Afterlife and Salvation
Written by: Jeffrey Richey
Kongzi stated that the afterlife was beyond human comprehension. Humans should live and behave in such a way as to promote ideal social relations, rather than to act based on the expectations of rewards or punishments after death. In Confucian terms, a meaningful life is one in which one develops one's innate moral potential to the fullest while fulfilling all of one's social obligations. At the same time, from a Confucian perspective, one cannot live fully in the present without being fully responsible to the past, both in terms of paying respect to one's ancestors and making the best of what they have left behind.
Although Confucians do not typically hold beliefs about the individual salvation or damnation of persons beyond this life, ancestor worship is an important part of Confucian faith and practice. Ancestor worship is among the oldest and most enduring Chinese religious practices. Even though the cult of ancestors frequently has been described as Confucian, devotees of nearly every religious tradition in China practice ancestor worship. Confucian texts universally refer to ancestor worship approvingly and commend it as a means of cultivating the virtue of filial piety (xiao) as well as instilling harmonious relations in society. It is not always clear whether classical Confucian authors maintained belief in the supernatural existence or power of ancestors, but their reverence for ancestor worship as a core element in the spiritual life is unambiguous. What happens to human beings after they die is less important to Confucian thinkers than how the living fulfill their obligations to the dead.
From Kongzi's lifetime until the Song dynasty (960-1279 C.E.), however, only members of the Chinese elite practiced formal ancestor worship. It was not until the "Neo-Confucian" revival that elite practices such as detailed genealogical record-keeping and the construction of temples dedicated solely to ancestor worship became part of everyday life for commoners. Song emperors, who relied upon Confucian scholars to help stabilize and legitimize their regime, listened when Confucian thinkers such as Cheng Yi (1033-1107 C.E.) advocated genealogical research and ancestral temples for non-elites. Later Confucian reformers, such as Zhu Xi, devised ritual manuals that helped formalize and popularize ancestor worship among the lower classes.
By the end of the Song dynasty, ancestor worship according to canonical Confucian procedures could be found at nearly all levels of Chinese society. As the Song regime lost prestige and territory to non-Chinese powers -- such as the Jurchen peoples who overthrew Song rule in northern China in 1127, or the Mongols, who defeated the final Song emperor's forces in 1279 and ruled China as the Yuan dynasty until 1368 -- ancestor worship became one way in which to bolster Chinese ethnic and national self-confidence. Indeed, as Christian missionaries encountered Confucian ancestor worship during the Ming and Qing dynasties, the cult of ancestors became a battleground between evangelists who hoped to win Chinese converts (by presenting ancestor ritual as an expression of social virtues rather than as an act of worship) and their critics (who viewed ancestors as pagan idols to be abandoned in favor of Christianity's one true god). Pope Clement XI's eventual condemnation of Chinese Christians' participation in ancestor worship in 1715 may be regarded as a Christian adjudication of a theological problem that never occurred to Confucians, who were more concerned with the personal and social effects of participation in ancestor worship than the reality of the beings at the center of the rites.