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Ancestor veneration in China

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Title: Ancestor veneration in China  
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Subject: Religion in China, Chinese folk religion, Sanyi teaching, Shanghai, China
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Ancestor veneration in China

An ancestral worship ceremony led by Taoist priests at the pyramidal-shaped Great Temple of Zhang Hui (张挥公大殿 Zhāng Huī gōng dàdiàn), the main ancestral shrine dedicated to the progenitor of the Zhang lineage, located at Zhangs' ancestral home in Qinghe, Hebei.
A stone tortoise with the "Stele of Divine Merits and Saintly Virtues" (Shengong Shende), erected by the Yongle Emperor in 1413 in honor of his father, the Hongwu Emperor in the Ming Xiaoling Mausoleum ("Ming Mausoleum of Filial Piety").

Ancestor veneration (Chinese: 敬祖; pinyin: jìngzǔ) in Chinese culture and ethnic religion is the practice of living family members and Chinese kins to pay honour and respect (Chinese: 拜拜; pinyin: bàibài) to their progenitors and ancestors. Emphasised in Confucian philosophy, paying respect to one's ancestors is an aspect of filial piety (Chinese: ; pinyin: xiào) and is deeply rooted in Chinese culture; it is believed that the relationship and obligations of children toward their parents remains intact even after death.

Each Chinese kin maintains its own network of ancestral temples, where the godly progenitors and other ancestors of the lineage are worshipped. At these temples, ceremonies can be performed either by elders of the lineage, Taoist clergy, or, more rarely, Buddhist monks. Thus, rituals for ancestral worship are found in the practices of both Taoism and Chinese Buddhism.[1][2][3]


  • Practices 1
    • Mourning 1.1
    • Funeral rites 1.2
    • Burial 1.3
    • Continued obeisance 1.4
  • References 2
  • External links 3


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.[4] 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 that after the death of Confucius his followers engaged in this three-year mourning period to symbolize their commitment to his teachings.

Funeral rites

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.[2][4]


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 where 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 chi. A bad chi flow could result in a disgruntled spirit who could possibly haunt their descendants.[1][2]

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.

Continued obeisance

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.[1]

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.


  1. ^ a b c ReligionFacts. (2005, June 2). Ancestor Veneration. Retrieved October 21, 2008, from 
  2. ^ a b c Thompson, L. G. (1979). Chinese Religion: An Introduction Third Edition. Belmont, California: Wadsworth, Inc.
  3. ^ Baker, Hugh D. R. Chinese Family and Kinship. New York: Columbia University Press, 1979. pg. 98
  4. ^ a b Roberta H. Martin (2007). Settling the Dead: Funerals, Memorials and Beliefs Concerning the Afterlife. Retrieved October 21, 2008, from Living in the Chinese Cosmos: Understanding Religion in Late-Imperial China:

External links

  • Lakos, W. Chinese Ancestor Worship: A Practice and Ritual Oriented Approach to Understanding Chinese Culture. Cambridge Scholars Publishing, 2010. ISBN (10): 1-4438-2495-X, ISBN (13): 978-1-4438-2495-8
  • Nieminen, T. Chinese Ideas of Heaven and the Afterlife (Pre-Buddhist). Roleplaying In Asian Settings, 3. Year 2001.
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