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 Ancestor Worship in Taoism

___ Ancestor Worship in Taoism

Ancestor Worship (Chinese: 祔, pinyin: fù), Veneration and Offering in Taoism.


Shang Dynasty (1600-1046 BC). The people at this time worshiped many deities, including natural forces and elements such as rain, clouds, rivers, mountains, the sun, the moon, and the earth. Their greatest deity, Shang Di (上帝, pinyin: Shàngdì), remains an important god in the Chinese pantheon.

The history of ancestor veneration has its roots in the Zhou Dynasty (1122- 256 BC). When the Zhou dynasty came to power, significant changes took place in religion. People still worshiped the old gods, but ancestor worship became increasingly important. Confucianism and Taoism appeared near the end of the Zhou dynasty. These two religious traditions had an enormous influence on the development of the most basic and lasting principles of Chinese culture.

The basic aim of Confucianism is to live in harmony with the "Way (Tao/ Dao) of Heaven" by carrying out the duties and responsibilities appropriate to one's position in society. Ancestor worship and reverence to family are fundamental elements of Confucianism. Rituals to honour ancestors are extremely important and must be performed in precise ways. By carrying them out properly, an individual can receive the aid and cooperation of deceased relatives. Misfortune, a sign of displeasure by the deceased, indicates that the proper rituals have not been followed.

Taoism, also known as Daoism, arose about the same time as Confucianism. The religious tradition had its roots in the nature worship of the earliest Chinese people. The word tao/dao means "way," and Taoist belief is based on the idea that there is a natural order or a "way of heaven" that one can come to know by living in harmony with nature.

Through an understanding of natural laws, an individual can gain eternal life.
An important concept of taoism is Yin and Yang.
Taoist deities include nature spirits, ancient legendary heroes, humanized planets and stars, humans who became immortal through Taoist practices, and animals such as dragons, tigers, and snakes. All human activities—even such things as drunkenness and robbery—are represented by deities as well. The highest deity, Yu Huang-ti (the Jade Emperor), is associated with the ancient Chinese god Shang Di.

see also more about Taoism

Taoism and Confucianism stress the importance of paying proper respect to elders, especially parents and grandparents, and deceased ancestors are honoured with various ceremonies and rituals.

The basic principle of Buddhism is that all suffering comes from earthly desire, and only by eliminating desire can one gain happiness.
Buddhists believe that humans live many lives and are continually reincarnated, or reborn, to a new form of existence after death. An individual's actions in previous lives, known as karma, determine what type of existence that person has after rebirth. The highest goal of Buddhism is to escape the cycle of death and rebirth by achieving enlightenment and entering a timeless state known as nirvana, in which one is free of all desire.
Chinese Buddhism became much more elaborate than Indian Buddhism, incorporating many Taoist and ancient Chinese gods. Among the most popular Chinese Buddhist deities are Emituofo (Amituofo 阿彌陀佛), ruler of the Western Paradise, and Guan Yin, the goddess of mercy.

Family is viewed as a closely united group of living and dead relatives.
Ancestor worship is a religious practice based on the belief that deceased family members have a continued existence, that the spirits of deceased ancestors will look after the family, take an interest in the affairs of the world, and possess the ability to influence the fortune of the living.
Unity of the group is reinforced through ancestor veneration, offering of various kinds help to keep the ancestors happy in the spiritual world, who, in return, will bless the family.

Ancestor worshipping is not asking for favours, but to fulfil one’s filial duties. The act is a way to respect, honour and look after ancestors in their afterlives guaranteeing the ancestors’ well-being and positive disposition towards the living, as well as possibly seeking the ancestors’ wisdom, guidance or assistance for their living descendants.
One has to pay respect and homage to the ancestors, honour the deeds and memories of the deceased, since the ancestors are the ones having brought the descendants into the world, nourished them and having prepared the conditions under which the descendants grew up, hence ancestor veneration is a pay back of spiritual debts.

Being an important aspect of the Chinese culture, the social or non-religious function of ancestor worship is to cultivate kinship values like filial piety, family loyalty, and continuity of the family lineage.

Ancestor worship is a family affair, it is held in homes and temples and consists of offering joss stick, serving as communication and greetings to the deceased, prayers and offering items before tablets.
In homes, the shrines can be a shelf on the wall, a table or an altar like architectural structure, integrated in the structure of the house or even an entire room, depending on the financial status of the family.
The shrine will show a tablet with the ancestor's name inscribed on it, as well as a picture or photograph. Most likely, the patrilineal ancestors and their wives will be honoured. The shrine will have an incense stick holder, at times with a Golden Flower, and plates for food offerings, some might feature glasses or a set of tea cups for quenching the ancestors’ thirst. Some shrines show symbolic objects or objects honoured by the deceased. Flowers offerings, most likely fresh ones or sometimes in form of a garland, can be found as well.
Small offerings are always placed throughout the year to honour deceased family members.
On Chinese New Year’s day, it will be different, though.

food offering
Food offering and incense at a market's stall during Chinese New Year celebration, China Town, Bangkok. Photo © Valeska Gehrmann

Chinese New Year
(1st Moon, day 1)
During Chinese New Year’s festivities, the head of the family, normally male, will lead the family to the shrine to pay respect to the ancestors.
Than the food will be offered to the ancestors, consisting of various plates of food, cakes, fruits and sweets, the amount of food offerings will be rather overwhelming.
Ancestors will be served their favourite dishes as well as ‘dishes with a meaning’.
As for the ancestors, the offering should be placed inside the house on the ancestors’ shrine.
Incense will be lit, and while still holding the incense in ones hand, one will bow three times before placing the incense in the incense holder.
When paying respect, it is even more respectful if one kneels down in front of the deceased ancestors shrine or altar.
After having paid respect to the deceased ancestors, respect is paid to the ancestral living elders.

Various gods, especially those gods the family wants to stay in good conditions with, will be paid respect to as well, but at a different location within the vicinity of the house. Normally a house temple or a place to put incense will be at the entrance area of the house. Food will be offered as well, though in smaller quantities than above mentioned and it will be offered outside the house. Incense will be lit and offered to the gods in above mentioned manner.

Only after respect has been paid to the gods and ancestors can one continue with the New Year’s festivities. What will follow, in Chinese tradition, will be the biggest feast of the year.

Tomb Sweeping Day/ Grave Sweeping Day/ Qingming Festival
also Grave Sweeping Day/ All Souls Day/ Clear and Bright Festival
(4th Moon, day 4 or 5)

Tomb Sweeping Day is a traditional Chinese festival celebrated on the 104th day after the winter solstice.
The living descendants pay respect and homage to all ancestors, including same age or younger generations of ancestors.
It is a day to remember and honour one's ancestors at grave sites by sweeping the tombs and offering food, tea, wine, chopsticks to eat the food with and by praying.
Joss paper accessories will be offered to the ancestors as well.
While bland food is placed by the tombs on Tomb Sweeping Day, the Chinese regularly provide scrumptious offerings to their ancestors at altar tables in their homes.

Burning Joss Paper
Burning Joss Paper at a temple in Hanoi, Vietnam. Photo ©

Ghost Festival, Hungry Ghost Festival
The 15th day of the 7th moon in the lunar calendar is called Ghost Day and the seventh moon in general is regarded as the Ghost Month, in which ghosts, including those of the deceased ancestors, and spirits come out from the lower realm: the gates of hell are opened to free the hungry ghosts who then wander to seek food on Earth.
On Ghost Day, the deceased visit the living.
During the Ghost Festival, the elder ancestors and older generations are worshipped.
Rituals are preformed to transmute and absolve the sufferings of the deceased, offerings reaching the ghosts should comfort the ghost’s life. A satisfied ghost will not harm the living, but rather protect them, acting as a ‘guardian angel’.
Important during the Ghost Festival is the fulfillment of one’s filial duties, filial piety and to calm spirits.
Activities during the month include preparing ritualistic food offerings, giving a feast to the ghosts, burning incense, joss paper, spirit money and papier-mâché objects of material items. The burning of the joss paper and papier-mâché objects allows for the object to be transferred to the ancestors and ghosts, materialising in the afterlife and even increase in value. Joss paper and objects are used as a symbol of transformation, increase in reproduction, and are payments of spiritual debts.
In some areas, stage performers perform entertainment shows only for ghosts.
Elaborate meals will be served in front of empty seats, each single seat reserved for one of the deceased in the family, treating the deceased as if they were still living. All offerings are supposed to please the ghosts and to ward off bad luck, to gain or enhance good luck.

also double nine or double Yang Festival is celebrated in the 9th moon on day 9 and is another festival where respect is paid to ancestors and elderly.

see also:
History of China

Paper image of a Mercede car, ment to be burned
A Mercedes for passed away Grandpa? Just burn the paper image and the smoke will be changed into a real shiny limousine in the after world.
Photo © Valeska Gehrmann

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