The article “Communal Worship and Festivals in Chinese Villages”, written by Tam Wai Lun, in the volume Chinese Religious Life (Oxford University Press, 2011), outlines the religious landscape in Chinese villages, where rituals, customs, and traditions of religion are still being practiced today. The landscape of villages, the orientation of houses, the location of temples and graves, are all obvious displays influenced by the knowing of Fengshui. Where and why do villagers worship their ancestors? How can tell the differences between the ancestors, gods, and ghosts?
Tam Wai Lun: The shape of an ideal village
What is Fengshui? Literally, it means wind and water. Tam Wai Lun summarizes the basic elements of Fengshui in southern China. Tam describes the shape of an ideal village as an “arm chair,” surrounded by mountains while facing a piece of flat land at the front —— the ancestral hall usually locates at the center where villagers worship their ancestors and conduct rituals; the backyard is always preserved with an exuberant forest which blocks strong wind from the village; the river carries a gentle and winding flow which facilitates irrigation. You can always see the subtle and harmonious configuration of the villages in different parts of China. Fengshui is the core that brings these elements together. Please watch the video to learn more about it.
Stephan Feuchtwang: Changing one’s fate
Stephan Feuchtwang thinks Fengshui is “geomancy, the art of siting buildings or arranging your rooms.” He believes that every culture has its notion of luck, and Fengshui is one of the approaches that remedies one’s destiny: “So it’s both an idea of your place in the world as a place that you were born into, but also something that you can do something about.”
Tam Wai Lun: The two foci of village religion
Very often we can find two religious spots in each Chinese village —— the ancestral hall and the village temple —— where people burn incenses, conduct rituals, and worship some spiritual entities. And yet, what are the differences between ancestral hall and village temple? Please watch the brief explanation by Tam Wai Lun.
Kristofer Schipper: Ancestor worship
What do Chinese people do in the ancestral hall? Of course, they worship ancestors in it. But how is it different from western memorial etiquette? Kristofer Schipper explains, “When someone dies in our religion, we ‘pray for’ them that they go to heaven. In China, you ‘pray to’ them.” The deceased will live on with the family. This gives an important hint to the formation of clan in Chinese villages.
Tam Wai Lun: Customary practice at home
Chinese people not only care about the well-being of individuals, but also care about the vitality and prosperity of their family clan. Ancestors are worshiped in lineage hall where wood plates bearing their names are venerated. The descendants believe that their ancestors will look after their fortunes and will offer blessings to their kin. Such ancestor-descendant relationship means more than a ritual routine; it is indeed a moral obligation.
Stephan Feuchtwang: Filial obligation and ancestor worship today
Stephan Feuchtwang further elaborates the practice of ancestor worship and observes how it changes in contemporary China. Feuchtwang observes, “As people live in, or move, or migrate, and live in high apartment blocks, it’s probably not being continued.” Now, people in the cities are far away from their ancestral halls in countryside. However, as Feuchtwang remarks, the sense of obligation to the elders will continue. Why? Let’s see how he explains.
Tam Wai Lun: Jiao ritual in a village
The hot-and-noisy festal aura of village communal religion is best represented by Jiao festival (醮) which usually takes place once a year in 3-5 days. Such religious event concerns the whole community where grand offerings of paper and food are prepared, and where ancestors as well as deities are venerated. The rituals of Jiao imply purification of the territory and shall bring blessings to villagers. Please check Tam Wai Lun’s video for a brief account of Jiao festival.
Joseph Bosco: The temple procession in Taiwan
Apart from Jiao, temple process is another important religious activity in village communal lives. Joseph Bosco describes the temple procession in Taiwan – it begins in front of a temple; and then, carriages of gods and troops of worshipers shall go through the villages nearby; and it ends with a huge banquet. Please watch.