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The Chinese Ancestral Rites
Tenney, Charles Daniel

ms-number: ms794-001

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The Chinese Ancestral Rites.

By Charles D. Tenney,
Formerly Counselor of the U. S. Legation, Peking, China.
In the year 1700 the Chinese Emperor, K’ang Hsi, issued his famous edict
explaining the use of [inline]"Heaven[inline]" by the Chinese as meaning God and pronouncing
the rites performed in honor of Confucius and the ancestors to be civil
rites and not worship. The Jesuit missionaries became the advocates of this
view and proposed to allow the Christian converts to continue to perform the
ceremonies. The Catholic missionaries of other orders however, notably the
Dominicans, dissented from the conclusion of the Jesuits, and referred the whole
matter to the Pope for his decision. The Pope decided against the Jesuits.
This angered the Emperor and led to the first persecution of the Catholic
priests. All missionaries remained proscribed by Chinese law until the
Treaties of 1858 gave them freedom to propagate the Christian religion.
When the Protestant missionaries arrived in China , they accepted the ruling
of the Pope in regard to the use of Heaven for God and also in regard to the
Confucian and ancestral rites. As they wished to distinguish themselves
before the Chinese from the Catholics[inline], the Protestant Church became known
as the [inline]"sect of Jesus[inline]", the Catholic Church being known as the [inline]"sect of the
Lord of Heaven[inline]". These are rather misnomers, of course, because the Protestants
often use the term [inline]"Lord of Heaven[inline]", while the Catholics by no means leave
out [inline]"Jesus[inline]" from their services.
I have never felt satiafied with the decision of the early Protestant
missionaries to accept the decision of the Pope regarding the Confucian
and ancestral rites. Owing to the fact that these rites have been in use

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among the Chinese for many generations, it has become a matter of duty
to continue the ceremonies. So the first act required of a Christian convert
is to do something condemned by his conscience. I remember well a
conversation which I once had with an intelligent and serious-minded
young Chinese. This young man said to me “in my native place a rumor
is current that the first act required of a Christian convert is to split
up the ancestral tablets. I wish you to understand that I do not believe
this rumor , but I would like to refer to you as my authority for contradicting it."
I was put in a very embarrassing position by this appeal. I could only say
that Christian converts did not continue to practice the ancestral rites,
though I had never heard of their being required to split up the tablets.
I could see that the young Chinese was convinced by my reply that the rumor
to which he had referred substantially correct. It would have been
very easy to avoid the suspicion of unfilial conduct on the part of the
Christian convert by drawing up a Christian ceremony to take the place of
the old one and so allowed the continuity of the old rite to remain unbroken.
They were wiser in the early days of Christianity about interfering with the
habits of the pagans. The early church fathers simply put a new meaning
into the old ceremonies and allowed them to continue. Thus the spring
ceremony in honor of the goddess Eastre was continued and even made more
elaborate, though a new meaning was put into it. This made the change of
religion easier for the first generation of converts, and after the lapse
of a few generations the old meaning was lost and forgotten. So the
Saturnalia of the Romans and the winter festival of the Britons were
quietly changed to a celebration of the birth of Christ. Even the formerly
sacred mistletoe and holly were not forbidden to be used as decoration.

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When an old rite is taken over with a new application or meaning, it soon
loses its old objectionabl features in favor of the new meaning.
I once had an experience which almost duplicated the early troubles of
the Catholic missionaries with the Emperor K’ang Hsi. I was serving at the time
as president of the government University at Tientsin. The monthly rites
in honor of Confucius were observed at the University as in all the Government
schools of China, but because some of the students came from Christian
families and I knew had been taught that the rites were sinful[inline],I made the rule
that there should be no roll call or marking of attendance, so that all who
had conscientious scruples regarding the ceremony might absent themselves.
When Yüan Shih-k’ai was governor of Shantung in 1901 he had begun to organize
a provincial college and had invited one of the American missionaries to act
as president. After the death of Li Hung-chang, Yüan had been promoted to [inline]be
Viceroy of the metropolitan province and Chou Fu, a distinguished Confucian
scholar had been appointed to succeed him in Shantung. He came to me before
leaving for his new post and explained that he was troubled because the
missionary at the head of the new college had refused to allow the usual
ceremony in Honor of Confucius to be performed in the college, His Excellency
asked how I got over the difficulty , and I explained my arrangement by
which Christian students were allowed to absent themselves from attendance.
The new governor said that this arrangement would be quite satisfactory to
him, provided that the usual rite prescribed for all government schools,
should be continued for the benefit of the Confucianist students. He asked
that I should correspond with with the missionary, suggesting to him my
method of procedure. I did so, but was somewhat surprised to receive the
reply that my method would be unsatisfactory to him because he considered it
to be "dishonest”. I communicated the reply to His Excellecy Chou Fu,who

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then said that he regretted losing the services of the foreigner in the
important work of organizing the new college, but that he regarded it as essen­
tial that the usual rites should be observed. He proposed another method of
meeting the scruples of the missionary. He promised that on his arrival at
his new post, he would issue a proclamation explaining the ceremony as an
act of honor to Confucius as the founder of Chinese literature but in no
sense an act of worship. That is, he would repeat the response that the
Emperor K'ang Hsi had made two hundred years before to the petition of the
Jesuits. I felt that this would be useless, but consented to send the message
to the missionary concerned. In due course his reply came to the effect that
he could not allow the continuance of the ceremony because he regarded its
"tendancy to be idolatrous, however it might be explained”. The result was
that the well equipped foreigner was obliged to resign and turn over his
important work to less competent Chinese hands. I was much struck by a
remark of Governor Chou Fu in the couse of our conferences on this subject.
He said"It is absurd to say that we worship Confucius. We Confucianists do not
believe in the immortality of the soul. N [inline]Confucius no longer exists. How can
you worship what does not exist?” I considered it very unfortunate that the
control of the new university should be lost to the competent hands of the
foreign missionary through what seemed to me the unreasonable position of
the Proestant Missionary body. the ancestral rites are so connected in
China with the principle of honor to parents and ancestors that the discontin­
uance of the ceremony brands the new faith as unfilial. To the Chinese the
new religion suffers the same handicap that any new faith would suffer among
us if the first act required of a convert were to go the cemetery and spit
upon the graves of his parents. The fine feeling of respect for parents is
one of the best features of the old Chinese civilization and in the process

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of the modernizing of China that is now going on[inline], that honor to parents ,
the value of which we recognize in the Fifth Commandment ,is fast disappearing.
Instead of requiring Christian converts to pay no more attention to the
ancestral tablets, I should much prefer that the church draw up a new ritual
for Christian converts in which the thanks of the descendant should be
expressed to God for the gift of life through the medium of the ancestors.
The new ritual should include thanksgiving to God for the example and discip­
line of the parents, and the old form of worship should be allowed to continue
with these modifications. Thus the rite might be made even more elaborate
for those within the church than for those outside. Protestans generally
object to the laying out of food as an accompaniment of worship or as a sign of
respect,forgetting the ritual of worship that is ordered in the Old Testament
according to which food is offered in the worship of Jehovah. We decorate the
graves of the departed with flowers. The Chinese would arrange small dishes
of food about the graves to express the same feeling.
In general, my experience in China has caused me to feel that the
Protestant missionaries have been rather illiberal in not allowing the Chinese
to express their feeling[inline]s in their own way. They have generally tried to force
upon them the Puritan forms of worship and the customs of other lands rather
than to follow the lines of least resistance as did the old church fathers
in their dealings with the pagans.
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