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published: 1/20/05
updated: 12/16/13

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Chinese Ancestor Worship




What is Ancestor Worship?


Ancestor painting, Qing Dynasty

"The Chinese have always been interested in their past -- worship of ancestors is worship of origins." (Heinz 1999:225)

Ancestor worship (also called ancestor veneration) is a ritual practice that is based on the belief that deceased family members have a continued existence, take an interest in the affairs of the world, and possess the ability to influence the fortune of the living. Early forms of ancestor worship were deeply rooted and extensively developed by the Late Neolithic Period in China. The goal of ancestor worship is to ensure the ancestors' continued well-being and positive disposition towards the living and sometimes to ask for special favors or assistance. The social or nonreligious function of ancestor worship is "to cultivate kinship values like filial piety, family loyalty, and continuity of the family lineage." (Yang 1957:278)





Ancestor Worship: Funerals, the Mourning Period and the Home Altar

Rituals of ancestor worship most commonly consist of offerings to the deceased to provide for their welfare in the afterlife, which is envisioned as being similar to the earthly life. Ancestor worship begins at the deceased kin's funeral, at which necessities like a toothbrush, comb, towel, shoes, water, or even a computer are placed in the coffin or burned as a sacrifice.

After the funeral, daily or twice-daily offerings are made to ensure the family member gets a good start in the afterlife. Necessities and luxuries, like the deceased's favorite foods, wine, and small sums of money, are placed on the altar in bowls or burned in front of the altar. The money is usually symbolic pieces of paper called "spirit money," not real bills. Fruits and vegetables are the preferred foods for offerings; meats are avoided because of their association with killing. Statues representing servants or other necessities for the afterlife are also placed on or near the altar. Family members also bow in respect before the altar.

After a family member's funeral, Chinese families set up a home altar for the purpose of ancestor worship. The altar normally include a portrait or photograph of the ancestor, a commemorative plaque and cups for offerings. Altars are usually taken down after 49 days, the period during which the deceased is believed to be undergoing judgment. This belief is influenced by the Mahayana Buddhist idea of the Bardo, an intermediate period between death and rebirth. After the 49-day period, the deceased is worshipped along with all the other ancestors of the family.

Regular Ancestor Worship

After the home altar is taken down, the ancestors are believed to dwell in commemorative tablets. Ancestral tablets are pieces of wood inscribed with the name and dates of the deceased. They are kept in a small shrine at home and in the clan ancestral temple. Incense is lit before the tablets daily and offerings of food and prostrations are presented twice a month.

Chinese weddings and funerals often include elaborate rituals honoring deceased family members. Periodical rites are also performed at the family cemetary and ancestor worship is central to the annual Ghost Festival and Tomb Sweeping Festival.




References

  1. "China." Encyclopædia Britannica. 2005. Encyclopædia Britannica Premium Service. <http://www.britannica.com/eb/article?tocId=71622>
  2. "sacrifice." Encyclopædia Britannica. 2005. Encyclopædia Britannica Premium Service. <http://www.britannica.com/eb/article?tocId=66322>
  3. W.A.P. Martin, The Worship of Ancestors," Eva March Tappan, ed., The World's Story: A History of the World in Story, Song and Art, Vol. I (Houghton Mifflin, 1914), pp. 153-54. Online at Internet Modern History Sourcebook.
  4. "Ancestor Worship Today." Online exhibition, Smithsonian Institute
  5. The Ancestor Cult in Ancient China. British Museum.
  6. Ancestor Worship Topic - Questia Online Library
  7. "Chinese Respect Their Ancestors." Panama News.

Books on Chinese Ancestor Worship

  • Bary, Wm. Theodore de, with Wing-tsit Chan and Burton Watson, Sources of Chinese Tradition (Columbia UP, 1960).
  • Ching, Julia, Chinese Religions (Orbis Books, 1993).
  • Heinz, Carolyn Brown, Asian Cultural Traditions (Waveland Press, Inc., 1999).
  • Keightley, David N., Heritage of China. Early Civilizations in China: Reflections of How It Became Chinese. Paul S. Ropp, ed. (University of California Press, Ltd., 1990), pp. 15-54.
  • Latourette, Kenneth Scott, The Chinese: Their History and Culture. (The Macmillan Company, 1964).
  • Soothill, W. E., The Three Religions of China (Hyperion Press, Inc., 1923).
  • Yang, C. K., Chinese Thought and Institutions. The Functional Relationship Between Confucian Thought and Chinese Religion. John K. Fairbank, ed. (The University of Chicago Press, 1957) pp. 269-290.
Chinese Ancestor Worship