Rituals and Practices in Ancient China

Written by Sally Guo Updated Mar. 30, 2023

Ancient Chinese rituals are an important part of Chinese culture and have been practiced for centuries. These rituals include ancestor worship, worship of the heavens, eating rituals, and birth rituals. They reflect the values and beliefs of the Chinese people and are often used to show respect, promote harmony, and seek guidance from the spiritual world.

Worship of the Heavens

Ancient Chinese believed all things were controlled by the Gods in Heaven and Earth, so they worship the gods on special occasions for good harvests.  

Worship of the heavens can be traced back to the Zhou Dynasty (BCE 1027-221). Ancient people believed in a supreme ruler in heaven who controlled the universe.  The emperor was the Son of Heaven, and the power of the ruler was granted by the gods.  He could communicate with heaven through offerings and rituals. 

So on the day of the winter solstice, the emperor of the dynasty would worship the heavens at the round altar in the southern suburbs of the capital.  He offered sacrifices and prayed for a good harvest for his country the next year.  

The worship of the heavens was also reflected in the worship of the moon and stars. Till today, people still worship the moon during the Mid-Autumn Festival and Qixi Festival for good fortune.  


Temple of the Heaven in Beijing
Temple of the Heaven in Beijing

The Worship of Earth

The ancient people believed that the Earth God controlled everything on the earth. In addition to the Supreme Earth God, there were also local earth gods who ruled over specific regions. Typically, the emperor would worship the Supreme Earth God, while officials would worship their local earth gods. 

In the oracle bone inscriptions of the Yin and Shang Dynasties, there were already records of sacrificial activities for the Earth's God. The ancient people also worshipped mountains, rivers, and other natural features, mainly to pray for a bountiful harvest of crops. 

The Earth Worship was usually held on the Summer Solstice at places surrounded by water. As earth belongs to Yin, places with water are more suitable for the sacrifice.

During the Han Dynasty (BCE 206 - CE 220), the god of the earth was known as Mother Earth, a goddess who bestowed blessings upon human beings. She is also referred to as the God of the Land.

In ancient China, the worship of the earth was associated with human sacrifice. However, during the Han Dynasty, this practice was abolished, because of the earlier criticism by Confucius (BCE 551-479). 

Temple of the Earth in Beijing
Temple of the Earth in Beijing

Ancestral Worship

This is the practice of showing respect and offering sacrifices to one's ancestors. It is an important part of Chinese culture.

The Chinese believe although their ancestors have gone, their spirits still exist and can bless or bring disasters to their descendants. So they routinely worship their ancestors on special occasions and festivals in the hope their ancestors will bless them for a better life.   

The major festivals for ancestor worship are the Chinese Lunar New Year, Qingming Festival, Double Ninth Festival, and Ghost Hungry Festival. During the Qingming Festival, people visit their ancestors' graves to sweep and clean the tombs. On the other three festivals, people offer sacrifices to their ancestors at home.

The practice of ancestral worship in ancient China was a result of the strong connection between the present and the past through familial lineage. Ancestral temples were built to house the deceased during their journey to the next world.

For important figures, ancestral temples were separate structures or groups of structures, depending on their rank in society. Ordinary people reserved a small shrine area in their homes to honor their ancestors.

Emperors had seven ancestral temples, while feudal kings (equivalent to dukes in the European royal hierarchy) had five, senior government officials (dafu) had three, and academicians (shi) had one.

Although human sacrifice was abolished during the Han Dynasty, cemeteries and ancestral temples continued to be built to honor past emperors. The Hongwu Emperor (reign CE 1369-1398), also known as Taizu after his death, established ancestral temples representing all emperors of past dynasties in Beijing.

The Hongwu Emperor (Hongwu being the reign (CE 1369-1398) of the first Ming Dynasty (1368-1644) emperor), whose given name was Zhu Yuanzhang but whose name after his death was Taizu (his ancestral temple bears this name), was the first to establish ancestral temples representing all of the emperors of all past dynasties in the capital city, Beijing.

During the Ming Emperor Jiajing's reign (1521-1567), ancestral temples were built inside the Fucheng Gate of Beijing to worship all thirty-six deceased emperors in the lineage. During the period of the Ming emperor Jiajing (1521-1567), ancestral temples were built inside the Fucheng Gate of Beijing to worship the entire lineage of deceased emperors, thirty-six in all.

Ancestral Temple in Beijing
Ancestral Temple in Beijing

Worship of Ancient Sages and Masters

During the Han Chinese reigns of the Northern Wei (CE 386-533), the Eastern Wei (CE 534-549), and the Western Wei (CE 535-557 ) Dynasties, Chou Kung (alternatively, Zhou Gong, or the Duke of Zhou) who, 1500 years earlier, rather than assume power himself had magnanimously served as regent in the place of his nephew, King Wu of Zhou's son, whose father had died in BCE 1043, only three years after defeating the Shang Dynasty (BCE 1556-1046), was worshipped as an ancient sage while Confucius (BCE 551-479) was worshipped as an ancient master.

Later, during the Tang Dynasty (CE 618-907), Confucius was greatly revered as an ancient sage while Yan Hui (BCE 514-483) - the impoverished but favorite disciple of Confucius whose literary name was Ziyuan but who was mainly known as Yanzi, or "Master Yan" - was revered as an ancient master.
During the Northern (CE 386-588) and Southern (CE 420-588) Dynasties, the Confucius Ceremony was held twice yearly, in spring and autumn. Temples dedicated to the lives of Confucius and Yan Hui were also established in imperial colleges in all parts of the country. During the Ming Dynasty, Confucius was called 'the sagest master'. During the Qing Dynasty, Confucian temples were also established in Shengjing (present-day Shenyang City of Liaoning Province).

After the capital of China was relocated to Beijing, the imperial college in the capital city was established as the Tai (Tai Chi Chuan) university. Moreover, the temple of literature was founded in Beijing, and Confucius was called 'the great accomplished and sagest Master Wenxuan'.

The ancestral temple system and the sacrificial vessels, musical instruments, and etiquette, in general, governing Qufu (the legendary birthplace of Confucius), were subject to the standards of Beijing Tai University. The solemn atmosphere of the Chinese tea-drinking ceremony is directly related to a reverence for the ancient Chinese sages and masters.

According to legend, Zhou Gong annotated the 64 hexagrams that were the basis for the I Ching, established the Rites of Zhou (an ancient ritual text, or utopian constitution, that was considered as one of the classics of Confucianism 1500 years later), and also created the Yayue, or the earliest form of Chinese classical music.

The Confucius Ceremony was the name given to the ceremony for offering sacrifices to the 'Supreme Sage and Teacher', Confucius. It was treated as an auspicious event, one of the five Rites of Zhou whose purpose was to initiate contact with the gods (the other Rites of Zhou were designed to welcome guests, to honor the military, to offer praise, and to appease evil spirits).

Worship Ritual
Worship Ritual

Meeting Rituals

When a subordinate pays a formal visit to his superior, he must observe obeisance. When two officers meet, they both bow simultaneously, with hands clasped. When a gong (duke) and a hou (feudal king), or a gong and a fuma (the son-in-law of an emperor), or a hou and fuma meet, they must pay obeisance twice.

The subordinate individual stands to the west of the superior individual and pays obeisance first, then the superior individual salutes in reply. When commoners meet, they salute according to age, with the younger saluting first. When an individual is on the eve of a prolonged absence, that individual must pay obeisance four times. In the case of a short absence, the individual bows only once, with hands clasped.

The Birth Ritual

The Birth Ritual contains all rites related to childbirth, from praying for conception when a woman is not yet pregnant to celebrating the child's first birthday. All these rituals are held with wishing for a long life.

The sequence of rites after the child's birth includes Sanzhao (three days after birth), Manyue (one month after birth), Bairi (one hundred days after birth), and Zhuazhou (one year after birth)

The Ceremony of Three Days After Birth

During the Ceremony of Three Days After Birth (Sanzhao), the child receives various initiation gifts expressing wishes for good health and prosperous life. At the Manyue Ceremony (One Month After Birth), the child's head is shaved.

The Ceremony of one hundred days after birth

The Ceremony of One Hundred Days After Birth is a significant event in which the child is given a name.

When the child reaches one year old, the Zhuazhou rite is performed.  "Zhuazhou" is a traditional Chinese custom where parents place various items in front of their one-year-old child and observe which item the child picks up. This is done to predict the child's future luck or destiny. 

The items used in Zhuazhou mainly include the "Four Treasures of the Study" (writing brush, ink stick, ink slab, and paper), weighing scales, rulers, abacuses, coins, jewelry, toys, and antique bells. 

During this rite, the child randomly selects symbolic items placed in front of them to determine their fate. While this term is primarily used in British culture, similar traditions exist in many other European cultures. In the United States, the closest equivalent is the "baby shower," where guests give gifts to expectant parents in anticipation of the child's birth. 

Coming-of-Age Ceremony

The coming-of-age ritual, also called the capping rite, is the rite of granting a hat to a young man that closely resembles an adult male's hat. The capping rite evolved from the puberty rite which both male and female youths took part in when they began to mature and was especially prevalent in a matriarchal society. The Han Dynasty (BCE 206-CE 09 (Western) - CE 25-220 (Eastern)) followed in the footsteps of the capping rite system of the Zhou Dynasty (BCE 1027-221).

During the Three Kingdoms (CE 220-280) and the Jin Dynasties (CE 265-420), the granting of a hat to a young male as part of the capping rite began to be accompanied by music. The Tang (CE 618-907), Song (CE 960-1279), Yuan (CE 1279-1368), and Ming (CE 1368-1644) Dynasties all practiced the coming-of-age ritual, while it was abolished during the Qing Dynasty (CE 1644-1911).


In many national minority areas of China, however, the ancient coming-of-age ritual has been preserved to this day, including ceremonial rites such as pulling out a tooth, dyeing one's teeth, wearing a skirt, wearing trousers, and arranging one's hair into a clublike mass.

The Rituals on a Banquette

The feast of the Banquet Ritual is held in the Tai Temple. Tailao (i.e., the meat of the three livestock: the ox, the sheep, and the pig) is prepared and served to guests. The emphasis is on the reciprocity of etiquette rather than on dining. The worshipping ceremony in honor of Emperor Yan considered one of China's first ancestors, is namely a banquet ritual. The rite of Yan is held in a bedroom palace.

The guests of honor may drink to their heart's desire at this banquet. The rite of Yan has had a profound influence on the development of Chinese dining culture up to the present. The widespread custom of holding a banquet on festival days such as the rite of Yan has done its part to strengthen the festive spirit of the communal dining culture that visitors to China witness throughout the country.

Eating specific dishes on specific festival days is an integral part of the dining etiquette surrounding the Chinese banquet ritual. The seating order at a banquet, the order of the serving of dishes, and the etiquette of proposing a toast are all subject to the requirements of gender, seniority, and age in this complex banquet ritual where one prays for blessings and discreetly avoids taboos.

Read more on Chinese Table Manners.

Rituals for Good Luck

The Five Sacrifice Offerings

The Five Sacrifice Offerings refers to offering a sacrifice to the door, to the window, to the well, to the kitchen, and to the zhongliu (middle room). The Five Sacrifice Offerings continued to be practiced through the Ming Dynasty and up to the Qing Dynasty, but during the reign (CE 1661-1722) of Emperor Kangxi of the Qing Dynasty, the special Five Sacrifice Offerings ceremony was abolished. However, a kitchen memorial ceremony is still held on the 23rd day of the twelfth Chinese lunar month, which is in accordance with the Chinese legend that the kitchen god in folklore reports directly to the Jade Emperor, i.e., the god of all gods in Chinese mythology.

Read more on Chinese Lucky Numbers.

Come up Close to the Rituals in China

China has a variety of traditional and ancient rituals which are often related to ancient buildings. In Beijing, the Temple of Heaven near the Forbidden City was used to offer sacrifices to the gods. In Xi’an, the Wild Goose Tower was built for Buddhism. Even in modern Shanghai, the City God Temple is the ritual palace for Taoism.

All these are included in the Essence of China Tour. Joining this tour, you can unravel the mysteries of ancient Chinese rituals and enjoy the beauty of the ancient buildings.


Continue to read: Ancestors worship in China

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