No ritual or institution did more to reinforce the solidarity of the family system in traditional Chinese society than ancestor veneration (also called “ancestor worship” or “the cult of the dead”), and none was taken more seriously by both society and the state.(1)
The basic premise in ancestor veneration was that the soul of a departed family member consisted of a yin component known as the po (associated with the grave) and a yang component known as the hun (associated with the ancestral tablet). According to one popular conception, these basic components became three separate “souls,” each demanding ritual attention: one soul went to the grave with the body; one soul went to the Ten Courts of Judgment (also called the Ten Courts of Hell) and was eventually reborn; and one soul remained in or near the ancestral tablet on the family altar. Po had the potential of becoming gui if unplacated by sacrifices, but the spirits of one’s own ancestors were not generally considered to be gui. One’s own naturally became shen, assuming they received proper ritual attention.(2) (For more on the terms yin, yang, gui, and shen, see The Chinese Cosmos: Basic Concepts, especially the sections “Yinyang and Qi in Human Beings” and “Understanding Shen.”)
There were two universal aspects of ancestor veneration in traditional China: mortuary rites (sangli) and sacrificial rites (jili). Mortuary rites involved elaborate mourning practices that differed in particulars from region to region but shared certain major features. These were, in the order they usually occurred: 1) public notification of the death through wailing and other expression of grief; 2) the wearing of white mourning clothing by members of the bereaved family; 3) ritualized bathing of the corpse; 4) the transfer of food, money, and other symbolic goods from the living to the dead; 5) the preparation and installation of a spirit tablet for the deceased; 6) the payment of ritual specialists, including Buddhist monks and Daoist priests; 7) the playing of music to accompany the corpse and settle the spirit; 8) the sealing of the corpse in an air-tight coffin; 9) the expulsion of the coffin from the community.(3) In most regions of China a funeral procession for the body and spirit tablet, followed by a feast for family members, marked the formal conclusion of the mourning process.
Sacrificial rites consisted of daily or bimonthly devotions and anniversary services. Families burned incense every day on the domestic ancestral altar, which houses the family spirit tablets in hierarchical order. In front of the tablets often glowed an eternal flame, symbol of the ancestor’s abiding presence within the household. Anniversary rites took place on the death date of each major deceased member of the family. Sacrificial food was offered, and living members of the family participated in the ceremony in ritual order based on age and generation. Sacrifices were also made to the ancestors during major festival periods and on important family occasions such as births and weddings. In general, these domestic devotions reflected a ritual apparatus characteristic of most other forms of Chinese religious practice.(4)
In the eyes of the orthodox Confucians, ancestor veneration was considered to be essentially a secular rite without religious implications. Deemed to be nothing more than the “expression of human feelings,” mourning and other ritual observances expressed love and respect for the dead and at the same time cultivated the virtues of filial piety, loyalty, and faithfulness. Ancestor veneration was a standard means of “honoring virtue and repaying merit” (chongde baogong), in the stock Chinese phrase. The Confucian gentleman sacrificed to his ancestors because it was the proper thing to do; lesser men did so to “serve the spirits.”(5)
This attitude was consistent with the general neo-Confucian tendency to encourage rational and secular interpretations of otherworldly phenomena. In neo-Confucian literature, for example, the popular religious terms gui and shen became expressly identified as the abstract forces of yin and yang. Official religion was justified at least in part as a means of motivating the masses to perform acts of Confucian piety. Sections on religion in local gazetteers often quoted the following commentary to the Yijing, attributed to Confucius himself: “The sages devised guidance in the name of the gods, and [the people of] the land became obedient.” Even the employment of priests, geomancers, and other religious agents by elite households could be explained away as matters of habit, female indulgence, or a kind of filial insurance for ancestors in case the popular Buddhist version of the afterlife happened to be correct.(6)(For more on the terms yin, yang, gui, and shen, see The Chinese Cosmos: Basic Concepts, especially the sections “Yinyang and Qi in Human Beings” and “Understanding Shen.”)
But where did Confucian “rationalism” end and popular “superstition” begin? Although popular religion reflected the social landscape of its adherents, it was still in many ways “a variation of the same [elite] understanding of the world.” The “Heaven” of the Chinese literati may have been remote and impersonal, but it could reward Confucian virtue and punish vice in the same spirit as the Jade Emperor and his agents; and the omens and avenging ghosts of popular vernacular literature had their supernatural counterparts in the official dynastic histories.(7)
According to popular religious beliefs in traditional China, when a person died the local Earth God (or, as some accounts went, the god who had accompanied the person throughout his or her life and kept a record or his or her good and evil deeds) immediately took charge of the soul that was to undertake the journey to the Underworld and brought this soul before the local City God, who looked over the record of deeds that accompanied the soul. The City God then sent the soul down into the Underworld to go before the first of ten judges, also called the ten Magistrates of Hell. The Underworld domain of the Chinese cosmos was a transitory space and time for just one of the multiple souls of the dead and could not properly be called “hell” in the Christian sense of a place of perpetual punishment for a permanent, unchanging self. Still, the domain of the ten magistrates was a place where souls were held accountable for their actions in life and harsh punishments were meted out.
Not all souls had to face judgment before all ten Magistrates of Hell. The rare soul that had led an exemplary life could gain immediate release from the Underworld Realm and leave by way of two bridges, often called the “Golden Bridge” and the “Silver Bridge.” Each bridge led to a very different destiny, and the soul had to choose between the two.
The Golden Bridge took the soul to the “Pure Land of the West” (Xifang jingtu; also see Note 8, below), which was not a part of the cosmos. This Pure Land was presided over by the Buddha Amitābha, and after encountering Amitābha face-to-face, the soul could finally achieve what institutional Buddhism called nirvāṇa -- complete release from the cycle of birth and rebirth. Thus, a soul choosing the Western Pure Land attained salvation from the cosmos itself. The Silver Bridge, on the other hand, led to Heaven, which was an important domain of the cosmos. Heaven was ruled by the Jade Emperor and populated by gods and heavenly officials. The soul entering into Heaven via the Silver Bridge would be reborn as a god and become an important figure in the cosmos.
This choice between the Pure Land beyond the cosmos and the Heavenly domain within the cosmos represents a major tension in Chinese popular religion. Was it more desirable to escape the cosmos altogether and experience eternal bliss in the Pure Land, or to remain in the cosmos as a god in Heaven? Both options rely on ideas that originated with the arrival of Buddhism in China and point to the important impact of Buddhism on the totality of Chinese religious thinking.
Though all souls in the Underworld might hope for immediate release to the Pure Land or to Heaven, the majority must face judgment and some punishment before all ten Magistrates of Hell. The basic conduct of mourning and funerary rituals was carried on with this assumption: that very few people, if any, get to cross either the Golden Bridge or the Silver Bridge. Thus, the point of the rituals was to get the deceased through the ten Courts of Hell as quickly as possible.