Talks & Lectures: Chinese Ancestral Worship


By Niamh Hanrahan

On 6th October, 2012, the first of the Principal’s Lectures took place at CLC on the subject of Chinese Ancestral Worship. Our speaker was Professor Hugh Baker, who is Emeritus Professor of Chinese at the School of Oriental and African Studies, University of London. He has published books on the Chinese family, Hong Kong’s history and culture, and the Cantonese and Mandarin languages.

Beginning with, “To worship ancestors not one’s own is presumptuous” from the Analects of Confucius, Professor Baker went on to explain the history of ancestral worship in China and whether it had a place in the modern world. He used five propositions to help us understand the principles behind ancestral worship. It was not about sacrifice to the dead in general, but to one’s own dead; there could be no ancestors without descendants, and ancestors belong to a family. Ancestral worship was the religion of the family (every family had their own church) and it depended on a hierarchy whereby age, one’s position in one’s family, and one’s gender were some of the most important factors.

Professor Baker elaborated upon that the mourning process in China consists of five levels, which depend on one’s status in the  family. For instance, a head of a family would be level one, meaning that their family would have to wear sack-like material and mourn the recently deceased for twenty-seven months. Those in level five would only be mourned for three months.

Ancestral worship is based on the idea that the living need spiritual help from their dead parents, just as those parents had needed help from their parents. This was to keep the pathway between the real world and the afterlife open, generation after generation.

He finished by describing the hardships facing ancestral worship, in a world where the importance of gender and age, for instance, are no longer as relevant as they were previously. The world, and the ideas which the world has, are changing and so what will happen to Chinese ancestral worship is uncertain. We cannot tell its future but its past was certainly worth hearing about.

Photography: The Cheltenham Ladies’ College

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One Response to Talks & Lectures: Chinese Ancestral Worship

  1. Alfie says:

    I found this very insiteful into the works of ancestral worship and found that the concept of it being based on the idea that the living need spiritual help from their dead parents interesting.

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