Tag Archives: DeVoe

Veneration For The Family Ancestors

In looking though pictures I took in China some time ago, I found this picture which reminded me of the unbreakable tie between the living and dead within a Chinese family. It is reflected in what we commonly refer to as ancestor worship.

Regard for one’s family and one’s ancestors has a long, long tradition in China. It goes back to the Zhou Dynasty (1122-256 BC) and remains strong among many Chinese today. This regard—with its ritual and prominently placed table—is, as we said, sometimes called ancestor worship.

The table or altar holds pictures and/or plaques with the names of the family’s male line, for China has been a patrilineal system for thousands of years. A patrilineal system means that people count only the male side of the family as important in determining who is an ancestor and who isn’t. Your father’s side are your ancestors. Your mother’s side are not considered your ancestors, that is, they are outside your direct lineage. However, your mother–having given birth to you–will be included on your family altar, just not the rest of her lineage. Therefore, your obligations for showing reverence is only for your father’s side of the family. The latter are the people who will appear on your family altar.

Showing respect and honoring your ancestors is not a one-way street. By properly caring for your ancestors, they will, in turn, watch over and care for you. In other words, familial ties are not broken at death. Your ancestors and you are forever linked. This interconnection has been consistently supported and reinforced throughout history by both Confucian and Taoist traditions and beliefs.

Venerating your ancestors is a primary filial duty. It is because of your ancestors that you exist–that you were born and nurtured, allowing you to grow and prosper. It is only fair that you show proper recognition, regard, and respect to them. You owe your life to all of them. For this reason, people offer burning joss sticks, plates of food, and cups of tea to the ancestors by placing them before their pictures and tablets. It’s a sign of shared nurturing and support.

WHAT’S IN A NAME?

PIC bamboo closeup 1 Feb 2017Names are more than arbitrary, random words used to identify individuals. The surnames can, and often do, indicate family relationships. The given names, although they can be arbitrary, also often indicate something about the parents’ wishes for and/or perceptions of their child.

In China today, 100 surnames dominate: making up 85% of the country’s total surnames. And remember, China has about 1.4 billion people. Compare this to the US where, according to the 2000 census, 151,00+ surnames make up only 3% of our population’s surnames! Think about how you feel when you meet someone with your same last name. There is a sense of connection. The same is true in China—although the connection may go back hundreds of years.

Traditionally and today, the Chinese put the family name (the surname) first and then the given name (personal name) second. So that, if a person is named Liu Xiao-lung à Liu is the family name and Xiao-lung is his personal name. In the United States, we would refer to this person as Xiao-lung Liu, putting the family name last. One way to figure this out, when you’re not sure, is to remember that in most cases the family name is one word. Often, although not always, the given name is two words—and usually NOT written with a – between the words, the way I have written Xiao-lung in this post.

What’s interesting about Chinese given names is that they often carry the hopes parents have for their children. The names are meaningful. Xiao-lung means Little Dragon and, therefore, symbolizes good fortune and success. Boy’s names are likely to reflect strength, good fortune, and whatever aspirations the parents have for him, for example, in intelligence or business success. For girls’ names, traditional parents may give their child a name which reflects a desire for her to be lovely in appearance or have a sweet, peaceful demeanor. For example, Xiang-lian would mean Fragrant Lotus Flower. This is changing for women today, however. I had a female friend whose given name was Xue-wen, Studies Literature (in the past, this was more of a boy’s name). And, indeed, she did have strong academic interests and abilities.

Therefore, as with names in the West, there are gender preferences. Xiang-lian is not a name a parent would give a boy, nor would Xiao-lung be given to a girl. No more than a typical American would name their girl child Stephen or the boy child Mary.

What about your name? What does it say about you and your family?