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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 III. The Meaning of Ancestor Worship

Both for the student of religion and for the Christian missionary the most important factor in ancestor worship is its meaning. The question of its significance has been debated for centuries, and the expression of conflicting opinion still continues. The key to its meaning is to be found not in any summary of its outward forms but in a sympathetic examination of the motives which lie behind them. What ancestor worship means is not necessarily what it seems to the outsider to mean; it is what it means to those who practise it.

In attempting an analysis of these motives it is of prime importance to remember that they are numerous and varied. They cannot be summed up in a sentence nor dismissed in a phrase, for they vary not only with classes but with individuals. Indeed, they even vary within individuals. We shall therefore be nearer the truth in emphasizing complexity and in confessing uncertainty than in trying to achieve a logical but misleading simplicity.

The average Chinese performs the ceremonies of ancestor worship without any clearly conscious motive. He sacrifices because it is the custom to sacrifice. He does it because he has always done it and because everybody has always done it as far back as memory and tradition can reach. For that very reason it is not [47/48] necessary or natural for him to ask any questions or to offer any explanations. But if he is called upon to explain or if he is acutely observed, certain underlying ideas and sentiments are revealed.

To begin with the meaning and motives concerning which there is least dispute, we may note first the popular belief that the dead depend upon the living for sustenance and care.

Not only is abundant evidence available for similar beliefs among other animistic peoples, but to the prevalence of the belief among the Chinese there is almost universal testimony from the most experienced students of Chinese life and thought. The dead are commonly regarded as actually present at the sacrifices; they enjoy the offerings, and are dependent upon posterity for their continued well-being. Though this belief is seldom definitely expressed, and though it may not often take the form even of conscious feeling, it is an instinctive presupposition of the rites of tendance. We may therefore assume that one motive of ancestor worship is the desire to supply the needs of ancestors. It is prompted by an urgent sense of filial duty; it is a form of filial piety, expressing itself in continued affection and solicitude for the departed. To regard the ancestral rites as the continuation of the homage and reverence shown to parents on earth, as the extension of filial piety beyond the grave, is characteristic not only of the classics but also of the best Chinese thought of to-day. The very fact that a man worships only his own ancestors and that [48/49] no tablets or rites of tendance are given to those who die before reaching marriageable age serves to show that only those to whom filial duty is owed may properly receive the sacrifices. How strongly this motive operates is conceded even by writers who do not share the Chinese view that ancestor worship is essentially a form of filial piety.

But for the Chinese to see in filial piety the essential meaning of ancestor worship does not necessarily involve a conscious belief in the necessity of offerings to supply the actual wants of the deceased. Filial piety, that is, remains a central motive not only on the more primitive level, where sacrifices may be realistically interpreted, but also at a higher intellectual stage when; their significance has become symbolical or conventional. In other words, the efficacy of the offerings and the reality of the need may even be denied, yet the rites may be sedulously maintained as expressing the sense of family unity and continuity; for ancestor worship signifies that family ties are not broken by death. The deceased as well as the living are all parts of one family, all links in an endless family chain. Hence there is a sense of perpetual communion with the ancestral spirits, a feeling of their nearness and their continued interest in the affairs of their descendants. It is because the departed must share all the experiences of their posterity that the practice of "announcements" prevails. On these numerous occasions the offering is only incidental to the communication and the main motive is to maintain respectful contact with [49/50] the venerable deceased. Furthermore, even when the presence of the dead is doubted or denied, the ancestral rites may still be regarded as an expression of filial piety. At this stage, however, their significance is merely memorial. They serve as ceremonies by which the living may honor the memory of the dead and express their respect and gratitude for what the past has handed down to the present.

Filial piety, therefore, may be counted with certainty as a potent factor among the varied motives and meanings of ancestor worship. Indeed, it might better be described as a central strand into which are woven most of these same motives and meanings; for it is the fundamental feeling of duty owed to the departed which prompts the sacrifices of the sophisticated as well as the naive, of the intellectual as well as the "superstitious." Whether the dead are regarded as hungry and needing food, as present and requiring respectful attention, or as figures of the past living in the memory alone, their claim upon the living is insistent; and the first duty and desire of a son is to honor that claim with unremitting devotion.

But the demands of the dead upon the living and the duty or privilege of meeting those demands constitute but one aspect of Chinese ancestor worship. The other aspect represents the needs and desires of the living. What a man can do for his ancestors is balanced by what his ancestors can do for him. At this point, however, we enter the arena of controversy. The sentiment of filial piety and the duties which it prompts are [50/51] universally acknowledged as vital elements; but the powers of deceased forebears and the extent to which descendants try to draw upon those powers furnish a perennial subject for conflict and debate.

To judge from the evidence supplied by nearly all missionary writers and from the opinions of most European and American authorities, the Chinese believe that ancestors exercise a providential care over their descendants. Their spirits are powerful to work good or ill, in accordance with the treatment which they receive. The main motive for sacrifices, therefore, is to obtain protection and prosperity, to secure temporal goods, and to avert the calamities which ensue upon neglect. With varying degrees of emphasis these conclusions are definitely stated by such experienced students of Chinese life as Gray, Smith, Williams, DeGroot, Giube, Giles, Ball, Johnston, Pott, Soothill, and dozens of others. And their assertions appear to be about equally positive, whether they speak as Christian missionaries or merely as agnostic observers. In opposition to this volume of material published by the great majority there should be noted a kind of minority report which embodies the views of the intellectual and classically educated Chinese and of certain foreigners who are in sympathy with their thought. To these expositors the classics (especially the "Li Ki") remain the standard by reference to which the ancestral rites should be interpreted. The test is not what the foreigner may conclude after observing the illiterate masses, but what the Chinese scholar believes after absorbing the classics. [51/25] To him it seems a perversion of the true meaning of ancestor worship to regard the ancestors as gods who must be propitiated to secure blessings and to avert disasters. For him ancestors have no powers or privileges greater than those they possessed when alive. If they can bless or punish as they did in their lifetime it can only be in strict accordance with the moral law of the universe. No "worship" will extract from them undeserved prosperity or ward off merited disaster. It is quite true, of course, that trouble is supposed, in the long run, to visit those who neglect the tendance of their ancestors, just as similar evils will overtake those who neglect their living parents. But such punishment is a natural consequence of the Moral Law, or Tao, and does not represent the individual activity of indignant spirits. And the same principle applies to such rewards as prosperity and success.

Having in mind this brief review of the varied factors involved in ancestor worship, we are the better prepared to approach the central problem-the question whether ancestor worship is really "worship" in the strict sense, whether it properly constitutes a religion. Without much effort to define "worship" or to make clear the sense in which "religion" is used, most of the authorities on China who deal with the subject pronounce the verdict that ancestor worship is worship in the full sense of the word and that it can only be regarded as a form of religion. Many of the writers, as we have seen, make this assertion in substance by emphasizing the hope of [52/53] reward and the fear of punishment. Others specifically state that ancestor worship is "idolatry."

This conclusion is sometimes reached by the simple process of begging the question. Ancestor worship means the worship of ancestors and therefore ancestors are worshiped. But the question cannot be settled by reference to an English term. It cannot even be settled by reference to the Chinese term for "worship"-pai. The word pai is used to mean not only "worship" in the fullest sense, but also "visit," "pay respect to," "reverence," "make obeisance to," etc. Since these meanings shade into each other, the word itself offers no foothold for a decision. Nor are we much more safely guided when we observe the outward forms of the ancestral rites. These, as we have seen, include genuflections and prostrations, invocations and offerings. None of these acts necessarily involves strictly religious worship, for in China prostrations are often performed before parents or officials, the invocations used do not necessarily imply divine attributes, and the offerings presented can easily be interpreted as a family feast in which the spirits share. It is plain, therefore, that if we are to assess the religious value and meaning of ancestor worship we must define "worship" and "religion" and we must go behind the words and forms to the motives and desires which they express.

Since there is no agreement among scholars when they try to define religion, we can only hope to provide a rough and ready test or rule of thumb sufficiently [53/54] accurate for our purposes and likely to satisfy a majority of students. We may say that religion at the animistic level of the Chinese involves the belief in spirits beyond human control with whom men seek to establish favorable relations in order to avert harm and to obtain goods which they desire. Worship, at this same level, is simply the method of approach to spirits for the purpose of obtaining goods. If the approximate truth of this description is conceded, the way to judge the ancestral rites is plain. In so far as they are performed with the purpose of averting evil and obtaining goods by means of appeal to the powers of ancestors, they are worship in the strict sense and constitute a true cult. In so far as this motive is diluted or excluded by other motives, they are but partly religious or not religious at all. The test, then, is whether or not some return is expected for sacrifices offered. Is there a quid pro quo?

The answer to this question depends on the value assigned to the mass of evidence in support of the conclusion that the Chinese perform the ceremonies of ancestor worship with the aim to avoid calamities and to secure worldly prosperity. That evidence is ample enough to establish the fact that in popular ancestor worship the element of religion is so strong as to justify the term "worship." But the other elements in ancestor worship are so clearly and so vitally essential that we cannot equate ancestor worship and the worship of nature spirits and gods with the flat assertion that the ancestors are simply gods. For it is a safe general principle that [54/55] when two phenomena are very much alike yet differ in certain respects, the points of difference are always worthy of emphasis and often furnish the key to interpretation. Even when we call ancestor worship a religion, the fact remains that its distinctive characteristic is the element of filial piety, an element lacking in every other form of religion. The presence and power of this factor serve to complicate the meaning of ancestor worship and to set it in a class by itself.

No conclusion can therefore be sound which does not take into account the diversity of meaning and the shading of varied motives. At one extreme we have the rites performed as a conventional memorial with no belief implied in the powers or even the existence of the deceased. At the other extreme we have the same ceremonies performed with motive and desires scarcely distinguishable from those which express themselves in the service of gods and spirits. Toward the latter extreme tend the beliefs of the unlettered masses, toward the former the beliefs of the Chinese classics and of all those who think and feel in harmony with the classics. Between the two extremes and in obedience to one tendency or the other are innumerable gradations and variations of motive and meaning. Here the emphasis will be upon duty and the motive disinterested; there the purposes will be chiefly the fruit of selfish desire or fear. In the most formal memorials there will be lurking an element of religion and in the frankest effort to propitiate superior powers the element of filial duty will not be wholly absent. The one uniform factor will be the inevitable demand, for [55/56] conformity. Whatever his other motives may be, every Chinese performs the ancestral rites because it is considered the proper thing to do.

In spite of the variety of opinion concerning the meaning of ancestor worship, there is general agreement as to its effect. As the religious product of the patriarchal system, it has served to re├źnforce all the characteristic elements of that system. By confirming parental authority and cultivating filial reverence and obedience it has strengthened the family bond and given stability to the family group. Similarly, on a large scale, it has cemented the clan group and perpetuated the clan system. It has thereby operated as a stabilizing force, working for the permanence of Chinese institutions and binding the whole nation together. Its effect upon the details of family life has been to promote the practice of adoption, to honor the position of the legal wife, to encourage early betrothal and polygamy, and in general to emphasize the superiority of the male.

As a stimulus to morality ancestor worship has been powerful. Conscious that they live and act in the sight of their ancestors, the Chinese instinctively refer to them as judges of their conduct. To the ordinary social motives they add the desire to live worthy of their forebears and the fear of committing acts that will dishonor them. But though these sanctions may serve to heighten the moral sense, their effect is the extreme of conservatism. Too unquestioning a reverence for the past amounts to little more than slavery to the past, so that any change appears disrespectful to the departed; and the dead thus rule the living.


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