Who Were the Ancestors? the Origins of Chinese Ancestral Cult and Racial Myths

By Liu, Li | Antiquity, September 1999 | Go to article overview

Who Were the Ancestors? the Origins of Chinese Ancestral Cult and Racial Myths


Liu, Li, Antiquity


Introduction

Ancestor worship has been a dominant religious form in ancient as well as modern China. It has shaped thought and behaviour for millennia, and has been used by elites as propaganda legitimizing their political positions. Ancestors can be created and modified, so the nature of the ancestral cult has changed through time. Using archaeological data from China, this article first enables an exploration of the earliest manifestations and the development of ancestor-worship ritual in the Neolithic period; secondly, demonstrates that lineage/tribal ancestors became state deities in the Shang dynasty (c. 1600-1100 BC); and, thirdly, investigates the process in modern history by which a legendary sage, the Yellow Emperor, was first transformed into the progenitor of the Han Chinese, and then into the common ancestor of all Chinese people.

From group ancestors to individual ancestors

Ancestor veneration is a process of ritual activity that can be reconstructed by analysing archaeological material remains showing a non-random pattern of use and discard offering insights into the nature of the ritual itself (McAnany 1994: 20). Neolithic burial sites (4500-4200 BC) in China suggest that ancestor-worship has gone through a changing course of ritual practice (see Liu in press and 1996 for general references).

Four types of Neolithic ritual involving ancestor veneration have been recognized. The first type is the 'group-ancestor worship' mortuary pattern of the early-mid Banpo phase of the Yangshao culture (c. 4500-4200 BC) at Longgangsi cemetery, southern Shaanxi. The material remains from the 168 graves and 150 sacrificial pits indicate a non-hierarchical social organization, where ancestor cult was probably conducted on behalf of and for the common interests of the entire community. The pits, around the edge of the cemetery, were clearly associated with the whole cemetery (Shaanxi Institute of Archaeology 1990: 11, 67).

The second Neolithic ritual type shows females exclusion from the 'group ancestors' as revealed in several multiple secondary burial sites of the Shijia phase (c. 4300-4000 BC) of the Yangshao culture. For example, at the Shijia site in central Shaanxi, where patrilocality and return burial or re-burial may have been practised (Gao & Lee 1993). Burial patterns suggest that women who married outside the village were excluded from ritual transformation to ancestral status, whereas the rest were eligible for such status. Although the communities can be characterized as non-stratified societies (based on the egalitarian distribution of burial goods), burial treatment was at many levels, according to each individual's economic and political contributions to the natal communities.

The third type of ancestral cult practice identified was one devoted to the worship of individuals. It occurred at Yangshan, Qinghai (middle-late Banshan phase of the Majiayao culture, c. 2500-2300 BC) in a society with little sign of socio-economic stratification. This burial site included contemporary and later sacrificial pits associated with two graves containing high-status objects (pottery drums, large stone axes and marble ornaments) (Qinghai Institute of Archaeology 1990). Although economically unstratified, the burials include influential military and religious individuals who were venerated as ancestors and continuously received ritual offerings for many years.

In the fourth type, ancestor worship was both oriented towards the individual, and intertwined with hierarchical social systems, as observed at Longshan culture sites (c. 2600-2000 BC). For example, at Chengzi, cemetery burials fall into four ranks based on the quality of grave furnishings, and rich graves are associated with sacrificial pits (Antiquity Management Bureau in Chengwei 1980). The cemetery is in two sections occupied by kin groups of different social strata. Those ancestors who received long-term ritual offerings were high-status individuals of prominent families and lineages. …

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