Ancestor veneration in China

Qingming, tomb, ancestor veneration
Making offerings at the family tomb, Qingming festival Copyright © Dreamstime see image license

What has often been translated as ‘ancestor worship’ may be more helpfully be called ‘veneration’. The use of the word ‘worship’ immediately makes it sound more religious than it actually is. The belief is not associated with any particular Chinese religion, indeed it has remained the unchanging bedrock of Chinese tradition. Veneration of ancestors can be traced back to the rituals carried out by the dynastic rulers as far back as the Shang dynasty 3,500 years ago. Ancient Shang tombs have been found with ceramic vessels of food left for the dead. The ancient characters found on Shang 'oracle bones' confirm the widespread rituals associated with the ancestors. The Chinese classic, the 'Book of Songs' describes elaborate and emotional rituals from the Zhou dynasty. The ancient belief is that people have two souls the provides a person's physical movement while the hún is the personality and is the immortal part. Both aspects have to be properly handled after death. The 'hun' is destroyed by cremation and that is why bodies were for centuries buried and not burned. There are also shén which are helpful (ancestors of the male line) and the evil spirits guǐ which may be malevolent to other families.

China's Ancient Script

China's Ancient Script

Language

The discovery of a huge number of 'oracle bones' has added greatly to the knowledge of the origins of China's written script. It pushes back the written language to at least 3,500 years ago. Careful study of the inscriptions is still revealing information about life in Shang dynasty times.

Ancestor veneration is based on a long held belief that the ancestral spirits are monitoring the lives of their descendents from the after-life. The ancestors are kept informed of all important events in the family, especially marriages. The souls of the departed are believed to have the power to bring retribution upon the living, and so the appropriate offerings must be provided to keep them content. Importantly only men could perform the rites and this led to a higher value placed on sons rather than daughters. Without a son there was no-one to venerate the ancestors and their spirits would then bring misfortune on the remaining family. The duty went both ways, if ancestors had failed in their duty to their descendents during their lives, by not maintaining land for instance, they could be removed from the shrine and lost from the lineage. At least twice a year the family must visit the ancestral graveyard, light incense sticks and leave food and presents. Often the family would have an ancestral hall that has tablets listing all members of the extended clan or family. Ceremonies led by the clan elders pass on family traditions and make the family decisions. The most important times to visit are at Qingming festival in April and then Hungry Ghost Day in August. At Chinese New Year many Chinese people travel back to their ancestral home village which has the ancestral burial ground.

Ancestral shrine

Traditionally, every home will have a shrine dedicated to the family's ancestors. An ancestral tablet bears the names of the ancestors. Often a parcel of 'ancestral' land gave income that was used to pay for the maintenance of the shrine and the offerings. For many villages long ago, all the villagers were related and bore the same surname. The veneration of ancestors was then a communal act of solidarity and confirmation of shared heritage. Tradition has it that a part of the deceased spirit is locked in the ancestral tablet. Sometimes chicken blood was offered as sustenance to the spirit inside it. A small ancestral shrine is usually placed on the north wall of the house with incense burners around it. A mother's name is added to the inscribed list on the tablet alongside the father on her death. As it was so important to have your name inscribed on a tablet, a problem arose on the death of unmarried daughters as there was no place alongside a man on the tablet for their names to be added. Sometimes a special marriage with an unmarried, single, dead man was arranged so her name could be put on his family's tablet. Sometimes a marriage was made to a bachelor on the agreement that he would, after a brief period of mourning, marry another daughter of the same family. If these options were not possible, the unmarried daughter could pay to have her name to be added to a special tablet at a Buddhist temple.

Respect for ancestors is deeply enshrined in Confucian writings and the belief has its strongest roots in Confucianism. The rules of filial piety require that a son must honor and obey his father in all things even after death. It remained as the common shared belief even if someone believed in Buddhism, Daoism, Christianity or Islam. The veneration of ancestors caused great problems for the Jesuits when they introduced Christianity to China. The strong belief in the need for venerating the ancestors was not compatible with Christian doctrine. The missionaries decided to try to accommodate the belief within an adapted form; however the Pope in 1707 did not accept this compromise and the number of Christians soon dwindled.

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