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Ancestor Veneration In Asia

Ancestor Veneration

  • The veneration of the dead is founded on the theories that the dead people have a continuous life, and might have the ability to affect the luck of the living. Some groups venerate their familial descendants, some faith groups, particularly Catholic Church, venerate saints as intermediaries with God.
  • The importance of ancestors as a focus of worship is common in many parts of the world. In Oceania, Asia and Europe and in some African cultures, the objective of ancestor veneration is to make sure the ancestors' continuous well-being and positive temperament towards the living, as well as sometimes to request for exceptional favors or help. The non-religious or social purpose of ancestor veneration is to develop relationship values, like family allegiance, filial piety and continuity of the family relationship. Ancestor veneration takes place in cultures having every degree of technological, political and social complication, and it is an important part of different religious practices these days.


  • The worship of a deity or deities is not the same as ancestor reverence. In some Afro-diasporic civilizations, ancestors are believed to intervene on behalf of the living, usually as emissaries between human beings and the gods. Since spirits were once human beings themselves, they are believed to know human requirements in a better way as compared to a divine being. In other cultures, the objective of ancestor veneration is to perform one's filial duty rather than to ask for favors. Some civilizations consider that their ancestors expect food and other provisions from their descendants.
  • Ancestor veneration is a way to look after, honor and respect ancestors and seek their guidance. In this respect, many religions and civilizations have more or less similar customs. Some might visit the burial places of their ancestors, lay flowers and pray to them to remember and honor them. Nevertheless, this action cannot be deemed as  worshiping  them.

Ancestor Veneration in Vietnam

  • Regardless of religion, every Vietnamese family will keep a dais to worship the ancestors in her or his house.
  • The Vietnamese philosophy of life believes in ancestor veneration. Vietnamese believe in the life after death. They trust that the deceased has a power to bring good fortune to the living persons. The ancestors protect living family members from accident. In return, their present generations worship and commemorate ancestors. In Vietnam nearly every company, office and house has a dais to communicate with ancestors. The dais should be in the most solemn place in the area.
  • The actual reason of ancestor worship is the notion that everything has got a soul. Since the ancient time Vietnamese have worshiped a number of gods such as forest, river, mountain, land, moon and sun etc. Vietnamese believe that each individual has got 2 parts: one for soul – intangible part and one for body – tangible part.
  • As per legend, the Vietnamese nation was founded by Hung King. To express thanks, the Vietnamese hold a festival every year on the 10th day of the 3rd lunar month in order to commemorate the anniversary of their ancestors.
  • The ritual of ancestor worship takes place on specific days such as the day of death of the ancestor, full and new moon days and festivals. Additionally it’s also held on important events, such as wedding day, the birth of a baby, starting of a new business or shifting of house. Offerings are votive paper, burning incense sticks, white wine, gifts, candies, fruits and Vietnamese dishes. Votive paper can be a piece of bamboo, money which is made of paper, clothes, houses, cars and motorbikes. Following worship, the paper gifts are burnt and wine is spread on ash in order that spirits of the gifts can go to heaven for the use of ancestors.
  • Actually ancestor worship isn’t just the act for remembrance of the dead but is also the binding force which binds the Vietnamese together. It’s regarding the way to train Vietnamese about the sympathy, proudness of nation and the love of country. The offences of a mean family ancestor will visit upon her or his children and grandchildren in the shape of bad luck. This is a strong effect upon the manners of the living, inducing them to do good activities and perform well, in that way bestowing their unborn as well as living children with good luck in the time to come.

Ancestor Veneration in China

  • In Chinese ethnic religion and culture, ancestor veneration is the custom of kins and living family members to pay respect and honour to their ancestors and progenitors. Paying respect to one's ancestors is intensely rooted in Chinese culture and  emphasized  in Confucian philosophy. It’s believed that the connection and duties of children to their parents do not change even after demise because children are created and taken care by parents. The homage and respect to parents, is to give back this merciful action to them in life and after.
  • Each Chinese relative keeps his system of ancestral temples in which ancestors of the family are venerated. Rituals can be performed either by Buddhist monks, Taoist clergy or elders of the family. Both Chinese Buddhism and Taoism practice ancestral veneration. 


  • According to Chinese folk religion, a person is believed to have many souls, classified as po and hun. Upon death, po and hun break away. Generally po comes down to the earth and/or lives in a spirit tablet and hun goes up into heaven. As per these beliefs, different practices have evolved to tackle the supposed requirements of the dead. 


  • The mourning of a family member typically comprises elaborate rites, which differ according to sect and region. The level of the mourning is believed to reveal the class of association one had with the dead person. From the era of Confucius till the 20th century, a 3 year mourning period was usually suggested. These mourning customs included moaning in pain at specific periods of the day, residing in a mourning hut positioned beside the house, eating a diet of congee 2 times a day, leaving hair untidy and wearing sackcloth. In order to indicate their dedication to his teachings his followers took part in this three-year mourning period after the death of Confucius. 

Funeral rites

  • Funerals are a part of the normal family life. Irrespective of religion, the main goals are to provide comfort to the deceased and to show the respect. Other objectives include ensuring the correct path of the deceased's soul in the afterlife.
  • A few usual rituals of Chinese funerals include the transfer of symbolic items like foodstuff and money from the living to the deceased, dressing up of the corpse after its washing, the wearing of white dresses by the loved ones of the deceased and the expression of sorrow through protracted sobbing. Occasionally, ritual experts like Buddhist monks or Taoist priests would be hired to carry out specific rituals.


  • Often Burial is delayed according to the social status of the deceased. The delay is pre-determined. The dead body of a commoner would be held in abeyance for one month, of magnates for five and of a king or emperor for seven months.
  • Usually the dead person would be buried with sacrifices, things believed to be required in the afterlife. For powerful and wealthy, oracle bones, bronze vessels, animal or human sacrifices frequently accompanied the dead person into the grave. Food, wine, incense and candles were common sacrifices. 

Continued obeisance

  • Following the funeral, relatives often fix a familial plaque at a family platform near other dead ancestors. This action symbolically unites the ancestors and respects the family heredity. Offerings like beverages and favorite foods are given bi-monthly as well as on special events like Ghost Festival and Qingming Festival and incense are daily lit before the altar.

Ancestor worship and Christianity in China

  • The relationship between ancestor worship and Christianity in China has long been an issue  among Christian missionaries.
  • There have been 4 main movements in the history of Christianity in China--the Nestorian, the Franciscan,  the general Roman Catholic and the Protestant movement. The two periods, into which the history of the relationship between Christianity and Chinese ancestor worship is divided, are the Roman Catholic period, from 1635 to 1742, and the Protestant period, starting in 1807.

The Roman Catholic Controversy

  • As long as the Jesuits were the only Catholic missionaries in China, there was no opposition to ancestor worship. A general tolerance was observed.  
  • After 1631, members of the Dominican and Franciscan orders started to join the group of Catholic missionaries.  The Dominicans had positive ideas on ancestor worship. Jean-Baptiste Morales was the  1st  Dominican leader who opposed the laxer practice of the Jesuits and visited Rome in 1643. His questions were answered on September 12, 1645, through a decree endorsed by Pope Innocent X. The decree just condemned and prohibited the rites. The Jesuits in China were not satisfied and sent Father Martini to Rome to represent the ancestral rites as acts of filial respect and gratitude without religious significance. A new decree was issued and approved by Pope Alexander VII, allowed the practice of the ancestral rites, except for the "superstitious" features. In 1669 , Pope Clement IX declared that both decrees remained in force and both should be observed as per circumstances!  Under these adjustable circumstances a temporary harmony existed till 1692.
  • On March 26, 1693, Charles Maigrot, the Vicar Apostolic of Fukien, disallowed Christians under any circumstances to take part in the   solemn   sacrifices or offerings in honour of the dead. Maigrot even declared that the statement of Pope Alexander VII was not true to the facts on certain points. In the following year Maigrot dispatched Charmot to be his representative at Rome. Charmot secured a judgment from the Sorbonne unfavourable to the rites. But the Jesuits   succeeded in securing an official public statement from the Chinese emperor K'ang-hsi, approving the interpretation of the ancestral rites as purely civil . Pope Innocent XII died in September, 1700 and the new pope, Clement XI succeeded him. He declared that Christians must not be allowed to perform the customary offerings or rites. The authority to decide what was allowed and what was not allowed was to lie in the hands of the   local bishops and vicars apostolic.
  • The Chinese emperor  was displeased. He decreed that all the missionaries should obtain a certificate from him which would grant permission to preach the gospel only to those who assured not to oppose the rites.   Many of the Jesuits got the emperor's certificates
  • The Jesuits converged upon the pope and his cardinals. Their first effort was to pacify the emperor. Therefore the pope wrote a letter to the Chinese emperor K'ang-hsi, assuming responsibility for the actions of Tournon. In the meantime, K'ang-hsi maintained his measures against missionaries who opposed the rituals. The next step of the pope was to publish his last ruling and to reinforce it with another (September, 1710) ordering its compliance and refusing all appeals against it. Finally he prohibited further publications on the subject and declared the case fully explained and definitely closed.
  • At last, after 80 years, a decision came from Rome that was accepted as final by all Catholic missionaries in China. The rites were firmly established as part of the practice of Christians. Most of the Chinese Christians refused to obey. The emperor himself was now the opponent of the Christian church. Within a year after the pope's declaration had reached China the emperor ordered the eviction of all Christian preachers and the demolition of their churches. The persecuted church revived after a hundred and fifty years in the nineteenth century.
  • Knowing the condition of despair and confusion in China, Pope Clement XI dispatched Mezzabarba to China. But the king issued an order that all preachers must embark with Mezzabarba for Europe! Mezzabarba explained that he was authorized to make certain amendments to the pope's decree and he would convey the emperor's opinions to the pope and bring back pope’s response. From Macao he dispatched a pastoral letter to the missionaries in China in which he set forth the so-called "Eight Permissions."
  • The main result of the "Permissions" was further disagreement among the preachers in China. Some bishops ordered their observance, others prohibited them.
  • The pope ratified the constitution of 1715 and rejected the "Eight Permissions" of Mezzabarba.
  • During the reign of the emperor Yung-cheng, K'ang-hsi's successor, over 300 churches were destroyed.
  • As we look back upon the history, we can see that all were agreed that the Christian Chinese should be prohibited to practice rites recognized as idolatrous or "superstitious."

Ancestor Worship and Protestantism

  • After 70 years of Protestant work, the issue of ancestor worship was brought before the missionary public in 1877. The issue of ancestor worship had not been recognized as an issue, and Protestant missionaries, accepting no central authority, had never met as one body until 1877. A conference was held at Shanghai in May, 1877 in which one of the subjects discussed was ancestor worship. In May, 1890, the next general conference of Protestant preachers took place in Shanghai and once again the issue of ancestor worship came up for deliberations. The great Centenary Missionary Conference was hold at Shanghai in 1907. At the last great Protestant gathering, the National Christian Conference of May, 1922, the issue of ancestor worship wasn’t even raised.
  • Challenged by the hurdle of ancestor worship and the baffling problems which it raises, the preachers of Protestant churches have expressed in their speeches and writings a fairly uniform point of view. With a few exclusions, they have defined "ancestor worship" as true worship and totally criticized it as "idolatrous." Therefore they have prohibited to Christian converts the use of ancestral tablets and the practice of all rituals connected therewith.
  • The main reason for this Protestant uniformity is that ancestor worship is a genuine religion in the lives of many millions. The religious side of ancestor worship was too dangerous to be permitted and too obvious to be ignored.