Rituals and Worship

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.

Chinese father and son: Public Domain 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.

Contemporary Confucian family gathering : Public DomainThe death of Mao relaxed, but did not end, government censure of ancestor worship. The Eleventh Party Congress of 1979 proclaimed that, although "certain long-standing activities such as ancestor worship" were "a kind of superstition," henceforth they would not be proscribed "as long as they do not affect collective political and economic activities," and that the government placed its faith in "patient persuasion and lasting education in science, culture, and atheism" to root out such practices eventually. Since the 1980s, both public and private ancestor worship have become more prominent in mainland China, and these practices have remained strong in Hong Kong and Taiwan as well as in overseas Chinese communities. Traditional Confucian ancestor worship continues unabated in South Korea, Vietnam, and Japan. Whether in mainland China, elsewhere in East Asia, or in the global East Asian diaspora, ancestor worship has never ceased to be practiced.


Study Questions:
    1.    What is the most important Confucian ritual practice?
    2.    How do Confucians regard their ancestors?
    3.    Why is filial piety so important to Confucians?

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