Confucianism is more of a religious and social philosophy than a religion in the accepted meaning of the word. It has no church, no clergy, and no Bible. It advocates a code of social behavior that man ought to observe so as to live in harmony with society and attain happiness in his individual life. There is little concern about death, the world beyond, and spiritual feelings in this religion. Confucius, or Kung Fu-tzo (551-479 B.C.), the founder of this religion, stressed the improvement of the moral self as the basic duty of the individual as well as the statesman. In order to rule the world, one must rule one's country; in order to rule the country, one must rule one's family; and in order to rule the family, one must have control of oneself. Consequently, the improvement of the moral self is the cornerstone of Confucianism. Confucius believed that man is born with an essentially good nature which becomes corrupted in his contact with society. In order to improve his moral self and regain that original good nature with which he was born, man must practice the five cardinal virtues of benevolence, propriety, loyalty, intellect, and trustworthiness. In order to keep harmony in the nation and happiness in the family, man must observe the three basic relationships between sovereign and subject, father and son, and husband and wife. On the national level the basic virtue is loyalty to the sovereign, and on the family level, the basic virtue is filial piety. The ritual expression of filial piety is ancestor worship.
Confucius, who is at one and the same time the Socrates, the Solon, and the Lycurgus of the oriental city, speaks often of the spirits and the souls of the dead. It is true that in his philosophical conversations with his disciples, he declines sometimes to give his own views as to their compositions. One knows the response that he made to one of them who queried him on the subject: "You do not know how to serve the living, why should I teach you to serve the dead? You who understand nothings of life, why should I speak to you about death?" In another connection, that in this matter, the master remained faithful to the beliefs of ancient China, traces of which are notably kept for us in The Book of Rites. According to these beliefs, man is made up of the living soul and the spiritual soul. After death, the living soul turns to dust with the body. The spiritual soul rises, wanders in space, and leads an independent, ethereal, airy life. This is the life of the spirits, of the souls, of the departed ancestors. These then never die completely; they follow a transcendent, spiritual life. But this life which runs the risk of becoming ineffectual, of evaporating into nothing, is made more real, more effective, so to say, by the memory the living keep of the dead, by the cult that it is their duty to offer. It is thus that the dead may always participate in the lives of the family of their descendents. One calls on them for all solemn occasions, such as births, marriages, and so on.
According to pure Confucianist doctrine, one must honor the dead on a par with the living; and the greatest misfortune conceivable is to die without leaving a male descendant to perpetuate the Cult of the Ancestors. Later, this rule was relaxed to permit daughters to carry on the cult, in case there were no male descendants. If a man dies without leaving any descendants at all. However, the souls of the dead, for lack of homage and honor on the occasions of traditional feasts and anniversaries, are doomed to eternal wandering one of the most appalling maledictions which could afflict any family. It is thus that the custom of polygamy among the Chinese was explained, and justified in the eyes of the law: it more or less assured that there would be a descendant to perpetuate the cult. Adoption was considered to be a last resort.
The cult of the ancestors is accompanied by a certain number of beliefs and practices, some of them deriving from Confucian teachings, and others originating from popular superstitions and Taoist rites. Many people, whether scholars or common folk believe that the souls of their ancestors are the natural protectors of the family line. It is to them that prayers are addressed, imploring. For example, the curing of a sick child; their influence, and the sum of good actions they accomplished in the lifetimes are also used to explain success in business, in examinations and all other fortunate developments. In wealthy families, the ancestors' altar is a piece of furniture of great value, made of hand-carved wood, red and gold painted. On which are arranged copper candlesticks and perfume pans. The names of the ancestors for the past four generations are inscribed on mahogany tablets; beyond that generation, the dead are supposedly already reincarnated. The altar itself is placed in the main room of the house, where it is ordinary shielded from view by a red silk curtain. Carved and painted panels fixed on the walls or against the pillars, bear inscriptions whose texts are usually composed by scholars who are personal friends of the family. But whether the ancestors' altar is richly adorned, or consists merely of a white-painted. Ordinary wooden table, it is always the place where the entire family gathers on the occasions of the main feasts of the year. It is the rallying place a symbol of family solidarity. Around the altar, in the presence of the ancestors, all discord must disappear and it is before the altar that major decisions are made, and marriages consecrated.
I said earlier that Confucius remained faithful to this ancient religion to these old beliefs of ancient China, all the more since they fit in admirably with his doctrine of social conservatism based on the cult of the past and of tradition. But did he himself believe in the existence of the souls? Did he believe in their real presence in the ceremonies and the invocations? From what emanates from his words, always prudently chosen when he concerns himself with such questions of a metaphysical order, doubt is allowable. One of many answers that he made to one of his disciples on death. He said to another who questioned him on discretion: "To fulfill the duties appertaining to man, to honor the spirits, but to hold one's distance, that could be called discretion." To honor the spirits, but to hold oneself at a distance, that is the attitude of the sage in regard to divinity.
This cult is so surrounded with the practice of different rituals that it would be idle to enumerate here. One knows, besides, that each Chinese family, rich or poor, has an altar for the ancestors which could be a magnificent place of worship, or a simple dais stand on two sawhorses. It is there that funeral tablets of all the deceased ancestors dating back five generations repose. These are the object of particular ceremonies on the days in memory of the date of their death and of all the ritual fetes of the year. The others, the remote ancestors, are represented on a communal tablet and receive worship on definite ritual days which are also numerous during the year. Two days are officially dedicated to the dead: the ninth day of the third month, the day for visiting the tomb; this day of the dead has nothing gloomy about it and takes place at one of the prettiest times of the year when:
The new grass stretching out to the vast horizon. The pear-tree branch grows white with its tender fleece... Thus it is said in the well-known poem of Kieu. To this day of the dead, called the weed-digging of the tombs, is added ordinarily a day of the living, for the idea of death, and it is something to note, has nothing gloomy about it in this country. The second day reserved for the dead is the fifteenth day of the seventh month. This is rather a Buddhist festival, dedicated to the wandering souls, to all those who died without descendents to keep their cult alive. For the greatest misfortune that could happen to a man is to see one day his cult broken, by posterity's default, and to become thus a wandering soul to whom Buddhist charity grants an impersonal and anonymous cult.
It is possible that the souls and the spirits exist; it is probable that they do not exist. One thing for certain, that is, we should honor them. Let us do it in all sincerity, without superstition and fanaticism, as we perform a ritual of high moral and social importance. This ritual, in fact, is demanded by filial piety, which in the political-moral system of Confucius, is the basic of all virtues, the foundation of family morals, and consequently of society and of the empire. Under these conditions, how is it necessary to honor the dead, and of all the dead, those which concern us most directly, our ancestors? The Book of Rites credited Confucius with this saying: "To treat the dead as dead would be inhuman. One must not do it. But to treat them as living would be foolish. One must not do it." One is not then to treat the dead as dead, that is to say to concern oneself no more with them, but to forget them, one is not to treat them as living either, and that is to believe that they really live. In fact, they do live in our memory, by the intensity of the sentiment that is called filial piety and which leads to the worship of those to whom one owes one's life and one's conscience to carry on. And to perpetuate their memory, to pass on the cult indefinitely to our descendents, giving us the illusion, a salutary illusion, of the continuity, perenniality and immortality, of this phantom existence, in this passing world.
The cult of the ancestors, which has no connection with religious faith, exerts a profound influence on the daily life of the Chinese people. The recollection of the ancestors, the fear of offending them or soiling their reputations, coupled with the desire to please them, are sources of inspiration, which guide the actions of the descendants. Even for a hardened sinner, to lack respect for the ancestors is the worst offense imaginable. Here is how the intimate thought of the master should be interpreted. Respectful of tradition and of rituals, he did not wish to explain himself fully on this subject. But such should be his thought. The cult of the dead is, in his eyes, the cult of memory, based upon filial piety and the thought of the continuity of the family and of the race. It is in this spirit that still being practiced by the majority of the Oriental world, for whom it is the main religion and takes the place of all preaching revealed or supernatural.