Chinese philosopher Confucius developed his teachings more than 2,000 years ago. Holding low-level government positions for his entire career, Confucius died in 479 BCE. However, the teachings he left to his disciples have had a lasting impact. Confucianism enjoyed imperial patronage and has become a lasting influence on Chinese culture.
Confucian Way of Life
Confucius taught the importance of developing human-heartedness, a deep caring or empathy for others. Understanding one’s position in society is central to this concept and is expressed through filial piety, called xiào in the Chinese language. Filial piety is the virtue of respect for one's ancestors and elders. In the Confucian understanding of filial piety, society consists of a just hierarchy, where those below submit to those above, and where those above have the responsibility to look after those below. Traditionally, this hierarchy consisted of the ruler above the people, the husband above the wife, the father above the son and the elder above the younger. Although decades of revolution and reform have changed the popular understanding of many of these relationships in China, respect for elders and ancestors has remained a cornerstone of the Confucian way of life in Chinese culture.
The Worship of Ancestors
As respect of elders and ancestors is a chief concern of Confucianism and is practiced by many Chinese in the home, at temples and at the graves of relatives, a common Confucian practice includes ancestral tablets and shrines dedicated to deceased elders. An ancestral tablet is often made of stone and includes names of ancestors carved in lists. Shrines to ancestors often consist of portraits of deceased elders, such as parents or grandparents, and usually includes an incense-stick holder. Those showing their respect will clasp incense in the palm of both hands, kneel before the portrait or tablet and place the burning incense in the holder.
The Graves of Ancestors
It is also a Confucian practice to show respect for one’s elders by visiting their graves at least once a year. The most important time to visit is during Tomb Sweeping Day, a holiday celebrated in early April when the family shows veneration for the departed by cleaning the tombs, clearing weeds and adding fresh soil to the surface of the graves. The deceased’s favorite food and wine are placed on the grave as an offering and paper representing money is burned for the dead to use in the afterlife. Family members will also burn incense and kneel before the dead to show their respect.
Chinese also visit Confucian temples to show their veneration for Confucius and to ask for a blessing. Temple rituals can vary from region to region and have changed over time. Contemporary rituals often involve the burning of incense and kneeling and bowing before images of Confucius or other important ancestors and spirits. Offerings, such as cups of tea, are made and donations may also be made to the temple. Those worshiping at the temple will often make wishes for themselves and for others during such rituals.
- Columbia University: Confucian Teaching-Filial Piety and Ancestor Worship
- World Religions- Professor: Who Is Confucius?
- Travel China Guide: Qingming Festival (Tomb-sweeping Day)
- Taipei Confucian Temple: FAQ
- World Religions- Professor: Jen & Li - Confucian Virtues
- World Religions- Professor: Xiao, or Filial Piety
- Photos.com/Photos.com/Getty Images