Wednesday, October 24, 2007

Filial Piety and Ancestor Worship -- can it (and does it need to) be sacrificed for Christ?

"A Hakka Chinese in Taiwan may know nothing at all about Christianity … may not even recognize the name of Jesus … but is almost certain to have heard the rumors that becoming a Christian means having to give up the worship of their ancestors. All in all (to them) an unthinkable act of betrayal and disgrace."

The above sentiment is a commonly held belief among many people in Taiwan, not just the Hakka. And can you blame anyone who is part of a culture that practices ancestor worship for being hesitant? As an American Christian, you may go through some opposition when you decide to become a Christian, but never is a great amount of cultural opposition experienced. Of course there are certain subcultures in America where Christianity is shunned or considered a fool's crutch, but very few of us are actually accused of committing an "unthinkable act of betrayal and disgrace." Very few of us find it necessary to give up such a huge chunk of our cultural identity, and not many of us are ostracized by our families (although I know that some are).

You may have read an earlier post of mine about my MIRL experience with two fellow Taiwan bloggers (married bloggers) by the name of Sandy and Michael. A while back they lived and worked among Hakka in Taiwan, and they shared an experience from that time with me. Of course I'm paraphrasing, but it went something like this: There was a man who had heard all about Jesus from the missionaries living in the area, and the man even acknowledged that Jesus was more powerful than any of the gods he served. However, he could not follow Jesus "because he was Hakka." According to this man, Hakkas just don't give up their identity to become a Christian. Now this begs a question -- how much is necessary to give up?

When we become Christians, we become a new creation, but does this mean that we must forfeit our cultural identity? I would say that anything contrary to God's word must be sacrificed for Christ's sake, but that which is not contrary to God's word may be preserved. However, even with the preservation of certain beautiful aspects of a culture being preserved, we must not forget that we belong to the body of Christ first and foremost.

It also cannot be ignored that certain good and bad (from the point of view of a Christian) aspects of culture are difficult to separate. Take the example of filial piety and ancestor worship. The concept of filial piety is deeply ingrained in Chinese society, and this isn't necessarily always a bad thing. From a young age, children are taught to be "filial", to put the wishes of their parents above their own. They are also taught to obey without question when they're young, and to take care of their parents in their old age. It would be nice if Westerners took some (not all) of these things to heart more, but filial piety doesn't end there. When a parent dies, the filial duties continue in the form of ancestor worship. Not every Taiwanese person actually believes 100% that these postmortem rituals make a difference, but many people have a "do it just in case it's true" sort of mentality. Many of them are afraid that if they don't worship their ancestors, the ancestors' ghosts will make their lives miserable. Who would want to risk that? Another reason why these practices are upheld is simply for the preservation of culture, family togetherness, and tradition.

But whether one believes in it 100% or 10%, practicing it is still contrary to God's word, and must not be done when one decides to become a Christian. This presents a problem. Often when a young person becomes a Christian, they experience great opposition from their parents because the parents are worried that no one will worship them when they're dead. This opposition is even more intense for only children, because then really no one will be there to worship them! This opposition is intensified even more if the only child is a male, because it is seen as the male's responsibility to "keep the family going."

I am not an expert on the matter, and everything I have written about comes from informal study, my own observation, and conversations with my students and other missionaries in Taiwan. What I have written about obviously cannot be applied to every Taiwanese person, and it would be wrong of me to tell Taiwanese people that have not yet accepted Christ to immediately cease worshiping their ancestors. Why should they when they don't yet believe that their is One who is greater? However, it must be recognized that when one becomes a Christian, they must have no other god's before Him. This is hard to swallow, because one can't help but feel a great sense of loss when one gives up a part of their cultural identity. My job is to show them why it's worth the sacrifice.


  1. Evangelicals have a pretty poor record regarding rituals in memory of the dead. Here's a silly, but perhaps helpful, analogy.

    Most people have heard that undercooked seafood brings a good possibility of food poisoning. So... what do people do when they cook it? They OVERCOOK it and it generally tastes bad and is unpleasant.

    Are Evangelicals so worried about slipping into occult practices that they go overboard the other direction by shunning nearly all forms of ritual in memory of the dead? Of course occult practices are wrong... but is the best response one where we don't allow any kind of meaningful memorials for the dead?

    This blog covers some of these issues... but only read if you don't mind being challenged. He's not always right, but he sure generates dialogue.
    Here is a recent post of interest (and I left a comment on it that might be of interest to Cahleen's readers)

    Your intro to "filial piety" and the seeming clash between "culture" and "religion" is a good one. I'd like to add the following...

    I know of several cases where a person becomes a Christian and experiences the usual backlash from family. However, since the Bible is clear about the responsibility of the Christian to their elders and their parents, the new Christian is compelled to express filial piety in EVEN MORE MEANINGFUL WAYS than by burning money, incense, etc. Instead of merely performing a ritual (meaningful though it may be), they actually become SALT and LIGHT to their parents and other family members. The parents begin to wonder... why is my supposedly "unfilial" son/daughter treating me better than my other children... even though I'm mad at them? It is not uncommon for that ENTIRE family to come to follow Jesus because the entire concept of "filial piety" is turned on its head through Christian application.

    It is also not uncommon for the family to continue to shun the Christian... but the situation I gave above needs to be shared when talking about this issue, too.

    I am of the opinion that Christ not only redeems individual people... but he redeems cultures as well. Christianity does not conflict with the concept of "filial piety" at all... but perhaps does conflict with certain expressions of it which may vary from people group to people group... all of which can be reconciled to God.

  2. I was not aware that it was so deeply ingrained. We saw the Disney movie Mulan and I saw the ancestors ghost, I just thought it was part of the movie.

    Thanks for sharing. Hurdles to become a Christian are strong, as Satan knows the outcome and does not want to go alone.

    But I believe that in every society the hurdles are perfect for the situation.

    Great of you to enlighten me even more. I appreciate the time you take, for all the blogworld to learn about a culture so different than my own.,

  3. Scott,

    Thanks for further enlightening us! Your comment includes a lot of information that people need to hear, which is why I included it in a separate post.


    It's so encouraging to see someone taking an interest in learning more about Chinese culture! I'm glad you enjoyed the post.


Note: Only a member of this blog may post a comment.