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