Cult of Ancestry

I get nearly the same question about the cult of ancestry every time I teach the Analects, but I’ve never been able to answer it to my own satisfaction, much less to my students’. The question is bascially, what background assumptions and beliefs about the dead are in play for Confucius and his followers when they place such heavy emphasis on the continuance of filial piety for their parents and prior ancestors, post mortem? Of course, there’s this famous exchange with Confucius in 11.12, in which he seems to say that one should remain agnostic about death:

Ji Lu asked about serving the spirits of the dead. The Master said, “While you are not able to serve men, how can you serve their spirits?” Ji Lu added, “I venture to ask about death?” He was answered, “While you do not know life, how can you know about death?” (Legge translation)


We could take some agnosticism about death seriously here, or we could imagine that Confucius is simply deflecting for the sake of getting Ji Lu to think more about the problems of the living. Suppose we take the agnositicism seriously. What plausible answer do we have then to the importance, for Confucius, of honoring ancestry? Suppose we don’t take it too seriously, what then?

13 replies on “Cult of Ancestry”

  1. > What plausible answer do we have then to the importance, for Confucius, of honoring ancestry?

    My mind jumps immediately to _The Republic_ and the Noble lie.

    • Hi; thanks for the reply. You might have to clarify. The noble lie is about the differing values among classes of people. I’m not sure how that applies here.

  2. If we take the agnosticism seriously, ancestor worship could be important to Confucius because

    1) It is a mark of a heavily internalized ritual. If you continue to care for your parents and ancestors even after they are dead, you also probably cared for them extensively in life. So it is kinda like the follow-through in a baseball swing.

    2) It affirms social status. Both Confucius and Chinese society at the time have a very strong emphasis on class. One needs to understand to which class one belongs in order to understand how one ought behave. A farmer’s ancestors are farmers, so it makes sense that he would be a farmer. A ruler’s ancestors were rulers, so it makes sense that they too would be rulers. And if they know what titles their ancestors held, they are less likely to usurp new ones.

    The Xiao Jing could be used to prop up either explanation pretty easily, depending on how charitable one wants to be.

    If we don’t take it seriously, then you’ve got classical VE-type explanations where he is correcting a deviation from the mean. Couple that with the normal sentiment, “I don’t believe in the Devil but I fear him” and you’ve got a pretty solid answer.

    • Hi JSG; thanks for your suggestions. However, in 1, the follow-through analogy seems only apt for one’s parents, grandparents, and possibly great-grandparents. There’s more of a sense of proprietorship of the whole ancestral heritage that may need extra explanation. The social status explanation in 2 also helps but only a bit, since there is substantial friction there with the sort of meritocracy and social mobility that seems to be on the rise during and after Confucius’s life.

      As for the virtue ethics type of explanation, I’m not so clear about what you mean by “correcting a deviation from the mean,” though it sounds intriguing. Perhaps you could say more?

  3. If my ancestors actually are present at the sacrifice, then it is probably a good thing that I am honoring them. If they are not present, then the ritual of honoring them still has value: it makes me feel like I am part of something deeper and longer-lasting than just the two or three generations of my family that are alive, it brings me closer to these living relatives, and it allows me to release my own fears about death and dying. In short, if you are genuinely agnostic about death, ancestor-worship is a “win-win.” I think Xunzi argues something like this near the end of one of his chapters.

    • Hi Tim; that’s an interesting game theoretic aspect I hadn’t thought about. It’s an interesting rationale, though I doubt that Confucius would, or perhaps could, have thought about it that way.

    • Oops! The passage I was thinking of is actually from Mozi, at the end of Ch. 31 “Explaining Ghosts.” Here’s an excerpt (tr. Watson):

      “Of course if ghosts and spirits do not really exist, then it would seem that we are wasting the materials we use, the wine and millet. But though we expend them, it is not as though we were simply pouring the wine in a sewage ditch and throwing the millet away. For the members of the family and the people of community can all gather to drink and eat them. Therefore, though no ghosts or spirits existed at all, we would still have the opportunity to gather together a pleasant group and make friends with the people of the community.

      [. . .]

      Therefore Mozi said: Now when I perform sacrifices, it is not as though I were pouring the wine in a sewage ditch and throwing the millet away. Above I am seeking the blessing of the ghosts and spirits, while below I am gathering a pleasant group and making friends with the people of the community. And if the ghosts and spirits really exist, then I am able to provide food and drink for my father, my mother, and my elder brothers and sisters. Is not this beneficial to the whole world?”

      Probably you are right that Confucius wouldn’t think about it this way. In any case, it shows at least that one could be an agnostic about ghosts and spirits (as I read the whole of Ch. 31, Mozi doesn’t come to any determinate conclusion in this regard), but still make an argument for continuing the tradition.

  4. To build on Guy’s #1….We honor the dead as a means (not the only means, but one of the means) of perfecting our fulfillment of our duties to the living in the present. Honoring parents is the “root of Humanity,” a primary social relationship through which we make ourselves fully human. We should honor the parents of our parents because they produced and cultivated our parents, and are thus responsible for providing us with the social relationship through which we make ourselves fully human. Same would apply to the parents of the parents of our parents, etc., etc. Filiality is thus transhistorical. But it is always focused on how we discern and enact what is right in the present. Think of Shun: in order to properly honor his parents he had to disobey them (or at least not tell them that he was getting married) in order to carry through his duty to transhistorical filiality. His deliberations were focused on the present – should he get married without parental consent – but he drew upon his understanding of what he owed his ancestors as well: if he did not produce heirs in whom he would cultivate the performance of honoring parents, it would be a dishonor to his own parents, and their parents, etc.

  5. Might we say that venerating the ancestors is a proxy for the internalization of tradition and the cultural legacy as a whole? For a commitment to a future that those who came before could have regarded as a continuation and a fulfillment of the projects they initiated, despite all of the inevitable and sometimes necessary discontinuity (viz. Sam’s #4 about Shun)?

    In this respect, the “person” of the ancestor can mediate between their explicit intentions when alive and the changed circumstances in the present that make literal continuity impossible or inappropriate. I think that one can conceive of the “person” of the ancestor in this way without positing anything about their survival after death. Rather, it is about the ability to distinguish between commitments: commitment to the person versus commitment to the policy (or other concrete expression of will).

  6. Sam and Henad,

    I think I see a common thread in your respective comments and that is the idea of “honoring” as something more like memorializing rather than worshiping. Memorials to the dead, among other things, are for reflecting and focusing our attention on our commitment to the things those dead stood for, lived for, or died for. That seems plausible to me at times, as an understanding of Confucius’s attitude toward ancestry. Other times, I wonder if that isn’t a tad too secular for something that did give rise, historically, to something which continues to the present — viz actual worship of ancestors (praying to them for success in exams, for example). Does the secularity of construing ancestral piety as memorializing bother anyone else? Maybe it’s just me.

    • On #6, I’d like to see my notion of a metaphysical “person” construct in the ancestor relationship as something more robust than a mere secular “memorializing”, because although it falls short of positing a first-person post-death experience for the ancestor, it does posit a real ability to identify oneself with the forces which are the objects of tradition as immanent in the tradition itself. That is, there is a real transitivity to the tradition that might yet be distinguishable from the status of these persons beyond their cultic presence. The difference would be that between the unity of a biography, to which receiving cult as an ancestor would not belong, and the unity of the practice, with its diverse intentional objects.

      At any rate, even if my construct is faulty, I agree that any successful model should be applicable to, e.g., praying to ancestors for success in exams, and not only to more intellectualized practices. (The issue is not unlike that concerning the extension and theorization of philosophically-informed theurgical practices in my own area of specialization of Neoplatonism.)

  7. Do agnostics and atheists talk to their parents’ tombstones? I figured people tried to commune with dead intimate relations for guidance, explanation for their status and relationship to the rest of the world, etc.

    Is it fair to believe that loyal Confucians would want to “adhere to the wishes” of their elders even when they’re left to blankly ponder and freely interpret the actions of their ancestors to fit whatever scheme on which they land? All forms of worship and reverence engage in this behavior, so it wouldn’t be surprising to have Confucius taking an agnostic tone (where the question is open, but rife with easily refuted conjectures) and still insist on the veneration of dead ancestors (where it is useful for providing the illusion of external moral guidance and Confucianism’s perpetuation).

    To Manyul, it doesn’t appear to me that reverence, worship, or any other attempts at supernatural commune, even when not entailing a serious believe in its efficacy, really differ much where the worshippers’ emotional attitudes are concerned, be they secular or religious. Psychics, orphans, and even loyal executors appear to be seeking a common answer whenever they try to ask, “What would so-and-so (May he rest in peace.) do?” and that is some guideline to influence their own behavior (or, in the case of psychics and the like, guidelines to sell to others).

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