Chinese Ancestor Worship Explained: History, Traditions & More

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No one exists in a vacuum. Every single one of us is a single link in a chain our ancestors began many years ago. That’s why worshiping our ancestors is an age-old world tradition.

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However, the specific ways we do so varies from one culture to another, much like the differences in the way people respond to death in different cultures.

For a long time, the Chinese have venerated family members who’ve passed on in a variety of unique ways. These traditions provide insight into the changing nature of Chinese culture.

Maybe you’re interested in the topic. Or, perhaps you’re attending a Chinese funeral soon and want to know more about their customs regarding death. This guide will help you better understand Chinese ancestor worship.

What is Chinese Ancestor Worship or Veneration?

Chinese ancestor worship doesn’t simply involve remembering those who’ve passed on. It has major social and spiritual significance based on a range of traditional Chinese beliefs about family and piety.

Definition

Chinese ancestor worship wasn’t always religious in nature. However, the practices we most associate with the veneration of ancestors in China did eventually take on a greater degree of spiritual significance. 

Specifically, Chinese ancestor worship has roots in traditional Chinese folk religions’ beliefs about the afterlife. Traditional Chinese families that practiced ancestor worship believed the soul of someone who died consisted of two parts: the po (relating to yin energy and the grave) and the hun (relating to yang energy and ancestral tablets Chinese families would keep in their homes). 

According to Chinese folk beliefs, a soul is split when a person dies. Part of it goes to an afterlife to eventually be reborn. The other component of a person’s soul (the hun) remains close to their ancestral tablet, a shrine for ancestors in a traditional Chinese family’s home.

This reflects the belief that ancestors remain among the living to a degree even after they die. Chinese families would worship them accordingly. This involved practices immediately after a family member’s passing, as well as over the years after their death.

History

Chinese ancestor worship practices evolved throughout history. Many changing folk and religious beliefs contributed shaped practices over the course of centuries (and potentially millennia).

Confucianism provided the original roots for Chinese ancestor worship practices. However, early Orthodox Confucians didn’t actually consider ancestor worship to have religious significance. They instead believed that worshipping one’s ancestors was a respectful social duty.

Imperial influence

One’s own ancestors weren’t necessarily the only people a Chinese person might venerate. Shifting dynasties and empires in China resulted in many Chinese people worshipping imperial ancestors as well. 

This caused Chinese ancestor worship to take on more religious significance. Because some imperial leaders believed it was important for all Chinese citizens to worship them after their passing, this soon became a key aspect of China’s official state religion. Chinese ancestor worship traditions had thus spread throughout all of Chinese society by the end of the Song dynasty.

Buddhism and Taoism

The rise of Buddhism and Taoism throughout China also contributed to Chinese ancestor worship becoming a more religious practice than merely a secular one.

Buddhism and Taoism specifically led to widespread popularity of specific worship traditions such as the Buddhist Ghost Festival. Buddhist beliefs about rebirth contributed to ancestor worship practices as well.

Significance

The significance of Chinese ancestor worship changed over time. It began as a social expectation. After all, even today many non-religious people still revere their loved ones who’ve passed on to some degree. They may not believe their loved ones’ souls exist in an afterlife, but they still believe it’s important to show them respect by tending to their graves.

However, as Chinese ancestor worship became more religious in nature, so did its significance.

For instance, according to traditional Chinese beliefs, when a person died, part of their soul faced judgment before the 10 Magistrates of Hell. This involved a period of suffering before their soul could travel to a more pleasant afterlife. Only on rare occasions did someone live so virtuously that they skipped the suffering period.

That said, Chinese people believed that performing certain funeral rites and rituals could help a soul travel through the hellish realm more quickly.

Of course, Chinese ancestor worship practices continued long after the initial funeral rites. This type of worship had more to do with the part of the soul that remained with the living. Traditional Chinese families believed that worshiping ancestors helped this part of their souls remain content.

Additionally, some believed that if they didn’t make sacrificial offerings, a soul might become a malevolent spirit. Thus, Chinese ancestor worship helped families protect themselves from the wrath of an angry ghost.

Filial piety

Showing piety to one’s family members was an important part of Chinese culture in general. This is a key reason Chinese ancestor worship flourished. The respect a person gave to their elders while they were alive continued even after their passing.

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Chinese Ancestor Worship Traditions & Rituals

The following are just a few examples of Chinese ancestor worship traditions and rituals. They reveal that the Chinese would worship their ancestors both in and outside the home.

Shrines and sacrifices

Many traditional Chinese families keep tablets or shrines for ancestors in their homes. On the anniversary of a specific ancestor’s passing, they may offer sacrificial food at the tablet. Numerous living family members often participate in rituals as well. A family member’s age typically determines what role they play and when they’re involved in a specific ritual.

However, the anniversary of an ancestor’s passing isn’t the only time Chinese families make sacrificial offerings. Some families also make offerings during relevant festivals. Other families make offerings at ancestral tablets on special occasions, such as the birth of a child.

In general, families keep a candle or similar flame constantly glowing in front of an ancestral tablet. They may also burn incense every day for a specified period after a family member dies.

Qingming Festival

In many cultures, worshiping ancestors isn’t merely something families practice in private. There are also instances when they practice public or culture-wide ancestor worship.

The Qingming festival is one example. Every year on a day between March 28 and April 12, Chinese people travel to the graves of ancestors to clean them. Some refer to this practice as “Tomb Sweeping Day.” It’s a simple and meaningful way Chinese people can pay respect to their ancestors together.

Hungry Ghost Festival

The Hungry Ghost Festival is another example of a way many Chinese people come together to pay tribute to those who’ve passed on. Based on its name, you may already have some guesses about what it involves.

The hungry ghost festival actually lasts an entire month. It reaches its peak on the 15th day of the seventh lunar month, so the specific time of year it occurs varies.

Traditional Chinese beliefs hold that the spirits of ancestors return to the world of the living during this time. Chinese families honor them by burning incense and money. They also burn bowls of dim sum (or similar types of food) that are typically made of paper (although some Chinese families may offer actual food sacrifices).

As the name of the festival implies, this is to ensure the spirits of ancestors don’t go hungry during their time back among the living.

Chinese Ancestor Worship Today

The continued popularity of Chinese ancestor worship practices such as the Hungry Ghost Festival and the Qingming Festival prove that venerating one’s ancestors is still common among many Chinese people today.

Recent studies actually indicate approximately 70% of Chinese citizens still participate in some form of ancestor worship. However, as with many cultures, modern changes have made these practices somewhat less common. The majority of citizens engage in Chinese ancestor worship, but studies also reveal some no longer prioritize it the way Chinese citizens of the past used to. 

Chinese Ancestor Worship: Ties to the Past

This has been a brief overview of how the Chinese venerate their ancestors. Chinese ancestor worship has a very long history, and there’s much more to learn about this subject.

That said, these points should help you better appreciate how, like so many others, Chinese culture emphasizes the importance of remembering where we came from by honoring those who came before.


Sources

  1. Hu, Anning. “Ancestor Worship in Contemporary China: An Empirical Investigation.” The Chinese University of Hong Kong Press, 2016, muse.jhu.edu/article/609591/pdf
  2. Smith, Richard J. “Settling the Dead: Funerals, Memorials, and Beliefs Concerning the Afterlife.” Living in the Chinese Cosmos, Columbia University Asia for Educators, afe.easia.columbia.edu/cosmos/prb/journey.htm
  3. Tavor, Ori. “Ancestor Worship.” Oxford Bibliographies, Oxford University Press, 27 February 2019, www.oxfordbibliographies.com/view/document/obo-9780199920082/obo-9780199920082-0171.xml
  4. “Tomb Sweeping Festival: China pays 'virtual' respects to ancestors.” BBC, BBC, 4 April 2020, www.bbc.com/news/world-asia-china-52157455

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