Ancestor veneration in China

Chinese ancestor worship, or Chinese ancestor veneration, also called the Chinese patriarchal religion,[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", that is, 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]

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]

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]

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]

In Chinese folk religion, a person is 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 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[citation needed] that after the death of Confucius his followers engaged in this three-year mourning period to symbolize their commitment to his teachings.

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 descents 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.

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 Qingming Festival and Ghost 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.