An Introduction to...
    
 
CHINESE ANCESTOR WORSHIP
    "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.
    Ancestor 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.
 
 
Works Cited
Bary, Wm. Theodore de, with Wing-tsit Chan and Burton Watson
    1960  Sources of Chinese Tradition.  New York:  Columbia
    Press University.

Ching, Julia
    1993  Chinese Religions.  New York:  Orbis Books.

Heinz, Carolyn Brown
    1999  Asian Cultural Traditions.  Illinois:  Waveland
    Press, Inc.

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
    Press, Ltd.

Latourette, Kenneth Scott
    1964  The Chinese: Their History and Culture.  New
    York:  The Macmillan Company.

Soothill, W. E.
    1923  The Three Religions of China.  Connecticut:
    Hyperion Press, Inc.

Yang, C. K.
    1957  Chinese Thought and Institutions.  The Functional
    Relationship Between Confucian Thought and Chinese
    Religion.  John K. Fairbank, ed.  Pp. 269-290.
    Chicago:  The University of Chicago Press.

 
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