"The Chinese have always been interested
in their past--worship
of ancestors is worship of origins" (Heinz 1999:225). I believe
this to be the basis of Chinese ancestor worship. Holding an interest
in their past and where they came from, I believe, led this culture to
place their faith in their ancestors. Each time a Chinese person
worships an ancestor they are not only asking for help as a Christian would
with their God, but they are also celebrating their heritage.
Ancestor worship does serve a purpose
to the Chinese. Although this idea might seem foreign to a Western
civilization, it goes much deeper than simply holding an interest in their
heritage. "The secular function of ancestor worship is to cultivate
kinship values like filial
piety, family loyalty, and continuity of the family
lineage" (Yang 1957:278). This ancient practice truly binds a family
together through numerous generations.
Among the belief in the continued
survival of an ancestors soul after death, the Chinese had a few other
basic beliefs. They believed in "one supreme deity or moral force"
which dominated the world and held a personal interest in the matters of
humanity (Bary 1960:9). Along with the belief in the spirits of ancestors,
the Chinese also believed in the "existence and power of a number of nature
spirits" (Bary 1960:9). Although as time passes these basic beliefs
of the Chinese begin to fade, the respect for the ancestors is still an
important element in the Chinese family system.
The strong belief in the life after death
may have also been a reason for the worship of ancestors. The psychological
need for an afterlife is very strong amongst the human race. It is
often times too frightening to think that once you die, that is the end
of your existence. Possibly the belief that the ancestor's souls
were still present came from this need. "Fear of the deceased, as
well as piety towards them" and a desire for an afterlife probably was
the beginning of this ancient tradition amongst the Chinese (Ching 1993:18).
In many religions there is a story
of Creation. These stories are an explanation of how one culture
believed the world came into existence. For instance, the Christian
religion has the story of Adam and Eve in the Book of Genesis. Many
religions have a story along these lines that attempt to explain life,
death, suffering, and many other aspects of life. In the Chinese
background, however, there is no such story. There is no attempt
to explain death as a "flaw in the divine plan" (Keightley 1990:33).
The fact that the Chinese were so quiet about these subjects suggests that
the Chinese have the ability to emphasize life over death. Instead
of attempting to explain why death occurs, the Chinese worshipped their
ancestors in order for their lineage
to withstand the test of time as well as to make the loss of the individual
easier to bear.
The Chinese believe that once a person
passes on they do not necessarily cease to exist. It is their belief
that the soul of the person continues to exist (Soothill 1923:176).
The soul is believed to exist in three places at once. In other words,
according to the Chinese, a person has three souls. When each person
dies, s/he goes to the "future world" in order to be judged and sent to
heaven or hell. Each person's soul is also thought to exist in the
grave as well as the ancestral tablet (Latourette 1964:537).
Because of this belief in the continued
existence of the soul, the Chinese remember their ancestors through sacrifice
(Soothill 1923:23). For the Chinese, these sacrifices are a main
aspect of worshipping ancestors. For the most part, "private families
probably sacrificed to their own ancestors" (Bary 1960:7). Through
these sacrifices the Chinese believed their ancestors would bless and protect
them. If the family failed to honor their ancestors by either neglecting
them or incorrectly performing the sacrifices, it was thought that the
ancestors would bring their living relatives "misfortunes and calamity"
(Bary 1960:7). Therefore, the welfare of the family was in the hands
of the ancestors and pleasing them through sacrifice.
It is interesting to point out
that "the ancestors, clearly still members of the family, required almost
as much attention dead as they did
when they were still living" (Heinz 1999:262). The head of the household
regularly checked in on the ancestors. While doing so, the head of
the household wore a special robe and lit incense. On special holidays,
a more extravagant offering was made in the ancestral
hall, such as rice, soup, vegetables, and meat (Heinz 1991:262).
Despite the fact that the ancestors were
no longer physically involved in the lives of the living, the Chinese believed
that the ancestors "continued to take interest in the affairs of the living"
(Soothill 1923:173). The ancestors were informed of any important
decision that was to be made. The living also asked for approval
on these subjects since they believed that the ancestors heard and could
somehow exemplify their approval or disapproval for the decisions made
by the living relatives (Soothill 1923:173).
Sacrifices were also an important
aspect of ancestor worship because "the ancestors had the power to aid
or punish their descendants according to their pleasure" (Bary 1960:7).
The well-being of a family, therefore, was in the hands of the ancestors,
or so the Chinese believed. If the ancestors were appeased, then
their descendants felt that they would be supported by them. On the
other hand, if the descendants did not satisfy their ancestors, then they
feared that their ancestors would punish them severely.
The Chinese seek out their ancestors
for wisdom. They, in a sense, pray to their ancestors for guidance
(Ching 1993:26). When a person of the Catholic faith wants help in
a particular area, they often times will pray to a saint for guidance in
that area. These two practices are somewhat similar. To the
Chinese, their ancestors are their spiritual leaders, much like saints
in the Catholic religion. The main difference, though is that the
Catholics do not need to appease the saints before they ask for guidance,
whereas the Chinese satisfy their ancestors before they ask for any help.
worship has created a strong family bond throughout numerous generations.
It forces the Chinese to remember their ancestors and all they fought,
struggled, and rejoiced for. Not only does it preserve family lineage,
but it also creates a powerful sense of family loyalty. Through worship
of their ancestors, the Chinese were able to keep a record of their ancestry
and, in doing so, created strong family ties.
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1960 Sources of Chinese
Tradition. New York: Columbia
1993 Chinese Religions.
New York: Orbis Books.
Heinz, Carolyn Brown
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Keightley, David N.
1990 Heritage of China.
Early Civilizations in China:
Reflections of How It Became
Chinese. Paul S. Ropp,
ed. Pp. 15-54.
England: University of California
Latourette, Kenneth Scott
1964 The Chinese: Their
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York: The Macmillan Company.
Soothill, W. E.
1923 The Three Religions
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Yang, C. K.
1957 Chinese Thought
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Relationship Between Confucian
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Chicago: The University
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