Lawful and Prudent Treatment of Departed Saints in Chinese Culture

Arilje : Sanctuary: Officiating Church Fathers

There is one law of God, because God is one, but in human society it takes multiple concrete forms. The morality of the same outward acts can vary between cultures, even though the inner law, the moral law of God, is unchanging as God himself. How Christian saints are treated in Chinese culture, then, should be calibrated for the existing Chinese symbol system. Evelyn S. Rawski describes part of this system in The Last Emperors: A Social History of Qing Imperial Institutions (University of California Press, 1998), 205–206:

Christian Jochim argues that ritualized obeisances are ‘acts both of humility and privilege’. By kneeling and kowtowing before Heaven and his imperial ancestors, the emperor partakes of their numinous power; by kneeling and kowtowing before the emperor, ministers, princes, and others participating in an audience ritual partake of the powers flowing through the emperor. The emperor’s obeisance to his mother carries a somewhat different symbolic message, one that reifies the hierarchical relationships within families that lie at the core of the Confucian order.

The symbolic significance of sitting to receive ritual homage was broadly understood in Chinese society. The same action confirms the submissiveness of the young bride to her new parents-in-law, the subordination of a concubine to her husband’s wife, of a maidservant to her mistress. By extension we find in Chinese society the symbolic vesting of authority in both a specific chair and in the pose itself. By at least Song times some of the legitimacy conferred by this symbolically charged act had been transferred to the chair itself. Chan Buddhist monasteries during the funeral of an abbot placed the deceased man’s portrait in the ‘dharma seat’ – the seat occupied by the abbot – until a new successor was installed, thus drawing on the same symbolic vocabulary found in discussions of the throne in the Taihedian.

The argument that Chinese ritual culture gave primacy to performance of the act rather than to a specific throne or chair can be supported by popular religion, where deities in Chinese temples are portrayed in a seated position, to receive the worship of the people. The tablets denoting Heaven and the imperial ancestors in the Temple of the Ancestors were also ‘seated’ on thrones during rituals. Deities in the popular religion are depicted in this seated pose to the present day. The popular woodblock prints known as zhima, which continue to be produced in the People’s Republic of China, show the deity in a seated frontal pose, ‘like a statue in a Chinese temple’: ‘This effect is no accident, since prints of this type (some authors have called this an ‘iconic’ print) were the focus of domestic religious ceremonials and received offerings, such as incense, from family members.’ As with deities, so with the emperor – or perhaps the statement should be reversed. When the new emperor sat on the throne and received the obeisances of the nobles and officials, he was performing a ritual action that not only echoed those of ordinary persons in the society but also replicated that of the gods in Chinese popular religion.

So the Chinese should not, I think, depict departed saints sitting in a frontal pose, because these saints must not be seated to receive homage. We are, after all, not servants of Mary and the other departed saints, but servants of the Most High. Rather than sitting, then, a departed saint could be depicted standing to praise God together with the living, since dead and living alike ascend to heaven to join the angels and archangels in worshipping the one holy God.

Necessarily an avoidance of depicting the dead as seated would call for changes in ritual depictions of dead parents, for instance, but some changes in standard practice are to be expected. A Christian who has gone to be with the Lord is no longer in a position of living authority on earth. The rites should be modified to exclude all ‘sitting’ of the dead, so that ritual homage in the full sense is done only to living authorities: the reigning emperor, a person’s parents, a bride’s new parents-in-law, a concubine’s mistress (her husband’s first wife), a maidservant’s mistress, and so on. It was customary to depict the dead both seated and facing the viewer, as if God had placed them as intermediate authorities between himself and the living; the truth of the gospel, however, suggests that we should depict them not only standing to praise God, but also facing upward toward the left or the right, wherever God may ritually be imagined to be.

In contrast, when my younger brother married, he and his bride knelt to serve tea to my parents, and my parents sat in chairs side by side to receive this act of homage; my parents then gave them advice and symbolic red packets of money. After order of seniority, I myself also sat to be served tea by my brother and his bride, though they stood rather than kneeling, and like my parents I also gave them words of advice. It was a touching moment for me, to receive thanks from my younger brother and his new wife, and to urge them in turn to do all things by the word of God and raise up godly children. A departed ancestor, however, is no longer in a position of living authority delegated by God, and therefore cannot rightly take a seated posture in relation to the living on earth. Therefore it is right to treat them differently when the Lord has called them to leave this earthly life and its authority, and to await the resurrection of the dead.


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