Chinese Ancestor Worship in Modern Times
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.