Chinese ancestor worship or Chinese ancestor veneration, also called the Chinese patriarchal religion, is an aspect of the
Chinese traditional religion Chinese folk religion, also known as ''popular religion'', is a polyphyletic File:Monophyly, paraphyly, polyphyly.png, 300px, Cladogram of the primates, showing a monophyly (the simians, in yellow), a paraphyly (the prosimians, in cyan, i ...
which revolves around the ritual celebration of the
deified Apotheosis (, from gr, ἀποθεόω/ἀποθεῶ, label=none, link=no, lit='to deify', transliteration=apotheoo/apotheo; also called divinization and deification from ) is the glorification of a subject to divine level and most commonly, t ...
ancestors and
tutelary deities A tutelary () (also tutelar) is a deity or a Nature spirit, spirit who is a guardian, patron, or protector of a particular place, geographic feature, person, lineage, nation, culture, or occupation. The etymology of "tutelary" expresses the concep ...
of people with the same surname organised into
lineage societies This is a list of notable hereditary and lineage organizations. It includes societies that limit their membership to those who meet group inclusion criteria, such as descendants of a particular person or group of people of historical importance. It ...
ancestral shrines An ancestral shrine, hall or temple ( or , Vietnamese: ''Nhà thờ họ''), also called lineage temple, is a temple dedicated to deified Apotheosis (, from gr, ἀποθεόω/ἀποθεῶ, label=none, link=no, lit='to deify', translitera ...
. Ancestors, their ghosts, or spirits, and gods are considered part of "this world", that is, they are neither supernatural (in the sense of being outside nature) nor transcendent in the sense of being beyond nature. The ancestors are humans who have become godly beings, beings who keep their individual identities. For this reason, Chinese religion is founded on veneration of ancestors. Ancestors are believed to be a means of connection to the supreme power of
Tian ''Tiān'' () is one of the oldest Chinese terms for heaven and a key concept in Chinese mythology Chinese mythology () is mythology that has been passed down in oral form or recorded in literature in the geographic area now known as Greater ...

as they are considered embodiments or reproducers of the creative order of Heaven. Ancestor veneration is completely or almost exclusively focused on male ancestors hence one of its names being "Chinese patriarchal religion" as it was believed that because women did not pass down surnames, they were incapable of carrying down a bloodline.
Han Chinese The Han Chinese (), or the Han people (), is an East Asian East Asia is the east East is one of the four cardinal direction The four cardinal directions, or cardinal points, are the directions north North is one of the four ...
people trace their ancestry through their male lineages (their father's father and so on) which are recorded in genealogy books and they consider their
ancestral home An ancestral home is the place of origin of one's extended family, particularly the home A home, or domicile, is a space used as a permanent or semi-permanent residence for an individual, group or family. It is a fully or semi sheltered sp ...
to be where their patriline ancestor was born (usually about five generations back) or the origin of their surname.
Confucian , Shanxi Shanxi (; ; Chinese postal romanization, formerly romanised as Shansi) is a landlocked Provinces of China, province of the China, People's Republic of China and is part of the North China region. The capital and largest city of th ...
philosophy calls for paying respect to one's ancestors, an aspect of
filial piety In Confucian ethics, Confucian, Chinese Buddhist ethics, Buddhist and Taoism, Taoist ethics, filial piety (, ''xiào'') is a virtue of respect for one's parents, elders, and ancestors. The Confucian ''Classic of Filial Piety'', thought to be wri ...
; Zhuo Xinping (2011) views traditional patriarchal religion as the religious organisation complementing the ideology of Confucianism. As the "bedrock faith of the Chinese", traditional patriarchal religion influences the religious psychology of all Chinese and has influenced the other religions of China, as it is evident in the worship of founders of temples and schools of thought in
Taoism Taoism (), or Daoism (), is a philosophical and spiritual tradition of China, Chinese origin which emphasizes living in harmony with the ''Tao'' (, Taoism#Spelling and pronunciation, or ''Dao''). In Taoism, the ''Tao'' is the source, pattern a ...
Chinese Buddhism Chinese Buddhism or Han Buddhism has shaped Chinese culture in a wide variety of areas including art, politics, literature Literature broadly is any collection of Writing, written work, but it is also used more narrowly for writings speci ...

Chinese Buddhism
. Ancestor veneration practices prevail in South China, where lineage bonds are stronger and the patrilineal hierarchy is not based upon
seniority Seniority is the state of being older or placed in a higher position of status relative to another individual, group, or organization. For example, one employee may be senior to another either by role or rank (such as a CEO vice a manager), or by ...
and access to corporate resources held by a lineage is based upon the equality of all the lines of descent; whereas in North China worship of communal deities is prevalent.


Some contemporary scholars in China have adopted the names "Chinese traditional patriarchal religion" ( ''Zhōngguó chuántǒng zōngfǎ xìng zōngjiào'') or "Chinese traditional primordial religion" ( ''Zhōngguó chuántǒng yuánshēng xìng zōngjiào'') to define the traditional religious system organised around the worship of ancestor-gods.Zhang Jin, Yang Chunpeng
“ ("Chinese traditional primordial religion": generation and characteristics)
China Ethnic and Religious Network (), 2013.
China Confucius Network

Mou Zhongjian defines "clan-based traditional patriarchal religion" as "an orthodox religion that was widely accepted by all classes, and had been practiced for thousands of years in ancient China". Mou also says that this religion was subordinate to the state, it was "diverse and inclusive" and had "a humanistic spirit that emphasises the social, moral function of religion", and is closely related to politics. It refers to: :« ..The traditional religion that had been in place since the Xia, Shang and Zhou dynasties. It evolved from the worship of Heaven and ancestors. It had the basic components of a religion, including religious concepts, emotions, and rituals. It had no independent organisation. Instead, it was the kinship structure that fulfilled the functions of religious organisation. The emperor, who was the son of God, was the representative of the people who worshiped Heaven. Elders of the clans and parents represented the family in the worship of ancestors. Respecting Heaven and honoring ancestors (''jingtian fazu''), taking good care in seeing off the deceased, and maintaining sacrifices to distant ancestors (''shenzhong zhuiyuan'') were the basic religious concepts and emotional expressions in this religion. .. According to Zhuo Xinping (2011), Chinese patriarchal religion and Confucianism complemented each other in ancient China, as the Confucian religion traditionally lacked a social religious organisation while traditional patriarchal religion lacked an ideological doctrine.


Chinese folk religion Chinese folk religion, also known as Chinese popular religion, is a general term covering a range of traditional religious practices of Han Chinese The Han Chinese (), or the Han people (), is an East Asian East Asia is the ...
, a person is thought to have multiple souls, categorized as ''hun'' and ''po'', commonly associated with
yang and yin
yang and yin
, respectively. Upon death, ''hun'' and ''po'' separate. Generally, the former ascends into heaven and latter descends into the earth and/or resides within a
spirit tablet A spirit tablet, memorial tablet, or ancestral tablet, is a placardA placard is a notice installed in a public place, like a small :wikt:card, card, Signage, sign, or :wikt:plaque, plaque. It can be attached to or hung from a vehicle or building ...
; however, beliefs concerning the number and nature of souls vary.Richard J. Smith (2007). ''Settling the Dead: Funerals, Memorials and Beliefs Concerning the Afterlife''. Retrieved October 21, 2008, from Living in the Chinese Cosmos: Understanding Religion in Late-Imperial China: http://afe.easia.columbia.edu/cosmos/prb/journey.htm In accordance with these traditional beliefs, various practices have arisen to address the perceived needs of the deceased.


The mourning of a loved one usually involves elaborate rituals, which vary according to region and sect. The intensity of the mourning is thought to reflect the quality of relationship one had with the deceased. From the time of Confucius until the 20th century, a three-year mourning period was often prescribed, mirroring the first three years in a child's life when they are utterly dependent upon and loved unconditionally by their parents. These mourning practices would often include wearing sackcloth or simple garb, leaving hair unkempt, eating a restricted diet of
lets gooo A local exchange trading system (also local employment and trading system or local energy transfer system; abbreviated LETS) is a locally initiated, democratically organised, not-for-profit community enterprise that provides a community informati ...
two times a day, living in a mourning shack placed beside the house, and moaning in pain at certain intervals of the day. It is said, that after the death of Confucius his followers engaged in this three-year mourning period to symbolize their commitment to his teachings.

Funeral rites

Funerals are considered to be a part of the normal process of family life, serving as a cornerstone in inter-generational traditions. The primary goals, regardless of religious beliefs, are to demonstrate obeisance and provide comfort for the deceased. Other goals include: to protect the descendants of the deceased from malevolent spirits and to ensure the proper separation and direction of the deceased's soul into the afterlife. Some common elements of Chinese funerals include the expression of grief through prolonged, often exaggerated wailing; the wearing of white mortuary clothes by the family of the deceased; a ritual washing of the corpse, followed by its attiring in grave clothes; the transfer of symbolic goods such as money and food from the living to the dead; the preparation and installation of a
spirit tablet A spirit tablet, memorial tablet, or ancestral tablet, is a placardA placard is a notice installed in a public place, like a small :wikt:card, card, Signage, sign, or :wikt:plaque, plaque. It can be attached to or hung from a vehicle or building ...
or the use of a personator, often symbolic. Sometimes, ritual specialists such as Taoist priests or Buddhist monks would be hired to perform specific rites, often accompanied by the playing of music or chanting of scripture to drive away evil spirits.Thompson, L. G. (1979). ''Chinese Religion: An Introduction Third Edition''. Belmont, California: Wadsworth, Inc.


Burial is often delayed according to wealth; the coffin would remain in the main room of the family home until it has been properly prepared for burial. More traditionally, this delay is pre-determined according to social status: the corpse of a king or
emperor An emperor (from la, imperator The Latin word "imperator" derives from the stem of the verb la, imperare, label=none, meaning 'to order, to command'. It was originally employed as a title roughly equivalent to ''commander'' under the Roma ...
would be held in abeyance for seven months; magnates, five; other officers, three; commoners, one. In some instances, a "lucky burial" can take place several years after the burial. The bones are dug up, washed, dried, and stored in an earthenware jar. After a period of storage, the contents are then interred in their final resting place in a location selected by an
augur An augur was a priest and official in the classical Roman world. His main role was the practice of augury Augury is the practice from ancient Roman religion Religion in ancient Rome includes the ancestral ethnic religion In religiou ...

to optimize the flow of ''''. A bad ''qi'' flow could result in a disgruntled spirit who could possibly haunt their descendants.ReligionFacts. (2005, June 2). ''Ancestor Veneration''. Retrieved October 21, 2008, from www.religionfacts.com: http://www.religionfacts.com/chinese_religion/practices/ancestor_worship.htm  The deceased would often be buried with sacrifices, typically things one was thought to be in need of in the afterlife. This was done as a symbolic demonstration of filial piety or grandeur. For the wealthy and powerful, bronze vessels, oracle bones, and human or animal sacrifices often accompanied the deceased into the grave. More common sacrifices included candles and incense, as well as offerings of wine and food.

Continued obeisance

After the funeral, families often install an ancestral tablet at a household altar alongside other deceased ancestors. This act symbolically unifies the ancestors and honors the family lineage. Incense is lit before the altar daily, significant announcements are made before them, and offerings such as favorite foods, beverages, and spirit money are given bi-monthly and on special occasions, such as
Qingming Festival The Qingming festival, also known as Tomb-Sweeping Day in English (sometimes also called Chinese Memorial Day or Ancestors' Day), is a List of observances set by the Chinese calendar, traditional Chinese festival observed by the Han Chinese of ...
Zhong Yuan Festival The Ghost Festival, also known as the Zhongyuan Festival (traditional Chinese Traditional Chinese characters are one type of standard Chinese character Chinese characters, also called ''hanzi'' (), are logogram In a wr ...
Prayer Prayer is an invocation or act that seeks to activate a rapport with an object of worship through deliberate communication. In the narrow sense, the term refers to an act of supplication or intercession directed towards a deity or a deified an ...

was usually performed at the household altar in a separate room containing the ''po'' of their ancestors. The eldest male would speak to the altar on a regular basis. In some belief systems where special powers are ascribed to the deceased, he may supplicate the spirit to bless the family.




* * * * * * * Zhuo Xinping, "Spiritual Accomplishment in Confucianism and Spiritual Transcendence in Christianity," in {{DEFAULTSORT:Ancestor Veneration In China Chinese folk religion Buddhism in China Shamanism in China Veneration of the dead Confucianism Filial piety