Academic journal article Demographic Research

Still under the Ancestors' Shadow? Ancestor Worship and Family Formation in Contemporary China

Academic journal article Demographic Research

Still under the Ancestors' Shadow? Ancestor Worship and Family Formation in Contemporary China

Article excerpt


Demographers have long been interested in patterns of marriage and family in East Asia (e.g., Jones and Yeung 2014; Raymo et al. 2015). China is characterized by an extended kinship network, strong family identity, hierarchical intergenerational relations, and a moral obligation of filial piety (Cheng and Chan 2006; Chiang 1995; Cohen 1990; Eastman 1988; Freedman 1966; Ikels 2004; Pasternak 1972; Szonyi 2002; Watson 1982; Watson and Watson 2004). An important cultural force underpinning these familial characteristics is ancestor worship, which is defined as a series of rituals, practices, and beliefs that focus on the perpetuation of the family line and reverence for the ancestors (Hu 2016; Yang and Hu 2012).3 According to this cultural tradition, intergenerational ties between the living and the deceased are crucial for the wellbeing of kin, so kinship members, especially the males, are obligated to make sure the family line is continued (Ahern 1973; Ebrey 1995; Feuchtwang 2001; Freedman 1965, 1966; Hsu 1971; Jordan 1972; Lang 1950; Weller 1987). This tradition has many implications for Chinese citizens' marriage and family life patterns (for a review, see Yang, Thornton, and Fricke 1999).

Nevertheless, ancestor worship could have lost its significance. During the Mao era the communist state's attitude toward many traditional practices was hostile, and ancestor worship was harshly suppressed throughout society (Davis-Friedmann 1991; Davis 1993; Parish and Whyte 1978; Whyte 1988; Whyte and Parish 1984). Then, when China introduced comprehensive reforms in the late 1970s, many social transitions, such as population mobility, urbanization, and achievement-based occupational structure, again challenged ancestor worship (Davis and Friedman 2014; Santos and Harrell 2016). Against this backdrop, we explore whether ancestor worship is still relevant to the family life of Chinese people in contemporary China.

To date, only a very limited number of studies have asked this question, and even these few works, to the best of our knowledge, do not try to directly measure ancestor worship practices (e.g., Jin, Li, and Feldman 2007; Lee and Wang 1999; Li and Lavely 2003). Moreover, these studies mostly focus on son preference, so we know surprisingly little about how ancestor worship is intertwined with other aspects of family formation such as marriage and childbearing. This study is the first to theoretically articulate and empirically investigate the association between ancestor worship practices and different aspects of the family formation process in contemporary China. Specifically, we take advantage of a large-scale, nationally representative survey in our examination of the relationship between ancestor worship and 1) the timing of transition to first marriage, 2) the pattern of childbearing, and 3) the orientation toward son preference. By so doing, the unique perspective of this study not only advances our understanding of the demographic patterns of the Chinese but also illustrates a potential partnership between culture and demographic research (Bachrach 2014).

2.Theoretical background

2.1Ancestor worship in China: An overview

One cultural tradition that supports the extended kinship system in China is ancestor worship (Ahern 1973; Thornton and Fricke 1987; Thornton et al. 1994; Yang, Thornton, and Fricke 1999). In this study we define ancestor worship as the host of rituals, practices, and beliefs that are oriented toward venerating deceased older family members (that is, ancestors) and perpetuating the family line (Freedman 1965, 1966; Hsu 1971; Yang 1961; Yang and Hu 2012).4 Ancestor worship has mostly been studied in the field of religious studies, as a type of folk religion (e.g., Yang and Hu 2012). Ancestor worship has also been examined by sinologists and scholars working on Chinese folklore (for a review, see Hu 2016). In this study we are not going to address the nuanced distinctions between the religious and cultural meanings of ancestor worship, but instead we focus on whether ancestor worship practices can be significantly correlated with family life in contemporary China, a subject that has not been fully studied. …

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