Chinese Religion: Worship Thy Parents

There are many ways in which China remains a cipher for Westerners, most of whom labor under the misapprehension that “modern civilization” originated in ancient Greece and spread slowly outward, eventually reaching “backwards” China and even then only in attenuated fashion. This of course ignores parallel and in some ways more spectacular developments in Neolithic China (9,000-2,000 BCE) and the rise of early dynasties around 2,000 BCE. Chinese civilization, in other words, is much older than ancient Greece and its Western progeny.

Although there are several striking parallels between the Levantine and Chinese Neolithic transitions (Underhill 1997), one Chinese tradition was early developing and distinctive: ancestor worship. In The Archeology of Ancient China, K.C. Chang asserts that burials dating from 3,000 BCE indicate such worship: “The probable lineage arrangement in the village cemetery and the regularity of the individual burials within the cemetery in many cases make it highly likely that the cult of ancestors to symbolize lineage solidarity had already been initiated.” Over the next several thousand years, parental reverence or “filial piety” became a cornerstone of Chinese culture and metaphysics. It remains so to this day.

In “The Place of Filial Piety in Ancient China,” Donald Holzman examines the early history of ancestor worship in China and traces its development over succeeding millennia. It is a fascinating history that seems completely foreign. As might be expected, Chinese rulers and elites found it expedient to have the microcosm (household) mirror the macrocosm (empire). Just as one must obey and revere one’s parents or elders, one must also obey and revere the emperor or state. As Holzman explains, this relationship was elevated to sacred status:

[A]t the very earliest stages in their history, the Chinese gave filial piety an extremely exalted position — treated it as something one might almost call an absolute, a metaphysical entity, something so exalted in their minds that it becomes difficult for us of another culture to appreciate it today. A brief discussion of the origin of filial piety in China will show that this phenomenon seems always to have been central in Chinese life and very seldom, if ever, called into question.

While Westerners may find this exceedingly odd, Holzman does not and compares it to Western belief:

It is a truism that the Chinese are, philosophically, down-to-earth, immanentists, uninterested in transcendence, whereas in the West God is felt to be transcendent, above and beyond us. It is also well known that the Chinese have not been interested, in their philosophies, in the origin of the world, in a Creator.

The only creators the Chinese know are the parents who gave them life and thus it is not surprising that those who have saintly natures have reacted towards their parents as men and women in the West have reacted towards the God they consider to be their Creator.

[F]ilial piety in China came to be seen as having absolute value and the worship of one’s parents (that is, one’s creators) can be compared to the worship of God in the West.

One question remains unanswered: Why did ancestor worship or filial piety arise in the first place? My guess would be that early millet and rice agriculture led to increasing social stratification — with unequal and potentially conflicting claims on land/water — and that certain families established priority for such claims. Under these circumstances, it becomes expedient to establish lineages and worship ancestors.


Holzman, D. (1998). The Place of Filial Piety in Ancient China Journal of the American Oriental Society, 118 (2) DOI: 10.2307/605890

Underhill, A. (1997). Current issues in Chinese Neolithic archaeology Journal of World Prehistory, 11 (2), 103-160 DOI: 10.1007/BF02221203

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11 thoughts on “Chinese Religion: Worship Thy Parents

  1. John S. Wilkins

    I think the social stratification explanation is probably right: as the kingdoms expanded into empire, all sorts of techniques for maintaining order (a peculiarly Chinese/Confucian obsession) were probably tested and adopted. The microcosm/macrocosm point is a good analogy (although that’s a western mythology; maybe there’s an oriental equivalent).

    However, stratification is ubiquitous – what counts is the degree of stratification. A small society will have around three or so levels, but a complex one with high density populations can have many more (the Indus Valley being the exemplar). It’s more a matter of when agriculture permits large scale societies than a matter of technologies like metal working, in my opinion.

  2. admin Post author

    I agree and think “techniques” is a great word for what was tested and/or tried; Foucauldians could have a field day with the internalization of Confucian values and the interests being served. Rather than microcosm/macrocosm, I thought about saying “as it is in (Chinese) heaven, so it shall be on (Chinese) earth,” but thought it sounded too corny.

  3. admin Post author

    Hi razib — good to see you here. I am unaware of any historically or ethnographically known hunter-gatherer society (I assume this is what you mean by “primitive”) that engages in “ancestor worship,” and certainly nothing like the Chinese veneration for ancestors. There may be signs of something like ancestor veneration at Catal Hoyuk, but this seems to be the earliest possible date for it.


  4. Sabio Lantz

    I think it was Pascal Boyer who felt that viewing the dead ancestor as able to act in this world accomplished a notion of an all-watching, punishing being to discourage cheaters.

    Worshipping these all-knowing invisible conscious watchers allowed to amplify the myth and offer means to appease when bad fortune hit and thus offer hope in suffering.

    If I remember correctly, Japanese and North American old cultures have ancestor adoration — but they are all in the line of migration of the ancient Chinese, no? I can’t imagine, that like “gods”, “ancestor” watchers didn’t develop outside of Chinese cultural offsprings.

  5. admin Post author

    I think it is Jesse Bering (not Pascal Boyer), along with others such as Dominic Johnson and Matt Rossano. This is all well and good hypothetically speaking, and there are experiments showing that people in labs (i.e., undergraduates) are less prone to cheating when they think they are being watched or surveilled. The major problem with this argument is that ancestor “worship” did not appear in any culture until the Neolithic transition. We see inklings of ancestor veneration in early agricultural communities, but I am not aware of any hunter-gatherer society that worships ancestors or engages in serious ancestor veneration. And as we know, all humans were hunter-gatherers until 12,000 years ago. Thus, ancestor worship probably played little or no role in origins or early evolution of what we today call “religion.” I have written some earlier posts on these very issues; I will search for them and see if I can give you some links.

  6. Sabio Lantz

    In WordPress you go to Settings/Discussion and scroll down and check the box entitled: “Show a ‘subscribe to comments’ option in the comment form”

    I am not sure how to do this on your software.

    And see — I just happened to come back to this post or I would have never known you responded. Having the e-mail notification will pick up your comment interactions greatly — I imagine. Most folks don’t come back.

    Also, I would add a “contact me” page or give your e-mail address somehow so that such comments can be sent to you rather than taking up space.

    Also, blue font (links) on blue background is hard on the eyes of some of us folks — you might consider a color consultant! :-)

  7. Sabio Lantz

    I don’t understand your objection to my suspicion that ancestor worship may be a technique to re-enforce morality.

    (1) religion is not one thing — many different mechanisms get clustered together under that abstract word. Cheater-Catching mechanisms are many. If it developed in the neolithic period, it matters not. Also, the importance of cheater-catching grew as population grew because the mind is built for a relatively small tribe (what, about 150, as theories go — all primates group in rather fixed numbers). So I would expect late development of that mechanism.

    I hope you build a mechanism to follow your threads. I may forget to come back here. You can go to my site and “Contact Me” if I forget.

    I find this stuff fascinating.
    BTW, are you religious? (Christian or otherwise)
    It is not pertinent, of course, but interesting.

  8. admin Post author

    I was not objecting to your suspicion, which is quite well founded. It is in fact a technique that post-Neolithic societies have used to maintain such order. I was objecting to the mainstream adaptationists’ argument that something like ancestor worship existed in the Upper Paleolithic, that it had the desired “moral” effects, and this is an adaptation which explains (at least in part) the origins of what we today call “religion.” This deep time linking of ancestor worship and watching moral agents is often repeated, and I thought that is what you were discussing. So if this developed in conjunction with the Neolithic, it does in fact matter if we are making evolutionary arguments and not cultural or historical ones. I like to test these kinds of hypotheses against the facts of archaeology and history.

    If you want to send me an email, we can talk about your other question.

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