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?