Worship in China:
Tradition of Honoring the Departed
history of ancestor worship in China is an essential part of the development of
the countrys traditions. Indeed, it
can be argued that the Chinese government, up through the introduction of
Maoism in the 1950s, was partially based on the practices of ancestor
worship. However, the major focus of
ancestor worship in China was founded on religious principles, and it is this
aspect that shall be examined in this text.
This paper shall address the relevant aspects of ancestor worship in
Chinese history as it relates to the religions of Confucianism, Taoism, and
Buddhism, as well as traditional folk religions.
Ancestor worship can best be explored as
the veneration of the dead. While ancestor
worship takes many forms, as will be seen in this paper, the most frequent
types of ancestor worship was the demonstration of respect for deceased
relatives. Ancestor worship is founded
on the belief that when a person dies, he or she passes from this world into
the next world, or the spirit world. As the dead soul makes this transition to
the spirit world, the soul takes on qualities that separate it from the souls
found in living humans, and therefore allows the soul to be closer to the gods. Ancestor worship allows the living to
connect with these souls of the dead and that the dead will provide a measure
of protection and good fortune to the living.
Some sects believed that the souls of the departed could also inflict
harm on the enemies of the living.
Because of this, those who have died are still connected to the dead
through the force of the spirit.
The term ancestor worship was created in
1885 by Herbert Spencer, a British anthropologist who studied tribes that were
considered primitive by the standards at the time. (Antonaccio: iv)
Spencer addressed ancestor worship as a practice that was almost
barbaric: Spencer seemed to believe
that the relics of ancestor worship were barbaric. Relics were the bones, skulls, or ashes of the deceased that the
living displayed prominently. These
relics were kept by the living to remind them of their ancestors and to form a
physical bond with them that bridged the earthly world and the spirit world,
thus making the connection between the living and the dead more powerful. Spencer seemed to forget that European
societies often kept similar relics Keeping the ashes after cremation is an
example of this to remind them of the dead.
In China, ancestor worship has long been an
intrinsic element in both religion and society. Rather than strictly relying on the power of the dead, as in some
other societies that practice ancestor worship, the Chinese provided respect to
their ancestors because there was an automatic assumption that the ancestors would
watch over their descendents regardless of whether or not they were
honored. Out of respect for this
devoted service, the living in China would offer devotions to their ancestors. Over time, ancestor worship has evolved into
separate incarnations between different religious sects. In China, almost all of the sects that
practice ancestor worship have some connection with Mahayana Buddhism, the
root religion for the separate sects.
This paper shall concentrate on distinguishing the differences between
separate forms of ancestor worship according to religion.
Confucianism is a religion founded on the
teachings of the philosopher-sage Confucius (551 BC 479 BC). In the study of Confucianism, ancestor
worship was one of the fundamental tenants.
In Confucianism, the family was not seen as a simple living unit, but
rather as an entire group of the living and dead, connected through blood ties
that transversed the earthly and the spirit worlds. (Hsu: 48)
The teachings of Confucius also focused
closely on the act of honoring the elders.
Filial piety was closely structured within Confuciuss philosophies, and
this directly led to an emphasis on ancestor worship. Who better, after all, to worship than the most eldest of an
The philosophy of Confucianism was
religiously structured with specific rituals and ceremonies, and this was
extended to the practice of ancestor worship.
Every aspect of ancestor worship had to be exact! Down to the burning
of incense at a specific hour of the day.
In Confucianism, the rites and rituals of
ancestor worship wore often connected to live sacrifices. The type of animal sacrificed was supposed
to have bearing on the state of the ritual:
It was believed that the qualities of specific animals signified
different things to the ancestors.
(Frazer: 88-89) For example, while a sheep or a goat was a
larger, and therefore important, live sacrifice, the offering of a falcon or
other rare bird was supposed to signify good fortune. (Bloch: 74)
often astonishes Westerners, who believe that Confucianism is a peaceful
religion. While this is true, live
sacrifices were not considered out of the normal throughout much of the history
of China, and therefore there was no question concerning the sanctity of the
given ritual. Live sacrifices were
abolished in the Revolution of 1912, and substitutions have been made involving
food offerings instead of living animals.
One other ritual that was used in ancestor
worship in Confucianism was the act of burning incense as a means of
respect. The rituals of incense burning
has often been perverted in the West due to its great accessibility, but in
China truly excellent incense was difficult to find and was considered an
expensive rarity. Confucian temples
produced incense used strictly for religious purposes, and this was burned at
family temples and shrines as a gesture of respect for the departed ancestors.
was based on the study of the Tao, the elemental force that unites the world
with the unworld, the living with the deal, and that which is thought with that
which is substance. While some sources
believe that Taoism was begun with the teachings of the philosopher Lao-Tzu
(604 BC 664 BC), others report that Taoism is actually the manifestation of
the ancient traditional religion dating back far before the first Chinese
dynasties. If this is the case, than it
is obvious that ancestor worship has a lasting connection with Taoism, as
ancestor worship existed long before Taoism became an organized religion in
The philosophy of ancestor worship in
Taoism is distinctive from other forms of ancestor worship due to the concept
of what occurs to departed souls. When
a body dies, the spirit rejoins the Tao, or the elemental force of the
universe. When a person dies,
therefore, those who follow Taoism believe that the being has rejoined the
ultimate reality of existence. The
Tao will later spin this force out into separate forms of life, meaning that
the human spirit can become anything after death.
In relation to ancestor worship, the nature
of the human spirit and the Tao means that there is a new respect on every
aspect of existence. Since the living
are not aware of the new form that their reincarnated ancestor has taken, this
implies that anything could contain
the spirit of a loved one.
Therefore, in order to honor the ancestors
Taoists transferred this respect to every living thing. However, there were still a series of
rituals that were performed in order to provide honor as according to the
limited human senses that prevented people from knowing where their beloved
ancestors were at the present time.
Like Confucianists, the Taoists also
maintained shrines and burned sacred incense out of respect to their
ancestors. However, the shrine also
contained images of deities that were worshiped along with the ancestors, and
these deities were used, among other things, to provide a more accurate
connection with the ancestors.
One additional similarity to Confucianists
was the use of offerings to the ancestors and deities. It must be noted that sacrifice, as well as
the use of meat in general, was against the Taoist tradition so prepared foods
were used instead of live animals. The
Taoists left this food for their ancestors at intervals, then replaced the food
when it grew stale, in order to constantly provide nourishment to the ancestors
in the spirit world.
Buddhism is an Indian religion that entered
China and became an accepted religious tradition around 700 BC. This religion was separate from either
Confucianism or Taoism in terms of the rites used in the practice of ancestor
worship: Rather than having an emphasis
on the filial state as in Confucianism, or the transference of the soul, as in
Taoism, Buddhism simply accepted the role of ancestors as something positive
and worthy of respect. (Ahern: 117)
In Buddhism, the rites of ancestor worship
focus predominantly on the shrine. A
shrine was always kept in the house and was tended daily by one of the
household children. The typical
Buddhist shrine would contain a memorial tablet holding the names of the
departed ancestors and a series of platters that were designed to hold
offerings for the deceased. On specific
days of the year, these platters would be heaped with food and flowers for the
benefit of the dead.
In addition to the shrine, the family tomb
was also used as a place of worship for the dead. In China, a single tomb could contain the remains of the
departed, or relics that could be used to provide a talisman to reach the
dead. As with the shrine, offerings
could be left at the tomb, but along with food and flowers there were often
parchments inscribed with messages of well-wishing for the dead.
Finally, the folk traditions in ancestor
worship must be described. As noted,
folk traditions have some tentative connection with the Taoist philosophy and
this is reflected in several of the rituals, but what differs are the primitive
methods of ancestor worship. Due to the
size of China and the differences in specific sects over distances, this
section is quite general.
Many of the practices of ancestor worship
in the folk traditions of China dealt with maintaining some connection with the
dead. (Bloch: 64-65) As the tribes of
China were primarily nomadic for hundreds of generations, the evolution of
ancestor worship involved keeping a relic from the deceased. Depending on the tribe, this relic could
either be a prized possession of the deceased or a part of the body. Skulls and femurs were common for their
impressive size and implied significance to the ancestor. These relics were sometimes offered food and
drink, in the hopes that the ancestor was neither hungering nor thirsting in
the spirit world.
It should be stated that the more primitive
aspects of ancestor worship tended to focus on drawing the ancestors for
specific intents, as well as honoring them.
The spirits were called to attack enemies or to shelter friends and
family. One notable community in southwest
China performed extensive ceremonies that involved painting the body with
decorations designed to call the attention of the spirits to aid them. (Antonaccio: 247)
This paper has demonstrated that four
specific traditions in China all promote ancestor worship as a primary element
of their religious structure. The four
traditions are Confucianism, Taoism, Buddhism, and selected folk
religions. These traditions vary in
terms of how ancestor worship is performed; yet similarities can be seen
throughout. The most obvious example is
the offering, or the attempt to provide earthly goods to those who have
passed into the spirit world. These
similarities serve to emphasize the Chinese proverb that “Birth is not a
beginning, and death is not an end.”, as even after death the ancestors
are provided with honor and respect.
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