In China and other places, special reverence is accorded a family's ancestors. This practice, known as the family cult or cult of the ancestors, is derived from the belief that after death the spirits of the departed continued to influence the world of the living. The soul is believed to become restless and likely to exert an unfavorable influence on the living, unless it was venerated in the expected manner. [Source: Library of Congress *]
Hsiang-ming kung wrote in the “International Encyclopedia of Marriage and Family”: The cult of the ancestors is no mere supernatural cult. It lays stress on those moral aspects of the family that tend towards unity and good order. A young and incapable son is fed, clothed, and housed by his parents. As he grows up, he begins to take the same care of his parents. A parent's death merely alters the form of the duty. The transfer of goods from this world to the next is achieved primarily by burning symbolic paper models. Food, on the other hand, can be offered directly. As the annual Grave-sweeping (qing-ming) festival in early April arrives, it is the duty of the living descendants to weed and clean up the grave-sites of the ancestors. The ceremony not only serves to keep family solidarity alive; it also enhances the authority of the family head. In the case of a daughter, the reciprocity is performed to her husband's parents. “It is believed that the ancestor's real power begins when he dies. At that moment, he is transformed into a spirit of powers. The spirit ancestors depend on their descendants for food and a comfortable life after death, in the form of sacrifices. The descendants, meanwhile, need the supernatural support in return for the sacrifices and service. [Source: Hsiang-ming kung, “International Encyclopedia of Marriage and Family”, Gale Group Inc., 2003]
Ancestor worship is found in many forms in cultures throughout the world, Veneration of ancestors is regarded as a means through which an individual can assure his or her own immortality. Children are valued because they could provide for the spirits of their parents after death. Family members who remained together and venerated their forebears with strict adherence to prescribed ritual find comfort in the belief that the souls of their ancestors are receiving proper spiritual nourishment and that they are insuring their own soul's nourishment after death. *
Ancestor worship is perhaps the world's oldest religion. Some anthropologists theorize that it grew out of belief in some societies that dead people still exist in some form because they appear in dreams. Ancestor worship involves the belief that the dead live on as spirits and that it is the responsibility of their family members and descendants to make sure that are well taken care of. If they are not they may come back and cause trouble to the family members and descendants that have ignored or disrespcted them. Unhappy dead ancestors are greatly feared and every effort is made to make sure they are comfortable in the afterlife. Accidents and illnesses are often attributed to deeds performed by the dead and cures are often attempts to placate them. In some societies, people go out of their way to be nice to one another, especially older people, out of fear of the nasty things they might do when they die.
Good Websites and Sources: Traditional Religion in China: Wikipedia article Wikipedia ; Religion Facts religionfacts.com; Video: “Ancestor Worship, Confucian Teaching, featuring Myron L. Cohen Asia for Educators, Columbia University afe.easia.columbia.edu;
Ancestor Worship in China
Ancestor worship is very deeply rooted in China and still very much alive today. It has long been a key religious belief and practice in China. According to Columbia University’s Asia for Educators: “No ritual or institution did more to reinforce the solidarity of the family system in traditional Chinese society than ancestor veneration (also called “ancestor worship” or “the cult of the dead”), and none was taken more seriously by both society and the state. [Source: adapted from Chapter 7 of China’s Cultural Heritage: The Qing Dynasty, 1644-1912, by Richard J. Smith; Asia for Educators, Columbia University afe.easia.columbia]
“The basic premise in ancestor veneration was that the soul of a departed family member consisted of a yin component known as the po (associated with the grave) and a yang component known as the hun (associated with the ancestral tablet). According to one popular conception, these basic components became three separate “souls,” each demanding ritual attention: one soul went to the grave with the body; one soul went to the Ten Courts of Judgment (also called the Ten Courts of Hell) and was eventually reborn; and one soul remained in or near the ancestral tablet on the family altar. Po had the potential of becoming gui if unplacated by sacrifices, but the spirits of one’s own ancestors were not generally considered to be gui. One’s own naturally became shen, assuming they received proper ritual attention.
It has been said spirituality in China emanates from the family not a church or temple. Some Chinese attribute poor weather to unhappy ancestors, so prayers are said and special ceremonies are performed so the dead will use their influence to bring good weather and enough rain to produce a good harvest. Sometimes property is still believed to be in the procession of dead ancestors, and before a piece of property or a family possession is sold, the dead are consulted through special ceremonies. One Chinese man told AFP that the Chinese "believe their ancestors are still watching them, unlike the Western Christian belief that their ancestors go to heaven and that's the end of it."
Confucianism and Ancestor Worship
According to Columbia University’s Asia for Educators: “In the eyes of the orthodox Confucians, ancestor veneration was considered to be essentially a secular rite without religious implications. Deemed to be nothing more than the “expression of human feelings,” mourning and other ritual observances expressed love and respect for the dead and at the same time cultivated the virtues of filial piety, loyalty, and faithfulness. Ancestor veneration was a standard means of “honoring virtue and repaying merit” (chongde baogong), in the stock Chinese phrase. The Confucian gentleman sacrificed to his ancestors because it was the proper thing to do; lesser men did so to “serve the spirits.” [C. K. Yang in “Chinese Thought and Intuitions,” ed. John K. Fairbank (Chicago, 1957), p. 276.] [Source: Asia for Educators, Columbia University afe.easia.columbia.edu/cosmos ]
“This attitude was consistent with the general neo-Confucian tendency to encourage rational and secular interpretations of otherworldly phenomena. In neo-Confucian literature, for example, the popular religious terms gui and shen became expressly identified as the abstract forces of yin and yang. Official religion was justified at least in part as a means of motivating the masses to perform acts of Confucian piety. Sections on religion in local gazetteers often quoted the following commentary to the Yijing, attributed to Confucius himself: “The sages devised guidance in the name of the gods, and [the people of] the land became obedient.” Even the employment of priests, geomancers, and other religious agents by elite households could be explained away as matters of habit, female indulgence, or a kind of filial insurance for ancestors in case the popular Buddhist version of the afterlife happened to be correct. [Ibid., p. 227; see also Holmes Welch, The Practice of Chinese Buddhism, 1900-1950 (Cambridge, Mass., 1967), pp. 181-85; Timothy Brook, “Funerary Ritual and the Building of Lineages in Late Imperial China,” Harvard Jounral of Asiatic Studies 49 (1989). Jordan Paper, “‘Riding on a White Cloud’: Aesthetics as Religion in China,” Religion 15 (1985), p. 3, offers the intriguing suggestion that in china “aesthetic activity... became an alternative mode of religiosity for the traditional elite.”]
“But where did Confucian “rationalism” end and popular “superstition” begin? Although popular religion reflected the social landscape of its adherents, it was still in many ways “a variation of the same [elite] understanding of the world.” The “Heaven” of the Chinese literati may have been remote and impersonal, but it could reward Confucian virtue and punish vice in the same spirit as the Jade Emperor and his agents; and the omens and avenging ghosts of popular vernacular literature had their supernatural counterparts in the official dynastic histories. [See Myron Cohen, “Being Chinese: The Peripheralization of Traditional Identity,” Daedalus 120:2 (1991), esp. pp. 117-23; Richard J. Smith, Fortune-tellers and Philosophers: Divination in Traditional Chinese Society (Boulder and Oxford, 1991), esp pp. 265-66; P. Steven Sangren, History and Magical Power in a Chinese Community (Stanford, 1987), esp. pp. 191 ff.]
Dr. Robert Eno of Indiana University wrote: “The guilty ancestor, Pan-geng, was a revered figure for the Classical Chinese, who knew of him through a moral speech included in the “Book of Documents” that he was said to have made at the time he moved the Shang capital to Yin. What would they have thought if they had known that he spent his free postmortem time digging cavities in his nephew’s teeth!” [Source: Robert Eno, Indiana University, Chinatxt chinatxt /+/]
Ancestor Worship in One Chinese Family
Describing ancestor traditions in his family. Taiwan-born Chinese-American Chihoung Chen told his son, Leon Chen: We would offer food. We would burn three incense sticks, and kneel and kowtow three times. After each time, we would pour more wine to our ancestors. Then we would go outside and burn paper money, and pour wine around the burning paper money. [Source: interview of Chihoung Chen conducted by his son, Leon Chen; Freer Gallery of Art]
The worship was typically held in an ancestral hall in the large family house. The ancestral hall was “a special building used to worship ancestors. It housed the portraits and ancestral tablets. Normally, it would be used as a place for kids to learn, because schools weren't very common. Family meetings were also held there. This hall is pretty important. In the past, the ceremonies are a form of education. The kids would learn respect for their elders. The worship ceremonies were pretty important. But after the family sense split, the worship ceremonies would become more simplified. Our family tried to maintain as much as possible, so you would be able to pass it on to your children. To me, the process itself is a kind of education. It teaches you to respect where your coming from and to take the responsibility to pass the moral standard to the next generation.
If a family didn't have portraits, then they would take a paper with that person's Sign, which is the person's year, month, date, and time of birth, and use it to represent that person. For example, you were born in 1985, so your year would be represented by 1985. In China, they say that there is a time that is necessary for a person to be born. If a person's body can't be found, then their Sign would be used to represent them.
Ancestor Veneration Temples and Communal Houses
The cult required an ancestral home or patrimony, a piece of land legally designated as a place devoted to the support of venerated ancestors. Ownership of land that could be dedicated to the support of the cult was, however, only a dream for most landless farmers. The cult also required a senior male of direct descent to oversee preparations for obligatory celebrations and offerings. [Source: Library of Congress *]
Ancestor Veneration Temples: Temples for the veneration of ancestors have traditionally been a vital part of the Chinese scene. Due to the influence of Confucianism, there used to be a number of temples where Chinese went for worship and pray to the spirits of deceased ancestors. Each temple is dedicated the spirits of the ancestors. As a rule, these temples do not have Buddhas or Buddhist symbolism; but are richly ornamented in Chinese designs, and contain altars covered with items acceptable to this type of worship (incense burners, candles, pictures of the deceased etc.). Many were destroyed during the Cultural Revolution.
A communal house is often the place where memorial tables to the deceased are stored; and is the location for occasional ceremonies of the clan, tribe, or village. The pagoda or temple, the Communal House, and the market place have traditionally been the three most important places in a village or community.
Ancestor Worship Rites
Home ancestor altar Candles are regularly lit and offerings are made at ancestral shrines and graves, which are often visited during holidays. On the anniversary of an ancestor's death, rites are performed before the family altar to the god of the house, and sacrificial offerings are made to both the god and the ancestor. The lavishness of the offering traditionally depended on the income of the family and on the rank of the deceased within the family. A representative of each family in the lineage was expected to be present, even if this meant traveling great distances. Whenever there was an occasion of family joy or sorrow, such as a wedding, an anniversary, success in an examination, a promotion, or a funeral, the ancestors were informed through sacrificial offerings. [Source: Library of Congress]
When people die, their families honor their ancestors on the day of their death by performing special ceremonies at home or at temples and by burning incense and fake money for the one who died. The Chinese believed that by burning incense, their ancestors could protect them and their family from danger and harm. Days before the ceremony starts, the family has to get ready, because they won't have enough time to get ready when the guests arrive and the ceremony starts. Usually the women cook and prepare many special kinds of food, like chicken, ham, pork, rice, and many more including desserts. [Source: Vietnam-culture.com vietnam-culture.com /*/]
While the women are busy cooking, the men are busy fixing up and cleaning up the house, so it won't be messy and dirty because of all the relatives of the person that died will come for the ceremony and show honor and respect to that person. Families venerated their ancestors with special religious rituals. The houses of the wealthy were constructed of brick, with tile roofs. Those of the poor were bamboo and thatch. Rice was staple food for the vast majority, garnished with vegetables and, for those who could afford it, meat and fish. /*/
Describing a ritual performed in a temple of the Capital True Buddhist Society in Spencerville, Maryland, the Freer Gallery of Art reported: “Food was burned as an offering to any ancestral spirits in the area, while chanting invited the spirits to the "feast." Offerings for the ancestors' spirits were made in front of the grave. A small slit was for incense. The big characters in the middle say "father" and "mother." The right side tells birth and death dates. On the left are names of family members. Inside the box are the ashes of the deceased. [Source: Freer Gallery of Art asia.si.edu ^^]
Ancestor Worship Altar and Objects
Offerings to ancestors Ancestors are generally honored and appeased with daily and seasonal offerings and rituals. Pictures of dead relatives are featured on family alters in many Chinese homes, where religious rituals and prayers are regularly performed.Candles are regularly lit and offerings are made at ancestral shrines and graves, which are often visited during holidays.
The family altar is often the focus of ancestor veneration. Normally altars are taken down forty-nine days after the person's death, because the altar was used by the family for paying respects to the recently deceased during the forty-nine-day period, when the spirit of the deceased is going through judgment. This is the place where people bow (or kowtow) to the deceased. [Source: Gloria Huang, April 2001, Freer Gallery of Art asia.si.edu ^^]
The Funerary urn with the ashes of the deceased may be kept on the table for ancestor worship for many years. Fruit baskets and food offerings are often placed on this table. The fruit and bowls of food are offerings made to the deceased to earn the soul merits. They consist of foods that the deceased enjoyed eating in his or her lifetime. The food offerings are usually replaced daily, but fruits can be left on the altar for a little while longer. Offerings of fruits, vegetables, and other vegetarian foods are preferred; meats are avoided because they symbolize the killing of animals. These symbols strongly reflect the Buddhist religion. [Source: Mike Liu, ^^]
The portrait of the deceased on the altar lets mourners see an image of their loved one. In earlier times, portraits like the ones displayed in the Worshiping the Ancestors exhibition took the place of these small portraits. In the past, only wealthy families and members of the imperial court could afford elaborate commemorative portraits. In modern times, a photograph is a common replacement for an expensive commemorative portrait. ^^
The plaque under the portrait shows the name of the deceased person. These plaques usually give the name of the deceased and a short inscription, perhaps an epitaph of some sort. The larger, red object is another plaque. Instead of having inscriptions dedicated to the person depicted in the portrait, the larger plaque shows the family name or names of past ancestors. Memorial altars may include either of the two plaques or both. ^^
The money stacked off to the side is also an offering made to the soul of the deceased for use in the afterlife. The Chinese perceive the afterlife to be similar to real life. Since the deceased loved ones only recently arrived in the afterlife, they need money to help them get started. Much like the food offerings, wine is placed on the altar for the benefit of the late family member's soul. During the funeral, more important necessities, paper symbols of money, clothing, and shoes, and today, even computers, are sacrificed. Daily luxuries, including food, wine, and small sums of money, are offered during the mourning period.
Chinese Spirit Tablets
Instead of having an ancestor altars, some families pay to have ancestral tablets set up in temples, where priests pray to the deceased every day. Some temples in Hong Kong charge up to $30,000 for a tablet set in a prime spot.
According to the Museum of Anthropology at the University of Missouri: “Chinese religion, with its complex blend of Confucianism, Taoism, Buddhism, and folk traditions, involves a wide variety of practices and related paraphernalia. Spirit tablets are one type of ritual object commonly seen in temples and shrines and on household altars. Usually of wood, these small plaques bear inscriptions honoring ancestors, gods, and other important figures. [Source: Museum of Anthropology, University of Missouri]
“Throughout China, ancestors have traditionally been worshipped with sacrifices, shrines, and ancestor tablets. Ancestor tablets vary in size and shape in different parts of the country, but typically consist of a one- or two-piece tablet set up on a pedestal. The tablets are inscribed with the title and name of the deceased, dates of birth and death, and additional information such as place of burial and the name of the son who erects the tablet.
“The customs involved in installing ancestor tablets in the family shrine also vary by region, although there are some common practices. Often two tablets are made – one of paper and one of wood. A ceremony takes place in which the ancestor’s spirit is transferred to the wooden tablet. Once the transfer is successful, the paper tablet is either burned or buried with the dead person. After the funeral service, the tablet is taken back to the family’s house and housed in a shrine. There are usually three shrines for ancestor tablets per house. The center shrine is reserved for the primary family ancestor, or Shin Chu, who is placed in the middle of the shrine. The rest of the middle shrine is filled with the next most important family members. All the other male family members’ tablets are housed in the other two shrines; occasionally their wives’ tablets join them.
“In addition to ancestor tablets, there are also spirit tablets devoted to the host of deities that preside over the cosmos. These are placed in temples or wayside shrines and serve to honor these figures and to protect the community. This online exhibit presents ancestor tablets and general spirit tablets collected in China in the early 20th century.”
Respect for Ancestors
In a discussion about ancestors, Yeong-Tsuey Uang said: “The stories were about where my family originated. During the Tai Ping Revolution, the rebels attacked Anhui, and so my ancestors fled to Zhejiang. Afterwards, my family stayed at Zhejiang. One of my ancestors was a government official, but he was very poor because he wasn't very greedy. [Source: Interview with Yeong-Tsuey Uang conducted by Vicky Chen, Freer Gallery of Art asia.si.edu ^^]
“We did most of our ancestor worship during New Years, and Grave Sweeping Day. We would cook food and place it on the table, and we had six chairs around the table. We also had six glasses of wine, six bowls and six pairs of chopsticks. We also lit incense, and the eldest male leads the ancestor worship. Our family bowed instead of kowtow. After bowing, we would give rice and wine to the ancestors. We burned paper money after three bowings and three offerings. Which is usually after the incenses burned halfway. We would burn the incense with the paper money, and we would pour the wine around the paper money. The females never led the worship. We did the same during Grave Sweeping Day.
“When I was growing up, I was exposed to how my parents acted, which affects how I act daily. I may act according to Chinese traditions unknowingly. I think that the meaning behind Chinese traditions is important, such as family relationships and morals, and the procedures in how these traditions are carried out aren't as important as the meaning.” On teaching ancestor ceremonies and rituals to his children, he said: “If they are willing to learn, then I will teach it to them; if not, I won't force them to learn.”
Ancestor Worship Memories
Joe Chou, said: "Growing up in Taiwan, our holidays always included ancestor worship. When my grandmother passed away, I had to lead the funeral procession because I was the eldest grandson. I remember carrying a white flag with script written on it, and a bucket containing a coin, a steel nail, and rice. I don't remember what these items symbolized, but I knew that they were important to the service. At home, my family set up an altar for my grandmother. For myself, I think that Chinese tradition is important to Chinese-Americans because you have to have a way to remember your ancestors. In these practices, you should dissolve those negative feelings toward the deceased and use the opportunity to pay respect. Even though my own children are still young, I want to teach them about Chinese traditions. In the United States, they have the opportunity to learn about other cultures. As Chinese in America, we try to bridge the gap between the two countries and pass on the good parts from China.” [Source: Joe Chou, April 2001, ^^]
Recounting a childhood memory, Teresa Kan said: "It's morning again, and it's time to worship our ancestors. My mom is lighting the incense sticks and putting them into a small pot filled with rice, which allows the sticks to stand up. They are about the size of sparklers used for fireworks. Mom usually burns three sticks at one time. She places the pot in front of the ancestral tablet that contains all of my family's names. Then we sit in front, peacefully, and watch the incense sticks burn. They give off a nice aroma which fills the entire house. We often kowtow toward the tablet to show our respect for the ancestors." [Source: Teresa Kan April 2001, ^^]
Preference for Males in Ancestor Worship Ceremonies
Chihoung Chen told his son Leon Chen: "The Chinese tradition has a tendency to prefer men over women. It is always a male relative who performs important tasks in the family. The parents see the male as the carrier of the next generation of the family. During the funeral of the parents, it is always the eldest male who is needed to perform the ceremony. Along with the eldest male, the rest of the family dress in white rags, to make themselves seem poor and dirty. I think that men and women should have equal rights, much like here in America. The traditions of China and the U.S. should be mixed." [Source: interview of Chihoung Chen conducted by his son, Leon Chen; Freer Gallery of Art asia.si.edu ]
Wu Meifen told the Freer Gallery of Art: "In my family, women did not take part in the major roles of the funeral ceremony. Watching my brother, who was just a child, play an important role during the funeral made me feel sad, neglected. I was related to my grandmother as much as he was. I was already a teenager. "Now that I am a mother, I believe that all of my children, no matter what gender, have a responsibility to respect me because I love them and have endured hard work to raise them. I also think a lot about my mother, who lives in Taiwan. I remember when she set up the table to invite the spirits of our ancestors. It was done sometimes spontaneously, and I didn't understand why. But now, I understand. My mother had not seen her parents for forty years because they stayed on the mainland instead of moving to Taiwan. Setting up the spirit table was the only way she could think of to commemorate her parents, and lessen the pain within." [Source: Wu Meifen, April 2001 Freer Gallery of Art asia.si.edu ]
Ancestor Worship and the Afterlife in China
Home ancestor altar Ancestor worship goes back deep into Chinese history. More than 5,000 years ago, the cultures of northern China were venerating the dead through highly systemized ceremonies. Echoes of these traditions still survive today. Peter Hessler wrote in National Geographic, “In ancient times the dead functioned in an extensive bureaucracy. Royal names were changed after death to mark the transition to new roles. The purpose of ancestor worship was not to remember the way people had been in life. Instead, it was about currying favor with the departed, who'd been given distinct responsibilities. Many oracle-bone inscriptions request that an ancestor make an offering of his own to an even higher power. [Source: Peter Hessler, National Geographic, January 2010 ^^^]
“In a culture as rich and ancient as China's, the line from past to present is never perfectly straight, and countless influences have shaped and shifted the Chinese view of the afterlife. Some Taoist philosophers didn't believe in life after death, but Buddhism, which began to influence Chinese thought in the second century A.D., introduced concepts of rebirth after death. Ideas of eternal reward and punishment also filtered in from Buddhism and Christianity." ^^^
“China's current changes are anything but conservative, and they are hard on the dead. Cemeteries are often destroyed by building projects, and many rural Chinese have migrated to cities, making it impossible to return home for Qingming. Some try alternative forms of grave care — there are websites that allow descendants to tend "virtual tombs." But it's difficult to think about the past in a fast-changing country, and many traditions simply fade away." ^^^
“Each year in Spring Valley it seems that fewer people turn out to celebrate Qingming. Yet the holiday survives, and some elements still recall ancient rituals. Village graves are organized with bureaucratic precision, each generation in its own row. Material concerns remain important: cigarettes, alcohol, and grave money for the dead. Perhaps someday even these traditions will be abandoned, but for now they still provide a link between past and present." ^^^
Qingming and Ghost Month in China
Qingming (Tomb Sweeping Festival) is a day when Chinese traditionally honor their dead ancestors by visiting their graves and tidying up and sweeping the grave sites. Participants sometimes place flowers on the graves, burn ghost money, and make offerings of fruit, chicken, pork and sometimes beer. In rural areas, tombs are painted, grass is cut and the areas around the graves are swept clean. The holiday also marks the beginning of the busy agricultural season, when the fields are prepared and seeds are planted.
Ghost Month, or Hungry Ghost Month, begins on the full moon of the seventh month of the lunar calendar, usually around mid August, and lasts for 15 days to a month. It is a time when some Chinese believe spirits get a "summer vacation" from the other world and return to the mortal world to cause mischief and enjoy feasts, performances of Chinese opera and other activities. Firecrackers are set off to scare away dangerous ghosts while ancestors are welcomed with bonfire offerings and recitations of Buddhist scripture.
Chinese go out of their to be nice to ghosts and go about their activities with more caution than usual. Many people avoid traveling, moving into new homes, opening businesses, or getting married because ghosts associated with these endevours could cause mischief. People who die during Ghost Month are sometimes stored and buried when Ghost Month is over. Businessmen dread Ghost Month because people are often reluctant to buy anything; partiers stay home; wives orders their husbands to come home straight form work; and tourists stay away from beach resorts out of fear of being captured by ghosts in the water. The ghost month in 2006 was particularly nasty because it was a calendar year with two seventh months, when the gates of hell open and the dead walk among the living twice.
Image Sources: Ancestor Hall and Home altar, Columbia University; 4) Ancestor offering, Beifan.com; Wikimedia Commons,
Text Sources: Robert Eno, Indiana University; Asia for Educators, Columbia University afe.easia.columbia.edu; University of Washington’s Visual Sourcebook of Chinese Civilization, depts.washington.edu/chinaciv /=\; National Palace Museum, Taipei \=/; Library of Congress; New York Times; Washington Post; Los Angeles Times; China National Tourist Office (CNTO); Xinhua; China.org; China Daily; Japan News; Times of London; National Geographic; The New Yorker; Time; Newsweek; Reuters; Associated Press; Lonely Planet Guides; Compton’s Encyclopedia; Smithsonian magazine; The Guardian; Yomiuri Shimbun; AFP; Wikipedia; BBC. Many sources are cited at the end of the facts for which they are used.
Last updated September 2021