.. hinese history, people weary of social activism and aware of the fragility of human achievements would retire from the world and turn to nature. They might retreat to a countryside or mountain setting to commune with natural beauty. They would compose or recite poetry about nature, or paint a picture of the scene, attempting to capture the creative forces at the center of nature’s vitality. They might share their outing with friends or more rarely — a spouse, drinking a bit of wine, and enjoying the autumn leaves or the moon. Chinese utopian writings also often bore a Taoist stamp.
Tao Qian’s (T’ao Ch’ien, 372?-427? A.D.) famous “Peach Blossom Spring” told the story of a fisherman who discovered by chance an idyllic community of Chinese who centuries earlier had fled a war-torn land, and had since lived in perfect simplicity, harmony, and peace, obliviously unaware of the turmoil of history beyond their grove. Although these utopians urged him to stay, the fisherman left to share his discovery with friends and a local official. He could never find his way back. He did not understand that this ideal world was to be found not by following an external path, but a spiritual path; it was a state of mind, an attitude, that comprised the utopia.3 If Taoist ideas and images inspired in the Chinese a love of nature and an occasional retreat to it from the cares of the world to rest and heal, it also inspired an intense affirmation of life: physical life — health, well-being, vitality, longevity, and even immortality. Laozi and Zhuangzi had reinterpreted the ancient nature worship and esoteric arts, but they crept back into the tradition as ways of using knowledge of the Dao to enhance and prolong life.
Some Taoists searched for “isles of the immortals,” or for herbs or chemical compounds that could ensure immortality. More often, Taoists were interested in health and vitality; they experimented with herbal medicine and pharmacology, greatly advancing these arts; they developed principles of macrobiotic cooking and other healthy diets; they developed systems of gymnastics and massage to keep the body strong and youthful. Taoists were supporters both of magic and of proto-science; they were the element of Chinese culture most interested in the study of and experiments with nature. 4 Some Taoists believed that spirits pervaded nature (both the natural world and the internal world within the human body). Theologically, these myriad spirits were simply many manifestations of the one Dao, which could not be represented as an image or a particular thing.
As the Taoist pantheon developed, it came to mirror the imperial bureaucracy in heaven and hell. The head of the heavenly bureaucracy was the jade Emperor, who governed spirits assigned to oversee the workings of the natural world and the administration of moral justice. The gods in heaven acted like and were treated like the officials in the world of men; worshipping the gods was a kind of rehearsal of attitudes toward secular authorities. On the other hand, the demons and ghosts of hell acted like and were treated like the bullies, outlaws, and threatening strangers in the real world; they were bribed by the people and were ritually arrested by the martial forces of the spirit officials.5 The common people, who after all had little influence with their earthly rulers, sought by worshipping spirits to keep troubles at bay and ensure the blessings of health, wealth, and longevity. The initiated Taoist priest saw the many gods as manifestations of the one Dao.
He had been ritually trained to know the names, ranks, and powers of important spirits, and to ritually direct them through meditation and visualization. In his meditations, he harmonized and reunited them into their unity with the one Dao. However, only the educated believers knew anything of the complex theological system of the priest. Thus communal rituals had two levels: (a) a priestly level, which was guided by the priest’s meditation and observed by major patrons, who were educated laymen; and (b) a public and dramatic ritual, usually performed by lower ranked Taoist assistants, which was theatrical in form. It conveyed the meaning through visible actions such as climbing sword ladders, or lighting and floating lanterns. The same ritual had a subtle metaphysical-mystical structure for the theologians, and a visible dramatic structure for the lay audience.6 Taoism was also an important motif in fiction, theater, and folk tales.
Local eccentrics who did not care for wealth and position were often seen as “Taoist” because they spurned Confucian values and rewards. In fiction Taoists were often eccentrics; they also had magical or prophetic powers, which symbolized their spiritual attainment. They healed, restored youth and vitality, predicted the future, or read men’s souls. They were also depicted as the stewards of a system of moral retribution; the Taoist gods in heaven and hell exacted strict punishments for wrongdoing, and would let no sinner off the hook. On the one hand, then, they were non-conformists who embodied different values and life styles; on the other, their strict moral retribution reinforced the values of the society. Taoism was “the other way,” but it did not threaten the moral consensus.
It was, perhaps, a kind of safety valve to escape the pressures of society, or at least a complementary channel for alternative views and values. Chinese communists see Taoism as fatalistic and passive, a detriment to socialist reconstruction. The People’s Republic has kept alive some practical arts, such as the use of traditional herbal medicines, which have longstanding links with Taoism. In a larger sense, since Taoism functioned in imperial China as a retreat and withdrawal from the struggles of the political arena, one might say that in a very general way the current relaxation of political pressure in reaction against the excesses of the Gang of Four represents a Taoistic phase of Chinese Maoism. When I was a sophomore in high school, I became convinced that Asians and Americans were too different.
I also thought that perhaps true understanding between the two was beyond the realm of possibility. What started me in this direction of thought was a class on world religions. An elderly Catholic priest taught this class, and while he certainly knew a great deal about Catholicism, it quickly became clear that he was not as knowledgeable about other religions. Because of my bicultural background, his lack of understanding was especially jarring whenever he spoke of Asian faiths and beliefs. My ears perked up when we discussed the Chinese practice of ancestor worship. Most of the class was non-Asian and found this concept perplexing.
One classmate raised the question: What was the rationale or reason to compel the Chinese to worship their ancestors? The priest shrugged, professed ignorance, and then speculated that the Chinese were fearful of the spirits of their ancestors. Maybe the ritual was meant to placate them, so that these spirits would not punish their descendants with some sort of curse. This was so far off the mark that I became instantly incensed. I jumped to my feet and spoke up to contradict the teacher. In retrospect, I think I probably caused quite a scene. At that moment in time, almost two decades ago, the reckless impetus of youth possessed me, and I didn’t even consider a more diplomatic approach. From this incident I learned that many, many people in America did not have the first clue on what ancestor worship meant to the Chinese.
They regarded this essential cornerstone of Chinese spirituality as a quaint, exotic ritual, with all the trappings of primitive superstitions. Recently, I came across another item that seemed to reinforce this impression. Prior to his untimely passing, celebrated author and scientist Carl Sagan penned his last book, The Demon-Haunted World. In that book, Sagan spoke against the spread of irrational beliefs in the world. To illustrate the decline of scientific thinking in China, he pointed to the resurgence of “ancient Chinese practices” such as I Ching fortune telling and ancestor worship (page 17). There it was again: the casual equating of ancestor worship with primitive, out-dated superstitious beliefs. Apparently it is not just the average person in America that does not understand this aspect of Chinese culture, but noted intellectuals as well.
Let’s set the record straight once and for all: ancestor worship springs not from fear or superstitions, but from gratitude and respect – possibly the highest echelon of all human emotions. “Drink water, think of source” is the phrase that the Chinese associate most often with the concept of ancestor worship. The idea is to never take anything for granted. As you quench your thirst, don’t forget the spring or well where the water comes from. Without that source you would not be drinking deeply. In just the same way, one should never, ever take one’s own existence for granted.
Without your ancestors you would not be here. If they hadn’t lived, loved, struggled, fought, and survived, you would not exist. Just as you cherish your own life, it makes perfect sense that you should also cherish your forebears, for they are the ones who paved the way for you. This is the real essence of ancestor worship: a state of grace known as gratefulness. It’s a feeling that you are uniquely blessed, as the last link in an unimaginably long chain of human beings stretching all the way back to the genesis of humanity.
You feel very much a part of this ancient tradition and the feeling gives you power and strength. In that regard, ancestor worship is not necessarily superstitious. One does not have to believe in the existence of ghosts or spiritual beings to feel a sense of gratitude and appreciation. Likewise, expressing that gratitude and appreciation through a ritual isn’t always an endorsement of the supernatural. The emphasis on gratefulness extends into other aspects of Chinese thinking as well. For instance, it elevates filial piety to its rightful place as a high virtue.
This kind of emphasis does not exist in the “advanced” West, where too many of the elderly die lonely and are not commemorated by their descendants after their passing. The Chinese practice is a sharp contrast to this lamentable state. In that regard, ancestor worship is anything but primitive. The ability to feel gratitude marks an individual as a worthy human being; the institution of ritualized thanksgiving marks a people as a truly civilized society. One reason why many Westerners have such a tough time with this concept is the unfortunate use of the word “worship.” The connotation of this word is entirely religious, with all the implications of deities and supplicants.
Without any other information, the typical Westerner naturally assumes that the Chinese regard their ancestors as gods on a similar level as Buddha or Jesus. This is a false assumption that the Chinese would find ludicrous or laughable if ever they figure out what their American friends are really thinking. Certainly the Chinese believe their ancestors exist as spiritual entities, but to go from there to godhood is a mighty big stretch, indeed. A better word than “worship” would be “communion.” When the Chinese hold incense sticks in their hands and face the ancestral shrine or gravestone, they are in silent prayer to the dead. The content of such prayers have to do with greetings, the paying of respects, invitation to share a meal (thus the offerings of food), and request to watch over the safety of family members. Note that the Chinese prayers to ancestors do not include begging for things like forgiveness for sins or transgressions, victory over Evil, vanquishing of one’s enemies, or a guaranteed entrance into heaven.
That makes sense because departed family members are at best guardian angels, not gods. When you look at it this way, is the Chinese practice of ancestor worship/communion really so bizarre after all? In the West, do we not also pray to departed family members? We most certainly do, and all without assuming that dear old Aunt Meg has, since her death, become the Almighty Saint Meg of the Seventh Host. The Catholic priest from my high school days would never assume that we pray to the dear departed out of some fear of the supernatural. Carl Sagan, despite his atheist convictions, would never think of it as some superstitious and irrational mumbo-jumbo. What the Chinese do, in essence, amounts to the exact same thing.
And yet Americans seem to insist on seeing Chinese customs as both more and less than they actually are. Perhaps this is because there is a certain need in the Occidental psyche to see the Orient as mysterious and inscrutable. If so, the insight we have gained today may come as a disappointment. In the final analysis, and despite superficial trappings and different styles, we all share a common, universal need to be in touch with the spiritual world. Beneath the multicultural veneer, our essential human nature is similar.
The insight gives me a new perspective as well. It tells me that my sophomoric high school views were wrong. The East and the West are more alike than different. Perhaps true understanding between the two isn’t an impossible dream after all!.