Two Century-Old Western Accounts of Ancestor Worship
Celebrating its centennial this year is Farmers of Forty Centuries: Organic Farming in China, Korea, and Japan (originally titled Farmers of Forty Centuries; Or, Permanent Agriculture in China, Korea, and Japan), a remarkably sympathetic account of the peoples of this region written by American agiculturalist Franklin Hiram King.
His book is an appreciation of "a virile race of some five hundred millions of people who have an unimpaired inheritance moving with the momentum acquired through four thousand years; a people morally and intellectually strong, mechanically capable." From "these oldest farmers in the world," the author at the outset of his tome states his desire to learn "the ways and extent to which these nations for centuries have been and are conserving and utilizing their natural resources," and to offer to the West "a full and accurate account of all those conditions which have made it possible for such dense populations to be maintained so largely upon the products of Chinese, Korean and Japanese soils."
But the author provides an account that goes far deeper than these Chinese, Korean and Japanese soils. Take, for instance, this remarkable account of the burial practices in the Orient, in which the author, in contrast to the missionaries he mentions (and who should really have known better), shows his understanding of the Confucian nature of the customs involved, and their social importance:
- The usual expense of a burial among the working people is said to be $100, Mexican, an enormous burden when the day's wage or the yearly earning of the family is considered and when there is added to this the yearly expense of ancestor worship. How such voluntary burdens are assumed by people under such circumstances is hard to understand. Missionaries assert it is fear of evil consequences in this life and of punishment and neglect in the hereafter that leads to assuming them. Is it not far more likely that such is the price these people are willing to pay for a good name among the living and because of their deep and lasting friendship for the departed? Nor does it seem at all strange that a kindly, warm-hearted people with strong filial affection should have reached, carry in their long history, a belief in one spirit of the departed which hovers about the home, one which hovers about the grave and another which wanders abroad, for surely there are associations with each of these conditions which must long and forcefully awaken memories of friends gone. If this view is possible may not such ancestral worship be an index of qualities of character strongly fixed and of the highest worth which, when improvements come that may relieve the heavy burdens now carried, will only shine more brightly and count more for right living as well as comfort?
- Ancestral worship, and a propitiation of daemons or spirits, the result of a timid and superstitious dread of the forces of Nature, are to the Korean in place of a religion. Both, I am inclined to believe, are the result of fear, the worship of ancestors being dictated far less by filial piety than by the dread that ancestral spirits may do harm to their descendants. This cult prevails from the King to the coolie. It inspires the costly splendors of the Kur-dong, as well as the spread of ancestral food in the humblest hovel on New Year's Eve.
I read Miss Bird's book more than a turn of the Chinese Zodiac when I was new to Korea, and confess to having enjoyed at the time her disdainful and disparaging tone. That was a long time ago. Like the Apostle, "When I was a child, I spoke as a child, I understood as a child, I thought as a child. But, when I became a man, I put away the things of a child." [1st Epistle Of Saint Paul To The Corinthians Chapter 13.] Like the Sage, "At age fifteen I set my heart upon learning; at thirty I took my stand; at forty I became free of doubts; at fifty I understood the Heavenly Mandate; at sixty my ear was attuned; and at seventy I could follow my heart’s desire without overstepping the bounds of propriety." [Analects of Confucius Chapter 2.] I was in my twenties then, and am in my forties now. I wish I had had the wisdom of Mr. King upon my arrival here.
[It should be noted that while this blog's namesake understood the nature of the ancestral back in the XVIth Century, it was not until "December 8, 1939, by which Chinese customs were considered superstitious no longer, but instead an honourable way of esteeming ones relatives and therefore permitted to Catholic Christians" — Pope Pius XII and China.]