When you enter a Chinoy household, the chances are you will find more than one religious altar. There might be one for Catholic saints; there might be another one for Buddhist deities, and there would most likely be one dedicated to ancestors and departed loved ones. While it’s normal for people to display pictures of their deceased loved ones in their home, for Chinese culture, these pictures are not only for commemoration but for veneration as well.
If you’re a Chinoy, then lighting incense for your ancestors is probably part of your quarterly, monthly or even daily routine. It’s a practice that’s passed down from generation to generation. Some people might know the exact reason why they do it, but others might have just done what their parents or grandparents were doing without knowing the reason behind the practice. Regardless of which one you are, you might still learn a thing or two about the reason and the history behind why Chinese culture values the veneration of ancestors.
How it started
The first and most obvious reason is filial piety. Chinese culture revolves around filial piety, which is usually demonstrated through respect and acts of service towards elders. That respect would extend even to the elders who are already dead, which is why people worship their ancestors as a form of social duty. However, this practice isn’t only rooted in Confucianist teachings because it’s also linked to the ancient folk beliefs about a person’s soul.
According to those beliefs, a person’s soul is split into two after death. The first one is called the po, which is the part that rises to heaven and gets reincarnated. The second one is called hun, which stays in the person’s body and eventually becomes part of their grave or ancestral tablet. It’s the hun that requires worship and offerings because it’s suspended in a limbo state between death and the afterlife. It will eventually travel to the afterlife, but until then, the living family members must offer food and nourishment to avoid the risk of their dead relatives becoming hungry ghosts that roam the earth.
Other beliefs state that a person is subjected to a period of suffering before their souls are allowed to travel to the afterlife. Occasionally, the people who lived a pure and virtuous life are exempted from this, but family members would still perform certain funeral rights and pray for them regularly to make sure their souls travelled as quickly as possible through the suffering period.
Although venerating ancestors began as a folk belief, it eventually became an integral part of China’s state religion because the Imperial Emperors believed it was important for their people to still worship them even after their death. In fact, they even had grand shrines and temples built for themselves and their ancestors.
Modern day practice
Of course, not everyone can afford to have temples built for their ancestors, so the common people kept their ancestral tablets in a designated room in their homes. However, in modern times, especially in the case of Chinoy culture, it’s quite uncommon to keep ancestral tablets at home. Instead, the ancestral tablets, along with the urns of deceased loved ones, are kept in public temples (which are similar to cemeteries), while framed pictures of the deceased are placed on the altar at home.
In terms of worship, family members would light incense and offer sacrificial food to the deceased on their death anniversaries or during special occasions like Chinese New Year, Tomb Sweeping Day, and Hungry Ghost Month. Tomb Sweeping Day, also known as Qingming Festival, is the Chinese equivalent of All Saint’s Day. It takes place every year on either April 4, 5 or 6, and it’s a day for people to travel to the graves of their deceased loved ones to clean them. Hungry Ghost Festival, on the other hand, takes place on the 15th day of the 7th Lunar month (Ghost Month), and it’s a day when the dead are believed to roam the Earth, so family members must offer food and burn incense and money to ensure that their deceased loved ones don’t grow hungry during the brief time they’re back with the living.
These practices might seem out of place in modern times, but regardless of whether or not you believe in all of the folk tales that gave rise to them, there’s a general belief that ancestors are watching over their family members at all times, so it’s important to venerate them to ask for their blessings and show them respect.