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Chinese Ancestor Worship
A Study of Its Meaning and Its Relations with Christianity

By James Thayer Addison
Assistant Professor of Religion and Missions
in the Episcopal Theological School in Cambridge, Massachusetts

Published by the Church Literature Committee of the Chung Hua Sheng Kung Hui
By the Help of the Society for Promoting Christian Knowledge, 1925.

Chapter II. Modern Ancestor Worship

Ancestor worship is still the most vital factor in the religion of China. Except among the converts to Christianity and Mohammedanism, it continues to hold a position of supreme consequence in the religious and social life of the people. It has been described as "the essential religion of China," [W. E. Soothill, "The Three Religions of China," N. Y., 1913, p. 213.] "the keystone to the arch of China's social structure," [E. Bard, "Chinese Life in Town and Country" (transl.), N. Y., 1905, p. 39.] and "the most deeply rooted of all forms of religion in the very fiber of the Chinese character." [C. Holcombe, "The Real Chinaman," N, Y., 1895, p. 123,] Without raising at present the question of how far the cult of ancestors is entirely religious, we may recognize the unanimous testimony to its universal vitality and its unrivaled importance in the national life.

The rites remain essentially the same as in Confucian times. Yet the changes that have come to pass in the course of centuries and the much more ample evidence now available concerning every aspect of the cultus justify a full description of the outward forms before we proceed to discuss their inner meaning.

One picturesque feature of the classical rites has practically disappeared. The "personator," so prominent during the Chou period, wont completely out of fashion [29/30] at the close of that dynasty in the third century before Christ, and since that time has seldom reappeared. In certain parts of China, however, such as the neighborhood of Canton, personators are still employed at the spring and autumn sacrifices. [W. Grube, "Religion und Kultus der Chinesen," Leipzig, 1910, p. 44f. P. W. Pitcher, "In and About Amoy," Shanghai, 1909, p. 65.]

The ancestral tablets, however, possess as great significance as ever. Their shape and size vary in different parts of the country. The tablets range in height from eight to eighteen inches and in width from two to four inches. The normal type, made of carved wood, is composed of three pieces--a square pedestal and two oblong upright pieces of unequal length. The longer piece, which terminates in a round knob, is set into the rear of the pedestal and the slightly shorter piece is slipped in front of the former, fitting into it so closely that the tablet appears to be of but one piece. On the outer surface of the first piece are inscribed or engraved the name and year of the reigning dynasty, the title of the deceased, his personal name and surname, and the name of the son who erects the tablet. On the inner surface (or front of the rear piece) are recorded the day and hour of birth and death and the place of burial. There is usually no inscription on the back of the tablet. These items of information are not distributed upon the parts of the tablet in a uniform manner; but most of the facts cited appear on one or the other of the two parts. In [30/31] certain parts of China, as at Wuchang, the tablet is sometimes a single ornate piece of wood inscribed on front and rear and set upon a pedestal representing the gateway of a shrine. Local variation also occurs in the form of the mother's tablet. Sometimes the wife of the deceased has a separate tablet; at other times she shares a tablet with her husband.

A typical inscription on the front of the tablet reads, "The tablet of Mr. Hwang Yung-fah, . . . the head of the family, who finished his probation with honor during the Imperial Ts'ing Dynasty, reaching a sub-magistracy." A familiar method of introducing the name of the son is as follows: "The spirit tablet of my deceased honored father and mother. I their son N. N. reverentially make obeisance and offer sacrifice." [Vide H. Doré, "Researches into Chinese Superstitions" (transl.), Shanghai, 1914, Vol. I, pp. 104, 107 f. J. Doolittle, "Social Life of the Chinese," N. Y., 1865, Vol. I, pp. 219 ff. P. W. Pitcher, op. cit., p. 60 f. R. F. Johnston, "Lion and Dragon in Northern China," London, 1910, p. 278 f. Chinese Repository, Canton, 1849, Vol. XVIII, p. 381 f. Schultze, "Totenverehrung in China," in Evangelisches Missionsmagazin, Basel, Jan., 1887, p. 29. Nitschkowsky, "Der ehinesische Ahnenkultus," in Allgemeine Missions-Zeitschrift, 1895, Vol. XXII, p. 306. References cited frequently refer to the preceding paragraph, and not merely to the preceding sentence.]

Even more varied than the methods of making the tablet are the practices which precede its permanent installation in the family shrine. Omitting many minor differences, we may note, however, certain common or typical customs. In some parts of the country there are [31/32] two tablets--a temporary tablet usually of paper and a permanent tablet of wood. The former is buried with the body or burned at the grave; the latter is subsequently installed in the ancestral hall. For the put poses of true ancestor worship only the latter is of consequence. In other cases the temporary tablet remains in use through a period of mourning lasting from three months to three years and only at the expiration of that time is the permanent tablet enshrined. In those sections of China where interment is postponed until the mourning is ended the tablet is of course not installed till after burial. But in any event, before the tablet reaches its final resting place, one important ceremony usually takes place. This rite is known as "dotting the tablet" or "dotting the chu."

The front inner surface bears the characters shell chu, which mean "lodging place of the spirit." the front outer surface bears the characters shén wei, which mean "seat of the spirit." In writing the inscriptions, a certain point or dot on the character for chu and a dot on the character for wei are omitted. Completing these two characters by adding to them the missing points constitutes the ceremony by which the tablet is consecrated. In the presence of a family gathering and with elaborate formality a mandarin of high rank takes a vermilion pencil and imposes the missing red dots upon the characters. Sometimes two ceremonies take place, with mandarins of different grades officiating, one for the completion of the chu and one for that of the [32/33] wei. By whatever means the consecration is accomplished, the tablet becomes thereby the permanent abode of the spirit. [Vide "Records of the General Missionary Conference at Shanghai," Shanghai, 1890, pp. 647 ff. J. Doolittle, op. cit., Vol. I, pp. 188 ff. B. S. Gundry, "China Present and Past," London, 1805, pp. 205 ff. Chinese Repository, Vol. XVIII, p. 377. Nitschkowsky, op. cit., p. 300 f. L. Wieger, "Moral Tenets and Customs in China" (transl.), Hokienfu, 1913, p. 561 f.]

With how much awe the sacred tablet is viewed we may learn from one notable recent example. The story of the journey of the late empress dowager's tablet, which took place in 1909, reflects on an enlarged scale the reverence universally accorded to these simple habitations of the spirits of the departed.

"The conveyance of Her Majesty's ancestral tablet from the tombs of the Eastern Hills to its resting-place in the Temple of Ancestors in the Forbidden City was a ceremony in the highest degree impressive and indicative of the vitality of those feelings which make ancestor worship the most important factor iu the life of the Chinese. The tablet, a simple strip of carved and lacquered wood, bearing the name of the deceased in Manchu and Chinese characters, had been officially present at the burial. With the closing of the great door of the tomb the spirit of the departed ruler is supposed to be translated to the tablet, and to the latter is therefore given honour equal to that which was accorded to the sovereign during her lifetime. Borne aloft in a gorgeous chariot draped with Imperial yellow silk and attended by a large mounted escort, [33/34] Tzu Hsi's tablet journeyed slowly and solemnly, in three days' stages, from the Eastern Hills to Peking. At each stage it rested for the night in a specially constructed pavilion, being 'invited' by the Master of the Ceremonies, on his knees and with all solemnity, to be pleased to leave its chariot and rest. For the passage of this habitation of the spirit of the mighty dead the Imperial road had been specially prepared and swept by an army of men; it had become a via sacra on which no profane feet might come or go. As the procession bearing the sacred tablet drew near to the gates of the capital, the Prince Regent and all the high officers of thy Court knelt reverently to receive it. All traffic was stopped; every sound stilled in the streets, where the people knelt to do homage to the memory of the Old Buddha. Slowly and solemnly the chariot was borne through the main gate of the Forbidden City to the Temple of the Dynasty's ancestors, the most sacred spot-in the Empire, where it was 'invited' to take its appointed place among the nine Ancestors and their thirty-five Imperial Consorts." [Bland and Backhouse, "China Under the Empress Dowager," Philadelphia, 1912, pp. 473 ff.]

The fact that the soul resides in the tablet does not, of course, involve the belief that it is confined to the tablet. A common belief in China to-day is that each man has three souls. At death one remains with the body in the grave; one takes up its residence in the tablet; and one goes to the other world, usually to some purgatory. [J. D. Ball, "The Celestial and His Religions," Hongkong, 1900, p. 80. A. H. Smith, "The Uplift of China" (rev. ed.), Philadelphia, n. d., p. 97. E. T. Williams, "China Yesterday and To-day," N. Y., 1923, p. 260.] This doctrine is often stated by Western [34/35] authors as the cause of the rites which take place at the grave, the rites which take place before the tablet, and the Buddhist "masses" said for the departed. Historically, however, the doctrine arose to account for the fact that all these ceremonies were equally customary and yet logically contradictory. The distinction between a yang soul, which ascends on high, and a yin soul, which descends to the earth, has been familiar in China since classical times; the necessity for positing a third soul is the direct outcome of Buddhist beliefs and practices; and the effort to combine the three in a psychological doctrine is of Taoist origin.

The soul tablets are kept in small shrines or niches placed upon a high table, before which is set a lower table used for offerings. In the homes of poor families they often occupy the same table with the images of gods or are placed on a mere shelf in the corner of the living room. Among the more well-to-do a special room is set aside for the ancestral shrines. A rich family is likely to house its tablets in an ancestral temple or hall. [S. W. Williams, "The Middle Kingdom," N. Y. 1883, Vol. II, p. 250. J. J. M. de Groot, "Religion of the Chinese," N. Y., 1910, pp. 78 ff.] The kind of place in which the tablets rest, however, is a matter of convenience determined largely by financial circumstances. The tablets used by the immediate family are those of the deceased father, grandfather, and great-grandfather. The tablets of ancestors beyond the third generation (or sometimes beyond the fifth [35/36] generation) are burned in some parts of the country; in others they are removed to an ancestral temple representing a larger family group. [Johnston, op. cit., p. 277. J. C. Gibson, "Mission Problems in South China," Edinburgh, 1901, p. 83.]

In addition to the family shrine or hall, there are the clan temples or ancestral halls of the clan. Here are preserved the spirit tablets of the founders of clans and their descendants for three generations. These temples serve as a common sanctuary for all members of the clan, and are maintained by endowments of land or capital in which all the families of the clan have shares. Found chiefly in villages (where the clan system most readily persists), they serve the clan as a sort of combined church, school, theater, and council room. The branches of clans, which are simply small groups of families within a large clan, maintain branch ancestral temples where the tablets of their common ancestors are enshrined. [Soothill, op. cit., p. 217. Soothill, "A Typical Mission in China," N. Y., 1900, p. 243. Doolittle, op. cit., Vol. I, pp. 225 ff. W. A. P. Martin, "The Lore of Cathay," N. Y., 1901, p. 272. Leong and Tao, "Village and Town Life in China," London, 1915, pp. 22 ff.]

In the family rites the sacrificer is the head of the household--that is, the senior member of the family or eldest son of the deceased father. It is in his home, therefore, that the tablets are enshrined. In the rites of the clan the senior member of the clan officiates. [Grube, op. cit., pp. 44 ff. Soothill, "Three Religions of China," p. 216. Doolittle, op. cit., Vol. I, p. 221 f.]

[37] The number of ancestors to whom offerings are presented varies with the occasion, the locality, and the family. Normally male and female ancestors to the third generation receive tendance; sometimes to the fourth and fifth generations. Deceased children have no spirit tablets or offerings. [Doolittle, op. cit., Vol. I, pp. 190, 222. Soothill, op. cit., p. 217. Johnston, op. cit., pp. 251, 277.] The clan founder and his three immediate descendants usually receive the clan sacrifices.

The forms of Chinese ancestor worship are simple, for the rites constitute a family meal in which the dead share. Food and drink are placed on the table before the tablets of the deceased, and at a later hour, or on the following day, after the spirits have enjoyed the soul or essence of the offerings, all the members of the family (or clan) eat and drink what remains. [At the clan sacrifices only men are present.] The presentation of the offerings is accompanied by an invitation to the departed to partake and by the prostrations which, for the Chinese, constitute the natural method of expressing reverence for parents or superiors. Candles and incense are usually burned as symbolical of invitation and to attract the attention of the spirits. When the sacrifice is presented on some special occasion, announcement is made at the same time of whatever event has prompted the ceremony. The nearest approach to prayer appears to be made on the most important occasions [37/38] when the ancestors are greeted with praise and requested to receive the offerings and to bestow their blessing. [Schultze, op. cit., p. 84 f. J. Macgowan, "Lights and Shadows of Chinese Life," Shanghai, 1909, pp. 75 ff. Soothill, "Three Religions," p. 210. H. C. DuBose, "The Dragon, linage, and Demon," N. Y., 1887, p, 84 f.]

The customary times for ancestral offerings are difficult to detail with accuracy, for they vary not only with the locality but also with the piety and the means of the family. In pious families incense and candles are burned before the tablets every morning and evening and on the first and fifteenth of every month (i. e., the new and full moons). These daily and fortnightly rites do not include a family meal and may be performed even by a servant or the keeper of an ancestral temple. [Doolittle, op. cit., Vol. I, p. 223. Martin, op. cit., p. 200 f. Williams, op. cit., Vol. II, p. 237. J. H. Gray, "China," London, 1878, Vol. I, p. 84. Chinese Repository, Vol. XVIII, p. 380. China Review, Vol. IV, No. 5, p. 298. E. T. Williams, op. cit., p. 258.] More formal sacrifices, with oblations of food and a family feast, are offered on the anniversaries of the birth and of the death of the deceased. On the latter occasion inquiry is sometimes made concerning the health of the departed and the answer obtained by divination. [Doolittle, op. cit., Vol. I, pp. 190, 224. H. C. Sirr, "China and the Chinese," London, 1847, Vol. II, pp. 180 ff. Gibson, op. cit., p. 82. China Review, Vol. IV, No. 5, p. 298.] Similar sacrifices regularly occur at the New Year festival (sometimes on three different days of the first month); in the middle [38/39] of the seventh month; and at the winter solstice in the eleventh month. [Doolittle, op. cit., Vol. I, pp. 224, 228 f. Schultze, op. cit., p. 83. Johnston, op. cit., p. 277. W. N. Bitton, Chinese Recorder, Vol. XL1, p. 276.] The spring sacrifice in the second month and the autumn sacrifice in the eighth month are the great festivals for worship in the ancestral temples of the clan or of other units larger than the ordinary family. [Doolittle, op. cit., Vol. 1, p. 228 f. Macgowan, op. cit., pp. 75 ff.] At times offerings are also presented on the fifth day of the fifth month (the Dragon Boat Festival) and used to be customary on the last day of the old year.

But the number of times for the tendance of ancestors is largely increased when to the annual celebrations we add the numerous occasions which necessitate formal "announcements" to the ancestors. These announcements, accompanied by offerings and prostrations, occur on the occasion of every event important in the life of the family, and are prompted by the feeling (when not merely regulated by custom) that in the pleasure or pain of such occurrences the ancestors must share. Chief among these family events are births and birthdays, betrothals, marriages, advancements in official rank, and deaths.4 In the royal family announcements were made [39/40] not only at these familiar times but also upon the adoption of an heir to the throne and in every case of regular succession. [Martin, op. cit., p. 265.] Even so modern a radical as Sun Yat-sen announced to the first Ming emperor, before his tomb at Nanking, the overthrow of the Manchus and the establishment of the Republic--a dramatic act revealing not the private convictions of Sun but his conception of what the people would expect and approve. [W. N. Bitton, "The Regeneration of New China," London, 1914, p. 4.]

Among the occasions for announcements, that of marriage is perhaps most significant. Indeed, it is hardly proper to refer to the ceremonial as an "announcement" in the same sense in which a birth or death is announced, for the joint worship of ancestors by bride and groom is the critical point of the marriage rite and actually determines its validity for purposes of legal decisions. [E. T. C. Werner, "China of the Chinese," London, 1919, p. 49 f. J. D. Ball, "Things Chinese," N. Y., 1904, p. 420.] Both on the day of marriage and on the second or third day thereafter the bridal pair present incense and drink-offerings and prostrate themselves before the ancestral tablets of the groom. [Doolittle, op. cit., Vol. 1, pp. 86 ff. Schultze, op. cit., p. 84. Gray, op. cit., Vol. I, pp. 192 ff.]

In addition to all these ceremonies at the family shrine or in the ancestral hall there are annual rites performed at the tombs of ancestors. In earlier times such sacrifices were rare, but to-day they are an established practice. One such period for sacrifice occurs in the [40/41] third month; another, less universally observed, falls in the ninth month. The former, known as the Ts'ing Ming Festival, begins one hundred and six days after the winter solstice, and generally extends from about April 6 to April 20. To celebrate this springtide feast all the members of the family (the women folk usually excepted) gather at the ancestral tombs. After repairing and sweeping the graves and sacrificing to the spirit of the ground (the genius loci) they set forth a banquet of duck, geese, fish, fowl, and pig, present libations of wine, and burn incense, paper clothes, and paper money. Those who cannot afford such elaborate fare sometimes offer paper substitutes or even hire expensive food. The ancestral spirits are approached with reverential prostrations and invited to partake of the feast. The food and drink are then consumed by the assembled relatives or taken homo to furnish a family banquet. The whole occasion is a kind of picnic, a cheerful family reunion which all the relative, even though they must journey far, are eager to attend the members of the clan, in similar fashion, take a holiday to visit the tombs of the clan ancestors, there to celebrate a still larger reunion. [Doolittle, op. cit., Vol. II, pp. 44 ff. Gray, op. cit., Vol. I, pp. 320 ff. Holcombe, op. cit., p. 125 f. L. Hodous, Journal of N. China Branch R.A.S., Vol. XLVI, pp. 58 ff. M. T. Yates, "Ancestral Worship," Shanghai, 1878, p. 29 f. K. T. Williams, op. cit., pp. 285 ff.]

At the time of those rites at the tomb the spokesman of the family sometimes presents to the ancestors addresses which more nearly resemble prayers than do the customary salutations before the spirit tablets. Besides [41/42] the invitations to the deceased and the announcement of family news, occur petitions such as these: "Looking up I pray for your penetrating glance and implore unlimited blessings upon us, that all our plans for wealth may be abundantly gratified." "Come and bless your posterity with prosperity and keep up the family forever," etc. [Chinese Repository, Vol. XVIII, pp. 377 ff. J. Jackson, in China Centenary Missionary Conference Records, N. Y., n. d., p. 231.] It is to be remembered, however, in quoting those lines, that the flattering words addressed to ancestors are often the same as those addressed to living guests, that the scholars who frame these poetical petitions usually copy the classics, and that the utterance of their compositions is seldom intelligible to the majority of the assembled group.

The Ts'ing Ming Festival likewise affords an opportunity for sacrifices before the ancestral tablets and for one of the annual offerings to beggar spirits. [Yates, op. cit., p. 31. Doolittle, op. cit., Vol. II, pp. 44 ff.]

Outside the regular sphere of ancestor worship, but closely related to it in meaning, are the Chinese belief in "beggar spirits" and the customs to which it gives rise. True "beggar spirits," according to native Chinese thought, are those who, for one reason or another, are left without the benefit of the rites of tendance. They include those who died leaving no descendants or relatives, those whose descendants habitually neglect the proper offerings, and those whose bodies, perhaps because of death at sea or abroad, have never been recovered for proper burial. To these familiar types of "beggar spirits" [42/43] Buddhist thought has added the souls of those who died in war or committed suicide. Whatever the cause of their misfortune, these spirits are wandering ghosts who run amuck outside of the natural and moral order of the universe. Subject to no law, they are a source of danger not only to their descendants but to all men. Provision is therefore made in various ways to placate them and thus to limit their malignant activity. Since these ghosts are a public menace, the ceremony of attending to their wants is of a public character and the expense of providing for them a public charge. At least twice a year--and always during the last half of the seventh month--special festivals are held at which banquets are spread for the wandering spirits and large quantities of paper money burned for their benefit. The rites include street processions with lanterns and torches and services conducted by Buddhist and Taoist priests. These ceremonies are thus as different as possible from the ancestral rites, and trace their origin to comparatively recent Buddhist sources. A more seemly and classical method of providing for beggar spirits is afforded in some districts by the practice of maintaining temples in which are housed the tables of those whose families are extinct. Offerings are then presented in spring and autumn by a paid attendant. [Macgowan, op. cit., p. 82. Courcy, "L'Empire du Milieu," Paris, 1867, p. 271. M. T. Yates, op. cit., pp. 39 ff. R. S. Gundry, op. cit., p. 270 f. J. F. Davis, "China," London, 1857, Vol. I, p. 354. E. T. Williams, op. cit., p. 217.]

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