Whatever the reason, I’ve been thinking about the Chinese Rites controversy, which heated up in the seventeenth century concerning the veneration of ancestors. If Chinese Christians are to develop Chinese civilization in a way that honours Christ, the matter remains as relevant today as it was in the reign of the Kangxi emperor. There are two questions:
- Whether Christians may use existing terms from Chinese culture (e.g. 上帝, ‘high sovereign’) in reference to the true God;
- Which parts of ancestor veneration, if any, are permissible.
The first question, I think, is not hard for anyone who considers it unobjectionable and even good to use Platonic and Aristotelian language about the God of the Hebrews. If every culture has knowledge of natural law and indeed of God, however corrupted, then no culture need be rejected wholesale; any of its wisdom, which belongs to God if agreeable to his holy word, can be accepted. Shangdi (上帝), therefore, pace Dr G. Wright Doyle, is a fair name for the God of Abraham, despite the corruptions that his worship has sometimes suffered through the centuries; likewise the ancestor rites are permissible within the bounds set down by the Scriptures. As the philosopher Xunzi wrote,
Rites have three bases. Heaven and earth are the basis of life, the ancestors are the basis of the family, and rulers and teachers are the basis of order. If there were no Heaven and earth, how could man be born? If there were no ancestors, how would the family come into being? If there were no rulers and teachers, how would order be brought about? If even one of these were lacking, there would be no safety for man. Therefore rites serve Heaven above and earth below, honour the ancestors, and exalt rulers and teachers. These are the three bases of rites.
Rites that honour our dead forefathers are proper, then, and edifying to the living, giving them a way to express their proper desires.
The sacrificial rites originate in the emotions of remembrance and longing for the dead. Everyone is at times visited by sudden feelings of depression and melancholy longing. A loyal minister who has lost his lord or a filial son who has lost a parent, even when he is enjoying himself among congenial company, will be overcome by such feelings. If they come to him and he is greatly moved, but does nothing to give them expression, then his emotions of remembrance and longing will be frustrated and unfulfilled, and he will feel a sense of deficiency in his ritual behaviour. Therefore, the former kings established certain forms to be observed on such occasions so that men could fulfil their duty to honour those who deserve honour and show affection for those who command affection. Hence the sacrificial rites originate in the emotions of remembrance and longing, express the highest degree of loyalty, love and reverence, and embody what is finest in ritual conduct and formal bearing. Only a sage can fully understand them. The sage understands them, the gentleman finds comfort in carrying them out, the officials are careful to maintain them, and the common people accept them as custom. To the gentleman they are part of the way of man; to the common people they are something pertaining to the spirits.
Since the commoners tend to be more superstitious than the more educated and enlightened, we must consider Chinese customs more particularly, in order to judge not only what’s lawful and what’s not, but also what will best edify the people.
To me it seems unobjectionable to make head inclinations and other civil observances before the bodies and graves of the deceased; I think even prostration permissible, since Chinese people have long prostrated to signify reverence to emperors, parents and other superiors.
In addition to bowing, the Chinese have often presented objects before the dead. Burning incense is not advisable unless everyone understands it as a symbolic gesture of honour and not the true offering of incense; if it serve rather as an occasion for superstition, then Christians should defer to the weaker brother’s conscience, seeking alternatives that are more clearly permissible. It may be safer instead to pour tea, since this rite remains common in connexion with Chinese weddings, in which the bride and groom kneel before their parents and serve them tea in gratitude for bringing them up, and often the bride serves tea to the groom’s parents to symbolize that she’s joined their family. The ceremonial pouring of tea, then, concerned rather with respect and gratitude than with the tea given, seems to be a wholesome practice. If the dead are Christian, words are easily adapted from the prayerbook:
Almighty God, who hast taught us to honour our fathers: we bless thy holy Name for thy servants departed this life in thy faith and fear, beseeching thee to give us grace so to follow their good examples, that with them we may be partakers of thy heavenly kingdom; through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.
Edit (22 July): Praying something like the above helps direct the purpose of the rite, keeping away the supposition that any actual tea-drinking is relevant.
Both bowing and tea, as well as the common reverence of cleaning graves and adorning them with flowers, strike me as wholesome customs to be kept in honour of the dead. All of these, I think, are particularly fitting for All Saints’ Day, when all Christians may remember the dead and the communion of saints.
Prayers to the dead and spirit money, on the other hand, are not suitable for Christians. Motivated by superstitious beliefs – the ghosts of the dead do not haunt the earth, nor do they eat and drink – these are to be abolished, for it is enough that the Lord provide for them and for us.
Developing the good customs and abolishing the bad, we can reform Chinese civilization according to God’s word, to make it a godly society, orderly and not chaotic, reasonable and not superstitious.