Ancestor veneration in China

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A stone tortoise with the "Stele of Divine Merits and Saintly Virtues" (Shengong Shende), erected by the Yongle Emperor in 1413 in honor of his father, the Hongwu Emperor in the Ming Xiaoling Mausoleum ("Ming Mausoleum of Filial Piety")

Ancestral veneration in Chinese culture (Chinese: 敬祖; pinyin: jìngzǔ) is the practice of living family members who try to provide a deceased family member with continuous happiness and well-being in the afterlife. It is a way of continuing to show respect toward them, and it reinforces the unity of family and lineage. Showing respect to ancestors is an ideology deeply rooted in Chinese society. It is based on the idea of filial piety (孝, xiào) put forth by Confucius. Filial piety is the concept of remaining loyal to parents as their child. It is believed that despite the death of a loved one, the original relationship remains intact, and that the deceased possess more spiritual power than they did during life. In a sense, the ancestors became thought of as deities who had the ability to interact and have an effect on the lives of those still living.[1]

The core belief of ancestor veneration is that there is a continued existence after death.[2] It is thought that the soul of a deceased person is made up of yin and yang components called hun and po. The yin component, po (魄), is associated with the grave, and the yang component, hun (魂), is associated with ancestral tablets . According to this belief, at death the components split into three different souls; the po goes with the body to the grave, one to judgment, and the hun resides in an ancestral tablet. The hun and po are not immortal and need to be nourished; it is the offerings that feed them. Eventually both the hun and po go to the underworld, although the hun goes to heaven first. Unlike in western usages of the term, underworld has no negative connotation.[3]


Mourning rites[edit]

The mourning of a loved one usually involves elaborate practices, and commonly occurs in this sequence: A public notification of grief through wailing, the wearing of white mortuary clothes by the family of the deceased, bathing of the corpse, the transfer of symbolic goods like money and food from the living to the dead, preparation and installation of a spirit tablet, payment of ritual specialists (Taoist priests or Buddhist monks), the playing of music and chanting of scriptures to accompany the corpse and to settle the spirit, the sealing of the corpse in a coffin, the expulsion of the coffin from the community.[3] The intensity of the mourning reflects the kind of relationship one had with the deceased.

Confucianism placed importance on understanding and properly adhering to the five relationships:

  • Ruler and subjects
  • Father and son
  • Husband and wife
  • Elder brother and younger brother
  • Elder friends and junior friends

From the time of Confucius until the 20th century the death of a parent would commonly mean a three-year mourning period for their child. The three-year length symbolizes the first three years in a child's life when they are being carried and loved unconditionally by their parents. These mourning practices would include wearing sackcloth, leaving hair unkempt, eating a restricted diet of congee two times a day, living in a mourning shack placed beside the house, and moaning in pain at certain intervals of the day. It is said[according to whom?] that after the death of Confucius his followers engaged in this three-year mourning period to symbolize their commitment to his teachings.

Funeral rites[edit]

There is a saying that there are two important things one must do before his or her life can be considered complete; One is to bury his or her father, the other, his or her mother. Funerals are considered to be a part of the normal flow of family life, and are what binds families together through generations. The primary goal is to protect the deceased from malevolent spirits, direct the yin soul to the earth, and the yang soul into the ancestor lineage. Funerals ensure comfort and reassurance for the deceased, and promote good fortune for their descendants. When the loved one passes, the corpse is bathed and dressed in grave clothes, or "longevity clothes" which represents longevity for the spirit. [1] Incorporation of religious Daoist or Buddhist professionals may also be used in the funeral process to drive away evil spirits and bring good energy to the deceased. The family will then permanently place an ancestral tablet on an altar  in their home among tablets from other deceased ancestors. This act symbolizes the unity of all the ancestors, and the importance of family lineage.[2] Incense is lit before the altar daily, and offerings such as favorite foods, beverages, and "spirit money" are given bi-monthly. Spirit money is paper money that can be purchased (which can now be found in the form of spirit credit cards, televisions, bicycles etc.), and then burned. It is believed that by burning the money and offering other necessities, you are then in turn giving the deceased spirit what it needs to live comfortably in the after life.

The wealthier a family is, the longer the burial can be delayed; where the coffin would remain in the main room of the family home to be prepared for burial. In some instances, a "lucky burial" can take place where several years after the burial, the bones are dug up, washed, dried, and stored in an earthenware jar. After the period of storage, the contents are then buried for the last time in a spot selected by a feng shui augur.[1] More traditionally, this delay period is determined by social status. Kings' corpses are held in such abeyance for seven months, before being buried; magnates, five; other officers, three; commoners, one.

Continuing of sacrifices[edit]

Descendants of the deceased would bury their ancestors with belongings that they wanted to be delivered to the spirit world with the deceased. Some royal families put bronze vessels, oracle bones, and human or animal sacrifices in the grave. All these sacrifices were seen as things one may need in the spirit world and as a form of continued filial piety. More common sacrifices included burning candles and incense, and offerings of wine and food.[1] The shi 尸 "corpse; personator" was a Zhou Dynasty (1045 BCE-256 BCE) sacrificial representative of a dead relative. During a shi ceremony, the ancestral spirit supposedly would enter the personator, who would eat and drink sacrificial offerings and convey spiritual messages.

Types of rituals[edit]


Sacrifice is performed regularly by the descendants of the deceased ancestors. Sacrifices are usually given, however not exclusively, at festivals. Such festivals include Qingming Festival and may include items like food, fruit, incense or candles for sacrifice.

Spirit money[edit]

Main article: Joss paper

Spirit money is also commonly sacrificed. Spirit money is money with no monetary value but is symbolic of actual money. When it is burned at an altar or tomb it is believed that its value will be transported to the ancestors in the spirit world.


Prayer was usually performed at the household altar in a separate room containing the yang spirit of their ancestors. The eldest male would speak to the altar on a daily basis and possibly pray to the spirit to do something for the family. This ritual is very important since they believe if they forget their lineage they can either be haunted or become a homeless spirit when entering the spirit world.

Feng Shui[edit]

Main article: Feng Shui

The purpose of Feng Shui in funerary practices is used to regulate the flow of chi in regards to where the grave was positioned. A bad chi flow could result in an unsettled spirit. These disgruntled spirits could come back to haunt their descendants, so property plots with good feng shui are desirable for the burial of ancestors.[2][1]



Main article: Qingming Festival

Qingming ("clear and bright") is the tomb sweeping festival that occurs on the Qingming solar term, which is April 4 or 5 in the Gregorian calendar. The festival takes place in the spring, which is considered to be a time of renewal where the deceased family could rejoin the living and rise once again.[4] During this festival the families visit their ancestor's tombs to clean up (sweep the dust and pull the weeds) and redecorate them (add fresh flowers or new ornaments) as a way of celebrating the deceased's life instead of mourning it. The attention and services of the family are usually focused on the tomb of the most recent death, or the most significant ancestor, such as those who began their family lineage.[1] The family is welcomed to join in the prayer and celebrations of life that this festival entails.

Ghost Month[edit]

Main article: Ghost Festival

During the seventh month it is believed that the doors between our world and limbo are open for spirits to pass through and do as they wish. During this time it is customary to offer sacrifices of food or money to keep them appeased. It is thought that the family owes a kind of debt to the deceased family which must be paid through offerings. The money sacrificed to the spirits is "ghost money", or "spirit money", which is printed on paper because, with all respect to their ancestors, burning some items may be constituted as a waste. The ancestors that have nothing sacrificed to them may become "hungry" and cause bad luck for their neglectful family. The importance of ancestral sacrifices is great, because of the length of this period of roaming malevolent ghosts.[1]


  1. ^ a b c d e f g Thompson, L. G. (1979). Chinese Religion: An Introduction Third Edition. Belmont, California: Wadsworth, Inc.
  2. ^ a b c ReligionFacts. (2005, June 2). Ancestor Veneration. Retrieved October 21, 2008, from
  3. ^ a b Roberta H. Martin (2007). Settling the Dead: Funerals, Memorials and Beliefs Concerning the Afterlife. Retrieved October 21, 2008, from Living in the Chinese Cosmos: Understanding Religion in Late-Imperial China:
  4. ^ Bodde, Derk. (1975). Festivals in Classical China. Princeton, New Jersey: Princeton University Press.

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