Rites and Ceremonies
Written by: Jeffrey Richey
Archaeological and art-historical evidence suggests that, by the end of the Han dynasty, persons at nearly all levels of Chinese society regularly worshipped their ancestors. The goal of ancestor worship became ensuring that one's dead relations did indeed become ancestors, rather than ghosts: supernatural powers that were benevolent and remote, rather than malevolent and proximate. On this point, it is important to note that, beginning with Han texts, ancestors can be described as shen (spirits), a term that also means "gods." Indeed, the boundary between ancestors and deities is fluid, such that some ancestors became gods over time through promotion within the celestial bureaucracy. Confucians during this period often expressed skepticism about the particular beliefs associated with ghosts, gods, and ancestors, but never wavered in their support for the practice of worshipping these beings.
Despite the widespread practice of ancestor worship in ancient and medieval China, formalized ancestor cult was confined largely to the ruling classes through the Tang dynasty. It was not until the "Neo-Confucian" revival of the Song dynasty (960-1279) 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) 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. By the late imperial period (from the founding of the Ming dynasty in 1368 to the fall of the Qing dynasty in 1912), ancestor worship had attained the form in which it is found today.
Like other aspects of Confucianism, ancestor worship was the target of severe criticism and persecution during the regime of Chinese Communist leader Mao Zedong (1893-1976), with parallels in North Korea and Vietnam. During the "Cultural Revolution" (1966-1976), in particular, popular Confucian rituals such as ancestor worship were suppressed by the state, and community venues for ancestor worship such as village temples were destroyed or used for secular purposes. The traditional practice of burying one's dead was condemned in favor of cremation; cemeteries were converted to agricultural uses. Zealous young students supervised the burning of home altars and ancestral tablets.