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Chinese Ancestor Worship in Modern Times

Updated on April 5, 2010

Even though China has become modern in many ways and it is focused on today’s opportunities, as well as other issues that concern all of us in the modern world, there is one day in the year, in which the Chinese look to the past and take time to revere their ancestors. Every year in April, during the festival of Qingming, which means day of clear brightness the Chinese take time to pay homage to their ancestors.

In an article in National Geographic Magazine, titled “Restless Spirits” we get to learn about Chinese rituals in relation to ancestor worship. Ancestor worship goes as far back as five thousand years in China. In more ancient time the cultures of Northern China venerated their dead ancestors through highly systemized ceremonies. Even though they are not celebrated in modern times in the same way they were celebrated in the past, traditions still survive today.

The modern day tradition of ancestor worship that is celebrated on Qingming is observed in the following way: Every year only ten men are allowed to participate, and all these men were named Wei. These ten men all go hiking up a mountain behind SpringVillage. The men wear simple work clothes and carry wicker baskets and shovels. They go right to their destination without stopping or saying a word. All these men make their way to the village cemetery.

In the village cemetery simple piles of dirt are arranged in neat rows. Each row represents a distinct generation. The men first begin with the front line; these are the graves of those that died most recently. Members of their families like their fathers, mothers, uncles, and aunts. The men leave special gifts on the graves, such as packs of cigarettes, bottles of alcohol and burned paper grave money to use in the afterlife. This money that is used in the afterlife bears the watermark that says “The Bank of Heaven, Co., Ltd.”

Each of the men pays close attention to their own close family members. The men move back in time from row to row. By the time the men are finished it is almost dawn. One of the men, whose name is Wei Minghe explains that each of the mounds of dirt represents a house for the dead. The local tradition requires that they finish the Qingming rituals before dawn. Wei Minghe explains that if they are able to pour dirt on the grave before dawn the deceased gets a tiled roof. If they don’t pour dirt on the deceased before dawn then that ancestor will get a thatched roof.

The Chinese view of the afterlife has always been marked by qualities that the Westerners would consider rather earthly. In ancient times the views on the afterlife tended to be more pragmatic and materialistic. The dead were believed to have great powers and influenced daily events. It was believed that unhappy ancestors could inflict illness and even disaster to the living. It has even been discovered that human sacrifices were preformed to appease these spirits and advert disaster.

From the Shang (a culture that flourished in northern China) perspective human sacrifice was simply part of a remarkably well organized system. The Shang even kept a calendar with special dates for sacrificing in devotion to a specific ancestor. The purpose of ancestor worship was to have favors rendered from those who were departed. They believed that the dead had distinct responsibility in connection to the world of the living. The duties of the dead were organized so that the most recently departed took care of smaller matters and those who have been dead for a longer period dealt with larger matters.

As time passed spirit object were used to substitute human sacrifice. The terra-cotta army is an example of spirit objects. The terra-cotta army that was commissioned by emperor Qin Shi Huang Di. He commissioned an army of 8000 life-size statues that were created for serving the emperor in the after life.

In the Chinese tradition unlike Western culture, when you die you remain as you are. It seems that the old traditions are less observed as fewer and fewer in SpringVillage go to attend the cemetery on the top of the hill. Perhaps someday these traditions will be abandoned altogether.

Each culture has its own unique way of dealing with death. In China it is a continuation of this life in a sense. Death is a step shrouded with mystery. To many cultures the beliefs and rituals surrounding the afterlife is part of their way of explaining the mysteries of the afterlife.

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    • Internetwriter62 profile image
      Author

      Internetwriter62 6 years ago from Marco Island, Florida

      Hello Hui,

      Thank you for sharing this with me. That is so sad to know that many revered traditions also include aspects to them that have caused so much pain. I know that the Egyptians did the same the thing, the Pharaoh would have his servants buried with him as well, so it was not a good thing to be a healthy servant to a sick ruler. I appreciate you're sharing this information with me, I learn a lot from well informed Hubbers like you.

    • Hui (蕙) profile image

      Hui (蕙) 6 years ago

      Hi, it is really our pleasure you'd like to learn and talk our culture.

      The way of people in rows to make ancestor worship actually embodied a strict patriarchal system, which used to obstruct heavily the growth of innovative ideas. About that "sacrifice" with people, it was not as sacrifice?but as possession for royal or noble family members to serve for them after life. In Chinese religions, mainly Buddhism and Taoism, except Tibetan Buddhism, none of doctrines permits alive people as sacrifice.

    • Internetwriter62 profile image
      Author

      Internetwriter62 7 years ago from Marco Island, Florida

      Thanks for stopping by Poo, I wish I knew of some. I got the information for this article in National Geographic the January 2010 issue and the article is titled "Restless Spirits" and it is on page 108. Fascinating article, I'm sure you will find it very informative.

    • profile image

      poo 7 years ago

      Can anyone please recommend some good books about ancestors cult and ancestors worship in China?

    • Internetwriter62 profile image
      Author

      Internetwriter62 8 years ago from Marco Island, Florida

      Exactly, I just thought the article was very interesting and worth exploring.

    • Harlan Colt profile image

      Harlan Colt 8 years ago from the Rocky Mountains

      Yea, just because we don't buy their doctrines, doesn't mean we can't enjoy and appreciate learning about their ancient way of life.

      - Great hub.

    • Internetwriter62 profile image
      Author

      Internetwriter62 8 years ago from Marco Island, Florida

      Thank you Harlan, I really appreciate your thoughtful input, especially coming from a Christian, who happens to be an expert on anthropology. I'm a Christian to and I agree with you, that the sacrificial system in many of these cultures is rather hypocritical, not to mention barbaric. Usually the one sacrificed, was someone that the village deemed expendable. As a Christian, I don't believe anyone is expandable, and yes it is a sacrifice when the cost is yours and yours alone. By organized I think they meant systematic, as to who was sacrificed and when, not that the system really had any order to it. I guess that's why they developed what they call "spirit objects" as a way to cope with the demands of their religion.

      I only wrote this as a way to explore an old belief of another culture. I don't personally believe in this stuff. I just want to share interesting information and to enrich the lives of my readers.

    • Harlan Colt profile image

      Harlan Colt 8 years ago from the Rocky Mountains

      Hi again! Harlan checking in…

      I enjoyed this hub. It is nice to learn such things. I took anthropology in college, Being a Christian too, I never bought in to the evolution stuff, I simply gave them the answers I knew they wanted on the tests. As for Chinese Ancestor worship, it is sometimes a challenge to appreciate other’s belief’s when they contradict your own. I supposed other belief’s feel the same way though. Regardless, I do enjoy learning. I am always reading something, or writing something. Usually my opinion, which few seem to want to read… ha ha.

      I was thinking though, in regards to the Shang perspective where they considered human sacrifice to be part of a remarkably, well organized society… that those being sacrificed suddenly didn’t find it so remarkable.

      Funny thing about sacrifices, I think they are often a bit hypocritical. If I grab the guy down the street and sacrifice him, where’s the sacrifice? A sacrifice is just that, something important to you personally that you give to your “god” to show your devotion. Like in the movies, the tribal village is always grabbing the damsel in distress, or the daring explorer to sacrifice them to their god, Booga Bimbay or whatever. That is not a sacrifice, that’s just murder. A sacrifice would be like cutting off your hand or your arm, or like in the Bible where the Babylonians sacrificed their own children in the fires of Molec. It cost them something personal. Grabbing the occasional foreign explorer in the woods and offering them up to Booga Bimbay costs them nothing personal, except perhaps the few calories they burn carting them back to camp.

      I’ll stick to Jesus, he gave himself as a sacrifice for all and he only asks for faith in return. It sure beats hanging over a fire on a spit while everyone dances around in a frenzy.

    • Internetwriter62 profile image
      Author

      Internetwriter62 8 years ago from Marco Island, Florida

      Thank you MyWebs, Since death is a mystery in our physical world, many cultures create ways of dealing with this subject. Being a Christian I'm confident that God has me in his hands and by His grace I know where I'm going. I'm glad you enjoyed it. National Geographic is a real gem, the topics in every issue are so interesting.

    • MyWebs profile image

      Anthony Goodley 8 years ago from Sheridan, WY

      The Chinese people sure have a unique way of honoring their ancestors. While no one ever wants to die, sadly we all will eventually. I do look forward to learning what the afterlife is really like, I just hope I don't learn this for a long, long time.

      I always learn so much from your hubs and enjoy reading them. Thanks for another great hub!

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