6. Changes in Perceptions of Ancestors: Field Data from a Rural Village in Northeastern China

Nie Lili

In traditional Chinese society, the belief in the existence of ancestors was a very important part of the religious ideology. It supported the social structure, and had a great influence on the meaning of people's lives and on their identity as lineage members.
Concretely, there were three sets of ideas relating to the ancestors. The first set was related to descent. Ancestors (zu zong) were thought of as all former members of the lineage in each of the ascending generations leading back to a common ancestor, a group within which genealogical as well as generational relationships were recognised. Zu means predecessor, and zong means main or foundation, so that the word in Chinese expresses the idea of the ancestor as the source of life. The second set of ideas was related to fengshui geomancy, and with the benefits and misfortunes stemming from the ancestors (see Oguma, this volume). The third was related to cosmology, and with the souls of the ancestors in the world of the shades. Each of these three sets of ideas had its ritual counterpart, in ancestor worship, geomancy and funeral rites.
With the rapid changes in Chinese society in this century, traditional perceptions of ancestors have undergone considerable changes. I think that an understanding of these changes can provide insights into the nature of the wider changes which both the Chinese values system and the structure of Chinese society have experienced. The analysis is based on anthropological fieldwork which was carried out in Northeastern China in "Liu Village", Wang-Shi Municipality, Haicheng Prefecture, Liaoning Province, from August 1987 to September 1988 (for a full account, see Nie, 1992). The village is four kilometers from the headquarters of Haicheng Prefecture, and had a population in 1988 of 1,105, divided between 292 households. Liu Village lies in a fertile plain. The peasants in the local area are usually described as han lao bao shou: even if there is a drought, or flooding, they are still guaranteed a good harvest. The affection of the people towards their home area is evident in the way they praise its simple merits. Certainly the soil in this plain is rang zhi tu (lit. "black soil", i.e. suitable for cultivation). In addition, the humidity which encourages the germination and growth of the crops is said to be a distinctive feature of the region.
However, with the implementation of the responsibility system of agricultural production, a period known as "no change for fifteen years" started in the early 1980s. This was the period in which peasants were to take over land and cultivate it continuously for fifteen years. In reality, however, for a variety of reasons, the peasants had to change the land they cultivated almost every year. Because the peasants who considered only their short term interests had no consideration for the ecosystem, the land became exhausted because of the quantity of chemical fertiliser that the farmers used. The soil hardened, and the amount of manure being spread decreased. In 1987 while I was carrying out my research, because of a drought lasting forty days, the production of dry rice, soybeans and maize decreased by 50%, 30% and 20% respectively. According to the peasants, this was an ominous decrease in production, compared with previous years with similar weather. There is an old saying that "failing to spread night soil is the same as making a foolish racket." This proverb indicates how important spreading "farmhouse" (organic) manure was considered by the peasant households. Among the common sights in this area in the recent past were small heaps of manure piled up on the other side of the yard in each peasant household, and peasants with baskets on their shoulders collecting the droppings of horses, donkeys and other livestock, but now they have generally disappeared. Enriching the land with human or livestock manure used to be part of the cycle of peasant life, but currently this culture of recycling has been completely destroyed.
In the eighth year of the Shunzhi era of the Qing Dynasty (1651), by the order of the government, the ancestors of the Liu lineage migrated to this area from the village of Liujiagou in Ponglai County, Shandong Province. This much about the lineage is common knowledge among the Liu, but there is hardly anyone who knows clearly the answers to questions such as where the ancestors first lived when they arrived in Haicheng County; how many generations ago they came to Liu Village; how many villages the Liu people are distributed between at present; and how are the Liu in each village related genealogically. By putting together material from my conversations with individual elders with the three books of records which my search of the six villages produced, I was finally able, with some difficulty, to clarify the Liu genealogy. On their arrival in the area, the ancestors of the Liu first lived in the hills, but from the third generation on, their descendants split up to develop new land on the plain. In the generation that followed this separation they built new villages, and today the Liu mainly live in nine villages. The people of the lineage really believe that they originated from the village of Liujiagou in Ponglai County, Shandong Province, but after this long interval there are no links with the home village, and so there is no evidence which can be called reliable.

Lineage structure.

The structure of Liu lineage is as follows. Within the Liu lineage, the segments which separated in the second generation after the founder are called the lao san zhi or three senior segments. These three segments are each wider than the village, and each has its own name. The names of the three senior segments are related to their founders. The first segment is named bagezouzhir, "eight [names] same radical", because the names of the eight brothers who were the founders of the segment shared the same radical in the Chinese characters of their names. The second segment is named Mang-Ying-Huan, after its three ancestors, Mang, Ying and Huan. The third segment is named Kui, also because its ancestor's name was Kui.

Figure 1. Liu Lineage

The segments of different depths within the villages are called laomen or xiaomen, senior and junior "gates". Each "gate" also has its own name, in Liu Village such as Laoliumen, Xiaoliumen, Xiaosimen, Liyuanzi, Menlouzi and so on. These names were generally related to the number of brothers who were the founders of the "gate", a feature of the house, or a feature of the place where the founder of the "gate" had lived, or where the people of the same "gate" were living together.
A new segment comes into existence through the process of lizu, "making an ancestor", in which a lineage member separates from the graves of his ancestors and builds a new tomb for himself and his descendants. Traditionally in this area, when people earned money, first they would buy land, second they would build a new house, and third they would establish a new graveyard. Everyone had the right to be buried in the lineage graveyard as a member of the lineage, but a rich person did not like to share his graveyard with the poor. In addition, establishing a new graveyard would also mean that his descendants would develop a new segment of the lineage named after him.
People think that, insofar as they share a common family name, they also share common gu-xue, "bone and blood" derived from their ancestors. The idea of finding out the origins of the lineage is very important, and provided the main motivation for editing the zupu or genealogy.
The relationship between the living and their ancestors also determines the relationships between the living. Those that have the same ancestor make up a lineage or segment, and lineage structure reflects important concepts underlying Chinese social organisation. The first of these is the opposition between "insider" and "outsider". Relatives within the same lineage have closer relationships with each other than they do with outsiders. In Liu Village, there are other small lineages besides the Liu, each of which has from ten to thirty household. Within the Liu lineage they may be problems between each of the constituent families, but in front of members of other lineages they always appear united, particularly when there are disputes with them.
The second major opposition is between "distant" and "near". There is more reciprocity between close kin within the same "gate", than there is with distant kin, even though the rights and obligations of kinship are general within the lineage.
Third, there is the opposition between "high" and "low", which has two connotations. On the one hand, inside the family, old people have more authority than younger people. Second, members of the senior generations within the lineage have more authority then members of the junior generations, even when they are comparatively young. Names are allocated on a generational basis, the name for each generation being successive characters of a five line poem written by the ancestors (cf Han Min, this volume: 69-70). In each generation, one character of the poem is adopted as the name of the generation, so that members of the same generation bear the same second character in a three-character name. The first character is the same for all members of lineage, and the third is chosen individually. When names are announced at a feast, it is easy to work out genealogical seniority - which relative are senior and which are junior - and after this people begin to call each other kinship terms such as "elder brother", "younger brother", "uncle", "niece", "grandfather", "grandson " and so on. In some cases generations and physical age have got out of step, so that an old man may end up calling a young man "uncle" or "great uncle".
Traditionally, in Haicheng County and the surrounding area, an ancestral ritual called fen hui ("tomb meeting") used to be performed three times each year, at Qingming, and on July 15 and October 1, according to the traditional calendar. In Shandong Province the peasants carried out the rituals of ancestor worship at the lineage mausoleum, but after they migrated to the north east they built no mausoleum, and so the location of the rituals moved to the ancestors' tombs. The tombs of Liu Chengxun and his sons were built on the slopes of a mountain with good fengshui, and were called the lao zu fen (the tombs of the old ancestors). The trees on the hills, and the fields and buildings around the tomb were called fen chan (tomb property); because the ancestors were the joint patrimony of their descendants, caretakers from another lineage guarded them.
In order to carry out the ancestral rituals, there was an organisation called fendazi. This was a group formed by representatives from each village, which took responsibility for the tomb rituals (fenhui) and took it in turns to sponsor them. The representatives (the head of each village and the senior member of each segment) were wealthy property owners in their villages, and were socially influential. The fendazi administered the capital which consisted of common lineage property, and used this to finance the fen hui rituals or the activities of the fendazi itself. In fact this capital was scanty: in the 1920s, the Liu lineage actually had only the equivalent in land of 100 yuan: in those days 100 yuan bought 10 mu or two thirds of a hectare. On the day of the annual fenhui the Liu people from each village would gather at the "old ancestral tombs", and if the distance to the tombs was large (the furthest village was Liu Village which was 20 kilometers away) they would stay the previous night in the buildings by the tombs. On the morning of the actual day of the festival, they would begin as soon as the sun had risen. Having average peasants for ancestors, apart from one xiucai graduate in the Chinese classics, the lineage produced few men of talent, and so, contrary to expectations, the Liu lineage ancestral rituals were also simple. First, the fendazi performed greetings, in which the emphasis was on the importance of remembering the grace of the ancestors, the necessity for the descendants to make the lineage prosper through their efforts, and recitation of the ancestors' names. After this, they all knelt in front of the ancestral tomb, and performed three salutations. Having finished the rituals, each of the participants took part in a celebratory feast. The tomb caretaker prepared a sumptuous feast, including meat which was rarely eaten except for this occasion. The caretaker was given the use of the fenchan fields around the tombs without paying rent, so instead he had the duty of providing the feast three times a year, during the rituals. The feast was a splendid place for the Liu from each village to make contact with each other. Eight people sat round each small table on heated beds, and while they ate the "four side dishes and one soup", they argued about each others' names and genealogical relationships.
In addition to the ritual for the founder, each of the three segments held rituals for their own founders successively on the same three dates, starting with those of the most senior segment at Qingming. Each segment also held a banquet after the rite, and each segment had their own zuchan. These ceremonies were held until land reform which in this area took place as early as 1947.

Ancestors and geomancy

In northeastern China, people follow the feng shui system of geomancy in siting the tombs of their ancestors, and almost all of the villages had one or two professional or amateur geomancers. The belief is that the choice of a good site will bring the descendants good fortune. The grave of the Liu lineage's founder was built on a slight slope on the northern side of a mountain with a mountain stream in front of it, fifteen kilometers away from Liu Village. There is a legend about this grave. When the sons came to the slope while searching for a place for their father's grave, they saw a hare fighting with a snake. In this area, it is believed that the hare has a supernatural link with the moon, and the snake has a supernatural link with the earth. As the spirits of the sky and the earth were struggling over the place, the sons believed that it must be very propitious, and so they built their father's grave there. The village's geomancer told them that the fengshui of the founder's grave would bring them good fortune and that the Liu lineage would produce many titled officials. However, the following year, a passing geomancer advised other villagers at the foot of the mountain that the fengshui of the Liu ancestor was so powerful that it would harm their own interests. The villagers took his advice, and built a mausoleum for Guanyu, a hero who had lived in the Three Kingdoms period (AD 220-265), at the foot of the mountain. This affected the fengshui of the Liu lineage grave. Members of the Liu lineage talk about how this constrained their splendid fengshui, and how, in the end, the destiny fixed for the lineage produced only one senior official and a few wealthy men. Despite this, the Liu people still boast that the site of the tomb of the first ancestor who came from Shandong has a fengshui which is much better than that of other lineages.
People think that the direction of the grave is very important, and they followed a geomancer's indications faithfully. Generally, the direction must not be on the line running due east-west (zhen-dui), or due north-south (kan-li). Only the emperor's tomb or temples can be built on these axes, and it was believed that if they built the ancestor's graves on them it would bring them great suffering. Instead, they had to build the ancestors' graves on a southeast-northwest axis (xuan-qian) or a southwest-northeast axis (kun-gen).
In fact, if one looks at the graves of the ancestors of the Liu villages, it can be seen how they slowly deviated from the geomantic ideal. As mentioned above, the grave of the founder was ideally sited, but the founders of each of the three zhi were built on hills close to the village, which was far from ideal. After that, a burial site 1.3 mu in area was established, and to improve the geomantic qualities of the site, various techniques were tried. For example it was usual to pile soil on one side of the grave, to raise it above the other, with the higher side representing a mountain and the lower side representing a river, thus incorporating both symbolically. People took care in building their ancestors' graves, not only as a result of piety, but also (some would say mainly) because of their beliefs in geomancy. Even less than dutiful sons also built graves with care.

Ancestors and shades

Villagers believe in the existence of the world of the shades, and they have a distinct image of this in their minds. In this world, the supreme ruler is Yan-wang-yie. His deputy is Pan-guan, who keeps the book with details of when people were born and when they will die. Next are the Shi-dian-yan-jun, the ten Yamas. According to the villagers, the ten Yamas are just like province-level executives. Under them are the cheng-huang who correspond to local officials, and they in turn are in charge of the xiao-gui who live in the temple of village and haunt the villagers tombs.
In this area, they do not say that people "die" but that they have "gone" or "grown old". People must follow the xiao-gui and go to the world of the shades when their names are written in the "Book of the Dead" kept by the Pan-guan. On the way to the shades, the soul first sees two bridges. One is called ji le qiao which connects with the Land of Happiness in the West, to which few people can go. The other is called duan-hun-qiao which leads to the world of the shades, and it is over this that most of the dead pass. After the bridge, the soul passes ya cha shu, a tree with no leaves, and er gou zhuang, a village in which live the souls of dogs who died from hunger. In addition the soul must undergo interrogation and torture from each of the ten Yamas, and the length of time it spends in the world of the shades depends on their judgment. At the end of this world is a pavilion called po meng ting. After drinking soup in this pavilion, the soul forgets everything. It enters the wheel of rebirth and is reborn, whether as a man or some kind of animal, depending on its position on the wheel.
The ancestors' funeral rites correspond to these images of the world of the shades. They create a send-off atmosphere from the start to finish, the theme being that of sending the dead person on a long journey. Each year, at New Year according to the old calendar, people receive the ancestors' souls back into the home for just five days. Otherwise, if they want to make contact with the ancestors they go to their graves. The rituals for the first, second and third anniversaries of a death are also carried out at the grave.
Generally people think there is nothing they can do to help their ancestors' progress through the shades, because the world of humans is completely separate. If the ancestors are punished there, then that is their fate. All that people can do for the dead is to send some "shade money" made out of paper to them on Qingming and in the middle of the seventh month. Occasionally when a child becomes ill and fails to recover, people may think it is because an ancestor's soul has returned home and has terrified the child, so they offer some sticks of incense and send money as an offering to the ancestor, in honour of his soul.

Changes in perceptions of the ancestors

Changes in the social structure

Ancestor worship stopped at the time of land reform. The common property of Liu lineage, ten mu of land around the founder's grave, was divided and given to poor peasants by the government. The worship of the ancestors was organised by the members of the fendazi, almost all of whom were landlords. At the time of land reform, this association collapsed. Many of the landlords lost their status and were criticised, and some fled from the village. The ancestral tombs were damaged or destroyed on three occasions, during the "Great Leap Forward" in 1958, during the "Learn from Da Zhai" campaign in 1965, and during the Cultural Revolution from 1966 to 1976. Now only a few people can remember the sites of their ancestors' graves, and the young people do not even know what fen hui or ancestral rituals consist of. In Liu Village, only five old men had taken part in these rituals and knew something about the history of the Liu Lineage, but none of younger men seem to be interested in these matters.
As for the genealogies, the difficulty in following up their history is the shortage of written documents. For each of the periods since Liberation, hardly any government documents, such as family registers, have been preserved at any of the levels of administration, from the village to the county. As for the people themselves, the family and household records in peasant families, ancestral genealogies and so forth, were for the most part burnt at the time of the Cultural Revolution. In order to expand the arable land, the tombs were taken over and destroyed, and the monuments were reused as stone and wood.
Thus, I had great difficulty in tracking down for this "single lineage", the origin, distribution, and location of the ancestors' tombs, the rituals of ancestor worship, and the origin of the lineage segments, the lower rank units in the lineage. I first tried to look for lineage records, and eventually I found three books in the six villages. Some old people had hidden a casket inside the fire door of a heated bed, and when the mouldy lineage records were taken out, the other lineage members in the village were surprised. Even in the middle of a stormy political campaign, some old people had been brave enough to preserve the lineage records. I thought it astonishing that no other documents had been hidden like this, and that these records were the only ones that had survived to the present. After, I sat together with these old people on the heated bed, listening to their conversation, as they gave me the fragments of information that they could remember. In this way, by patching together these individual conversations, I was partially able to reconstruct the outlines of the Liu lineage in the past. Listening to accounts of things like the rituals involving the lineage and its segments, and the memorial tablets, I was aware of being able to make contact with the shadow of a vanished age.

Changes in geomancy

From the beginning of the 1970s, burial has been prohibited, and people are supposed to cremate their ancestors' remains, nor have they been allowed to make graves for them, even though recently some people have begun to bury them secretly once more in empty land on river banks or at the edges of the fields. If the government were to find out they would be fined severely.
For these reasons geomancy is no longer important in the siting of graves, but people still attach much importance to it when building a house. In this area there is a contrast between yin-zhai, the grave where the dead live, and yang-zhai, the houses where people live. Even though they can no longer use fengshui when building a tomb, they can use it when they build a house. They get a geomancer to indicate the site, and consult him on the layout of any additions, such as a toilet, well, yard wall, pigsty or chicken pen.
Even though the geomancers were criticized and denounced severely in the Cultural Revolution, and the government prohibits their activities, they still practice fengshui on the quiet, and hold the respect of the villagers, and even some young people are adopting them as their teachers.

Changes in funeral practices

Even though cremation is now the norm, the villagers still think that a funeral is very important, and the revolution has not made them give up their beliefs in the existence of shades, so a funeral ceremony is now still held, but before the cremation. All the same, there are differences between present-day funerals and those held before the revolution.
First there are fewer mourners at funerals than there were before. Before the revolution, announcements of the death were made to friends and relatives in the following order: those with close blood relationships with the dead within the lineage, the kin of the dead person's mother, affines, friends and neighbours. The funeral was always a grand ceremony on a large scale. At present the scale is reduced, and more distantly related people, such as cognates or affines, may not be informed.
Second, there have been some changes in the form of the funeral. In the past, the deceased was laid in the coffin on the fourth day after death, but now this usually takes place on the second day. In the past, the coffin might have lain in state in the garden of the home for three, seven, twenty-one, forty-nine days, or even one year, depending on rank, but now it is sent to the crematorium on the same day on which it is put in the coffin, and there are only brief ceremonies on the return from the crematorium. In former times there were many other rituals, such as zhi lu, bao miao, and dian zhu. In zhi lu or "showing the way", when a man died, his son would climb on the roof of the house and stand next to the chimney, and call "west road, light road", as an indication of the path the soul should follow. Bao miao, means "giving the news". In former times when the coffin was lying in state in the garden, the sons would go twice a day, morning and evening, to the village temple to report to the cheng-huang that their father was dead. In the dian zhu ceremony the relatives completed the inscription on their ancestor's mortuary tablet, usually by the simple addition of a single dot to one of the characters. The belief was that only by the addition of the dot on the mortuary tablet could the ancestor's spirit stay there. These and other rites are now omitted. Bao miao is now impossible because the village temple was destroyed during the Cultural Revolution.
Why have the changes in ancestral beliefs and rites been so great in this area, when in other areas, such as the village in Anhui Province described by Han Min (this volume), they have survived, or even undergone a revival? Some contributing factors may have included the following.
First, the history of the lineage is different. The establishment of lineages in this area was comparatively recent and the lineages were therefore relatively shallow, in comparison with those in the home area of Shandong Province.
Second, dating from the Japanese occupation of Manchuria, administration in this area has always been very strong, and has exerted a considerable influence on the day-to-day lives of the villagers, so that revolutionary ideology and organisation have had a considerable impact on social structure. As a result of this, even though local administrators have been members of the village, they have tended to act as outsiders, enforcing government policy (in contrast, see Han Min, 1993, chapter 5).
Third, due to political factionalism in the village, the lineage is weak and divided, so that its social importance is still further reduced. In general the process of land reform, and later the Cultural Revolution, led to serious conflicts and cleavages in the village. Political campaigns had a terrible effect, as they had done in many of the cities. Most of the villagers were divided between the two broad groups of poor and lower middle peasants on the one hand, as opposed to landlords, upper middle, and rich peasants on the other. At the time of the Cultural Revolution, four people in the village died. The father of my landlady in the house where I was staying was one of them: imprisoned and beaten up by the revolutionary faction in the village, and not being able to stand it, he had committed suicide. Today, with the political campaigns said to have stopped, people still live in the same villages. The exterior is peaceful, but in fact, the people still bear grievances against each other, and a tendency towards caution runs deep. In my research these old divisions turned out to be the most important cleavages in the social life of the village.
Finally, the economic reforms have led to great changes in the economy in this area, and a relatively small percentage of the population are now involved in agriculture. Many people have taken up other occupations, whether in sideline production in the countryside of goods such as knitwear and other clothes, or of chickens and eggs; or jobs involving migration to the towns where many of the men have formed teams of workers on building sites. The lineage is thus is less important for the day-to-day organisation of agriculture. The peasants of today, freed from communal production and the people's communes after the reform of the economic system, have become independent managers, while the organisation of the economy is generally being developed on the basis of "small house yard" units, that is to say the nuclear family. The social environment has certainly changed. Formerly extended families cooperated in the domestic economy, with married sons and their parents living together in the old way involved in farming, trading and other part-time work, and sometimes with part of the farming alotted to particular members of the family. This pattern has disappeared household by household. The old people, even those living in the same house as a married son, cook separately, and within the limits of their age and mobility they deal with the problems of everyday life themselves. In the village there are cases in which old people have gone to the people's court to claim a living allowance from their sons. This touches on an important aspect of the Confucian code of conduct, that of "piety": it is either not as important as it once was, or it does not matter at all. Also on this subject, present-day behaviour is rather different from the "piety" which the old people talk about in relation to sons living in the old extended families, and people's views on morality have undergone a great change. As for relations between brothers who have established a branch family, there are some who work together and who help each other in everyday life, but there are also examples of households in which wealth has mushroomed, but in which rich older brothers have rejected requests for small loans from their poorer younger brothers. Generally it can be said that the exchange of labour or resources between brothers is based on the reciprocal principle of bu kui, bu qian: without losses there can be no profits.
As for cooperation between husband and wife, formally and superficially in comparison with the old division of labour based on the notion of "wife inside, husband outside", it seems that little has actually changed. The husband goes to the city to work in the construction industry, which is the most profitable form of subsidiary work for the peasants in the local area, while the wife stays at home working on the farm and in the house. However, there has in fact been a fundamental change in the relationship. It seems that over time the old marital principle of "man prays, woman attends", by which the woman had to obey her husband, has given way to a principle of "real competence": whichever of them can earn the most money makes the decisions in the family. Following this, there are frequent quarrels between parents, husbands and wives over their relationships or over money, and the divorce rate has risen. Ten days before I arrived in the village, there was reportedly the tragic case of a man who killed his wife who wanted a divorce, and who then committed suicide on the railway line.
Thus many sources of friction have developed between parents and children, between brothers, between husbands and wives, between relatives and between neighbours. As the villagers cope with these contradictions, the sound of quarreling coming from their houses in almost every direction has become an almost daily occurrence. This social landscape is completely different both from many of the older written accounts of peasant life and from the picture which older people in the area had given me of kinship organisation.
Each morning, as I walked around the village, I could see the figures of men on bicycles hurrying off to work in the local administrative headquarters, concentrating from morning to night on making money and improving their lives. And I thought that probably things like the ancestors and the lineage had, for these men, already become things of the past.

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Updated 4 June 2020