The Chinese Ancestral Rites

Author Tenney, Charles Daniel

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The Chinese Ancestral Rites. By Charles D. Tenney, Formerly Counselor of the U. S. Legation, Peking, China.
In the year 1^[inline]700^ the Chinese Emperor, K'ang Hsi, issued his famous edict explaining the use of ^the word^ Heaven 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 Cristian 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 di^[inline]s^tinguish themselves before the Chinese from the Catholics the Protestant Church became known as the sect of Jesus, the Catholic Church being known as the sect of the Lord of Heaven. The^[inline]y^ are rather misnomers, of course, because the Protestants often use the term Lord of Heaven, while the Catholics by no means leave out Jesus from their services.
I have never felt satisfied 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
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 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 was 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 merly [the "merly" here is a result of the type writer striking too high, but since Tenney corrected it in pen below, the mistake is recorded]quietly changed to a celebration of the birth of Christ . Even the for^[inline]merl^y sacred mistletoe and holly were not forbidden to be used as decoration.
When 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 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 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 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 satisfactory to him because he considered it to be "dishonest”. I communicated the reply to His Excellecy Chou Fu, who
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 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 affect 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 Confucianist do not believe in the immortality of the soul. 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 ^to^ 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
of the modernizing of China that is now going on 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 ascendant 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 [illegible: accomiment] of [illegible: 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 is China has caused me to feel that the Protestant missionaries have been rather illiberal in not allowing the Chinese to express their feeling 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.