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Chapter 5

The Family

At this point our attention shifts from Bǎo'ān village to the individual families that make it up. First we shall examine certain ritual manifestations of the family that are quite similar to the ritual manifestations of the village. Afterward we shall turn our attention to other aspects of supernaturalism that are unique to the family situation itself. Before we start, however, a preliminary word or two about the family is in order. There is no need to say very much on the subject.1 Most of the features involved directly with our discussion of the family's supernatural aspects are rather outside the range of normal family functioning (which is one reason they are related to the supernatural in the way they are), and they will be discussed in their appropriate places as we come to them. The most that is usefully essayed here is a brief sketch of the definition of a family and some of its characteristics that Taiwanese themselves see as most important.

Footnote 1.Such observations as I had occasion to make about Bǎo'ān families do not convince me that they differ in any marked degree from families of other rural Taiwanese described by writers in English, Chinese, and Japanese who were concentrating on family matters. For a bibliography of 262 items recently published in Táiwān, see Cài Wénhuī 1967. Of material in English, the most readily available is S. H. Chen 1956; Cohen 1967. 1968, 1969; Diamond 1969; Gallin 1960, 1963, 1966; Marsh and O'Hara 1961; Pasternak 1968; A. Wolf 1964, 1966, 1968; M. Wolf 1969, 1970; and Yang 1962.

Images Of The Family

In general a family in Táiwān is patrilineal, patriarchal, and virilocal. It includes a father and his sons, plus all the wives, unwed daughters, and unwed sisters of these. The old father is normally the family head 家長, in whose name the business of the family is transacted, and who in theory has authority over all the other members.2

Footnote 2. In most matters, decisions of family policy or action are communal efforts, with adult sons taking the principal role. The process of decision making is not complete, however, without the agreement of the family head, and this old gentleman has the authority to throw the decision any way he thinks best. One Bǎo'ān man was a local politician of great popularity. During a dispute on village road paving his father compelled him to take a stand strongly in opposition to popular opinion. This seriously endangered his political career for a time, and the loss of prestige and support this brought about took the best part of a year to recover.

Western writers have developed a number of terms to distinguish various compositions of the Chinese family unit. The terms do not represent different types of families so much as different stages in the family cycle. If the family consists merely of a man and his wife and children it is a conjugal family.3 By the time one of the sons has married and had children, the family has become a stem family. If later on a second or subsequent son is married as well, it is joint or extended. (Both terms are used.) If the old father then dies, it may come under the direction of one of the brothers. This too is joint (or fraternal joint). If it then goes on for several generations without splitting into smaller families, it turns into what the Chinese call a "large family" 大家, not because of its size —for it is not always large— but because of its complexity.

Footnote 3. In these usages, I follow Lang 1946.

The Chinese themselves have no such elaborate nomenclature. A family is "large," or it is "small." Those families that are not large (joint) are small. Nearly all Taiwanese families are, in Taiwanese eyes, small.

What is more important to the harmony of day-to-day life than the conjugality or jointness of the family is who its members are, what its resources are, and whether given these people and these resources the family is able to get on harmoniously, for normally the family lives as a unit. It maintains physical quarters that all members acknowledge to be home (expressed in Chinese by the same word as "family ). In theory, and ordinarily in fact as well, it has also a common budget, to which the incomes of individual members are contributed and from which expenses are met.4 The "farming family" is the rural land-holding unit in Táiwān today, and limits upon the amount of land that may belong to one owner apply to the family as a corporate unit. Individual property is ordinarily ill-defined within the family (although usufruct may be fairly specifically assigned). Even disaster, as we shall see shortly, is the joint property and responsibility of the family.

Footnote 4. An exception is money given to a bride in connection with her marriage. See Cohen 1968.

The social boundaries of the family are ritually set forth in terms of commensality, or, more exactly, a common stove or other cooking facilities. When a family becomes too large, or the economic contributions of individual members become so uneven as to cause interpersonal friction, or when sisters-in-law or brothers do not get on well together, the family may split into two or more families. Splitting the family 分家 is always an explicit act. It means dividing the inheritance and making each of the dividing groups of family members independent of the other groups. Ordinarily that is all. The divided families oftentimes (even usually) continue to occupy the same quarters they have been occupying, and if the house is physically adequate, several such families, each one growing gradually toward division itself, may occupy the same building, which for this reason is called (in English) a compound. In Bǎo'ān, as we have noted, there seem to be fewer families per compound than in some other areas of Táiwān, but this says nothing about splitting of families. The casualness of the split in terms of physical distance and interaction should not lead us to suppose that it is not important. It seems to provide the psychological distance necessary for many personal antagonisms to be relieved of some of their bitterness, as well as changing the economic base on which each of the resultant families is able to operate. Splitting the family is typically (probably universally) represented in China by dividing the cooking facilities. One family, one stove. We shall see below that there are other ways, too, in which the family unit is symbolized in Táiwān.

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Taiwanese have a clear and rather absolute notion of what a family ought to be. It is said that a family ought to be "round" , or complete. The imagery of roundness occurs in artistic motifs and in verses pasted to the door of the central room at New Year. It occurs in food, when festival foods made for familial occasions such as New Year are made in round shapes. These would excite no comment perhaps at other times. In the context of New Year festivity their roundness becomes one of their most important features. In conversation, too, Taiwanese speak of the family ideal as roundness.

And what is roundness? We saw earlier that the theology of the soul and its fates is closely related to the continuity of the descent line. In roundness we find the familial aspect of the same point of view. A round family is one in which the descent line is being carried on. Roundness means all men find wives, and all women have husbands to whom they bear sons. It means that children do not die, and that old people remain alive and healthy to a hoary old age. Roundness suggests a unity of the family circle, but it seems to imply as well that the family is successful in fitting to a structural ideal of flawless Chinese patriliny.

There are, of course, problems. Some women are without sons. Under classical law, failure to bear a son was grounds for divorce. Some children die before they are of age to produce offspring. They are buried unceremoniously and unmourned.5 The older generation at times does not live to great age, and their families lack the honor paid to the very old. What does one do in face of these facts of life?

Footnote 5. Sons who do not produce offspring, whatever their other virtues, are not properly fulfilling their function as children. The same world view that inspired the famous female infanticide of dynastic times decrees that in contemporary Táiwān dead children are not honored with a coffin but are buried in a rough box. Nor do their families follow this box to the grave in a wailing funeral procession of the kind that is an essential part of the funerals of others. Only their younger siblings are allowed to accompany the body to the grave, where it is interred by neighbors while a single priest recites a simple liturgy. Although the loss of a child is felt emotionally to be a tragedy, there always lingers a sense in which it is not quite respectable for it to have died without having done its duty to its elders by supporting them in their dotage and giving them a good burial and descendants to worship their spirits. Not only is the child pathetic in dying without offspring to serve its ghost. but it is unfilial, and the family that produced it is stained with the sin of its product. In the writings of Mencius (IV. i. 26) we find the oft-quoted dictum: "There are three things which are unfilial, and having no progeny is the greatest of these" 不孝有三無後為大. This line is known to virtually every Chinese, and it is so often cited that there can be no question of its importance and correctness in the Chinese mind even today.

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What nature cannot do is done by art. The death of parents does not preclude their participation in the family through their tablets. The death of a husband does not weaken his wife's claim to a position in his descent line. The failure to have children is correctable by adoption, even postmortal adoption if necessary. Social fictions compensate for fickle biology. This point is crucial, for it underlies much of the logic of what is to follow. Let us consider the question of adoption.

When a married man lacks a son, who can carry on his descent line and provide him with sacrifices after his death, a son may be adopted in any of three ways. One way is to adopt a son from another family that has more than one. When possible, arrangements are made to adopt the son of a kinsman who is favored with several. When this is not possible, negotiations may be undertaken with others which often require a cash outlay. The adopted son becomes in every respect the son of his foster father. His surname is changed to that of his foster father's line; he inherits from his foster father and not from his biological father; and his loyalties and obedience are expected to be to his foster father. Should subsequent sons be born by nature to the foster father, the adopted son is their elder brother.6

Footnote 6. I expected to find a certain amount of antagonism between such sons, because the younger knows that had his father not hastily adopted the elder he would himself have been the number-one son. I am not convinced that antagonism does not exist between such sons more often or to a greater degree than between other sons, but, on the other hand, it is by no means evident that it does. The question warrants study by someone in a position to do psychological testing of latent attitudes among Chinese brothers, for it has important implications for the degree to which a known and self-known social brother is an acceptable equivalent for a brother who is also from the same womb. And how does all this relate to the famed Chinese sworn brotherhood? Offhand I suspect that Chinese are more satisfied with social fictions than Americans, say, might be, but that is a guess.

There is another way to adopt a son, and that is to adopt the husband of one's daughter, making the adoption one of the conditions of the marriage. This man is added to his foster father's household as a son, and the children of the marriage are the lineal descendants of their mother's father, their father's father-in-law (or, if we accept the changes in status created by the adoption, of their father's father and their mother's father-and-father-in-law).7

Footnote 7. It has always seemed to me that this ought to smack of incest. In fact it does not. A man is marrying not his sister, but his wife. It just so happens that they come to share a father in the process.

There is also a third way to adopt a son. Or, more exactly, a second way and a half, for one does not end up with a son, but a grandson. An agreement is made when one marries out one's daughter that her first boy child will bear her father's surname and will have the responsibility for seeing to the sacrifices after the father's death. The existence of this possibility (and of certain variants of it) is revealing, for the fact that such an arrangement is allowable shows clearly that what is important is not a son, as such, but a descendant. The point of preoccupation is carrying on the descent line, providing descendants for all people, making all families round.

Roundness is not the only trait a family ought to possess. Roundness is a matter of structure, rather as joint-ness or stem-ness are matters of structure. And as everyone knows, content is important too. There is another word used for the content or quality of family life at any particular moment, and that is "harmonious" 平安, sometimes translated as "peaceful." The gloss is deceptive, for the Chinese word implies a good deal besides peace or harmony in any English sense. A harmonious house is one that is functioning the way a household is supposed to function. It is round, to be sure; that is almost a prerequisite for harmony. But it is more than that. No one is sick in a harmonious family. There are no financial reverses. Sons are not killed in war. There are no major accidents. Crops are not destroyed by insects, floods, or drought. There are no domestic quarrels, nor jealousy between brothers, nor friction between daughters-in-law and their mother-in-law. A family that is "inharmonious" 不平安, on the other hand, is cursed by disaster. It is a household in which family members are quarreling, or in which there are grave financial difficulties, a place where luck is generally bad or where (most commonly) there is sickness or death. Individuals, too, are harmonious or inharmonious. So are villages, or even nations. But by far the most common prayer in Táiwān is for the harmony of the family 家庭平安. The phrase is not only constantly upon the lips of the populace, but is printed on door frames, on charms, on wedding cakes, and on walls of houses. It is a prayer addressed to ancestors and gods, and a plea presented to ghosts.

The fortunes of no man are separate from those of his family. At times it seems as though even personal glory is "planned" by the individual's family. Most Bǎo'ān people with whom I discussed the matter told me that an ideal family would have three sons and two daughters. Of these sons one would be a farmer, for that is the Bǎo'ān way of life. The second would be a merchant, for in that way the family would be enriched. The third son would be a high official, perhaps even elected the governor of Táinán county or made provincial governor of Táiwān. It was not the sons who expressed such ambitions to me; rather they came up in the course of discussions about an ideal family, mostly conducted with women.

Personal misfortunes, similarly, are inseparable from the fortune of the family as a unit. Taiwanese interpret sickness of a family member as an instance of family inharmony. But it can be more than that. Repeated sickness or prolonged sickness or sickness of several members of the same family is not simply an instance of inharmony any more, not simply a personal misfortune which interrupts the harmony and smooth functioning of the home temporarily. It comes to be seen as a result of some more basic inharmony that has infected the family. This is a point that will become crucial in the matter that follows, for the symptoms of illness are now also the symptoms of something the matter with the fortunes of the family as a whole. Not only is a family inharmonious because a member is sick, but the member is sick because his family is inharmonious; that is, because in some other and more profound way his family is failing to meet the ideal, harmonious model. It is at this point that supernatural explanations become important, which we shall examine below.

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The Family Altar

Every house (not necessarily every family individually) has a family altar, which is the spatial focus of its religious activity. This stands in the central room of the house, opposite the principal door. The normal family altar consists of two parts: there is a long, high, narrow table placed against the wall and bearing the sacra of the household. This is called the "red approach table" 紅格桌, although "table for approaching the gods" would perhaps be a better translation.8 In front of it is a lower table, square on top, and cubical in general appearance. This is called a "table of the eight immortals" 八仙桌. The table of the eight immortals may be used for eating dinner, for stacking things one has been carrying, for doing schoolwork, and for a multitude of other general purposes. It is also used to hold sacrificial food during sacrifices. It is a kind of service table. The red approach table, on the other hand, is a far more sacred object, on which one does not carry out activities other than worship and does not normally store goods, and which one does not readily move about the room. When sacrifices take place outdoors for some reason, neighbors will sometimes carry their eight immortals tables outside to make temporary altars there. It would be unthinkable to move a red approach table from the house for this purpose. In English we use the term family altar for both tables. This usually does not cause confusion, but it is usually the higher one that is referred to, or the lower one only in its religious aspects.

Footnote 8. Red in China, as elsewhere, is a felicitous color, often associated with the gods.

The red approach table is divided into two zones. One of these, the area at the left, is devoted to ancestral worship; all the rest is devoted to worship of the gods. At the left rear are the ancestral tablets. In many cases a portrait of a recently deceased family member hangs on the wall above these. In Táiwān these portraits are inevitably done in black and white and convey an impression of charcoal portraiture in very stereotyped poses. The association with the dead is clear, for such portraits are made only for the dead. I find them morbid. In front of the tables is an incense pot, and often one finds here a pair of poe, which are thrown in order to communicate with the ancestors.9

Footnote 9. The distinctness of the two cults of the altar is made the more explicit by the custom that the ancestors always use a different set of divination blocks from the gods. About the only question addressed to the ancestors, however, is whether they have finished with the sacrificial food.

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Behind the center of the altar is a hanging that shows various Taiwanese gods. Presumably at one time such hangings were painted. Today they are printed, at least among farmers, and in most fashionable houses they are made of brilliantly colored glass.10 If the family owns a joss, it is placed immediately in front of this. In front of the hanging —or if there is a joss, then in front of the joss— there is an incense pot, usually similar to the pot in front of the ancestral tablets, but larger. Before this there is a small platform on which offerings can be placed. To either side of this are candles (today often electric candles) and glass vases for flowers. Often a pair of divination blocks will be found here too.

Footnote 10. These hangings (known locally as pút-chó·-chhat-á 佛祖漆仔) typically portray Guānyīn at the top, attended, and beneath her the Queen of Heaven or sometimes the Queen of Heaven and Guān Gōng. At the third and lowest level are the earth god and the kitchen god. Although this particular combination is perhaps distinctively Taiwanese, little else can be said of it. These gods do not necessarily represent the most important gods of any particular community (let alone household). The scroll seems to function primarily as a felicitous decoration. The images printed on it do not function as specific objects of worship or seats for the occupation of visiting divinities.

link to picture of family altar

On the wall beside the hanging of the gods, charms may be pasted to ward off disasters that might befall the house. At the rear of the altar, near the joss if there is one, there are often various other objects brought home from a famous temple or shrine, from a religious festival, or even from a very humble home-altar temple of some purely local god in another town who cured a disease for one of the family members. These objects (which I have found it convenient to call collectively "fetishes") are worshipped with the gods, and their presence is thought to bring harmony to the house. Flags are a usual form; so are tall, narrow tablets with a dragon pictured on them. But there are others as well.11 One of the most common fetishes in the Xīgǎng area is a papier-mâché carp sold at each triennial festival by the Xīgǎng temple.12

Footnote 11. Differences seem to depend principally upon price, and a single shrine normally has fetishes for sale at a variety of prices. Profits from the sale of these contribute to the support of the shrine and its festivals.

Footnote 12. Geomantically, the site of the Xīgǎng temple is associated with the carp, and the fish has come to represent Xīgǎng. When I left, work was in progress on the construction of an enormous concrete and glass image of a carp crowning a multistoried pavilion rising from a rear court to become the highest point of the temple roof.

At the far right end of the altar certain materials of worship are often stored, such as boxes of firecrackers or packages of incense. Sometimes one also finds certain souvenirs of family history: a glass ornament given by a friend when the house was built, or a tablet, enshrined in a glass box, commending a member of the family on his excellent public service record. When the family seldom uses the eight immortals altar for other purposes, the worship materials may equally well be stored there, and so may these items of sentimental, rather than religious, importance.

These two areas of the family altar (the left end and all the rest) represent two distinct cults. One is the cult of the gods; the other, the cult of the ancestral dead. We turn now to consider these two cults, beginning with the ancestors in this chapter and continuing with the gods in the next. Then we shall move on to a third group of supernaturals who are not represented on the altar: the ghosts, for these are in some ways the most important other-worldly folk of all.

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The Ancestors

Just as the ancestors receive far less than half of the family altar for their sacrifices, the rest being given over to worshipping the gods, so also the ancestors receive much less attention than the gods.

link to picture of ancestral tablet

In Qīng times, and occasionally in the postwar period, ancestors have been represented on individual wooden plaques, ranging in height from about fifteen to thirty centimeters or even taller, and a few centimeters wide. Some hear the name of the deceased carved on the face of the tablet, whereas others have the name written with a brush on a small indentation in the front of the tablet, and are fitted with a sliding panel that conceals the indentation from sight. So far as I know, these were interchangeable styles during the late Qīng, and the difference was a matter of budget and taste. During the Japanese period the manufacture of plaques was apparently prohibited, and in some instances tablets of this type were seized and destroyed by the authorities, although many were hidden and brought forth once more after the withdrawal of the Japanese government. In Japanese times the prevailing style, of necessity, was the Japanese ancestral shrine, a small black and gold cabinet with two doors on the front of it in which the tablets as such are small wooden slips, one for each ancestor.l3. An entire lineage can be kept in a single shrine, as the slips are simply placed one behind the other. The majority of the ancestral tablets in Bǎo'ān are still of this type, although Japanese-style shrines have all but disappeared from the market. After the war the slips of wood used during Japanese times found their way into a new style of shrine made to contain the wooden slips in a rack on the back of a squat commemorative tablet. The commemorative tablet normally stands in a wooden case with a glass front panel, and access to the slips is had by removing the glass panel and taking out the tablet rack. The slips of wood themselves are concealed from view when the rack is in its wooden case. Such an object allows for the preservation of the sacred slips of wood (which even though they were a Japanese introduction came in time to be regarded as just as valid as the old tablets apparently), while at the same time being neither "old fashioned" nor Japanese.

Footnote 13. The actual variety of tablets in Japan is apparently much greater than this. Cf. Smith 1966.

Many families have an entire collection of various different kinds of ancestral tablets and shrines, depending upon the vagaries of political control of the island at the times of various deaths in the family and upon their success at concealing the pre-Japanese tablets from the Japanese officials. In one family a duplicate slip was made for a certain ancestor in case his original plaque should be confiscated. Today both the plaque and the slip can be found on the altar. The slip is what is worshipped, but the plaque is kept because "after all that trouble to keep it away from the Japanese we are not about to throw it away!"

As objects of worship, the ancestors are not a very inspiring crew. Maurice Freedman (1966: 151) speaks of "what, in the light of comparative ethnographic evidence, appears to be the relative ineffectiveness of Chinese ancestors, their general air of benevolence, and doubtless too the lack of strong feelings of hatred or guilt toward them on the part of their descendants. " He points out that punishment by one's ancestors is rare in China. So long as they receive their sacrifices, they seem contented and beneficent, protecting their offspring with such power as is available to them from their influence with gods. Unlike ancestors in many parts of the world, Chinese ancestors are not moralistic arbiters of their descendants' behavior.

The worship of these beings is tied up with notions of memorializing the dead and providing for their continued comfort after death, as we have seen. But in China, as elsewhere, the ancestral cult inevitably becomes involved in a variety of ways with relations between and among families, compounds, and lineages.

Freeman (1958: 46 ff.) describes one kind of pattern that apparently prevailed in southeastern continental China. He distinguishes domestic ancestor worship from the worship of ancestors in ancestral halls. A tablet would normally begin its career on a domestic altar. Then, as the descendants split their families and split them again, it was moved to a common ancestral hall of greater accessibility. When in time this hall filled up with tablets —and it is tempting to speculate that human relationships were as important as lack of physical space in determining when this state was reached— a new hall would be founded by each of several different sections. Each section would take the tablets of their most recently deceased ancestors and install them in a new building, considered to be founded from the old. Freedman relates this to the foundation of these sections as intermediate segments between family and lineage, whose emergence depended upon the endowment of independent ancestral halls. He also notes a contrast between these segments on the one hand, in which benefits and responsibilities of the ancestral hall were rotated through the participating units of the segment, and the maintenance of the domestic cult on the other hand, in which a principle of primogeniture prevailed in the assignment of privileges, benefits, and obligations associated with the cult.

A contrasting relation between ancestor worship and familial functioning is described by Myron Cohen (1960). Cohen suggests that in the Hakka village he calls "Yen-liao," in Píngdōng County, Táiwān, the separate ancestral halls are unnecessary because "domestic worship is merged with that at the level of the compound. A founder of a compound, as noted above, may build a hall [i.e., a central room] and place tablets within it. Until such time as his family divides, of course, worship of this sort may be considered domestic. Thereafter, however, there is no proliferation of tablets corresponding to increasing numbers of families. In any given compound, there can be only one set of tablets, located in the cheng-t'ing" (p. 170). As families divide they may outgrow the original building complex and begin a new one. This typically contains a room that could function as a central room (Cohen's cheng-t'ing) but does not, for apparently no altar is installed in it, and worship is continued in the central room of the original compound. Many tens of years pass before independent worship is established in the new compound.

Bǎo'ān follows neither the southeastern Chinese pattern described by Freedman nor the Hakka pattern described by Cohen. In Bǎo'ān it is possible for ancestral tablets to be kept in one central room, and it is possible for them to be passed down by a principle of primogeniture. But this is only one possibility. It is equally acceptable for the tablet of an ancestor to circulate among a group of brothers, say, usually spending a year in each household.14 The house is selected by lot or by following a regular cycle of rotation.15 In other cases it is acceptable for the tablets of the parents to find their way to the most elaborate family altar and to remain there by common consent. Unlike the Hakka case (but like the circumstances described by Gallin [1966: 239] for Hsin Hsing), individual households within a compound might also have individual altars (usually shelves on one side wall of the household's principal room) on which gods that other families in the compound do not worship may be kept, and on which ancestors that are common only to themselves may be represented in tablets.16

Footnote 14. When a family divides before the death of the paterfamilias. this gentleman may or may not remain the head of one of the units. In event that he doesn't. the same options apply to the care of the parents: that is, they may be cared for by a single son and financial adjustments be made for this, or they may be circulated on a regular cycle among their children.

Footnote 15. For this reason a single collection of tablets does not necessarily account for all ascendant dead.

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There are few separate ancestral halls in Táiwān, and none in Bǎo'ān or used by the people of Bǎo'ān. One village friend of mine assured me that the Guō who migrated to Bǎo'ān from Xuéjiǎ to the north had an ancestral hall in that town. Arriving in Xuéjiǎ 學甲, I discovered that the only ancestral hall locally known was a recently built communal one serving five surnames in which generalized ancestral rites might be held, but which contained no tablets. None of these surnames was Guō. At length one old man was able to think of a connection between Xuéjiǎ and the Guō of Bǎo'ān, and he led me quite a long way to an outlying cemetery where two bone pots protruded slightly above the surface of the ground, heavily overgrown. These were graves, he said, which people from Bǎo'ān used to come and worship at the Qīngmíng 清明 festival.17 When I returned to Bǎo'ān I faced my original informant with this. He admitted then that he had in fact never seen the ancestral temple, but had heard there was one and assumed it was his. The anecdote is revealing in that were the ancestral temple a truly important institution in this area, one might expect a man over thirty to be better informed about "his own" than this!

Footnote 16. The term ancestor is a bit misleading. All of the agnatic dead may be found among the tablets. Some of these may be sons of the living household head. We shall see later that these are provided with adopted descendants in order to render them ancestral. It often happens therefore that a fairly young family may have its own ancestral plaque or two.

Footnote 17. Qīngmíng 清明, "clear and bright." is the annual festival of the cleaning of the tombs. Any standard book on Chinese festivals contains a description of Qīngmíng. Some of the most interesting are Groot 1886; Bredon and Mitrophanow 1927; and Tun 1900. For Táiwān, see Saso 1966; Nĝ 1955; Hé Liánkuí 1955; and Lín Cáiyuán 1968.

If Bǎo'ān does not make use of ancestral halls, and if the tablets are not carefully maintained in a single central room serving many families or even many compounds, what becomes of the older ancestors? The answer seems to be that they are abandoned. This becomes clearer if we distinguish two kinds of ancestor worship. One we might call individual ancestor worship. This is directed to a particular ancestor, and is usually performed on the anniversary of his death, and sometimes also on his birthday. The other kind might be called general ancestor worship. This latter type is worship to all of the tablets of the dead on one's altar. Worship of this kind occurs at the Qīngmíng festival and at certain crisis rites, such as marriages. The distinction is important, because informants assert that only certain tablets are worshipped, whereas others are not. What is meant is that only some tablets are worshipped individually. Collective worship is always addressed to all the tablets on the altar.

For those ancestors who are individually worshipped, sacrifices are provided not only by the family that maintains the tablets, but also by other, immediately related, descendant families, and there are examples of as many as eight households joining together in worshipping a great-grandfather.18 This, however, is not common. In general, those dead are honored by individual sacrifices who are remembered by the living. Thus, to take an extreme case, there are several families in which worship is directed to the father of the paterfamilias, but where his grandfather, though represented by a tablet on the same altar, is not worshipped.

Footnote 18. If distance makes attendance at such a sacrifice too difficult, one acceptable alternative is for the distant branch of the descendants to make a duplicate tablet for its own altar, where the cult undergoes a history as separate from the original tablet as would be the tablet of a totally different ancestor.

There is reason to suppose that this situation of more tablets than sacrifices is very widespread. Some families allowed me to examine their ancestral tablets, and some did not.19 Many who would not allow the tablets to be examined recited the information that would be found on them. However, when a few families both recited the information and allowed me to examine the tablets, there were in nearly every case more names on the tablets than had been remembered, and there is no reason to suppose that the same trend would not continue if one could examine all the tablets in the village and interview all the worshipping families.

Footnote 19. Except for the style of individual plaques on which the name is carved on the outside, it is impossible to examine the tablets without moving them. and moving them is potentially disturbing to the spirits, in some minds, and a breach of etiquette toward them to almost all minds.

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Some families, more enthusiastic about worship than others, honor a great many of the dead with individual death-anniversary rites. But oftentimes they do not know whom they are worshipping. Pasted to the wall in the vicinity of the altar one often finds a piece of red paper with a series of dates marked on it. These are dates of death of ancestors represented by such of the tablets on the altar as are individually worshipped. They are therefore the dates when sacrificial food must be prepared and laid out on a table before the ancestral shrine. The names of the ghostly recipients are irrelevant to the performance of this duty, and need not be recorded.

There seems to be no explicit principle by which a tablet is declared at a certain time to become void. Rather it degenerates into irrelevance as the family members who knew the deceased become fewer or vanish, as memory dims, and as the decision to conduct worship is put into the hands of family members with less interest in ancestral worship as a formal religious expression. Thus in one household the family altar contains tablets for the parents of the household head, worshipped with great regularity; but there are also some older tablets of ancestors who died in 1887 and 1867. Their names and kinship relationship are no longer known (although the names are written on the tablets and are therefore recoverable information), and the family "worship them on their death anniversaries, unless we forget; and then we don't."

In Bǎo'ān, it seems, one finds little or nothing of the use of ancestors to distinguish segmenting clans, as Freedman has described for Fújiàn and Kuǎngdōng. Their worship seems to be purely commemorative of their individual persons, and when they are forgotten as individuals by the household head and other older people, they tend to lapse into oblivion. There are traces left of the ideology that dictates one must worship a line in perpetuity, as we shall see, but these feelings ordinarily do not seem strong. It was never with a sense of shame or reluctance, it seemed, that people told me they no longer worshipped old So-and-so; it was merely a statement of fact. And for those who do carry on individual worship for a larger number of ancestors or a larger number of generations, it is mechanically done by the women of the household with reference to a chart showing only the dates for the rites.

One group of five sons held the most elaborate funeral Bǎo'ān had seen within memory for their elderly father after his death. The many ancestors recorded on their tablets attended many of the funeral rites in the form of small paper statues. But at the end of the funeral the ancestral tablets (like the paper statues) were burned, and no record was kept of their names. The old father was now the founding ancestor, and all that was recorded of the previous history of the family was the number of generations represented by the plaques burned. This act was considered odd by most village people, and no one was able to explain it to me, but nobody seemed upset by it. Apparently the older plaques were simply irrelevant, and were done away with.

This decreased emphasis on the ancestral cult (if indeed there ever was much emphasis on it among Taiwanese20) does not imply a decreased interest in the dead. On the contrary the immediate family dead are folk of great importance, as we shall see. Nor does the fact that ancestors in time lose their individual worship negate their requirement for worship in earlier years. On the other hand, reasons are easily adduced why worship need not be perpetual. One village informant suggested that older tablets did not require worship because the people whom they represented had already been reincarnated. Elliott (1955) cites a case in which a séance revealed the recently dead to be waiting briefly while his application for reincarnation cleared through a tangle of celestial red tape.

Footnote 20. We recall that Freedman associates the ancestral cult with corporate lineages, and that this kind of lineage structure was apparently lacking in Táiwān from the beginning. If we find both of these arguments convincing. it is not difficult to see why the ancestral cult should receive little attention in Táiwān, and we would predict that this has always been the case.

There are constructs, in other words, which provide reasons, if reasons are necessary, for the dead to stop needing their tablets. The morality of filial subservience and the theology of feeding the manes may provide an ideology for maintaining ancestral worship where it is also utilized by the living in the segmentation of clans or otherwise. But other doctrines such as reincarnation or deification of the dead (which we shall discuss below) allow these principles to be laid aside after a time in Bǎo'ān and probably among Taiwanese generally, where principles of clan organization and segmentation do not seem to function as they do on the mainland.


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