Chinese Veneration for the Dead

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:

  1. Whether Christians may use existing terms from Chinese culture (e.g. 上帝, ‘high sovereign’) in reference to the true God;
  2. 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.

Practices considered

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.


12 responses to “Chinese Veneration for the Dead

  1. I’m not convinced that pouring tea for the dead is necessarily less superstition-inducing than offering incense. Both gestures run the risk of being misunderstood, I think. Just because tea is also used in other wholesome contexts, e.g. weddings, does not automatically mean that people pouring tea for the dead might not have the vague feeling that the tea is for the dead to drink; it’s a little like leaving cookies and milk for Santa. At weddings the parents/older relatives being served the tea do drink it, after all. It’s only natural for people to be inclined to think that the dead also “drink” the tea they are served.


  2. One particular thing about incense is that people often believe it helps calm the spirits of the dead lest they haunt the earth; to tea, on the other hand, no one attributes such properties.


  3. Yes and no. I’m not sure about tea itself, but the practice of presenting proper food and drink in general is common enough throughout various cultures as a means of appeasing spirits and pleasing them so they will bring blessing instead of harm. You are arguing that in this case, pouring tea is more akin to bowing than to presenting food, but that logic is a bit of a stretch. The natural mental association I make in my head, at least, is tea = thing to drink, not tea = respect. The act of presenting tea is a form of respect, but the physical presence of the tea itself is a problem. So unless you present the tea to the dead, then drink it yourself, i.e. removing any hint of superstition that the dead might drink it, this doesn’t fly.


    • Even if the one who’s presented the tea drinks it afterward, one can construe the event superstitiously, with an idea similar to what lies behind transubstantiation: that the dead have actually taken the tea’s substance, leaving the empty appearances of tea. I would manually present the tea, and then drink it only after giving a prayer remembering the dead, this latter measure to place bounds on the meaning of the ceremony.


  4. Did you grow up doing these rites? My family was quite tied to these rites until only ten years ago. I’ve noticed that as my extended family is more exposed to Christianity, these traditions are slowly disappearing from family practice. However, one of my aunts has stated that she is afraid to stop doing them.

    Have you met Dr. Doyle? I just found his website not too long ago. I visited CBS@UVA when he was leading there. However, during my days, GCF@UVA seem to overshadow everything including my fellowship on my campus.


    • I grew up with rather minimal rites concerning the dead. I must have bowed at the waist toward my great-grandmother’s grave in Hong Kong, and in California we generally go to relatives’ graves to trim the grass around the gravestones and adorn them with flowers. Fear of spiritual powers should not be a reason to continue ancestral rites, but I think there should be some resistance to a radical iconoclasm that seeks to abolish the spirit of Chinese civilization rather than to bring it under the discipline of God’s word.

      As for Dr Doyle, I’ve never met him.


  5. @Grace:

    I don’t think the act itself can any more magically ward off superstition than the incantation of a Mass-priest can change bread into the true body of Christ, but the exact formulation of the prayer can put pressure on interpretation, throwing weight on the purpose articulated, perhaps even circumscribing what it can logically be taken to mean.


  6. I am concerned about honoring the Lord in everything. And also concerned about whether we put an obstacle in front those who otherwise might come to believe in Christ which does not need to be there. I had a very close relative say one reason he could not accept the Christian faith for himself is that he would not be able to perform the rites for his father, who died when my relative was only 8. I did not know how to respond at the time, but now, I might say “it is good to honor your father, but even more you should honor God who made both your father and you.” So perhaps you should first accept the Lord and then ask Him what to do to honor your father. For others who have passed away our family has recorded conversations with them talking about the family and how it was growing up in their day. And we share that with our children. Perhaps that is an edifying way to honor our ancestors that none would disagree with. I also made a point to visit our elderly relatives before they passed away. I think that showed everyone that I truly honored our elderly without doing the rites.


    • My point in raising the central questions of this post was to ask what would honour the Lord both as he reveals himself in holy Scripture, which cannot be broken, and as he’s worked providentially to preserve some good in each culture. Since we see from the wide variance in ideas that natural revelation and the reason built upon it (especially with original sin’s corruption of our mental faculties) remain silent or opaque on many things, the Lord’s special revelation is crucial to understanding even natural revelation correctly. Nevertheless, what isn’t demonstrably contrary to the letter or the spirit of Scripture is neither commanded nor forbidden.

      So what I intend to tease out is which practices, especially which of those that aren’t practised in liberal Western societies, are conformable to God’s word, and which are blasphemous by nature. Part of my concern is the growth of each person and of each culture as a unique part of the Body of Christ, all the while connected, in holy obedience, as a member to the Head. In terms of cultural emphasis on family tradition, though, you do give some good suggestions on not offending family members without due cause.


  7. If idolatry is the placing of something or someone in the place of God, then we clearly would not want to seek protection or blessing from a deceased spirit nor try to appease a deceased spirit. I think the previous comments make that clear.

    Perhaps what is not so clear is to what level of honor should we give to any human. We see Moses bow down to his father in law (Exodus 18:7): “And Moses went out to meet his father-in-law, and did obeisance, and kissed him: and they asked each other of their welfare.” And Jacob bowed down before his brother Esau (Genesis 33:3): “He himself went on ahead and bowed down to the ground seven times as he approached his brother.”

    But we also see Paul and Barnabas rejecting the worship of men (Acts 14:13-15), “The priest of Zeus, whose temple was just outside the city, brought bulls and wreaths to the city gates because he and the crowd wanted to offer sacrifices to them. But when the apostles Barnabas and Paul heard of this, they tore their clothes and rushed out into the crowd, shouting: ‘Friends, why are you doing this? We too are only human, like you.'”

    I have been told that in Europe, the people would bow one knee to the king, and both knees to the Lord. That makes sense to me. I might give a hug to my mother-in-law, and kiss my daughter on the cheek, but the only woman I kiss on the lips is my wife. So if we bow down face-down to the ground to a human, what more humble position is there to address the Lord?

    One more thing that informs about how we should honor a deceased person I think is that we should not perform for them when they are deceased what we did not do for them when they were alive. So to bow down to a picture or pai wei when we never bowed to our grandparents or parents when they were alive does not seem to be consistent. That is to say they are no more holy when they are deceased than they were when they were alive, they are still the same spirit.

    As others have said, if the deceased is in the presence of God, they would not want to be worshiped, but would be rejoicing in God, what could we on earth do for them? And if they are under the judgement of God, what comfort would it be to offer them fruit or incense.


    • All useful examples, I think, to delineate proper honour from idolatry or superstition. People did indeed show deep reverence for their elders or people whom they otherwise saw as their social superiors, which the Scriptures don’t condemn, but there are also positively regarded instances in which men (and angels) refused honours that were due to God alone.

      The bowing actually has been an issue in churches in the past. The Church of England, in its worship, prescribed bowing at the Name of Jesus and kneeling for Holy Communion, though it recognized that the Church could choose to do otherwise in other countries (e.g. the Netherlands or the Palatinate), because the Bible allows human freedom in matters that don’t deal with salvation. Many Puritans, however, objected to having such ceremonies at all. A common reply from conforming Anglicans was, if we pay such honour to the king, isn’t it very fitting to do at least the same to the King of kings?

      Now, even if we assume the lowliest position before a mortal, adoration belongs to the heart, not to the body, and we have no authority to judge the soul. Nevertheless, what we do have licence to judge is the body, which is to say, what’s socially edifying or not. This is the realm that earthly authority may rightfully govern without breaking the law of God.

      Spiritually, of course, there’s nothing we can do for the dead, except (1) to praise the God that they loved and (2) to pray for the Lord to honour his own promises to them and return soon to judge and heal the world. Any other kind of honour we show them, then, is useful only for us on earth, not for those who already rest in heaven or suffer in hell. So on the anniversary of a great Christian’s death we may choose to remember what God did for him and how God blessed the world through him (I actually wrote a while ago about honouring dead saints, but I haven’t posted it online).


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