Domestic Observances: Chinese Practices

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Chinese domestic rituals are rich and varied, differing from place to place and over time. We know most about the observances of the southeastern provinces (Kwangtung, Fukien, and Taiwan) in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries; what follows reflects this imbalance in our knowledge. Widespread hints and a few fuller accounts of other provinces and other periods, however, give us confidence that, despite considerable variation in specific rituals, the same basic themes have shaped domestic ritual throughout China for several hundred years.

The Chinese word jia means both "house" and "family," and everywhere in China there exists a close ritual connection between the building and its inhabitants. It is convenient to divide Chinese domestic rituals into three types: those concerning the house itself, those dealing with the life cycle of the family and its members, and those calendrical rites that are ordinarily performed by the household corporately, or by one or more household members for the benefit of the family as a whole.

Rites of the House

The placement and spatial proportions of a house are believed to affect greatly the fortunes and well-being of its inhabitants. Before building, then, care is taken to site and orient a house in a way favorable to those who will live in it. This is done by selecting a site, if possible, with the advice of a geomancer, a specialist in the technique of feng-shui ("wind and water"). A geomancer can tell from the topography of a potential site and its surroundings how well the "cosmic breaths" or "natural forces" (qi) set up by building the house will harmonize with those of the natural environment and the potential inhabitants. Geomantic siting and orientation are particularly important in a farmhouse, which can be built without regard to streets or nearby structures.

An urban house, of course, must be built on an empty lot and must face a street, so the opportunities for geomantic siting and orientation are correspondingly restricted. But in both urban and farm houses, the internal proportions of construction are another important consideration in assuring a harmonious dwelling. Such measurements as the size and placement of gates and doors, the arrangement of rooms, and, in particular, the placement of the ritual altar are deemed to affect the relations between a house and its inhabitants. Accordingly, not only geomancers but also carpenters must be familiar with correct proportions; carpenters' manuals contain both explicit instructions for the proper proportioning of a house and an occasional hint at how to cause discord in an enemy's family by purposefully building the house incorrectly.

Disharmony in family relations is sometimes attributed to bad geomantic siting or improper proportioning or layout of a house. To correct such spatial dissonance, it is not uncommon for people to erect a screen to prevent the direct entry of certain undesirable forces or spirits, reorient a door so it will face the domestic altar at a different angle, or perhaps build or take down a wall in order to restore harmonious relations between a house and neighboring structures. In extreme cases, houses geomantically diagnosed as incurable may be abandoned in favor of more salubrious sites.

Not only must a house harmonize with its spatial surroundings, it must also be occupied at a harmonious, and thus auspicious, time. A family moves into a new house during a two-hour period selected by a horoscope reader (who may double as a geomancer) to harmonize with the hours, days, months, and years of birth of as many of the family members as possible. The actual act of moving is marked by lighting incense to the household gods and ancestors on the new altar. The full celebration of moving into a new house is an elaborate one, often complete with major ritual sacrifices, officiated by Daoist or other priests, and including a large feast for relatives, friends, and neighbors.

Even after taking all prudent geomantic and horoscopic precautions, a family may still find its house a source of domestic disharmony. Certain rituals are designed to protect against this or to remedy it should it occur. Families who have moved into a previously occupied house will protect themselves against the spirit of the original owner, who is thought to reside in the house: on certain calendrical holidays this spirit, Ti-chi-chu ("lord of the foundation"), is worshiped with a small offering. In many areas, exorcisms, performed by Daoist or other priests, are employed either as precautions against possible haunting or in order to banish a ghost or spirit thought to be causing trouble.

In addition to such malevolent spirits, more benevolent or protective spirits also reside in the Chinese house. The local gods and family ancestors are enshrined on an altar, usually a prominent feature of a central parlor or another auspiciously located room in the house. They are the object of many of the calendrical and life-cycle rituals described below. Besides these, the house also plays host to some lesser spirits, the most important of which is Zaojun, the so-called kitchen god or, more accurately, "lord of the stove." The stove god is a low-ranking divinity, but many people consider him important because he is a sort of spy, sent by the Jade Emperor in Heaven to report on the activities of household members. As there is one stove for each household, even if there is more than one household in a dwelling, each household also has its own stove god, represented either by a picture or by his title written on red paper and pasted on the wall near the stove. This provides the stove itself with a certain sanctity. Thus, polluting substances (such as laundry, which is presumed to contain menstrual blood) cannot be placed on or hung in front of the stove, any more than these substances can come in contact with the altar. In addition, in some areas people ritually send the stove god back to Heaven to make his report on one of the last days of each lunar year; sometimes they place a bit of sticky candy on his lips so that his report will be brief and inarticulate, or alternatively, a bit of opium to soften his mood. Some families occasionally offer incense to a minor divinity associated with the household pigs or other livestock; rituals and stories surrounding this spirit are not as important or as elaborated as those concerning the stove god.

Life-Cycle Rituals

Domestic rites and celebrations accompany almost every stage in the life cycle of family members, including pregnancy, birth, early childhood, marriage, family division, death, and the passage to ancestral status. At each stage, both the family as a social unit and the house as a ritually charged space play an important part.

When a woman becomes pregnant, a spirit known as the "fetus spirit" (taishen ) comes into being. This spirit, thought by some to be the soul of the unborn child, is not yet firmly attached to the fetus, but migrates around the house, changing its position from day to day. By reading a ritual calendar, people can discern, for example, that the fetus spirit will be in the bedroom today, on the roof tomorrow, in the front door the day after, and so on. No one worships or propitiates the fetus spirit, but all must be careful not to offend it for fear of harming the unborn child. Thoughtlessly driving a nail into a wall where the fetus spirit is staying, for example, may cause the child to be born with a harelip; sawing or cutting cloth in the fetus spirit's current room can cause missing limbs or digits; moving things that have long lain still at a time when the fetus spirit is in that room can cause spontaneous abortion.

Aside from such considerations, the pregnant woman has but few ritual restrictions placed on her. Birth ordinarily occurs in the woman's bedroom. The blood of birth, like the blood of menstruation, is polluting, and thus offensive to the gods. For one month following the birth, a new mother is treated as being in a state of ritual pollution, and is confined to the house. During that month, the room where the birth took place is also considered polluted, as is anyone who enters it. For a first son, a first-month feast often marks both the lifting of the state of pollution and the introduction of the child to the community; for subsequent sons and for daughters the ritual is often omitted.

A mother with young children has special ritual duties incumbent on no one else; she makes daily prayers and offerings to Chuangmu ("bed mother"), a low-ranking spirit whose special concern is the health and growth of young children. Closely associated with the bed, the bedroom, and motherhood, the Bed Mother is ignored by other members of the household; she is also, unlike such domestic spirits as the Lord of the Stove, unaffected by pollution. After a woman's children are all of school age or older, she will no longer need the special protection of the Bed Mother, and will cease the prayers and offerings to her.

Since no rituals have marked puberty or other coming of age for Chinese boys or girls in late traditional or modern times, the next ritually important event in the life cycle of the family is marriage. Marriage, like the other life-cycle rituals mentioned above, is closely connected with both the family group and the house itself. After the initial negotiations and matching of horoscopes of the prospective spouses, the first major ritual is the engagement, in which members of the groom's family (but in most areas, excluding the groom himself) deliver the betrothal payment (pinjin ) and other gifts to the bride's family, and the groom's mother places a ring on the bride's hand. A few weeks or months later, at a horoscopically determined day and time, the marriage itself takes place. The day before the wedding, members of the groom's family go to the bride's house to exchange some ritual presents for the bride's dowry, which they then proceed to take home with them. Part of the dowrythe clothing, jewelry, cosmetics, and bedroom furnitureis installed in the "new room" (xinfang ), ideally a newly built room, but minimally a newly outfitted one, in which the new couple will sleep. The next visit of the groom's relatives fetches the bride herself, who comes in splendor in a red sedan chair, and at a ritually auspicious moment is carried into the bedroom, the act marking the actual wedding. Later, she and her new husband worship the ancestors of his house, symbolizing the incorporation of the bride into her marital family. A feast follows, introducing the family's bride to relatives and neighbors.

With all sons bringing their brides to live as part of a joint family, the household will, inevitably, grow too large and its conflicts too intense to remain together as a joint corporation. The eventual establishment of separate household groups involves not only the equal division of property and residential space among the brothers but also the division of ritual responsibilities. After the households are divided, brothers may continue to share an altar for household gods and ancestors, but they can no longer share a stove or a stove god. A simple ritual of division involves a final common meal, followed by division of the ashes from the original stove and the consecration of a new stove, with a new stove god, for each of the newly independent households.

Death, like other phases in the life cycle, is an affair both of the family and of the house. A person's death places all family members, as well as the house (whether or not the person died at home), in a state of ritual pollution for a month, and initiates the most elaborate and sustained series of life-cycle rituals. At a ritually auspicious time, a priest or monk, depending on local tradition, places the body in its elaborately painted wooden coffin, which remains in the family's parlor until the burial. A paper soul-tablet with its own incense burner is set up on a special table adjacent to the family's altar. Copious offerings of food and incense are made night and day until the funeral, which must occur at a ritually opportune time, and thus may be delayed several weeks. The funeral involves the participation of many people besides the family members, and as such, is not a purely domestic observance. But the connection to the house remains strong; the two ritually crucial acts of the funeral, those that must be performed at proper times on pain of severe illness for family members, are carrying the coffin out of the house and lowering it into the grave. The family pays all funeral expenses, including a modest feast for a large gathering of relatives, neighbors, and friends. Those who come to pay their respects help offset the cost by bringing the family gifts of money.

After the funeral the temporary, paper spirit-tablet remains on its table for a few weeks, after which it is moved to the family altar, where it is still worshiped separately from the wooden tablets of previously deceased ancestors. After one or two years, a carved wooden tablet replaces the paper one, and the deceased takes a place among the ancestors of the household, to be worshiped as part of the domestic ritual calendar.

Calendrical Rituals of the Family

Calendrical rituals center around the altar, which is usually divided into two halves. The left-hand part (which stands at the observer's right when facing the altar) is the ritually superior half, and enshrines the household gods. These may include deities of Buddhist origin such as Guanyin or one of the Buddhas; historical heroes, such as the Three-Kingdomsera fighter Guangong or one of the more local heroes; or purely traditional gods of the folk religion, such as Tudigong ("earth spirit"). There is usually a scroll hanging on the wall behind the gods' half of the altar, depicting whatever gods are popular locally. Families who feel particular devotion to an individual god may in addition place that god's carved wooden image on the altar in front of the scroll. A single incense pot serves for offerings to all the gods or, if need be, to a particular god on his or her birthday or other special occasions, such as the anniversary of the day when the god saved a family member's life or aided in some other extraordinary way.

The subordinate side of the altar, the right side (which stands at the observer's left), is the seat of the family's ancestral tablets. Depending on region and on individual preference, there may be a separate tablet for each ancestor or married pair of ancestors, there may be a single tablet-cabinet, containing rectangular wooden strips, one for each ancestor or pair, or the names of all the ancestors may be written on a broad, rectangular wooden board. In any case, the names of individual ancestors are always written on the tablets, together with their birth and death dates, and often the number of sons erecting the tablet. Exactly which deceased forebears are worshiped as ancestors varies from household to household, but the general rule is that a family should worship the household head's father and mother, father's father and father's mother, and so on back three to five generations from the current head. In fact, however, other ancestors are often included. For example, if a woman with no brothers marries into the family, she will bring her ancestors' tablets with her, and if a man marries into his wife's family, he may also bring his parents' tablets, or more if he has no brothers to take care of the tablets at home. Ancestors with surnames other than that of the primary ancestral line of the household cannot be worshiped together with the primary ancestors; they must have their own incense burner, and may be relegated to a separate, subordinate altar.

Daily devotions at the altar include incense offered morning and evening, first to the gods and then to the ancestors. Often, a third stick of incense is placed in a burner just outside the front door of the house and offered to dangerous ghosts. Any family member may perform these simple rites; in practice the duty most often falls to the senior woman.

More complex offerings to various spirits may come on the first and fifteenth days of each lunar month, corresponding roughly to the dates of the new and full moon, respectively. These offerings may include presentation of food and burning of ritual money as well as the customary lighting of incense. But the truly elaborate domestic offerings are reserved for special occasions of three kinds. First are the holidays, which are dispersed differently through the Chinese lunar and solar years from one region to the next; only the New Year and the Mid-Autumn festival, celebrated the fifteenth day of the eighth lunar month, approach universality. Second are the birthdays of individual gods, on which occasions households may worship individually or as part of a larger, community celebration. Finally, there are the death-day anniversaries of the family's individual ancestors; these are of course different for each family.

For any of these three sorts of calendrical occasions, each family will prepare and present its own offerings, which always include incense, food, and paper money, and may also include other paper offerings, such as clothing for the ancestors, and on some occasions firecrackers. Offerings always differ according to the particular occasion and according to which spirits are being worshiped. As a general rule, gods receive large, symbolic offerings, such as whole fowl or meat cuts and "gold" paper money. Ancestors receive smaller and more intimate presentations, including food cooked, chopped, and ready to eat, along with silver spirit money and in some places clothes or other practical goods, burnt in paper form. Ghosts, worshiped in many places in the seventh lunar month, receive massive and impersonal offerings, such as uncooked foods, and always the lowest denomination of paper money.

A calendrical ritual of any sort represents the discharge of a family's ritual obligations, either alone or along with other households in the community. At the same time, ritual occasions of this sort provide families with the opportunity to socialize and to strengthen ties with other families. All food offerings are eventually eaten, and all but the simplest are elaborate and expensive enough to be suitable for entertaining guests. Even on the private occasion of an ancestor's death-day, a family will invite a few relatives or neighbors to a ritual meal, and on a major community holiday or god's birthday every house in a village or a city street will be full of guests from outside the local community. On these holidays, as on so many other private and public occasions, the Chinese family affirms its good standing and its unity through ritual.

See Also

Chinese Religion, article on Popular Religion; Chinese Religious Year.


The best single source of modern analyses of Chinese domestic observances is Arthur P. Wolf's edited collection Religion and Ritual in Chinese Society (Stanford, Calif., 1974). Particularly informative for domestic rites are Wolf's "Gods, Ghosts, and Ancestors," pp. 131182; Stephan Feuchtwang's "Domestic and Communal Worship in Taiwan," pp. 105129; and Wang Songxing's "Taiwanese Architecture and the Supernatural," pp. 183192. A good general account, including interesting descriptions of exorcistic rituals, is David K. Jordan's Gods, Ghosts, and Ancestors (Berkeley, 1972). Maurice Freedman's writings are notable for their comprehensiveness and wealth of ideas, particularly those concerning ancestor worship and geomancy. See particularly his Lineage Organization in Southeastern China (London, 1958), Chinese Lineage and Society: Fukien and Kwangtung (London, 1966), and many of the articles collected and reprinted in The Study of Chinese Society: Essays by Maurice Freedman, edited by G. William Skinner (Stanford, Calif., 1979). These latter include not only treatments of ancestor worship and geomancy but rich accounts of marriage rituals as well. The most detailed and satisfying study of ancestral rites, including those in the home, is Emily M. Ahern's The Cult of the Dead in a Chinese Village (Stanford, Calif., 1973).

All the above sources concern the three southeastern provinces of Taiwan, Kwangtung, and Fukien; accounts of domestic rites in other areas of China consist primarily of descriptions of festivals and of life-crisis rituals, with little analysis. Good descriptions for Shantung can be found in Martin C. Yang's A Chinese Village: Taitou, Shantung Province (New York, 1945) and Reginald F. Johnston's Lion and Dragon in Northern China (New York, 1910); for Hopei, there is much useful material in Sidney Gamble's Ting Hsien; A North China Rural Community (New York, 1954; reprint ed., Stanford, Calif., 1968).

New Sources

Benn, Charles D. Daily Life in Traditional China: The Tang Dynasty. Westport, Conn., 2002.

Ebery, Patricia Buckley. Confucian and Family Rituals in Imperial China: A Social History of Writing about Rites. Princeton, N.J., 1991.

Goodrich, Anne Swann. Peking Paper Gods: A Look at Home Worship. Nettetal, 1991.

Gunde, Richard. Culture and Customs of China. Westport, Conn., 2002.

Hayes, James. South China Village Culture. New York, 2001.

Holzman, Donald. Immortals, Festivals, and Poetry in Medieval China: Studies in Social and Intellectual History. Brookfield, Vt., 1998.

Knapp, Ronald G. China's Living Houses: Beliefs, Symbols, and Household Ornamentation. Honolulu, 1999.

Stevan Harrell (1987)

Revised Bibliography

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