Gods, Ancestors & Ghosts
Funeral Rituals from the Shang to the Present
Gods, Ancestors, and Ghosts

 
Yin-Yang Symbol with Heaven and Earth
Much of popular religious practice in China revolves around the supplication and worship of various divine or supernatural beings. From early on, the Chinese have lived in a complex world populated by all sort of invisible and mysterious beings, some of them perceived as being kind and helpful, but others coming across as demonic and dangerous. Scholars often classify the numerous divinities and uncanny creatures that populate the spiritual realm of popular religion into three broad categories: gods (shen), ancestors (zu), and ghosts (gui). ... Ontologically speaking, all beings, commonplace and supernatural, share the same substance. In the final analysis, they are different modulations of qi, the basic stuff or element out of which all beings and things are made. ... Accordingly, the supernatural and mundane worlds, as well as the realms of the dead and the living, are not radically disjoined. The living and the dead are believed to be connected and to influence each other, and the same principle applies to the human relationship with the gods.
Yin-Yang Symbol with Heaven and Earth
Beliefs about the existence of supernatural or mysterious beings are based on the notion that, at some level, the soul or spirit of a person can survive the moment of physical death. Such conception of the soul and the afterlife is grounded in ancient cosmological schemes central to Chinese thought, which postulate fundamental order and unity in the universe. Customarily, Chinese believe in the existence of two kinds of soul: earthly soul (po), linked with the yin element, and heavenly soul (hun), linked with the yang element. Upon death the earthly soul — associated with darkness, sensuality, and corporality — moves downward towards the earth and can be transformed into a ghost. On the other hand, the heavenly soul — associated with brightness, intelligence, and spirituality — travels upwards and can be reborn as a god or an ancestor. Despite their apparent differences, there are therefore striking similarities between the ancestors and the gods, even though the gods are believed to be in possession of greater numinous power, and their influence purportedly extends beyond the confines of individual families. It is also possible for an ancestor to transform himself or herself into a god (but also into a demon). Accordingly, the two classes of supernatural beings, gods and ancestors, are usually worshiped in a similar manner. (Introducing Chinese Religions, 169-70)
 
Chinese character for the "po" (yin) soul
Rituals for the Po (Yin) Soul
 
Shang Dynasty Tomb of Fu Hao
Tomb of Fu Hao
The Imperial Funerary Cult

Traditional "turtle-back" grave
 

Traditional "Turtleback" Tombs

Cemetary full of turtleback tombs

Modern Cemeteries

Modern Cemetary

Burning of a paper house at a contemporary Chinese funeral

Contemporary Rituals



"Hell Money"

Hell Money

Burning "hell money" at the grave

清明節
Qingming Festival
Tomb Sweeping Day


鬼節
Hungry Ghost Festival


Oesterle Library
291 L85 v. 11 (funeral scene)

Yin-Yang Symbol with Heaven and Earth
Chinese character for the "hun" (yang) soul
Rituals for the Hun (Yang) Soul
 
 
The spirits of the ancestors are traditionally symbolized and commemorated by means of ancestral tablets, on which their names are inscribed. Within individual homes the ancestral tablets are placed at special altars or shrines. In cases of wealthier households, there might be separate ancestral halls, or even whole ancestral temples. Often ancestral tablets are also placed at a local temple, which might be a Buddhist or a Daoist establishment. Within the altar area the tablets are frequently accompanied with statues or paintings of popular deities such as Guandi, Mazu, or Guanyin. Offering incense and paying respects at the ancestral shrine are integral parts of the domestic routine of many Chinese households. On special occasions there are more elaborate rites and sacrifices, which usually involve the offerings of food and incense. (Introducing Chinese Religions, 170-1)

Click for video of Mulan with ancestors
Spirit Tablet

Spirit Tablets

Spirit tablets in an ancestral temple

Ancestral Hall Plan

Traditional Family Altar Layout

Contemporary Family Altar


Confucian Temples