters.” “Today it will not rain.” Some charges concern the ancestor worship itself: “On the next day, we should not make offering to Ancestor Yi.” Shang diviners and their royal patrons seem to have believed that ancestors, as former human beings, maintained some interest in mortal affairs and that they were more approachable, intelligible, and consistent than other supernatural agents—such as deities of natural forces or entities, or Shang Di, the “High God,” who may have been an amalgamation of long-deceased kings—who were more remote, mysterious, and capricious. Even so, the content of Shang charges indicates that the ancestors were blamed for misfortune as well as credited with blessings.
Both sacrifices to and consultations of ancestral spirits were coordinated according to a bureaucratic calendar regulated by the state. It is unknown whether Shang commoners consulted their deceased kin or otherwise participated in ancestor worship, but the ubiquity of the practice in almost all later Chinese cultural history suggests that they did. What is clear is the powerful and persistent link between two perennial Chinese religious concerns, the relationship of the living with the dead (ancestor worship), and the significance of the past and present for the future (divination). Shang ancestor worship also unified for the first time what would become two important strands of Chinese religious life: kinship hierarchy and state bureaucracy. As the Shang lost power to the Zhou dynasty (1045–256 BCE), royal divination and sacrifice to royal ancestors continued, but increasingly divination on behalf of the ruler became decoupled from the ancestors and linked to more impersonal cosmic processes. By the late Warring States period (475–221 BCE), Chinese discourse about divination tended to focus on cosmological forces such as yin (dark, female, moist, receptive energies) and yang (lucid, male, arid, active energies), the moral qualities of the diviner, or both. Yet ancestor worship remained a vital part of Chinese life.
While adherents of nearly every Chinese religious movement or philosophical school during Warring States seem to have practiced ancestor worship, the Confucians made it the focal point of their moral and spiritual message. The Confucian anthology known as the Lunyu (Analects) records several sayings of Confucius (Kongzi, c. 551–479 BCE) on the importance of reverence (jing) for one’s ancestors: “Observe what a person has in mind to do when his father is alive, and then observe what he does when his father is dead. If, for three years, he makes no changes to his father’s ways, he can be said to be a good son” (Analects 1:11). Subsequent Confucian texts all refer to ancestor worship approvingly and commend it as a means of cultivating the virtue of filial piety (xiao) as well as instilling harmonious relations in society. It is not always clear whether classical Confucian authors maintain belief in the supernatural existence or power of ancestors, but their reverence for ancestor worship as a core element in the spiritual life is unambiguous.
With the rise of the Han dynasty (206 BCE–220 CE), which soon endorsed Confucianism as its official ideology, ancestor worship was incorporated into the systematic thought of the period, which both embraced cosmological notions about yin and yang and tended to project the bureaucratic structure of this world onto the next. Accordingly, human beings were thought to possess two distinct souls or spiritual essences. One, the hun, was identified with yang; light, ethereal, and intellectual, it was said to ascend and become an ancestor (zu) at death. By contrast, one’s po soul—dark, gravid, and sensual—was supposed to remain with the entombed corpse and become a ghost (gui). Rites for the dead then became ways in which to guarantee that the deceased’s hun and po separated properly and reached their appointed destinations. If family members displeased the dead or performed funerary rituals inadequately, they risked prompting the gui to leave the grave and wander, wreaking havoc on the living. Conversely, the failure to maintain reverence through ancestor worship could inspire the zu to abandon its advocacy for the living within the complex celestial bureaucracy envisioned by Han writings.
Archaeological and art-historical evidence suggests that, by the end of the Han dynasty, persons at nearly all levels of Chinese society regularly worshipped their ancestors. The goal of ancestor worship became ensuring that one’s dead relations did indeed become ancestors, rather than ghosts: supernatural powers that were benevolent and remote, rather than malevolent and proximate. On this point it is important to note that, beginning with Han texts, ancestors can be described as shen (spirits), a term that also means “gods.” Indeed, the boundary between ancestors and deities is fluid, such that some ancestors became gods over time through promotion within the celestial bureaucracy.
Along with the ideas of afterlife and goals of ancestor ritual, these Han-era concepts represent all but one impo
rtant element in subsequent Chinese ancestor worship. That final element was contributed by Buddhism, which was introduced to China sometime around the middle of the Han dynasty. Emerging from a quite different religious milieu than that of ancient China, Buddhism brought the notion of karmic retribution—whereby one’s deeds, or misdeeds, conditioned the quality of one’s rebirths in a cyclical existence—to the many Chinese who were disenchanted with Confucianism as its fortunes faded with the collapse of the Han dynasty in the third century. Chinese converts to Buddhism who took monastic vows were accused of betraying their families and abandoning their ritual obligations to ancestors. Citing the doctrine of karma, many responded by arguing that their entrance into monastic life could only benefit their families and honor their ancestors by bringing karmic merit to both. As Buddhism wove itself into the fabric of Chinese culture, this argument proved persuasive to all but the most doctrinaire Confucians. And as sectarian Daoist movements proliferated between the Han and Tang (618–907 CE) dynasties, these too presented their rites and institutions as ways of serving the ancestors, even as they also catered to quite personal concerns, such as individual immortality.
Despite the widespread practice of ancestor worship in ancient and medieval China, formalized ancestor cult was confined largely to the ruling classes through the Tang dynasty. It was not until the Confucian revival of the Song dynasty (960–1279) that elite practices, such as detailed genealogical record keeping and the construction of temples dedicated solely to ancestor worship, became part of everyday life for commoners.
Observance for All
Song emperors, who relied upon Confucian scholars to help stabilize and legitimize their regime, listened when Confucian thinkers such as Cheng Yi (1033–1107) advocated genealogical research and ancestral temples for nonelites. Later Confucian reformers, such as Zhu Xi (1130–1200), devised ritual manuals that helped formalize and popularize ancestor worship among the lower classes. By the end of the Southern Song period (1127–1279), ancestor worship according to canonical Confucian procedures could be found at nearly all levels of Chinese society. As the Song regime lost prestige and territory to non-Chinese powers—such as the Jurchen peoples, who overthrew Song rule in northern China in 1127, or the Mongols, who defeated the final Song emperor’s forces in 1279 and ruled China as the Yuan dynasty until 1368—ancestor worship became one way in which to bolster Chinese ethnic and national self-confidence.
The unprecedented creation and distribution of wealth during the Song prompted the development of a new role for ancestor worship: safeguarding property claims. Detailed genealogies furnished the basis of a family’s ancestral rolls. These could, in turn, be used to certify a family’s claim to estates or trade monopolies. Thus, at the dawn of the modern era, as China became one of the world’s most prosperous nations, ancestor worship and its related practices proved crucial for the maintenance and transmission of prosperity.
By the late imperial period (from the founding of the Ming dynasty in 1368 to the fall of the Qing dynasty in 1912), ancestor worship had attained the form in which it is found today. Using genealogical records kept by senior members, families memorialize deceased kin using name plaques or tablets placed on home altars or in family temples. In some rural villages, in which most residents share a common family name, the primary venue of ancestor worship may be a public temple. Offerings of incense, cooked rice, or fresh fruit are made to ancestors who remain within living memory, usually only those of the last two or three generations. Popular understandings suggest that, much like the deceased kings consulted by Shang royal diviners, the power and willingness of ancestors to assist the living declines as the generational gap between them widens. Over time, as ancestors recede from the consciousness of the living, their name plaques or tablets are ritually burned.
While ancestor worship may take place daily, the two occasions in the Chinese ritual year in which it is most prominent are the Ghost-Feeding Festival (Zhongyuanjie or Yulanpen), which is celebrated in late summer, and the Clear and Bright Festival (Qingmingjie), which is celebrated in early spring. Zhongyuanjie is observed on the thirteenth day of the seventh lunar month, which in turn is known as Ghost Month (Guiyue) because it is at this time that the spirits of the dead are supposed to wander the earth. Both Buddhist and Daoist elements are prominent in the celebration of this festival, which commemorates the rescue of a suffering mother in an undesirable realm of rebirth by her filial son. In addition to Buddhist and Daoist liturgies for the relief of ancestors suffering in their rebirths, Zhongyuanjie features the offering of items such as paper houses, clothing, consumer commodities, and elaborate meals to the ancestors. During Qingmingjie, popularly known as Tomb-Sweeping Day, families visit and clean their ancestors’ burial places, conduct worship services, and share festive meals. Thus during Zhongyuanjie the dead visit the living, and during Qingmingjie the living seek out the dead.
A Lasting Practice
Like other emblems of traditional Chinese religious life, ancestor worship was the target of severe criticism and persecution when Communist leader Mao Zedong (1893–1976) was in power. During the Cultural Revolution (1966–1976), in particular, popular domestic rituals, such as ancestor worship, were suppressed by the state, and community venues for ancestor worship, such as village temples, were destroyed or used for secular purposes. The traditional practice of burying one’s dead was condemned in favor of cremation. Cemeteries were converted to agricultural uses. Zealous young students supervised the burning of home altars and ancestral tablets.
The death of Mao relaxed, but did not end, government censure of ancestor worship. The Eleventh Party Congress of 1979 proclaimed that, although “certain long-standing activities such as ancestor worship” were “a kind of superstition,” henceforth they would not be proscribed “as long as they do not affect collective political and economic activities,” and that the government placed its faith in “patient persuasion and lasting education in science, culture, and atheism” to root out such practices eventually.
Since the 1980s, both public and private ancestor worship have become more prominent in mainland China, and these practices have remained strong in Hong Kong and Taiwan, as well as in overseas Chinese communities.
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Drain the pond to get all the fish.
Jié zé ér yú.
Source: Richey, Jeffrey L. (2009). Ancestor Worship. In Linsun Cheng, et al. (Eds.), Berkshire Encyclopedia of China, pp. 55–60. Great Barrington, MA: Berkshire Publishing.
A Buddhist temple offering. The altar holds an incense burner, a lotus candle for eternal life, fruit, flowers, and wine, as well as special prayers for ancestors. PHOTO BY JOAN LEBOLD COHEN.
Home altar for the God of Good Fortune and the ancestors with offerings of money, incense, two kinds of liquor, and oranges. The money is for use in the afterlife, the food and drink are to feed the hungry ghost ancestors. The statue of the God and the offerings sit on a traditional altar table made of fine wood and decorated with handsome provincial-style carvings. PHOTO BY TOM CHRISTENSEN
A southern Chinese-style traditional hillside grave set in a mountainside with favorable feng shui. The term feng shui (literally, wind and water) is the art of divining from which direction good spirits come, those that will protect you from harm, both here and in the afterlife. PHOTO BY JOAN LEBOLD COHEN.
Ancestor Worship (Jìdiàn zǔxiān 祭奠祖先)|Jìdiàn zǔxiān 祭奠祖先 (Ancestor Worship)