Ancient China Simplified
by Edward Harper Parker
Public Domain Books
Chapter XII - Ancestral Worship
We have just seen that, when a military expedition started out, the event was notified, with sacrifice, to the ancestors of the person most concerned: it was also the practice to carry to battle, on a special chariot, the tablet of the last ancestor removed from the ancestral hall, in order that, under his aegis so to speak, the tactics of the battle might be successful. Ancestral halls varied according to rank, the Emperor alone having seven shrines; vassal rulers five; and first-class ministers three; courtiers or second-class ministers had only two; that is to say, no one beyond the living subject’s grandfather was in these last cases worshipped at all. From this we may assume that the ordinary folk could not pretend to any shrine, unless perhaps the house- altar, which one may see still any day in the streets of Canton. In 645 B.C. a first-class minister’s temple was struck by lightning, and the commentator observes: “Thus we see that all, from the Emperor down to the courtiers, had ancestral shrines”,–a statement which proves that already at the beginning of our Christian era such matters had to be explained to the general public. The shrines were disposed in the following fashion:–To the left (on entrance) was the shrine of the living subject’s father; to the right his grandfather; above these two, to the left and right again, the great-grandfather and great-great- grandfather; opposite, in the centre, was that of the founder, whose tablet or effigy was never moved; but as each living individual died, his successor of course regarded him in the light of father, and, five being the maximum allowed, one tablet had to be removed at each decease, and it was placed in the more general ancestral hall belonging to the clan or gens rather than to the specific family: it was therefore the, tablet or effigy of the great-great-grandfather that was usually carried about in war. The Emperor alone had two special chapels beyond the five shrines, each chapel containing the odds (left) and evens (right) of those higher up in ascent than the great and great-great-grandfathers respectively. The King of Ts’u who died in 560 B.C. said on his death-bed: “I now take my place in the ancestral temple to receive sacrifices in the spring and autumn of each year.” In the year 597, after a great victory over Tsin, the King of Ts’u had been advised to build a trophy over the collected corpses of the enemy; but, being apparently rather a high-minded man, after a little reflection, he said: “No! I will simply erect there a temple to my ancestors, thanking them for the success.” After the death in 210 B.C. of the First August Emperor, a discussion arose as to what honours should be paid to his temple shrine: it was explained that “for a thousand years without any change the rule has been seven shrines for the Son of Heaven, five for vassal princes, and three for ministers.” In the year 253, after the conquest of the miserable Chou Emperor’s limited territory, the same Ts’in conqueror “personally laid the matter before the Emperor Above in the suburb sacrifice";–which means that he took over charge of the world as Vicar of God. The Temple of Heaven (outside the Peking South Gate), occupied in 1900 by the British troops, is practically the “suburb sacrifice” place of ancient times. It was not until the year 221 B.C. that the King of Ts’in, after that date First August Emperor, formally annexed the whole empire: “thanks to the shrines in the ancestral temple,” or “thanks to the spiritual help of my ancestors’ shrines the Under-Heaven (i.e. Empire) is now first settled.” These expressions have been perpetuated dynasty by dynasty, and were indeed again used but yesterday in the various announcements of victory made to Heaven and his ancestors by the Japanese Tenshi, or Mikado; that is by the “Son of Heaven,” or T’ien-tsz of the ancient Chinese, from whom the Japanese Shinto ritual was borrowed in whole or in part.
In the year 572 B.C., on the accession of a Tsin ruler after various irregular interruptions in the lineal succession, he says: “Thanks to the supernatural assistance of my ancestors–and to your assistance, my lords–I can now carry out the Tsin sacrifices.” In the year 548 the wretched ruler of Ts’i, victim of a palace intrigue, begged the eunuch who was charged with the task of assassinating him at least “to grant me permission to commit suicide in my ancestral hall.” The wooden tablet representing the ancestor is defined as being “that on which the spirit reclines"; and the temple “that place where the ancestral spiritual consciousness doth dwell.” Each tablet was placed on its own altar: the tablet was square, with a hole in the centre, “in order to leave free access on all four sides.” The Emperor’s was twelve inches, those of vassal princes one foot (i.e. ten inches) in length, and no doubt the inscription was daubed on in varnish (before writing on silk became general, and before the hair-brush and ink came into use about 200 B.C.). The rulers of Lu, being lineal descendants of the Duke of Chou, brother of the first Emperor of the Chou dynasty (1122 B.C.) had special privileges in sacrificial matters, such as the right to use the imperial music of all past dynasties; the right to sacrifice to the father of the Duke of Chou and the founder; the right to imperial rites, to suburban sacrifice, and so on; besides the custody of certain ancient symbolic objects presented by the first Chou Emperors, and mentioned on page 22.
Of course no punishment could be spiritually greater than the destruction of ancestral temples: thus on two occasions, notably in 575 B.C. when a first-class minister traitorously fled his country, his prince, the Marquess of Lu, as a special act of grace, simply “swept his ancestral temple, but did not cut off the sacrifices.” The second instance was also in Lu, in 550: the Wei friend with whom Confucius lived seventy years later, when wandering in Wei, retrospectively gave his ritual opinion on the case–a proof of the solidarity in sympathy that existed between the statesmen of the orthodox principalities. In the bloodthirsty wars between the semi-barbarous southern states of Wu and Ts’u, the capital of the latter was taken by storm in the year 506, the ancestral temple of Ts’u was totally destroyed, and the renegade Ts’u ministers who accompanied the Wu armies even flogged the corpse of the previous Ts’u king, their former master, against whom they had a grievance. This mutilation of the dead (in cases where the guilty rulers have contravened the laws of nature and heaven) was practised even in imperial China; for (see page 57) the founder of the dynasty, on taking possession of the last Shang Emperor’s palace, deliberately fired several arrows into the body of the suicide Emperor. Decapitating corpses and desecrating tombs of great criminals have frequently been practised by the existing Manchu government, in criticizing whom we must not forget the treatment of Cromwell’s body at the Restoration. In the year 285 B.C., when the Ts’i capital was taken possession of by the allied royal powers then united against Ts’i, the ancestral temple was burnt. In 249 B.C. Ts’u extinguished the state of Lu, “which thus witnessed the interruption of its ancestral sacrifices.”
Frequent instances occur, throughout this troublous period, of the Emperor’s sending presents of meat used in ancestral sacrifices to the vassal princes; this was intended as a special mark of honour, something akin to the “orders” or decorations distributed in Europe. Thus in 671 the new King of Ts’u who had just murdered his predecessor, which predecessor had for the first time set the bad example of annexing petty orthodox Chinese principalities, received this compliment of sacrificial meat from the Emperor, together with a mild hint to “attack the barbarians such as Yiieh, but always to let the Chinese princes alone.” Ts’i, Lu, Ts’in, and Yiieh on different occasions between that date and the fourth century B.C. received similar donations, usually, evidently, more propitiatory than patronizing. In 472 the barbarous King of Yiieh was even nominated Protector along with his present of meat; this was after his total destruction of Wu, when he was marching north to threaten North China. Presents of private family sacrificial meat are still in vogue between friends in China.
Fasting and purification were necessary before undertaking solemn sacrifice of any kind. Thus the King of Ts’u in 690 B.C. did this before announcing a proposed war to his ancestors; and an envoy starting from Ts’u to Lu in 618 reported the circumstance to his own particular ancestors, who may or may not have been (as many high officers were) of the reigning caste. On another occasion the ruler of Lu was assassinated whilst purifying himself in the enclosure dedicated to the god of the soil, previous to sacrificing to the manes of an individual who had once saved his life. Practically all this is maintained in modern Chinese usage.
A curious distinction is mentioned in connection with official mourning tidings in the highly ritual state of Lu. If the deceased were of a totally different family name, the Marquess of Lu wept outside his capital, turning towards deceased’s native place, or place of death; if of the same name, then in the ancestral temple: if the deceased was a descendant of the same founder, then in the founder’s temple; if of the same family branch, then in the paternal temple. All these refinements are naturally tedious and obscure to us Westerners; but it is only by collating specific facts that we can arrive at any general principle or rule.
1. Ts’u’s five capitals, in order of date, are marked. In 504 B.C. the king had to leave the Yang-tsz for good in order to escape Wu attacks. In 278 B.C. Ts’in captured No. 4, and then the ancient Ch’ta capital (No. 5, already annexed by Ts’u) became the Ts’u capital (see maps showing Ch’en’s position). Ts’u was now a Hwai River power instead of being a Han River and Yang-tsz power. Shuh and Pa are modern Sz Ch’wan, both inaccessible from the Han system. The Han system to its north was separated from the Wei system and the country of Ts’in by a common watershed.
2. Wu seems to have been the only power besides Ts’u possessing any knowledge of the Yang-tsz River, and Wu was originally part of, or vassal to Ts’u. 3. Pa had relations with Ts’u so early as 600 B.C. Later Pa princesses married Ts’u kings.]