A History of Ancestral Worship in Asia

Religions have shaped the lives of people for countless centuries; not only have they explained the natural occurrences that happened around us, but they have comforted us in our darkest times and given us hope. Religion has also played a dramatic role in art, literature and politics.

Throughout history, a vast array of religious beliefs have emerged to affect people and nations; some of these religions have disappeared entirely, some have disappeared only to be re-introduced with some variations, and some have stood the test of times. Today, the main religions are Buddhism, Hinduism, Islam, Christianity and Paganism.

In Asia, a number of religions have emerged in her long history. One of the earliest belief systems was that of ancestral worship. In countries such as Korea, China and Japan, ritual services for ancestor worship have been practiced for centuries and still play an important role in traditional village life. It was not only in the family home that this belief system had influence; the reverence of one’s ancestors had considerable repercussions on political forms. Although ancestral worship was practiced throughout Asia, there were several differences on how each country worshipped.

In China, ancestor worship was modelled on Confucian ideals; the philosophy of Confucianism consists of an exceptionally organized, hierarchical establishment within the social order in which the family was the basis of social stability. The reverence for one’s ancestors and propitiation of their spirits had been practiced before the Shang Dynasty, although it was not believed that many ancestors were thought to survive into the spirit world. It was most likely thought that only the spirits of important people would be lucky enough to survive.

After the Warring States Period (475 – 221 BCE), Chinese society became more complex and there were distinct differences between how the common people was treated from the nobility. For instance, the nobility were not subject to punishments such as mutilation that were inflicted on commoners. In addition, it was only the nobly born that could participate in the cults which were the heart of the Chinese notion of kinship. Only the nobility belonged to a family, which meant that only they had ancestors.

The patriarchal heads of the families were considered to be the intermediaries between the mortal world and that of the spirit world as they held the authority over the household. A family was a ritually constructed social unit and was in itself a moral act, and the ability to do so successfully was a demonstration of the moral superiority of the family member. In time, these practices came to identify those people who were entitled to hold offices or possess land, especially those who led and ruled clans, as religious superiority was the heart of the ruling house’s claim to power.

We can see this when the Chou (otherwise known as Zhou) displaced the Shang – the idea was introduced that a god superior to the ancestral god of the dynasty and that from him there was derived a mandate to rule. Now, it was decreed by Chou, that the mandate was required to pass into other hands.

The Four Rituals (sili) of capping, marriage, funerals and ancestral sacrifice were the rituals that were practiced within the family. It was the last ritual that was of great importance. These sacrifices were made at the ancestral altar or temple (zongsi) at which these ancestral rites were conducted. As one scholar states, “Requiting one’s progenitors for giving one birth is the first precondition for proper human conduct (rendao); collecting together as a lineage to worship one’s founding ancestor is the usual and proper way to honour one’s roots”.

However, since only the nobly born were considered to have ancestors, the common people turned to the worship of nature deities; the worship of the personifications of mountains and rivers were highly popular with commoners, although it should be stated that they received some attention from the nobility as well.

In Korea, ancestral worship had great influence on the lives of the everyday people and many performed rituals in order to pay respect to one’s ancestors. For example, a direct descendant must carry out such rituals eight times each year on the death remembrance days of all his ancestors from the fourth generation beyond that of his parents, as well as four other annually rituals performed on seasonal festivals and several rituals which are carried out at the graveyard.  

In the Korean ancestral belief system, there are two types of spirits, namely the good or benign ancestor and the evil spirit or ghost. A spirit becomes either one of these spirits by the manner of their deaths. Evil spirits or ghosts are created when a person dies either by suicide or by an accident, usually outside the home, who then go on to haunt the world and perform malicious acts. A benevolent spirit was produced when someone died of natural causes in the home after a long life; the spirits of these individuals would then become the ancestor spirits who would protect their descendants and families.

Funerary rites are an important aspect in Korean ancestral worship. When a person is about to die in their homes, his family brings him to the warmer part of the home and placed on his deathbed. He is dressed in a clean cloth named ch’ongo chongch’im. The children of the person are required to watch their parents at the end and if they speak any last words, to write them down at the head of the deathbed.

Once the individual’s death is confirmed, all ornaments are removed from their heads and hands, then their hair is loosened and tears are shed. After this, a member of the family would take the cloth and go outside and climb onto the roof. Facing north, they call out the name of the deceased repeating the word ‘pok’ (which means ‘return’) and pulls up the garment onto the roof. This ritual is named kop ok, calling back the spirit of the dead.

Looking at the worship of one’s ancestors in Japan, there are some similarities and differences to that of China and Japan. In one village in Okinawa, it is believed that the patrilineal descent group (munchuu) should not die out or, if it does, that the house should not be demolished. If the house does fall down then the site should not be built upon by another family as it is taboo for anyone but patrilineal descendants to build a house on it.

Ancestor spirits (gwansu) who have no descendants to pay them homage are given extra ancestral tablets in the ancestral table often separated by a board from the tablets of the proper ancestors of the household. They are considered to be unhappy and restless spirits, known as the ‘cold ancestors’ (hijuru gwansu). An heir is often looked for them if possible as ancestors who lack a suitable heir are believed to be pitiful and dangerous, as well as abnormal and inappropriate.

For the Japanese, to revere one’s ancestors he is supposed to honour them by offering them prayers, incense, foods, etc. In return, his ancestors are expected to protect him. When an unmarried woman dies, she is worshipped by the patrilineal descendants of her family, but her ancestral status in her maternal household is nonessential.For a married woman, her bones are placed in the same urn as her husband’s, thus nearly obliterating her own identity. Her ancestral significance is totally dependent on that of her husband’s. After her thirty-third death anniversary is celebrated, she is only worshipped as the wife of her husband.

Ancestor worship has given Asia a religious belief system that has been individually adopted and adapted by each country and given it their own colourful stamp. When looking at this belief system in Asia, it is surprising to see the similarities between each country as well as the universal meaning and message behind the faith – that family is the most important thing in the world.


Lee, Kwang Kyu (1984) The Concept of Ancestors and Ancestral worship in Korea, Asian Folklore Studies, Nanzan Institute for Religion and Culture.

Masako, Tanaka (1977) Categories of Okinawan “Ancestors” and the Kinship System, Asian Folklore Studies, Nanzan Institute for Religion and Culture.

Rowe, William T. (1998) Ancestral Rites and Political Authority in Late Imperial China: Chen Hongmou in Jiangxi, Modern China, Sage Publications Inc.