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Ancestors

The worship of ancestors is that which is assigned to the private individual. He does not approach Shang-ti any more than he would address the emperor on earth; his working religion is directed to his ancestors. The Chinese believed in the continuance of the soul after death, and addressed solemn invitations to it to return to the body it had forsaken. The ancestors do not remain in the grave; they are tutelary spirits watching over their families; they receive food and are honoured with music and the dance.

Their belief can scarcely be described as that in personal immortality; it is the continuance of the family rather than of the person that is thought of. The individual does not look forward to his own future life or allow that to influence him; there is little trace of any belief in future rewards and punishments. China has no heaven and no hell. It is the past, not the future, that influences the present; the departed members of the family are believed to be still attached to it, and become its tutelary spirits. In every house there is a hall of ancestors, where worship and sacrifice is offered to them, and many even of the details of this worship remind us strongly of the way in which the Romans served their family heroes. Tablets belonging to the ancestors are placed in this hall; and to these they are supposed to come when properly invoked, so as to be present with the family. At every important family event they are summoned to attend. This worship has to be rendered by husband and wife jointly, so that marriage is necessary for its performance, and an early marriage is a religious duty.

The name, as person, produces in China (as the Li Ki shows) strict taboo of the name of the dead. Immediately after a man dies, his son goes to the roof and calls his father by name, "Come back, So and So ";1 but this is a final effort of affection to bring back the soul before it has quite fled. After this, when the dead is recognized as really gone, the name must not be mentioned. So when one enters a house, one must at once inquire what names are taboo in the family, a very necessary precaution, as proper names may also be those of common things; for which reason it is the rule that one should not give a son a (common noun) name of any hill, river, day, month, state, or disease. The last item shows that children were occasionally given mean names, as they are today in South India, for the purpose of warding off the evil (envious) eye or an evil spirit.

The family sacrifice, like all sacrifices in China, is of the nature of a banquet, at which the living members of the family, and the spirits who have been summoned, eat and drink together. The Chinese believed in a great unbroken stream of life, and that ancestral spirits held mysterious powers that could greatly influence the welfare of the living. One reason that male children were very important to the Chinese people is their belief that only people with sons could become gods after death. Each Chinese household hosted numerous gods, such as the stove god, the door gods, the property god, the well god, etc. On New Year's Festival, the god of the household stove - who had spied on family members all year - rose up to heaven to report his observations. The sin above all other sins in the eyes of a faithful son of China is the sin of having no children. Ancestor worship demands an unbroken line of descendants, and if there are no children by legal marriage either adoption of a son or polygamy becomes an ethical necessity.

Every Chinese believes he has an attendant spirit, his own peculiar guardian. An image of it is kept in the house and worshiped three times a day with prayers and fragrant incense of sandal-wood. Sun, moon, fire, water, earth, and every department of nature has a presiding deity. So has each trade and profession. Homage is often paid to some high mountain, or remarkably large tree, from the idea that some powerful spirit resides therein. The image of a great dragon, or monstrous serpent, occurs everywhere in their temples, and on domestic altars. They say it lives in the sky, and has great influence over the affairs of men. Originally it doubtless represented the constellation of the serpent.

It is not only in the family that ancestors are adored. The emperor sacrifices in a public capacity to all the ancestors of his own line, and also to all his predecessors on the throne; a magistrate to all who have occupied his office before him. Ancient China possessed an elaborate ritual, and occasions of sacrifice were frequent. Every change of season, every portent of nature, every important step either in public or in private life, required its consecration. It is in accordance with the genius of the people that the sacrifices are not of the nature of propitiation, but expressions of gratitude and devotion merely. Asceticism has no place in this religion; everything in it is bright and sensible. He who is to offer a sacrifice prepares himself by prayer and retirement to do so worthily; but beyond this reasonable measure there is no afflicting of the soul, and in the prayers belonging to the occasion self-humiliation and confession have no place, but only thanksgivings and petitions.

The petitions are for worldly benefits and furtherance; the sacrifices are means of procuring these from the heavenly powers. They consist chiefly of animal victims, but fruits are also used, and with the importance of the occasion the variety and costliness of the offerings increase. Elaborate music also accompanies great sacrifices, and is thought to be very acceptable to the heavenly powers. Religion is not separated from life in China. There is no special class to take care of it; every one has to attend himself to those sacrifices which are incumbent on him; this is a natural, matter-of-course part of a man's duty. As there is no Bible, there is no religious instruction, and the doctrine is quite vague and undefined.




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