Ancestor worship refers to rituals designed to commemorate and venerate the spirits of one’s deceased forebears. While it is often associated with the Confucian notion of filial piety, ancestor worship crosses the boundaries of religious traditions, geographical regions, and socioeconomic groups. Dating back to the Neolithic period, it is one of the oldest and most influential elements of Chinese religious culture. Sacrifices intended to pacify the spirits of the ancestors feature in Shang-dynasty oracle bone inscriptions, the oldest existing documents written in Chinese. These practices continued to flourish in early China, and the worship of imperial ancestors was eventually incorporated into the official state religion. When the organized religions of Buddhism and Daoism began to spread, new forms of ancestor worship rituals, such as the Buddhist Ghost Festival (yulanpen, 盂兰盆) and its Daoist equivalent (zhongyuan, 中元), began to flourish. By the end of the Song dynasty, following the Neo-Confucian reformation of domestic rituals, ancestor worship practices could be found at all echelons of Chinese society. In the early 21st century, these are performed in mainland China, Taiwan, and Hong Kong, and among overseas communities in Southeast Asia and North America. These rituals can be divided into several types: (1) the worship of individual-lineage ancestors, which entails the presentation of ritual offering to their tablets or images at the household altar, (2) the collective veneration of ancestors and, most importantly, the founder of the lineage, at the ancestral hall, and finally, (3) communal rituals dedicated to the worship of the ancestors, which also take place at the grave on specific dates, such as the Qingming (清明) and Double Ninth (Chongyang, 重陽) Gravesweeping Festivals. Given its longevity and cultural prominence, the cult of the ancestors has attracted the attention of scholars in Chinese studies. Following the earliest accounts of ancestor worship practices written by Christian missionaries, most of the work during the 20th century was produced by anthropologists, who situated ancestor worship in the larger context of the kinship system and lineage organization. Late 20th- and early-21st-centuries scholarship has sought to expand these seminal studies: archaeologists and art historians offer an analysis of the material objects associated with the cult of the ancestors, historians draw on textual sources to explore its different manifestations and sociocultural implications, and ethnographers offer new accounts of the varieties of ancestor worship practices among ethnic minorities groups in the mainland and overseas Chinese communities across the globe.
A definitive account of ancestor worship practices throughout Chinese history has yet to be written. Baker 1979 offers a brief introduction and might be a good place to start. Hsu 1967 and Freedman 1979 are significant because they represent the work of two of the most influential modern scholars of ancestor worship and are widely cited. Two more studies written by pioneering scholars of Chinese religion are Yang 1961 and Granet 1977, which include chapters dedicated to ancestor worship. Teiser 1996 effectively situates the ancestral cult within the larger context of Chinese religious culture, whereas Coe and Begley 2016 offers the most updated survey of early-21st-century scholarship and an analysis of ancestor worship in Chinese history, from a sociological perspective. Last, as for the two most recent monographs, Lakos 2010 argues that ancestor worship, rather than Confucianism, is the prime cultural symbol and paradigm of Chinese culture, while Batairwa Kubuya 2018 offers a historical overview of Western encounters with what the author calls “ancestor-related praxis” and its impact on the Chinese reception and reinterpretation of these practices.
Baker, Hugh D. R. Chinese Family and Kinship. London: Macmillan, 1979.
Drawing on classical literature and modern ethnographic accounts (including Baker’s field work in Hong Kong), chapter 4 offers an analysis of ancestor worship, burial practices, and notions of the afterlife from the Shang dynasty to the late 1970s.
Batairwa Kubuya, Paulin. Meaning and Controversy within Chinese Ancestor Religion. London: Palgrave Macmillan, 2018.
A study of the perceptions and interpretations of Chinese ancestor worship by foreign observers, from Catholic and Protestant missionaries to modern Sinologists, and their impact on the emergence of an indigenous Chinese theory of ancestor rites.
Coe, Kathryn, and Ryan O. Begley. “Ancestor Worship and the Longevity of Chinese Civilization.” Review of Religion and Chinese Society 3.1 (2016): 3–24.
A sociological inquiry into the nature, function, and key cross-cultural characteristics of ancestor worship and its enduring legacy throughout Chinese history. The authors divide ancestral rites into two main types: the worship of nonroyal ancestors within the lineage, and the worship of the emperor in the context of the imperial state region.
Freedman, Maurice. “Ancestor Worship: Two Facets of the Chinese Case.” In The Study of Chinese Society: Essays. By Maurice Freedman, 296–312. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 1979.
This seminal essay offers a general overview of the dominant views of the afterlife, ancestor worship rites in the household shrine and at the gravesite, the role of geomancy in these rituals, and the relation to the social institutions of lineage and family throughout Chinese history.
Granet, Marcel. Religion of the Chinese People. New York: Harper & Row, 1977.
An English translation, with an introduction by Freedman, of Granet’s 1951 book La Religion des Chinois. Chapter 2 contains a discussion on ancestor worship, in which Granet traces the origins of the ancestral cult to ancient agrarian festivals and argues that this practice was used to augment the hierarchical structure of Chinese society.
Hsu, Francis L. K. Under the Ancestors’ Shadow: Kinship, Personality, and Social Mobility in China. 2d rev. ed. New York: Columbia University Press, 1967.
Originally published in 1948, this second revised edition is based on ethnographic work conducted in the 1940s in a small village known as West Town, located next to the town of Dali in modern-day Yunnan Province and inhabited by the Bai ethnic minority. Hsu uses his data to draw general conclusions on Chinese ancestor worship, famously asserting that in Chinese religion, ancestral spirits are unequivocally benevolent and only ghosts and other deities inflict harm on humans.
Lakos, William. Chinese Ancestor Worship: A Practice and Ritual Oriented Approach to Understanding Chinese Culture. Newcastle upon Tyne, UK: Cambridge Scholars, 2010.
This monograph provides an analysis of Chinese ancestor worship and its correlations, especially filial piety and ritual. Drawing on modern theories of ritual (mainly practice theory), the author argues that ancestor worship, rather than Confucianism, is the prime cultural symbol and paradigm of Chinese culture.
Teiser, Stephen. “Introduction: The Spirits of Chinese Religion.” In Religions of China in Practice. Edited by Donald S. Lopez Jr., 3–37. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1996.
In this introductory essay to a collected volume, Teiser identifies the kinship system, and particularly the practice of ancestral worship, as one of the key features of Chinese religious culture.
Yang, C. K. Religion in Chinese Society. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1961.
In this seminal study of Chinese religious life, Yang makes a distinction between official religions such as Buddhism and Daoism and diffused religion, whose beliefs, practices, and organization were embedded in everyday life. While the ancestral cult is not one of the main topics of the book, chapter 1 discusses it within the context of family and clan units.
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