Ancestor Worship in China

Written by Ruru Zhou Updated Mar. 28, 2023

Ancestor worship is a traditional custom in China. The Chinese believe that although their ancestors have passed away, their souls still exist and can bring disaster or blessings to their descendants, so they worship their ancestors on special occasions for good fortune. 

The Origin of Ancestor Worship in China

Burning incense for the ancestors

Ancestor worship has a long history in China and has been passed down for thousands of years.

As early as the Xia and Shang Dynasties over 3000 years ago.  Ancient people believed that ghosts had great authority and could determine their fate. Therefore, they worshiped ghosts to pray for good fortune and protection.

Chinese people also believed that although their ancestors died, their souls still existed and could bless their descendants. Therefore, people devoutly worshiped their ancestors on important occasions for the blessings to bring prosperity and success to future generations.  

Today, there are different rituals and customs associated with ancestor worship. For example, during the Qingming Festival, people would visit their ancestors' graves, clean them, and offer food, incense, and other offerings. During the Ghost Festival, people would offer sacrifices to appease the spirits of the dead and prevent them from causing harm. 

Nowadays, the concepts of ancestor worship have gradually weakened in many places. However, in South China's Guangdong, Guangxi, and Fujian provinces, traditional customs and ancestor worship are still highly valued and prevalent to this day. 

Why the Chinese Worship Their Ancestors

worship ancestors for good fortune

Ancestor worship is a significant aspect of Chinese culture, and Confucius, the sage, highly valued it. He believed that the ritual to ancestors was a major national event, as important as the people and food of the country.

In Chinese culture, it is believed that although ancestors have passed away, their souls still exist and can bring either disaster or blessings to their descendants. Through offerings and rituals, people can communicate with the souls of their ancestors.

To receive blessings and protection from their ancestors, it is important to honor and pay respect to them. The ancestors can only bless their descendants if they were well-treated and lived a rich life underground; otherwise, they may bring disasters. 

Therefore, the Chinese devoutly worship their ancestors on important occasions and festivals, offering various foods to them before meals begin. This "ancestors eat first" tradition shows respect for the deceased ones as if they were still alive.  

People also burn paper money and daily necessities as offerings to their ancestors, hoping to receive blessings and prosperity from the ancestral spirits. 

Another reason for ancestor worship is that Chinese people believe the traditional concept of filial piety is the most important of all virtues. Worshipping the ancestors is a way to show respect for ancestors and express nostalgia for them. Even ancestors who have passed away should be respected as if they were still alive. Offerings and worship should be given on holidays and anniversaries, just as they would have been when the ancestors were still alive.

When the Chinese Worship Their Ancestors

Ancestors worship in a temple

Ancestor worship is a frequent practice among many Chinese people. In addition to the major festivals, they perform rituals twice a month on the first and fifteenth days, on anniversaries, and on important occasions such as weddings. 

However, the most significant times for ancestor worship in China are the four major Chinese festivals: the Spring Festival, the Qingming Festival, the Hungry Ghost Festival, and the Chongyang Festival.  

Ancestral Worship during the Spring Festival

Spring Festival worhip the ancestors

It is an important custom to pay tribute to ancestors during the Chinese Spring Festival.  The most common time for the rituals is before New Year's Eve dinner. 

On New Year's Eve after dark. people set up offerings, and burn incense, and then the younger generations kneel and bow, saying  "Ancestors, welcome home for the New Year". According to legend, the souls of the deceased cannot move during the day, so the worship is conducted after dark. 

People offer food usually rice, meat, steamed buns, and fruits, and these offerings are kept until the fifth day of the first lunar month. Incense and paper money is offered twice a day in front of the ancestor's shrine. While burning the paper and incense, people mutter words of remembrance and blessings. They believe the ancestors will hear them and bring happiness and health to the family.

After the ceremony on the evening of the fifth day, the "ancestors" are sent away. 

In some places, after paying tribute to ancestors at home on the first day, people also go to ancestral halls to pay tribute. 

Tomb Sweeping during the Qingming Festival

Tomb sweeping during the Qingming Festival

 Tomb-sweeping during the Qingming Festival is because winter has passed and spring has come, and plants are sprouting. People visit their ancestors' graves to check if they have collapsed due to the rainy season or have been dug by foxes and rabbits.

During the tomb-sweeping, people remove weeds from the graves, add new soil, offer sacrifices, burn incense and pour wine, burn paper money, and hold simple worship ceremonies to express their nostalgia for their ancestors. 

Worship Ancestors During the Hungry Ghost Festival

 Ancestor worship during the Ghost Festival, also known as the "Seventh Month" ancestor worship.

According to legend, on that day, the gates of hell are opened, and the ghosts and spirits are released. The ghosts and spirits who are worshipped by their descendants and future generations go home to receive offerings of food. While the ownerless and lonely spirits wander around, looking for food in any place where people have been. Therefore, people hold worship ceremonies in the seventh lunar month.

Chongyang Ancestors Worship

There is a tradition of ancestor worship and prayer for blessings during the Chongyang Festival. People hold ancestor worship activities on the Double Ninth Festival every year, praying for blessings from the gods and promoting activities to respect the elderly and pass on filial piety culture.

The worship during the Double Ninth Festival is to thank the ancestors for their blessings after the harvest and pray for their blessings, so the atmosphere is relaxed and joyful.

How Do the Chinese Worship Their Ancestors

Food Offerings to the ancestors

There are many ways for the Chinese to worship their ancestors such as worshiping them at home, going to the grave to sweep their tombs, or worshiping at ancestral halls.  

Worship the Ancestors at Home

This is the most common and thus popular way to worship the ancestors. People can burn incense and offer food to their ancestors during important festivals or even on the first and fifteenth days of the lunar calendar at their homes. 

 On New Year's Eve, or at any other festival, people will offer food to the ancestors before they eat. They believe their ancestors need to eat first just as when they were alive. 

Go to the Grave to Sweep the Tomb

This practice is done during the Qingming Festival. On the day, families will visit their ancestors' graves to clean them and offer offerings such as food, flowers, and incense. They may also burn paper money or other items as a symbolic offering to their ancestors.

Worship the Ancestors at the Ancestral Halls

Some families have ancestral halls, which are buildings dedicated to their ancestors. These halls may contain ancestral tablets, statues, and other items related to ancestor worship.

During the Qingming Festival, after visiting all the ancestors' graves, people will worship at the ancestral halls. All things left after tomb sweeping will be burned or used at the ancestral halls. 

On other occasions, such as the Hungry Ghost Festival, families will gather at the ancestral halls, offering food and other sacrifices to their ancestors, and then share the food there. During traditional Chinese weddings, when a girl is about to marry and leave her hometown, she needs to go to the ancestral hall, burn paper money and incense, and say goodbye to her ancestors.  

Offerings to the Ancestors

Offerings are an important part of ancestor worship. Traditionally these can include food, fruit, tea, wine, and other items that the ancestors enjoyed in life. The offerings are usually placed on a table or altar, and the family members will bow and offer prayers to their ancestors.

However, in modern times, new offerings have emerged, such as branded cars with drivers, branded bags/clothes, large apartments, and more. People believe that these offerings will ensure their ancestors lived a rich life underground. 

Ancestor Worship Ceremony

worship ancestors

The rituals are usually organized by the heads of the families. During the ceremony, he stands at the forefront, younger generations stand behind him. They burn three sticks of incense, bow together, and then burn paper money. 

In ancient times, the offerings for ancestor worship were mainly three livestock (cattle, sheep, and pigs), rice, and vegetables, as well as three cups of tea and five cups of wine.

Ancestor worship is a serious matter, and participants should wear plain clothes and avoid wearing jewelry. During the ceremony, they should not speak or move around casually.

After the ancestor worship ceremony, the offerings should be removed and distributed to everyone. 

Continue to read: Chinese ancient rituals

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