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Without a formal religion, we worship ancestors
Without a formal religion, we worship ancestors|
While all races worship their ancestors to some degrees, we Chinese excel or distinguish ourselves in this aspect. I remember even during the peak of the ‘cul_ture revolution’ years in the early 70’s, the homes of many of my elementary school classmates were still adorned with a not-so-ambiguous “香火”(Xiang Huo), a respectable and honorable place for our ancestors, which is typically located on the wall facing the front entrance of a house. In small towns, where space allows, most houses have a small hall (living room?) right behind the front entrance and all other rooms are located around this hall. The prime space in the hall is the wall facing the front entrance, which rightfully belongs to the ancestors. Typically some writings to indicate various recent ancestors specifically and more remote ones in general are placed on the wall together with other suitable decorations. A jar is also paced there to hold incense that is frequently burnt in any of the many Chinese festivals.
Recently, I notice in the city where my parents currently reside, many private houses, 3-5 stories tall, are caped with a magnificent “香火”(Xiang Huo) on the top of the building. The place of ancestor has thus adapted to the modern world and moved to a much higher place, literally, and may actually be called a private temple now. Every time we visit our parents, the very first thing to do is inform the ancestors we are coming for a visit and pay them a tribute. Incense is burnt, paper money burnt, and sacrifice (food, water and wine) offered. In front of our ancestors, the family knee down, one at a time by certain order, to wish them well and pray for their blessings. Finally fire crackers, many thousands of them, were cracked to send them on their way and possibly also to drive other unwelcome spirits away. This is part that gets my son most excited and gets remembered and talked about most among other activities of the entire trip.
Why do we worship our ancestors? My mom is the one most enthusiastic about it. She is not illiterate. In fact she once produced a graduation certificate of a nurse school from a place two thousand kilometers away from my home town, and earned a pay rise as an educated, which shocked us kids and the entire town. “My mom, with a nurse certificate?” Under the influence of the ‘Revolution Education’ I was also very critical of her ‘superstition’. But now as I am more educated (probably one of the most highly educated Chinese in terms cumulating degrees) I actually become more understanding of my mom, and become truly appreciating of my mom passing this Chinese tradition down in my family.
As age slowly catches up with me, I starts to understand the needs of my mom and other more traditional Chinese.
(1) Such worship is out of respect and love for our ancestors. We Chinese are not very affectionate people on surface, and perhaps we seldom show our love for our parents in any symbolic way once we pass our childhood age. Silently we watch each other toil till death. As our parents pass away, we start to feel sorry for them and miss them. Some way must be found to symbolize that feeling. Putting up a ‘香火”(Xiang Huo) is one such ways.
(2) Such worship is also out of fear. As I incline to believe that we Chinese are filled with fear of dead deep in our souls. If you talk to oversea Chinese, they typically will tell you how differently ghosts are treated in China and abroad. The westerners do not seem to have much fear of ghosts, but on the hand we Chinese would have chill in our back the moment we see a skeleton. (The situation may have slightly changed now in the big cities in China). It is our deep belief that a dead would turn into something, its spirit would persist, and it is capable of performing physical tricks on the alive.
In 1975, the grandma of one of my classmates passed away. After many days’ procession performed by a paid ‘道士’ (Dao shi, a Taoist?), she was finally buried, but on that very evening, straw ashes was spread in her house to capture her footprints for it is believed that she would turn into something that would always come back to say a final goodbye. But since it is a spirit, the alive must get out of the way to avoid it or otherwise misfortune will follow whoever encounters such a newly formed spirit. (It is called “还魂)
Invariably, footprints of cats or dogs were captured most often, followed by those of hens or other domestic animals.
(3) Such worship is also out of the desire for good luck. Facing so many uncertainties in life, feeling so vulnerable in this brutal world, a Chinese needs all the helps s/he could get. My mom would pray for my safety every time she learns that I am going to take a flight. After the death of my brother she prays even more, both in frequency and in sincerity (please refer to ‘Where food is dear life cheap’ for more info at http://bbs.chinadaily.com.cn/forumpost.shtml?toppid=17988), for in her world, there is really no one else who could help her in her struggle.
However, when good luck does not show up or a bad luck strikes, a Chinese man can also turn into very disrespectful of ancestors, to the point of destroying their tombs. To a Chinese, worship of ancestors and other religions is more for the material needs of the alive, not the dead. Please also read posting above entitled “My father's real story of superstition” for more details.
(4) Finally it is likely out of a religious need. Chinese is a people without a formal religion, an attribute I view more as a positive than negative. But time and again we would encounter forces quite beyond our comprehension, such as death, and in such occasions there is nothing but religion that can comfort us our pains and our wounds. Without a formal religion, worship of ancestor appears to fill in our needs well.
(Note: Buddhist and Taoists are not uncommon in China, but their religions have not captured the souls of most Chinese. Most Chinese are also quite turned off by other religions that are too exclusive for the taste of Chinese, for they all tend self proclaim as the only Right One and their god the only true gold, and typically they always attempt to conquer other religions for their own domination of the world or the human race. Please forgive me if my view is offensive to you. I am not a religious person and am only trying to understand why Chinese are not so religious on one hand but worship their ancestors so religiously on the other ).