by Daniel M. Hung
This realistic account spells out the reasons and suggests practical answers.
Many people have written on ancestor worship as outsiders, but I am writing as a convert from it. I became a Christian at age 20, but I still live among my own people, the Chinese; more specifically, the Taiwanese, 98 percent of whom continue to worship with great zeal idols and ancestors as gods. Ancestor worship is the greatest obstacle to the Christian mission among the Chinese. As a giant rock blocking the flow of water in a river, it prevents the great majority of the Chinese from coming to Christ.
What is the nature of ancestor worship? The Chinese believe in polytheism. They believe human beings instantly become gods when they die and thus are able to bless or curse their living families. To offer burning incense to the deceased signifies this point.
The deceased, on the other hand, need to “eat” food sacrifices offered by the living families; otherwise, they would become hungry, miserable, unfortunate ghosts. To the Chinese, it is a great sin and an unforgivable breach of filial piety to fail to offer incense and food sacrifices periodically to the deceased ancestors because ancestor worship is the traditionally authorized way to honor and remember them. That’s why a Chinese couple must have at least one son to ensure ancestor worship, since daughters become outsiders when they get married. If their first children are girls, the couple will continue to bear children until they have a son.
A few years ago a couple in Taiwan who had begotten 13 girls in a row got a baby boy as their 14th child at long last. They were so happy that they gave a big feast to their relatives, friends and neighbors. According to the traditional Chinese virtues, to have no sons is a great sin against ancestors. This has resulted in population explosion. No wonder Taiwan is the second most densely populated place in the world. I have six brothers. When I accepted Christ as my Savior and stopped taking part in ancestor worship, my mother said, “Fortunately, I have six other sons to offer food sacrifices to me after I die.”
Of course, some people have died without any sons to offer sacrifices to them. In this case their daughters, nephews, nieces or relatives worship them. But there are a few “homeless” wandering hobo ghosts around. They died without any relatives to offer sacrifices to them. In Lunar July people in Taiwan offer special food sacrifices to such hobo ghosts by the main door of their houses, by the roadside, and even at one end of a bridge for the convenience of the “homeless” ghosts, lest they should bring misfortune to them.
Failure to worship ancestors is not only considered as a great sin and rebellion against ancestors, but is also believed to result in disasters and misfortune for the living. There are many such stories circulated everywhere in Taiwan.
It is also believed that the deceased need houses to live in and money to spend. Therefore, the living burn for them paper houses, or palaces with paper maids, paper household facilities, including paper TV and stereo sets, paper cars, etc. Special paper money is burned at the end of periodic rituals of food sacrifices. Most Mainlanders, who came to Taiwan from Mainland China after World War II, worship ancestors in a simplified way. They offer only incense and fruit.
How can Christians convince ancestor worshippers that the deceased do not need to “eat” food sacrifices? Well, you may say, it is easy to do that since it is obvious that the food sacrificed to ancestors never disappears. After the sacrificial rituals, the living eat it. But the ancestor worshippers insist that the ancestors do “eat” food in a spiritual and sentimental sense. You may argue that this is absurd, primitive and unscientific, but you get nowhere.
At the death anniversaries of our ancestors, my illiterate mother, who has a good memory, would place cooked food on the table with 13 wine cups and 13 pairs of chopsticks, for she remembers only 13 of the deceased in our family, including my father. She would offer incense and then orally invite the spirits of the ancestors to come and enjoy the delicious food. Often I said to her, “Mom, how about those many other ancestors you don’t remember and don’t invite to the feast? Won’t they starve and be angry with us? Furthermore, they can eat only one meal in many days. Won’t they suffer very much from hunger? Since food eaten by spirits or ghosts doesn’t disappear a bit, they don’t need to wait for your food sacrifices. They can go to restaurants at any time on any day and enjoy all kinds of foods free of charge.” She would frown at me and say, “Shut up! I don’t want to argue with an educated barbarian like you.” Later, I realized that I could never win ancestor worshippers to Christ by arguing in terms of logic, reason or science. I must learn to contextualize the biblical truths for them. But how?
Being anxious to convert the Chinese to Catholicism, the Catholics in Taiwan compromised with ancestor worship. On Chinese New Year’s Day in 1971 the late Cardinal Yu Ping staged a public Catholic ancestor worship with incense, food sacrifices without meat, and prayers offered to heaven and Chinese ancestors in general. It was attended by over a thousand people, mostly Catholics and some government officials and, alas, even a few prominent Protestants. The Cardinal declared that ancestor worship is not idolatry, but in accordance with God’s will, the fifth commandment. Understandably, TV, radio and newspapers made a big fuss over it because Catholicism seemed to uphold Chinese culture. Since then the Catholics have been repeating the public ancestor worship at every Chinese New Year, sometimes inside a Catholic church building.
In spite of the fact that the Catholic Church compromises with ancestor worship in Taiwan, the membership of the Catholic Church has actually declined. The Catholic Church lost 10 percent of its members from 1970 to 1980: from 303,800 members down to 276,700.
I don’t know how much my attempt to contextualize the gospel for my dying mother contributed to her sudden conversion to Christianity and immediate baptism in her hospital ward. The Holy Spirit performed a miraculous regenerating work in her heart. She was terminally ill with heart diseases, urema and general edemia, barely surviving on kidney dialysis, and half-asleep and half-awake most of the time. Suddenly, she opened her eyes wide and shouted several times she wanted to believe in Jesus and go to heaven. My wife Lily said to her, “‘If you believe in Jesus as the Savior and have your sins forgiven, and go to heaven, Jesus will provide a beautiful heavenly place for you to live in. You don’t need to worry that you have no paper house to live in.” I assured her that the Lord Jesus would provide her and other Christians in heaven with feasts every day and that they would never starve. (Matt. 8:11; Rev. 21:1-5.) 1 believe this kind of positive presentation of biblical truths is more effective than negative denunciation of ancestor worship in our evangelistic work.
In short, we cannot ask people to give up ancestor worship without giving them proper substitutes. In the Christian mission it is wise to present God the Father as our heavenly Father, the Creator of human beings, who created man’s first ancestors, Adam and Eve. Most Chinese revere Heaven as the Greatest and Highest Being. Indeed, God the Father is the Ancestor, the only Source and Root, in terms of man’s origin. Chinese culture emphasizes that one should not forget one’s origin, but honor and remember it.
Though it is true that conviction of sin must precede conversion, it doesn’t follow that Christians must preach against sin at the very beginning on every occasion. Most Chinese equate sin with crime, and claim they have no sin and don’t need Christ as the Savior. Therefore, sin would be meaningless to them without reference to God as the heavenly Father and the source of man and every blessing.
Furthermore, we have to present feasible and acceptable biblical ways of remembering ancestors: “Sweep,” ancestors’ graves (keep them in good shape); on ancestors’ death anniversaries, hold memorial family meetings; hang up ancestors’ pictures in the living room; keep the family genealogy with short statements of ancestors’ deeds; emphasize that the Bible regards filial piety as very important (the fifth commandment; Deut. 21:18-21; 32:7); and above all, man must remember his Creator (Eccl. 12:1).
For the sake of contextualizing the gospel, I maintain that Christians should not unwisely denounce anything Chinese or Oriental simply because it is a Chinese or Oriental tradition. In other words, Christians should not go to extremes. Christians should preserve and honor anything cultural or traditional so long as it is not against biblical principles or the Ten Commandments.
Christians should honor and respect the dead or ancestors in biblical ways, or Chinese ways, without violating the Ten Commandments. But they must not take part in idol worship or idolatrous ancestor worship rites. They must not offer incense to the dead, since incense signifies deity. They must not burn paper money, or offer sacrifices, or burn paper palaces for the ancestors. They must not pray to them. I oppose lighting candles for the dead because they are associated with incense.
Bowing before the picture of a dead person is a delicate question. At Chinese funerals and ancestor worship rites non-Christians do bow to the picture, pray to it, offer incense and sacrifices to it, and burn paper money before it. The picture is often regarded as an idol. In such circumstances I would not bow to the picture, lest non-Christians should think that I agree that the deceased is divine. I do think it is all right to offer flowers to the deceased.
If there are no candles, incense, or sacrifices placed before the picture of the dead, bowing before the picture is another matter since it is a part of the Chinese culture and tradition to bow to a person to show respect. It is not against biblical principles to bow to the picture to pay one”s respects, if the circumstance is not idolatrous. In Chinese or Oriental society people customarily greet each other by bowing when they meet. It is neither idolatrous nor against the Ten Commandments.
Strangely enough, I still cannot bring myself emotionally to bow to the picture of the dead, even though I hold to the above position intellectually. Maybe it is because bowing has been much associated with idolatry. As a matter of fact, the great majority of Christians in Taiwan do bow to pictures at the weekly Monday morning meeting, and many of them bow to the pictures of the dead under idolatrous circumstances.
When I tried to contextualize the gospel with regard to ancestor worship and my illiterate mother, I used some very old Chinese sayings or proverbs that illustrate biblical truth and with which she was familiar. For example, “It is better to give a bean to living parents than to offer a pig’s head after their death. This Chinese proverb clearly states that the deceased cannot eat food sacrifices. Another Chinese saying that “Heaven begets and nourishes,” illustrates that Heaven (or God) is greater than one’s parents or ancestors; therefore, Heaven is to be revered and worshipped above all others.
As my mother realized that she was in critical condition and might die at any time, like most dying persons, she seemed to be afraid to take her dangerous journey into the unknown spirit world. So my wife and I assured her that if she believed in Jesus the Savior, he would be with her all the time and would guide her safely to heaven; she did not need to be afraid to leave this world.
In order to show to my unbelieving brothers, their wives and relatives that we Christians do respect and remember the deceased and our ancestors, my Christian brother and I tried to contextualize a Christian memorial service for our mother at our church. I had my mother’s large picture framed with flowers and put in front of the pulpit among flower crosses and baskets of flowers. On the church walls were hung large pieces of white cloth with Chinese words, such as “Enjoy heavenly blessings,” “Receive glory at resurrection,” and “Forever enjoy Jesus the Savior’s mercy and love.” This was done exactly according to the Chinese setting of the Taipei City Funeral Home, the only public funeral home in Taipei.
I invited members of the Hung clan to attend the memorial service so that they might see for the first time in their lives what we Christians do for the deceased. They attended a church service and heard the gospel fully for the first time in their lives. They heard the tape recording of my mother’s conversion and baptism in her hospital ward. They also took home the memorial service program in which was printed my mothers picture, hymns, and a statement of my mother’s conversion, and the simple gospel of Christ.
We had expected 40 non-Christians of the Hung clan to come to the memorial service, but only 13 of them showed up. My sister-in-law, wife of my elder brother, who is most superstitious and anti-Christian, prevented people from attending the service. When her college-age daughter told her she wanted to come to the memorial service, my sister-in-law threatened to break her legs if she attended. So the daughter did not dare to come.
In order to contextualize the gospel, it is very important to invite as many non-Christian relatives and friends to Christian funerals or memorial services. Usually, they will not come to church to attend Sunday services or evangelistic rallies, but some of them are willing to attend Christian memorial or funeral services out of their respect for the deceased.
Lily and I had to absent ourselves from Easter service to attend my mothers funeral, for the sake of family solidarity, of keeping the door of future evangelism open, and avoiding unnecessary antagonism against Christianity. The coffin of my mother remained in my youngest brother’s apartment for 36 days. My elder brother, who wanted to show that he was most filial to mother, slept by the coffin for 36 nights. Some of my younger brothers also did occasionally. Pre-funeral Taoist and Buddhist rites and mini-feasts started as soon as my mother passed away. Since five of my six brothers are not Christians, they disregarded the fact that mother was baptized as a Christian. They were determined to have traditional Taoist and Buddhist funeral rites for her.
My mother’s Taoist and Buddist funeral was one of the most elaborate, complicated, and expensive in Taiwan. The whole cost was roughly $16,000; coffin, $950; paper palace, $960; grave, $6,600; flower-decorated huge hearse like that of the late President Chiang Kai-shek, $790; fees for Taoist priests and Buddhist monks, $790; plus sumptuous meals and sleeping quarters; funeral feast for about 320 people, $3,000; other expenses, about $2,700, such as those of pre-funeral rites and mini-feasts.
There were three Western brass bands and two Chinese music bands in the funeral procession. About 70 flower-decorated jeeps, pick-ups and cars preceded the hearse, which was followed by two buses filled with mourners. We seven brothers and most of our wives and some others sat by the coffin in the hearse.
Lily, my two children and my Christian brother refused to offer incense, bow to the coffin or picture of my mother, prostrate before the coffin or pray to it, or before the picture. In short, we refused to take part in any idolatrous funeral rites. Naturally, we Christians were in the spotlight at the funeral service. There was whispering gossip about us, but nobody rebuked us or persecuted us on the spot. We pinned a small black cross on our sackclothes to show that we are Christians. Many of our relatives knew that we had had a Christian memorial service for my mother. Nevertheless, behind our backs bitter and venomous criticism of us persisted. My sister-in-law declared that my wife, my Christian brother and I were “dead,” because we had failed to do our filial duties: we refused to take part in Taoist and Buddhist funeral rites and ancestral cult.
One of the reasons why most Taiwanese are against Christianity is the fact that Christians don’t mourn for the deceased the way non-Christians do. So the unbelievers conclude that Christians are unfilial and disrespectful to the deceased. In Taiwan, women must say or speak something when they wail at mourning, especially at the funeral procession in the street, to show their filial piety. They shout aloud, “Oh, how can I live on without you?” “How I wish you could live three or five more years!” “How much I shall miss you!” “I’ll never be able to see you again.”
Of ten such speech -wailing and mourning are only hypocritical performance for onlookers. The mourners covet other people’s praise. The louder and longer they speech-wail, the more people will praise them as very filial. Thus they gain great “face”–glory and honor. It is only a show.
The surviving family can hire professional mourners for the funeral procession. The Taiwanese regard as most unfortunate those who die without people to mourn for them with speech-wailing. Only the Christians fit into this category. So, “Die without people mourning” has become a stinging nickname for Christians in Taiwan.
Christians here do weep and cry at the death and funeral of a family member, but without wailing speeches. I suggest we should encourage Christians to wail or cry aloud, possibly with such words as, “Lord, be with us and comfort us.” “Lord, sustain us in times of sadness.” “Lord, guide so-and-so to heaven safely and into thy bosom.” “Rest so-and-so in heavenly peace,” etc.
Saving face is very important in Oriental society. In private most ancestor worshippers admit that the deceased cannot eat food sacrifices and that the traditional Taiwanese funeral customs are wasteful, impractical and cumbersome. But they don’t dare not worship ancestors or follow traditional customs, because they are afraid of losing face. They are afraid of other people’s criticism that they are unfilial. They are afraid of verbal persecutions, especially those of their living elders.
How can we overcome this problem of “face”? There is no pat answer. We may present the biblical truths in love and give them opportunities to see Christian ways of remembering and respecting ancestors, so that they may see the contrast. There must be other ways to solve the problem. May the Lord grant us wisdom to find them.
When we realize that the monthly income of the average breadwinner in Taipei is $300 to $350, the funeral cost of $16,000 is horrifying and wasteful. But the Chinese will go into deep debt to have costly funeral services to save face. In my mother’s case, since I have many brothers in business, many people gave consolation money gifts toward the expenses of mothers funeral. My elder brother, who has many business friends, received more than $3,000. All the money gifts amounted to more than $5,000, including gifts from relatives, neighbors, and church members. I have written this to show how urgently and desperately we need to preach the gospel of Jesus to the 18 million non-Christians in Taiwan.
This article was published in Jan 1983: VOL 19 No. 1, pp. 32-40.
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