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Ancestor veneration in China

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Tong kin's ancestral sacrifice, in Qiantong, Zhejiang
Tāng kin's temple and cultural centre of Jinxiang village, Cangnan, Zhejiang

Chinese ancestor veneration, also called Chinese ancestor worship,[1] is an aspect of the Chinese traditional religion which revolves around the ritual celebration of the deified ancestors and tutelary deities of people with the same surname organised into lineage societies in ancestral shrines. Ancestors, their ghosts, or spirits, and gods are considered part of "this world". They are neither supernatural (in the sense of being outside nature) nor transcendent in the sense of being beyond nature. The ancestors are humans who have become godly beings, beings who keep their individual identities. For this reason, Chinese religion is founded on veneration of ancestors.[2] Ancestors are believed to be a means of connection to the supreme power of Tian as they are considered embodiments or reproducers of the creative order of Heaven.[3] It is a major aspect of Han Chinese religion, but the custom has also spread to ethnic minority groups.

Ancestor veneration is largely focused on male ancestors. Hence, it is also called Chinese patriarchal religion. It was believed that women did not pass down surnames because they were incapable of carrying down a bloodline. Chinese kinship traces ancestry through the male lineage that is recorded in genealogy books. They consider their ancestral home to be where their patriline ancestor was born (usually about five generations back) or the origin of their surname.

Confucian philosophy calls for paying respect to one's ancestors, an aspect of filial piety; Zhuo Xinping (2011) views traditional patriarchal religion as the religious organisation complementing the ideology of Confucianism.[4] As the "bedrock faith of the Chinese", traditional patriarchal religion influences the religious psychology of all Chinese and has influenced the other religions of China,[5] as it is evident in the worship of founders of temples and schools of thought in Taoism and Chinese Buddhism.

Ancestor veneration practices prevail in South China, where lineage bonds are stronger and the patrilineal hierarchy is not based upon seniority and access to corporate resources held by a lineage is based upon the equality of all the lines of descent;[6] whereas in North China worship of communal deities is prevalent.[7]


An ancestral worship ceremony led by Taoist priests at the pyramidal-shaped Great Temple of Zhang Hui (张挥公大殿 Zhāng Huī gōng dàdiàn), the central ancestral shrine dedicated to the progenitor of the Zhang lineage, located at Zhangs' ancestral home in Qinghe, Hebei.

Some contemporary scholars in China have adopted the names "Chinese traditional patriarchal religion" (中國傳統宗法性宗教 Zhōngguó chuántǒng zōngfǎ xìng zōngjiào) or "Chinese traditional primordial religion" (中國傳統原生性宗教 Zhōngguó chuántǒng yuánshēng xìng zōngjiào) to define the traditional religious system organised around the worship of ancestor-gods.[8][9]

Mou Zhongjian defines "clan-based traditional patriarchal religion" as "an orthodox religion that was widely accepted by all classes, and had been practiced for thousands of years in ancient China".[10] Mou also says that this religion was subordinate to the state, it was "diverse and inclusive" and had "a humanistic spirit that emphasises the social, moral function of religion", and is closely related to politics.[10] It refers to:[11]

«[...] The traditional religion that had been in place since the Xia, Shang, and Zhou dynasties. It evolved from the worship of Heaven and ancestors. It had the basic components of a religion, including religious concepts, emotions, and rituals. It had no independent organisation. Instead, it was the kinship structure that fulfilled the functions of religious organisation. The emperor, who was the son of God, was the representative of the people who worshiped Heaven. Elders of the clans and parents represented the family in the worship of ancestors. Respecting Heaven and honoring ancestors (jingtian fazu), taking good care in seeing off the deceased, and maintaining sacrifices to distant ancestors (shenzhong zhuiyuan) were the basic religious concepts and emotional expressions in this religion. [...]»

According to Zhuo Xinping (2011), Chinese patriarchal religion and Confucianism complemented each other in ancient China, as the Confucian religion traditionally lacked a social religious organisation while traditional patriarchal religion lacked an ideological doctrine.[10]


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").

Chinese folk religion[edit]

In Chinese folk religion, a person is often thought to have multiple souls, categorized as hun and po, commonly associated with yang and yin, respectively. Upon death, hun and po separate. Generally, the former ascends into heaven and the latter descends into the earth and/or resides within a spirit tablet; however, beliefs concerning the number and nature of souls vary.[12] In accordance with these traditional beliefs, various practices have arisen to address the perceived needs of the deceased.


The mourning of a loved one usually involves elaborate rituals, which vary according to region and sect. The intensity of the mourning is thought to reflect the quality of relationship one had with the deceased. From the time of Confucius until the 20th century, a three-year mourning period was often prescribed, mirroring the first three years in a child's life when they are utterly dependent upon and loved unconditionally by their parents. These mourning practices would often include wearing sackcloth or simple garb, 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, 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]

A funeral procession in Zhejiang province

Funerals are considered to be a part of the normal process of family life, serving as a cornerstone in inter-generational traditions. The primary goals, regardless of religious beliefs, are to demonstrate obeisance and provide comfort for the deceased. Other goals include: to protect the descendants of the deceased from malevolent spirits and to ensure the proper separation and direction of the deceased's soul into the afterlife.

Some common elements of Chinese funerals include the expression of grief through prolonged, often exaggerated, wailing; the wearing of white mortuary clothes by the family of the deceased; a ritual washing of the corpse, followed by its attiring in grave clothes; the transfer of symbolic goods such as money and food from the living to the dead; the preparation and installation of a spirit tablet or the use of a personator, often symbolic. Sometimes, ritual specialists such as Taoist priests or Buddhist monks would be hired to perform specific rites, often accompanied by the playing of music or chanting of scripture to drive away evil spirits.[13][12]


A typical traditional hill slope cemetery of China's southeastern coast

Burial is often delayed according to wealth; the coffin would remain in the main room of the family home until it has been properly prepared for burial. More traditionally, this delay is pre-determined according to social status: the corpse of a king or emperor would be held in abeyance for seven months; magnates, five; other officers, three; commoners, one.

In some instances, a "lucky burial" can take place several years after the burial. The bones are dug up, washed, dried, and stored in an earthenware jar. After a period of storage, the contents are then interred in their final resting place in a location selected by an augur to optimize the flow of qi. A bad qi flow could result in a disgruntled spirit who could possibly haunt their descendants.[14][13]

The deceased would often be buried with sacrifices, typically things one was thought to be in need of in the afterlife. This was done as a symbolic demonstration of filial piety or grandeur. For the wealthy and powerful, bronze vessels, oracle bones, and human or animal sacrifices often accompanied the deceased into the grave. More common sacrifices included candles and incense, as well as offerings of wine and food.

Continued obeisance[edit]

After the funeral, families often install an ancestral tablet at a household altar alongside other deceased ancestors. This act symbolically unifies the ancestors and honors the family lineage. Incense is lit before the altar daily, significant announcements are made before them, and offerings such as favorite foods, beverages, and spirit money are given bi-monthly and on special occasions, such as during the Qingming Festival and Zhong Yuan Festival.[14]

Prayer was usually performed at the household altar in a separate room containing the po of their ancestors. The eldest male would speak to the altar on a regular basis. In some belief systems where special powers are ascribed to the deceased, he may supplicate the spirit to bless the family.

Modern times[edit]

When a family member dies in modern China and Taiwan, they are given various kinds of rewards such as "a toothbrush, money, food, water", "a credit card and[/or] a computer."[15]


Some Taoists practiced ancestor veneration and beseeched ancestors, multiple ancestors, and pantheons of ancestors to aid them in life and/or abolish their sins.[16]

See also[edit]



  1. ^ Zhou (2003), p. 42.
  2. ^ Nadeau (2010), p. 369.
  3. ^ Yao & Zhao (2010), pp. 113–116.
  4. ^ Yang & Tamney (2011), p. 281.
  5. ^ He (2012).
  6. ^ Wu (2014), p. 20. Quote: «[...] southern China refers to Fujian and Guangdong province and in some cases is expanded to include Guangxi, Zhejiang and Jiangxi provinces. Historically speaking, these areas had the strong lineage organizations and the territorial cult, compared to the rest of China in the late imperial period. These areas not only were the first to revive lineage and the territorial cult in the reform era, but also have the intensity and scale of revivals that cannot be matched by the other part of China. This phenomenon is referred to as the south model, the north model refers to the absence of landholding cooperative lineages that exist in the south.» Note 16: The south-vs.-north model comparison has been the subject of historical and anthropological research. Cohen's article on “Lineage organization in North China (1990)” contrasts the north model and the south model. He calls the north China model “the fixed genealogical mode of agnatic kinship.” By which, he means “patrilineal ties are figured on the basis of the relative seniority of descent lines so that the unity of the lineage as a whole is based upon a ritual focus on the senior descent line trace back to the founding ancestor, his eldest son, and the succession of eldest sons.” (ibid: 510) In contrast, the south China model is called “the associational mode of patrilineal kinship.” In this mode, all lines of descent are equal. “Access to corporate resources held by a lineage or lineage segment is based upon the equality of kinship ties asserted in the associational mode.” However, the distinction between the north and the south model is somewhat arbitrary. Some practices of the south model are found in north China. Meanwhile, the so-call north model is not exclusive to north China. The set of characteristics of the north model (a distinctive arrangement of cemeteries, graves, ancestral scrolls, ancestral tablets, and corporate groups linked to a characteristic annual ritual cycle) is not a system. In reality, lineage organizations display a mixture between the south and the north model.»
  7. ^ Overmyer (2009), pp. 12–13. "As for the physical and social structure of villages on this vast flat expanse; they consist of close groups of houses built on a raised area, surrounded by their fields, with a multi-surnamed population of families who own and cultivate their own land, though usually not much more than twenty mou or about three acres. [...] Families of different surnames living in one small community meant that lineages were not strong enough to maintain lineage shrines and cross-village organizations, so, at best, they owned small burial plots and took part only in intra-village activities. The old imperial government encouraged villages to manage themselves and collect and hand over their own taxes. [...] leaders were responsible for settling disputes, dealing with local government, organizing crop protection and planning for collective ceremonies. All these factors tended to strengthen the local protective deities and their temples as focal points of village identity and activity. This social context defines North China local religion, and keeps us from wandering off into vague discussions of 'popular' and 'elite' and relationships with Daoism and Buddhism."
  8. ^ Zhang Jin, Yang Chunpeng. 中国传统原生性宗教”的产生和特点 ("Chinese traditional primordial religion": generation and characteristics). China Ethnic and Religious Network (中国民族宗教网), 2013. Archived 2016-03-04 at the Wayback Machine
  9. ^ China Confucius Network: 人文主义宗教与宗教人文主义 Archived 2016-03-04 at the Wayback Machine
  10. ^ a b c Yang & Tamney (2011), p. 280.
  11. ^ Yang & Tamney (2011), pp. 280–281.
  12. ^ a b Richard J. Smith (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: http://afe.easia.columbia.edu/cosmos/prb/journey.htm
  13. ^ a b Thompson, L. G. (1979). Chinese Religion: An Introduction Third Edition. Belmont, California: Wadsworth, Inc.
  14. ^ a b ReligionFacts. (2005, June 2). Ancestor Veneration. Retrieved October 21, 2008, from www.religionfacts.com: http://www.religionfacts.com/chinese_religion/practices/ancestor_worship.htm
  15. ^ MacGregor, Neil (2011). A History of the World in 100 Objects (First American ed.). New York: Viking Press. p. 147. ISBN 978-0-670-02270-0.
  16. ^ Wilson, Andrew, ed. (1995). World Scripture: A Comparative Anthology of Sacred Texts (1st paperback ed.). St. Paul, Minnesota: Paragon House Publishers. p. 20. ISBN 978-1-55778-723-1.