Ancestor Veneration

In the West we seem to have lost a tradition other cultures have exhibited, that of celebrating those in our family who have come before us, and with whom we can claim some connection.  I don’t claim any expertise in this subject, but at least have some familiarity with a group of people who held on to this notion until modern times, namely the Chinese.  Is it because of a lack of corruption by the rabid monotheists?  I think not;  the coming and going of Buddhism in East Asia didn’t apparently change things much.  Certainly the good old days of sacrificing (preferably humans) to one’s ancestors was gone by the time of Confucius, but the notion of ancestor veneration through his ethics (and its subsequent politicalization) gained civilized respect.

What follows is a prolonged quotation from Chapter 53 of The Story of the Stone, sometimes known as The Dream of the Red Chamber.  The author, Cao Xue Qin, writing in our seventeenth century, probably based his narrative on his childhood memories, growing up in a prosperous family which during his youth fell from grace in the Imperial structure.  The story concerns a family by the surname Jia (the character for which also is pronounced gu -- merchant, and which in addition is a homonym for jia -- false) whose two family branches, Ning and Rong, live in a large compound in Beijing.  The quotation describes the celebration on the night of New Year’s Eve.

...When the ladies had all alighted, the young men conducted them on foot to the Jia family's Hall of the Ancestors.

Bao-Qin had never been inside this part of the mansion before.  She was being allowed in on this occasion by virtue of her recent adoption into the family and was anxious to take in every detail in order that she might retain as accurate an impression of it as possible.

The Jia family's Hall of the Ancestors was in a separate courtyard of its own in the west part of Ning-Guo House, away from the more domestic parts of the mansion --  a courtyard that was entered through an imposing five-frame gateway behind a black-lacquered wooden paling.  An inscription in large characters hung over the central arch of the gate:



with a column of smaller characters in the lower left-hand part of the board indicating that the calligrapher was a direct descendant in the sixty-somethingth generation of the Sage Confucius.  A long couplet from the brush of the same calligrapher occupied the two vertical boards at the arch's sides:

肝脑塗地, 兆姓賴保育之恩

With loyal blood poured out willingly upon the ground,
a myriad subjects pay tribute to their benevolent rulers

功名貫天, 百代仰蒸嘗之盛

For famous deeds lauded resoundingly to the skies,
a hundred generations offer sacrifices to their heroic ancestors

Inside the gate a raised white marble walk shaded by an avenue of venerable pines and cypresses led up to a terrace on which ancient bronze tripods were ranged.  Over the entrance to the temple's vestibule, whose penthouse-roof swept forwards from the main building's facade, hung a board framed in a carved and gilded border of nine interlacing dragons and inscribed in the Late Emperor's calligraphy with the following words:



The vertical inscriptions on either side were in the same Imperial hand:


Their achievements outshone the celestial luminaries


Their fame is reflected in the generations that come after them

The board over the entrance to the main hall of the temple was framed by two contending dragons and its inscription was of incised characters infilled in green.  Both it and the matching couplet were in the calligraphy of the reigning sovereign:




Their sons and grandsons enjoy the fruits of their blessedness


The common people recall Ning and Rong with kindness

Beyond the flickering brilliance of many lights and the glint and sheen of drapes and hangings Bao-Qin could make out some of the spirit tablets of the ancestors, but not very clearly.

By ancient custom the menfolk were divided in ranks to left and right of the hall so that each generation was on a different side from the one which followed it, fathers and sons separated, grandfathers and grandsons together.  Jia Jing presided over the sacrifice with Jia She acting as his assistant; Cousin Zhen held the drink-offering; Jia Lian and Jia Cong the silk-offering; Bao-Yu carried the incense; Jia Chang and Jia Ling unrolled the kneeling-mat in front of the great incense-burner.  Then the black-coated musicians struck up and the ceremony began; the threefold offering of the Cup, the standings, kneelings and prostrations, the burning of the silk-offering, the libation -- every movement precisely in time to the solemn strains of the music.  The music ceased at the same time as the ceremony, and the participants filed out and, grouping themselves around Grandmother Jia, conducted her to the main hall of the Ning-Guo mansion where, under the richly-embroidered frieze which hung high in front of them, against a background of brilliantly-decorated screens, high above the smoking incense and flickering candles of the altar, the portraits of the ancestors hung, those of the ducal siblings, Ning-Guo and Rong-Guo, resplendent in dragon robes and jade-encrusted belts, in the centre and somewhat raised above the rest.

The men ranged themselves in ascending order of seniority in the space between the hall and the ornamental gate, so that the two most junior ones Jia Xing and Jia Zhi, were just inside the gate and the two most senior ones, Jia Jing and Jia She, were at the top of the terrace steps and under the eaves of the hall.  The womenfolk of the family were ranged inside the hall in corresponding ranks but in reverse order:  that is to say, the most junior were nearest the threshold and the most senior furthest inside the hall, but whereas the senior male in a generation was at the east end of his row, the senior female in the same generation would be at the west end of hers, and vice versa.  The male domestics of all ages were ranged in the courtyard on the further side of the ornamental gate.

The manner of making the offerings was as follows. Each 'course' was passed from hand to hand by the servants until it reached the ornamental gate.  There it was received by Jia Xing and Jia Zhi and passed on from hand to hand until it reached Jia Jing at the top of the terrace steps.  Jia Rong, as senior grandson of the senior branch of the family, was permitted, alone of all the males, to stand inside the threshold with the women.  He received the dishes from his grandfather Jia Jing's hands and passed them to his wife, Hu-Shi.  Hu-Shi passed them to the row ending in Xi-Feng and You-Shi, who passed them forwards to Lady Wang standing at the side of the altar.  Lady Wang then put them into the hands of Grandmother Jia, who raised them up reverently towards the portraits before laying them down on the altar in front of her.  When meat, vegetables, rice, soup, cakes, wine and tea had all been transmitted to the altar by this human chain and offered up there by Grandmother Jia and her two daughters-in-law, Jia Rong withdrew and took up his position next to Jia Qin in the courtyard below, at the head of the most junior generation of Jia family males.

Now came the most solemn part of the ceremony.  As Grandmother Jia, clasping a little bundle of burning joss-sticks with both her hands, knelt down for the incense-offering, the entire congregation of men and women, rank upon rank of them, close-packed as flowers in a flower-bed, knelt down in perfect time with her and proceeded to go through the motions of the Great Obeisance.  This was done with such silent concentration that, from five-frame hall and three-frame vestibule, from portico and terrace, terrace steps and courtyard, for some minutes nothing could be heard but the faint tinkling made by jade girdle-pendants and tiny golden bells and the soft scrape and scuffle of cloth-soled boots and shoes.

The ceremony over, Jia Jing, Jia She and the rest of the menfolk hurried back to the Rong-Guo mansion so that they could be waiting there in readiness to make their kowtows to Grandmother Jia on her return.

Two things to notice.

  1. This highly ornate and institutionalized custom offers no personal ancestry worship.  Indeed, the other 119 chapters of this book never speak of “talking to your ancestors”, or being visited by them.  On the other hand, there is ample Taoist/Buddhist mysticism throughout.  Ancestor veneration is totally sanitized.
  2. On the other hand, status within the family is supreme.  I have not included the rest of the chapter from this book, which describes all of the necessary visitations and giving of respect to elders expected on this holiday.  The rest of the book is permeated with examples of the family hierarchy, mostly magnifying its faults.

Given that we (barbarians from the Western Ocean) do not practice such a social order, what is the point of knowing one’s ancestry?