Genealogy and Chinese Religion
In the nineteenth century, the Chinese immigrants were sojourners, regarded by others as well as by themselves to be a foreign and transient population. As a community the ethnic Chinese were therefore obliged to provide for their own needs. This was done by setting up the various social institutions and organizations already discussed whose functions included the maintenance of temples, the observance of annual festivals, the maintenance of schools, the care of the sick and destitute, the maintenance of burial grounds, and the promotion of Chinese culture. Time has passed and sojourners have become citizens and colonial territories have become independent countries. Social needs such as education, health and welfare, are the now responsibility of government. However, in Malaysia, because the national system of education is in Malay, the national language, Chinese schools are still maintained by the ethnic Chinese.
Although their original purpose has lost its relevance, these social organizations still have a significant role in the social and cultural life of the Malaysian and Singaporean Chinese. In particular, they continue to play an especially important role in providing for the religious needs of the community. They continue to maintain temples and burial grounds - and now increasingly important - crematoriums and columbariums. They organize the celebration of Chinese festivals and the performance of rituals on these occasions. Rituals arranged by other social organizations offer worship to various deities, but the rituals under the auspices of lineage associations are particularly meaningful because they are concerned with the veneration of the ancestors and enable lineage members to fulfil their religious obligations to their forefathers.
The Chinese in Malaysia and Singapore observe many religions, but I agree with the views of Tan Chee-Beng that the most important ones are those derived from Chinese civilization (Tan C.B. 1995:139). He identifies two such religions: firstly, ‘ Chinese Religion’ comprising that ‘complex mix of traditional Chinese beliefs and practices, together with variants of local transformation,’ and secondly, what he refers to as ‘Chinese Buddhism.’ He explains that Chinese Buddhism has evolved alongside Chinese Religion and differs from the Buddhism practised in Thailand and Burma. However, there are no hard and fast boundaries between these practices and a devotee may well attend a Chinese Religion temple, a Chinese Buddhist temple, and a Thai Buddhist temple at different times.
Other scholars who have done research on religion in Malaysia and Singapore, such as Majorie Topley (1956:76); Maurice Freedman (1974:20); Vivienne Wee (1977:2); confirm the concept of Chinese Religion as an overarching term describing the wide range of Chinese religious beliefs and practices. The term ‘Taoism’ refers to both the Taoist philosophy and indigenous Chinese religion (Tan C.B. 1995:142), but in the Malaysian and Singaporean contexts, it is popularly used to refer to the belief in the various deities and spirit-medium cults replete with their local variations and adaptations. An examination of a list of research on religion among the Chinese of Malaysia and Singapore (Tan C.B. 1989:150) shows that the bulk of the research has focused on Buddhism and Taoism. There are only three works on ancestor worship. The lack of attention paid to this facet of life is surprising given its central position in Chinese life and religion. After all, an individual may worship any deity he chooses, but in the family and kinship structure of society the observation of ancestral rituals is obligatory.
In this short paper it is not possible to enter into the debate about whether ancestor worship is or is not a religion. The term ‘ancestor veneration’ is probably a more accurate description but the term ‘ancestor worship’ has been more widely accepted in the literature. Besides, it must be acknowledged that ancestor worship encompasses aspects of family sentiment and social organization, as well as covering the performance of ritual observances. It is a continuum that at one end represents the Chinese worldview on the order of society and at the other end satisfies the need for ritual observances regarding death and the deceased. Individuals position themselves in this continuum depending on their own beliefs and philosophy of life. Ancestor worship contains elements of both remembrance and rituals.
If ancestor worship is ‘the ritualisation of kinship ties’ (Nelson 1974:252), then the genealogy is the documentation of these kinship ties. If Chinese Religion is defined as that ‘complex system of tradition Chinese religious beliefs and practices,’ then ancestor worship can be defined as that ‘complex mix of values, customs, traditions and religious practices based on Chinese concepts of filial duty (xiao), family, lineage and the after life.’
Ancestor worship is practised within the family itself and in a lineage association. Family worship includes observing the birth and death anniversaries, the celebration of annual festivals such as Chinese New Year, and visits to the graves (saomu, or among the Cantonese, baishan) at Qing Ming and Chong Yang. When the remains have been cremated and the ashes placed in a columbarium, visits would be made to the columbarium instead.
Lineage associations perform two important religious functions: they co-ordinate group worship and they maintain an altar where the spirit tablet (shenzhu or shenwei) of deceased family members may be placed. Nowadays, not many families maintain altars in their homes and there is a growing tendency to place the family spirit tablets in a temple of a lineage association.
Group worship is offered at least twice a year and committees are set up to orchestrate these activities (Soh 1990:78). Spring Worship (Chunji) is scheduled to coincide with Qing Ming when visits would be made to communal clan graves, if there were any. Winter Worship (Dongji) takes place on 22 December of each year. For the Penang Hokkiens this is the most important festival of all (communication Lim Ho Hup). Other important religious activities among Penang lineage associations include observing the death anniversaries of remote ancestors. Soh Wei Nee’s paper provides a detailed description of the lineage associations, their ancestral shrines, and the various kinds of rituals performed.
Lineage and kinship are among the most essential concepts in the Chinese social structure. The genealogy is the tool which captures and documents these concepts and gives them shape and form. The genealogical order is made visible in the ancestral temple (citang) where the spirit tablets, placed in order of generation, are in fact, a form of genealogy. In other words, the ancestral temple, the ancestral altar, the spirit tablets, and the genealogy are the physical manifestations of ancestor worship.
Generation ranking is a key element in both kinship structure and ancestor worship. In life, the junior in generation ranking owes the senior respect and deference, which are reflected in appropriate terms of address. Generation names are another device for maintaining and expressing generation order. Rituals of ancestor worship are performed in generation and birth order (wives follow their husbands’ rank) thereby reinforcing the senior/junior ranking within the family. Similarly in death, the junior offers worship to the senior and never the other way round. The establishment of generational order is therefore intrinsic in social relationships and religious observances. It is the function of the genealogy to record and maintain the ordering of the generations.
Therefore, although the genealogy is not a religious document, it performs a unique role in bringing about the merging of the Chinese social system and the Chinese belief system.
Genealogy and the Ancestral Village
The Chinese have had contact with the Malay Archipelago for centuries, but it was in the last 200 years that they began arriving in large numbers. Descendents of those who migrated in the nineteenth century would be in the sixth or seventh generation, while the descendants of those who migrated in the early part of the twentieth century would be in the third or fourth generation. The closeness of ties with the ancestral village depends on the generational distance. Those of the first and second generation, that is, those who migrated or whose parents performed the journey to the new country, are likely to maintain close ties with their relatives in China. Those whose ancestors migrated more than 100 years ago may have lost touch and, as far as they are concerned, the ancestral village may be only a faint memory from the past.
It may seem so, but for many ethnic Chinese tourists who visit China every year, one of the reasons for travelling there is to pay a visit to their ancestral village and distant relatives. One of the highlights of these visits is the opportunity to pay their respects at the graves of the ancestors. For some of them, this is mainly a sociable occasion, an excuse to provide a feast for the village. For others, rituals of ancestor worship are serious religious events.
The example that I have is the jinzu ritual, which my informant Zheng Jinbao attended. In 1996, he took his whole family to his ancestral village of Guoqiancun in Nan-an county, Fujian, to participate in this ceremony. He is a businessman whose father migrated to the village of Gelang Patah in the state of Johor in Malaysia in the late 1920s. I would not describe the Zheng family as being particularly religious in the sense of frequently attending temples or prayer sessions. Rather, it is a family deeply rooted in Chinese traditions which practise regular observations of Chinese Religion according to custom. When Zheng Jinbao took his family to Guoqiancun, he wanted more than for them to participate in the ceremony, he was determined to familiarize his children with their roots and the traditions of his father’s village.
The purpose of holding the jinzu ritual was to transfer the ancestral tablets from the old ancestral temple to a new ancestral temple called Fuzutang.[i] It began at two o’clock in the morning when a procession led by a female ritual specialist (nigu) went to a spot two kilometres outside the village. The purpose of this part of the ritual was to invite the ancestors of the lineage who had died in a foreign country (like Zheng Jinbao’s father who passed away in Malaysia) to come to the new ancestral temple. This part of the ritual ended at about 6 a.m., after which the jinzu ritual proper began at 8 a.m.
The ancestral tablets were taken from the altar and placed on trays covered with red cloths held by senior men of the lineage. A procession was formed and the ancestral tablets processed ceremoniously through the village. On arriving at the new building, the ancestral tablets were borne in to the sound of music and firecrackers and the performance of the lion dancers. Inside, altars bearing food offerings at which homage (bai) to the ancestors was then performed were set up. The ancestral tablets are new and each contains about ten names. The generational rank is written above each name and each tablet is inscribed with the names of the same generation. Each name on each tablet was ceremonially dotted; a rite which establishes the relationship between the tablet and the soul (hun) for whom it stands (Freedman 1979:297). The tablets were then placed on the new altar beginning with the spirit tablet of Zheng Zhongfeng, Ancestor of the fifteenth Generation, the head of the sub-lineage, which was laid at the highest level.
Zheng Jinbao returned to Guoqiancun this year for a merit making ritual called gongde, which invited the lost and uncared for souls of the lineage to the ancestral temple. The gongde was held on the twenty-sixth day of the third month and the lineage elders decided that, in future, this day would be fixed as an annual day of worship at which lineage members from foreign countries are welcome. Not every ethnic Chinese will display the same devotion to his or her ancestors, but ancestor worship will continue to be a factor in bringing ethnic Chinese to China and donations for the construction of ancestral temples and the observation of religious rites will continue to form part of the remittances sent to ancestral villages.
One of the valued objects that Zheng Jinbao brought back from his village is a genealogy of the Zheng lineage in Guoqiancun. Copies of such jiapu are treasured in many families, even in those that do not have strong ties with their ancestral villages. The genealogy connects the ethnic Chinese to their past, even though their present is firmly anchored in the country where they now live. The genealogy is a personalization and a particularization of the past. China is too large and too overwhelming a concept for most people to relate to in a personal sense. But one small village, one corner of the huge country called China, one particular strand of Chinese history, these they can relate to in a way that is meaningful and comprehensible. This connection with the past, with their roots and traditions, forms part of the ethnic Chinese heritage and awareness of their cultural identity.
Having described these links, I cannot end without mentioning that linkages with China and ethnic Chinese economic dominance are part of the so-called ‘Chinese problem’ (Suryadinata 1995b:4). The closer the ties with China, the stronger the expression of Chinese cultural identity, the more difficult it is to dampen lingering doubts about ethnic Chinese loyalty. Malaysian and Singaporean Chinese have to find a fine balance between maintaining their cultural identity as ethnic Chinese while expressing their political identity as Southeast Asians.
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