Ancestor Worship and Identity: Ritual, Interpretation, and Social Normalization in the Malaysian Chinese Community

By Clarke, Ian | SOJOURN: Journal of Social Issues in Southeast Asia, October 2000 | Go to article overview

Ancestor Worship and Identity: Ritual, Interpretation, and Social Normalization in the Malaysian Chinese Community


Clarke, Ian, SOJOURN: Journal of Social Issues in Southeast Asia


Ancestor worship has historically been one of the central institutions of Chinese society regardless of temporal and geographic boundaries. As such, ancestor worship has been a popular and fruitful area of investigation for social scientists attempting to gain a greater insight into the nature of Chinese culture and society in both the mainland and Taiwan (Yang 1967, pp. 29-31; Freedman 1979; Jordan 1972; Wolf 1974; Zito 1977, p. 200). Although ancestor worship is also a common form of ritual activity found amongst ethnic Chinese in Malaysia, it (along with other aspects of the folk religious system) is a somewhat neglected area of research. Moreover, it is often regarded as a simple continuation of the Chinese system outside the geographical boundaries of China.

This paper will examine the institution of ancestor worship amongst ethnic Chinese Malaysians, briefly outlining the nature of the Chinese religious system from which it derives, investigating how the various practices associated with ancestor worship integrate into the diversity of religious systems found amongst ethnic Chinese Malaysians, and the role this institution plays in social relations. In particular, the focus will be on the relationship between the ritual practice of ancestor worship and a key feature of Malaysian Chinese identity, ethnicity, throwing some light onto the way in which social identity and interpersonal relations at several levels are created and expressed through the complex cluster of symbolic meanings which is ancestor worship.

Ancestor Worship as Ritual in the Classical Chinese Setting

In order to examine the practice of ancestor worship in Malaysia it is important to first approach this institution as a form of ritual activity, and one which is firmly embedded in Chinese culture and which therefore reflects some of the unique characteristics of this cultural system. While ancestor worship can be seen as displaying a variety of social and ideological meanings, it is primarily a form of ritual activity which displays the fundamental characteristics of ritualized action (Humphrey and Laidlaw 1994). As with all ritualized action, ritual associated with ancestor worship is a form of "non-intentional" activity (that is, its identity as "ancestor worship" is not dependent on the intentions of the actors who carry it out but rather on the activity itself) whose performance is stipulated by an ontology defined by a set of constitutive rules and which is seen as a discrete separate entity independent of actors with its own particular nomenclature and history (ibid., pp. 88-90). When individuals participate in the ritualized activity of ancestor worship, they are carrying out an activity readily identified as "ancestor worship" (zuxian chongbai, bai zuxian), regardless of their personal motivations underlying this action. It is a form of activity which should be carried out in accordance with a set of widely recognized social norms and which is regarded as a distinct discrete "entity", a category of action which exists independently of its individual practitioners.

Ancestor worship also displays another fundamental characteristic of ritualized action in that as a non-intentional, "pre-defined" rule-based independent entity, it is "external" to the actors who carry it out, having no implicit meaning or significance and is thus "always available for further re-assimilation to the actors' intentions, attitudes and beliefs" (ibid., p. 89). The ritual is in itself without meaning, with no implicit message or discourse to impress upon either practitioners or observers. However, this lack of meaning allows, perhaps even compels both individual practitioners and wider social organizations to give their own significance to the action, to interpret it within their own implicit or explicit system of meaning (ibid., pp. 81, 181).(1)

This last point is crucial for an understanding of the social significance of ancestor worship within the historical context of Chinese culture. …

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