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Ancestor Worship and Identity: Ritual, Interpretation, and Social Normalization in the Malaysian Chinese Community.

Ancestor worship has historically been one of the central institutions of Chinese society regardless of temporal and geographic boundaries. As such, ancestor worship has been a popular and fruitful area of investigation for social scientists attempting to gain a greater insight into the nature of Chinese culture and society in both the mainland and Taiwan (Yang 1967, pp. 29-31; Freedman 1979; Jordan 1972; Wolf 1974; Zito 1977, p. 200). Although ancestor worship is also a common form of ritual activity found amongst ethnic Chinese in Malaysia, it (along with other aspects of the folk religious system) is a somewhat neglected area of research. Moreover, it is often regarded as a simple continuation of the Chinese system outside the geographical boundaries of China.

This paper will examine the institution of ancestor worship amongst ethnic Chinese Malaysians, briefly outlining the nature of the Chinese religious system from which it derives, investigating how the various practices associated with ancestor worship integrate into the diversity of religious systems found amongst ethnic Chinese Malaysians, and the role this institution plays in social relations. In particular, the focus will be on the relationship between the ritual practice of ancestor worship and a key feature of Malaysian Chinese identity, ethnicity, throwing some light onto the way in which social identity and interpersonal relations at several levels are created and expressed through the complex cluster of symbolic meanings which is ancestor worship.

Ancestor Worship as Ritual in the Classical Chinese Setting

In order to examine the practice of ancestor worship in Malaysia it is important to first approach this institution as a form of ritual activity, and one which is firmly embedded in Chinese culture and which therefore reflects some of the unique characteristics of this cultural system. While ancestor worship can be seen as displaying a variety of social and ideological meanings, it is primarily a form of ritual activity which displays the fundamental characteristics of ritualized action (Humphrey and Laidlaw 1994). As with all ritualized action, ritual associated with ancestor worship is a form of "non-intentional" activity (that is, its identity as "ancestor worship" is not dependent on the intentions of the actors who carry it out but rather on the activity itself) whose performance is stipulated by an ontology defined by a set of constitutive rules and which is seen as a discrete separate entity independent of actors with its own particular nomenclature and history (ibid., pp. 88-90). When individuals participate in the ritualized activity of ancestor worship, they are carrying out an activity readily identified as "ancestor worship" (zuxian chongbai, bai zuxian), regardless of their personal motivations underlying this action. It is a form of activity which should be carried out in accordance with a set of widely recognized social norms and which is regarded as a distinct discrete "entity", a category of action which exists independently of its individual practitioners.

Ancestor worship also displays another fundamental characteristic of ritualized action in that as a non-intentional, "pre-defined" rule-based independent entity, it is "external" to the actors who carry it out, having no implicit meaning or significance and is thus "always available for further re-assimilation to the actors' intentions, attitudes and beliefs" (ibid., p. 89). The ritual is in itself without meaning, with no implicit message or discourse to impress upon either practitioners or observers. However, this lack of meaning allows, perhaps even compels both individual practitioners and wider social organizations to give their own significance to the action, to interpret it within their own implicit or explicit system of meaning (ibid., pp. 81, 181).(1)

This last point is crucial for an understanding of the social significance of ancestor worship within the historical context of Chinese culture. It is through the ascription of meaning to this activity that ancestor worship has transcended the individual nature of the action and come to play a central role in many aspects of Chinese social life. Indeed ancestor worship, along with a large range of other ritual, has been given meaning by and integrated into virtually all of the ideological, primarily religious systems which have existed in China, and also into the fragmentary pragmatic folk system of meaning which has permeated the lives of the common people. However, historically the focus of this ritual has been placed squarely on its performance rather than upon the meanings ascribed to it.(2) In this way, ritual has come to play an important mediating role in the complex relationship between the various organized ideological traditions and the fragmentary folk system of religious activity in Chinese society (Paper 1995, pp. 23-25; Shahar and Weller 1996, pp. 1-3).

Ritual in Chinese culture is usually equated with the term li, a term normally associated with and of central concern to Confucian scholars who regarded it as an essential element in the subjectification and creation of power relations between individuals in the formation of an idealized social order (Zito 1994, pp. 104-6; 1997, pp. 57-60). The ritual actions associated with li, however, were not necessarily derived from Confucian thought and, in society at large, were not limited in interpretation to that given to it by the literati dike. Li as ritual action can be seen as a system of "thick symbols", with a variety of possible interpretations and meanings (Weller 1994). This diversity of interpretations can to a large extent coexist with a minimum of friction as primacy is given to the performance of ritual activity rather than the meaning of this ritual. Since the meaning is seldom if ever explicitly defined, the ritual activity allows considerable latitude in personal interpretation while achieving a high degree of social normalization through common participation. Hence, organized religious traditions, with strong explicit ideological systems of belief, interweave with a more pragmatic system of ritual activity in which the question of meaning is not explicitly

addressed, and thus allowing participation in common ritual action while ascribing different symbolic meaning to this ritual (Weller 1987, pp. 8-11).

Symbolic meaning is then "up for grabs", open to interpretation by individuals, religious groups or other ideological traditions who frequently attempt to impose their own "thin" orthodox interpretation on the existing ritual complex or introduce new ideological religious symbols unique to their ideological system (ibid., pp. 44-147). However, in the absence of the necessary jural authority to impose their meaning on the populace at large, ideological religious traditions in China have historically failed to achieve more than add new possible interpretations to existing ritual activity or new forms of ritual activity, which are integrated into the mainstream Chinese religious complex through (often radical) reinterpretation by other ideological systems and the pragmatic concerns of the common people (ibid., pp. 165-66; Yang 1967, p. 125).

Ancestor worship is an excellent example of an element of this ritual system, thick with possible symbolic significance provided by a variety of ideological systems while at the same time practised at a pragmatic level by the general population whose fragmentary and often nonexplicit personal interpretations are united through the practice of common ritual. Believers with a high degree of faith and knowledge of a particular ideological system may take part in ritual activity side by side with believers of other ideological systems and with the majority whose understanding of the ritual is fragmentary, highly personal and not explicitly formulated with little or no conflict, allowing ancestor worship to serve as a focus for social integration, group formation, and political conflict across ideological boundaries.

Consisting of various cyclical and crisis point rituals at two principle foci, the grave and the wooden spirit tablet,(3) ancestor worship has been integrated into and ascribed meaning within the eschatological systems of the major ideological traditions found in Chinese society, coexisting with beliefs concerning various forms of "other world" existence after death and rebirth in an often contradictory mishmash of symbols (Jordan 1972, pp. 31-32). Buddhism, Daoism, Confucianism, along with the initially successful overtures by Christian Jesuit missionaries, all managed to integrate ancestor worship within their particular ideological systems of belief by ascribing to it a variety of interpretations, both "religious" and "non-religious" consistent with these systems (Yang 1967, pp. 125-26). In ancestor worship, as with many other aspects of Chinese religion, meaning takes second place to participation; ideological traditions are free to give any religious or non-religious interpretation to the ritual they choose, the majority of the populace may make no explicit interpretation or may do so in a fragmentary and pragmatic manner with no overall consistent "rational" system of belief. All may (and indeed must) participate in the ritual and through it weave themselves into the fabric of Chinese society.

In this way, the ritual activity of ancestor worship came to take on a great deal of significance as a practice central to a variety of social organizations and ideological systems including the family (jia), the lineage group (zongzu) (Freedman 1958, pp. 81-95; 1966, pp. 139-54), state-sponsored Confucianism and its attendant ritual and regulations (Zito 1997, p. 200), and a variety- of organized religious systems which have historically existed within Chinese society. In this context, it has played an important role in the reproduction of social order, the creation and maintenance of power relations at a variety of levels, and the debate and conflict associated with these processes.(4) While it has taken on a spectrum of different meanings reflecting the diversity of ideological systems historically found in China as well as the existence of a body of non-explicitly interpreted meanings connected to the everyday lives of the common people, ancestor worship has also helped to reconcile these differences by achieving a degree of social normalization through common participation in ritual action, regardless of the interpretation given to this action.(5)

Ancestor Worship in Malaysia

Among ethnic Chinese in Malaysia we find much of the familiar ritual activity associated with ancestor worship. The physical objects which play a central role in the ritual, the grave and spirit tablet, are common and while displaying a great variety of forms this variation does not seem beyond the limits of variation found within China itself. Likewise, the occasion and form of ancestor worship corresponds roughly to that found within China, consisting of offerings of incense, food, drink, spirit money, and paper representations of consumer products conducted on calendric festivals such as Chunjie, Qingmingjie, or Zhongyuanjie, and crisis points such as the death day anniversary (jieri) of particular ancestors, the marriage of women into the family, and the birth of children. This is perhaps typical of many features of Malaysian Chinese culture, reflecting the historical process through which the Malaysian Chinese community developed. Established through mass adult migration in a comparatively short period of time under the auspices of a British colonial government with a deliberate policy of keeping contact between the various ethnic groups within the country to a minimum, many of the features of Malaysian Chinese culture display a strong continuity with their Chinese origins (Lee and Ackerman 1988, p. 126). This continuity is, however, somewhat superficial in many important respects. While the form and content of ancestor worship in Malaysia is essentially similar to that found in nineteenth century southern rural China, it differs radically in one of the most crucial aspect of this phenomenon; its significance within the cultural context in which it is found.

The Malaysian Chinese community exists within a society radically different from that of rural southern China from which their immigrant ancestors originated. In terms of ideological tradition, many key systems, in particular the state-sanctioned Confucian tradition and much of the organized Daoist religious traditions, are and have historically been absent. Islam, a minority religion of marginal social significance among the ethnic Han of southern China is the dominant religion of the country, constitutionally defined as the official religion. It is an important symbolic wellspring of political authority and one of the central elements of the majority Malay culture. In addition, there are a large number of other ideological traditions such as Christianity, Buddhist movements of the non-Chinese Theravada, Tibetan or Japanese orientations, new Chinese religion of Chinese, Malaysian, or Taiwanese origins, and secular Western materialism amongst others, all offering significantly different rational systems of meaning not found in nineteenth century China. Malaysian Chinese are an ethnic minority engaged in a complex relationship with other ethnic groups within Malaysian society, in particular the majority Malay. Fully integrated into a modern economy with a large urban population, the social context in which Malaysian Chinese culture exists differs radically from that of their ancestors, who were mainly subsistence farmers in an ethnic Han-dominated rural China. All of these factors cannot help but have a major impact on the nature of Malaysian Chinese culture. While ancestor worship remains an important feature of this culture, the symbolic meanings attached to it and role its practice plays in social relations is accordingly of a different order to that which it plays in mainland Chinese culture.

Data for this paper was first gathered during fieldwork in the city of Ipoh, originally over a four-month period in 1995-96 as part of research for a Masters degree thesis specifically focusing on the ritual of ancestor worship. Supplemental data was later gathered during more extensive fieldwork as part of research for a doctoral thesis which aims at a more general investigation of ritual, religion, and identity of ethnic Chinese in Malaysia. Research was carried out within the framework provided by a participant-observation methodology. Data was gathered through interviews carried out through daily interaction with ethnic Chinese, along with more formal series of interviews with individuals identified as key informants. Informants were taken from as wide an economic and social background as possible including the urban working class, professional and business-based middle-class, and readily identifiable sub-communities such as inhabitants of "new villages" which have become integrated into the Ipoh urban area. A particular emphasis was placed upon gathering data from non-religious professionals in addition to interviews with such professionals in order to try to gain some comprehension of the global role of ritual and religion in the lives of a wide cross-section of Malaysian Chinese in a modern urban environment.

Ancestor Worship as Pragmatic Religious Practice

A large majority ethnic Chinese in Ipoh will on occasion participate in ritual practices associated with what may be called ancestor worship, though with greatly differing degrees of dedication and enthusiasm. For those Malaysian Chinese who do not identify themselves strongly with any particular religion, these practices are not generally associated with any particular ideological religious system. Indeed, many informants are acutely aware of the difference in nature of ancestor worship (and as well as other "pragmatic" folk religious practices) and more formal, organized religions. The historical lack of any single conceptual category corresponding to the English term "religion" in Chinese culture is well documented by Paper (1995, pp. 2-4), amongst others. The term zongjiao, which is commonly used in the translation of this concept in Chinese is strongly associated with organized religious systems, that is, Weber's "rational" or Weller's "ideological" religion rather than systems of "traditional" or "pragmatic" religious practice (Weber 1987, pp. 8-11). The significance attached to the concept of zongjiao leaves the status of "pragmatic" religious practices such as ancestor worship highly ambiguous to many Malaysian Chinese. Many ethnic Chinese informants were uncertain or at least highly sceptical that ancestor worship was in any way part of zongjiao or that its practice constituted "religious" activity. Ancestor worship, I was told, was simply "worship" (baishen), a "custom" (xiguan), or "just something we Chinese (huaren) like to do", as well as "I don't know what it is, I just do it", or words to that effect. Some regard it as a "Buddhist" practice, with Buddhism here having more to do with a catch-all category for elements of Chinese religion not easily assigned a role in any particular religious system than a ritual activity grounded in the rational whole of Buddhist orthodoxy.(6) Exactly to what sphere of social activity ritual associated with ancestor worship belongs is uncertain and varies considerably from individual to individual, with many informants displaying a lack of any clear conceptual category into which to ascribe this activity, and a lack of any concern that this should be the case. There is, however, widespread uncertainty that it is "religious" or exclusively associated with any particular "religion".

While ancestor worship is not seen as being part of any religious system, it is often associated with beliefs which a Western observer such as myself has little problem regarding as religious. Again, these beliefs seemed to vary greatly, being largely shaped by individual interpretation and reflecting the social background of the individual. Informants who described themselves as non-religious, not an active member of any particular religion, shared some basic ideas about the meaning of ancestor worship, while exhibiting a high degree of personal difference and a great deal of vagueness and uncertainty about the precise purpose of the ritual. The soul or spirit (linghun) of the ancestors (either particular individual ancestors or all of the ancestors in general) inhabits or may manifest within the wooden spirit tablet or the grave. Through the activity of "worship" (chongbas) descendants were able to pay their respects to the ancestor(s), in the same way they might do for an elderly family member. The burning of incense, offerings of food, spirit money, and paper goods, which constitutes "worship" may impart some positive influence on the existence of the ancestor (that is, provide them with the equivalent of food, money, and goods in the other world), though informants were divided over this, as they were over whether descendants received any positive influence from carrying out worship. When questioned about the veracity or their personal commitment to these beliefs, most informants displayed a high degree of uncertainty or even scepticism. "I don't know", "nobody knows", or "no human being can really know" were all common answers. Many displayed a marked indifference to the system of belief underlying the ritual and its veracity "I don't really think about it, I just do it" was a typical response.

Details of these beliefs were extremely sketchy. It is apparent that this is not an aspect of ancestor worship that is usually attempted to be explicitly located within a set consistent rational religious thought, but rather the focus is upon the performance of the ritual. Many Chinese are at a loss to explain in words the meaning of ritual even though they believe the ritual action to be of great importance. It is not the case that such action is empty, devoid of meaning for them. Rather, meaning is grasped intuitively from the symbolic meaning ascribed to the ritual, and it is generally not necessary to even try to express such meaning in words. Ritual is fairly standardized; belief is extremely diverse even among members of the same household taking part in the same ritual. This is not to say that there is no system of thought underlying ancestor worship; the rituals readily lend themselves to certain interpretations and there are definite patterns among the diversity of beliefs. Beliefs are diverse within boundaries set by ritual and the wider cultural system and the social background of the individual within this system. The focus of ancestor worship lies on its practice rather than on any explicitly articulated belief system underlying this practice. Indeed, to many participants, faith in a set of beliefs underlying the ritual is seldom explicitly considered. When I asked one informant whether she truly believed in the meaning of ancestor worship she had just spent half-an-hour explaining to me with great authority, she was somewhat taken aback and remarked, "I really can't tell you if I actually believe in it or not, because this is the first time I've ever even thought about whether I believe it or not". The focus is upon ritual action rather than faith in any particular ideological system, with belief taking second place to participation.

Ancestor Worship and Ideological Religious Traditions

While the majority of Malaysian Chinese I talked to do not regard themselves as particularly "religious", that is, dedicated members of any particular religion, there are many organized religious traditions active within Ipoh which have achieved a significant following among the ethnic Chinese community. Indeed, there has been a notable expansion of organizations based on such traditions in terms of number and following over the last decade. These "ideological" religions are typified by an explicit rational (that is, internally consistent) system of beliefs which both create and inform participants' perceptions of the world. While ritual practice of ancestor worship is associated with no single one of these religious traditions, many religious organizations in the city have at least found a way to tolerate aspects of the ritual, interpreted in a way that makes it compatible with their own particular system of belief. These specific interpretations may restrict, and often severely restrict the participation of members in central aspects of the ritual system allowing them to take part only in peripheral aspects of ancestor worship. Furthermore, there are some religious systems, notably some forms of Christianity and Islam in general, which do not allow any form of ritual practice associated with ancestor worship. Still, for a large percentage of the more religiously inclined ethnic Chinese, it is possible to participate in some way in the ritual.

Mainstream Buddhism in Malaysia, deriving from the standard Chinese Mahayana tradition, has a long history of interrelation with a variety of essentially non-Buddhist folk practice including ancestor worship. Conflict may exist between Buddhist cosmology with its concept of reincarnation, a variety of heavens and hells into which the dead may be reborn and the ultimate escape of nirvana and folk beliefs surrounding ancestor worship, which may place spirits of the dead in the grave or spirit tablet. Such conflict is seldom attempted to be resolved by the laity whose knowledge of orthodox Buddhist thought is often very basic, and is tolerated by much of the priesthood as being a popular and harmless if not exactly "proper" form of religious practice, or as acceptable under the doctrine of "skilful means" (fangbian), emphasizing its usefulness in prompting thought over the transitory (and fundamentally illusional) nature of human existence. Among other non-Chinese forms of Buddhism found in Malaysia and popular among ethnic Chinese ancestor worship can be ascribed a variety of meanings in order to make it acceptable within the particular system of thought underlying each sect. While some attempted to restrain or control some aspects of ancestor worship (for example, the prohibition of non-vegetarian food offerings at memorial halls run by Mahayana Buddhist temples), few that I encountered attempted to forbid the practice outright, and indeed many Buddhist organizations gain a great deal of income providing religious services which the laity often interprets as being associated with ancestor worship, though this is an interpretation which the Buddhist professionals involved do not necessarily share (for example, memorial halls, services for the dead, and chaodu ceremonies during Zhongyuan jie).

With the recent growth in interest in Buddhism as an ideological religion which has occurred in Ipoh and many other areas of Malaysia (Lee and Ackerman 1997, pp. 57, 61; Nagata 1995 b), a great deal of debate has occurred over the legitimacy of such involvement in ancestor worship, as well as other forms of "cultural practices" (or "superstitions" to their detractors) which play a role in the various forms of Buddhism in Malaysia (Nagata 1995b, pp. 330-33). Indeed, some Buddhist professionals and laity have gone as far as to assert that ritual practice associated with ancestor worship, as well as a host of other rituals and beliefs of non-Buddhist origin but commonly found in various forms of the religion, are totally illegitimate and should be in no way tolerated by Buddhism. Such views, and indeed the debate of which they are a part, are, however, restricted to an extremely small religious elite and have little impact on the vast majority of Buddhists, both in the laity and the priesthood and are certainly not well known in ethnic Chinese society in general where ritual associated with ancestor worship is often regarded as "Buddhist" in nature.

Christianity, as a strictly monotheistic tradition with a strong explicit orthodoxy regarding the nature of human existence after death, also generally exhibits a great deal of ambivalence over the ritual practices associated with ancestor worship. Both the more conservative Christian sects which have been active in Malaysia since the colonial period and the more recent Pentecostal/Charismatic revival movements have managed to gather a small but significant following amongst Malaysian Chinese (Lee and Ackerman 1997, pp. 125-30). While all forms of Christianity in Malaysia take a generally negative view of the more overtly religious aspects of ancestor worship and the vast majority of Christian Chinese would be extremely reluctant to take part in them, many Christians do participate in the more religiously ambiguous forms of ritual, particularly those not associated with any other organized religious system or institution. This is achieved by interpreting the practice as being "cultural" rather than "religious" in nature, simply a Chinese way of memorializing the dead, devoid of any religious significance and thus conflicting in no way with standard Christian belief. I met several Christian informants who participated in ritual associated with ancestor worship and who insisted that it was not "religious" activity in any form, being simply a method of remembering the dead and analogous to the practice of placing flowers on the grave common among Western Christians. Ancestor worship is made compatible with orthodox Christian belief by explicitly stripping it of any religious significance, making it a purely secular ritual of remembrance of the dead for ethnic Chinese Christians, by explicitly assigning it to the category of "cultural" rather than "religious" behaviour. This echoes Nagata's findings concerning Malaysian Chinese Christians and ancestor worship (Ngata 1995a, pp. 185-87). Such Christians, as with more orthodox Buddhists, may place proscriptions on some aspects of ancestor worship that clash violently with their interpretations of the ritual, which prevents their participation in many of the key rituals of ancestor worship. But as with orthodox Buddhists they still engage in some aspects of the ritual practice, and do so in a way that is acceptable to the wider Chinese community.

While many Christians and Christian religious organizations are able to tolerate ancestor worship in this fashion, there are also Christians who reject the practice outright and refuse to have anything to do with it. This is particularly true of the large numbers of evangelical/charismatic Christian sects, which have experienced rapid growth in Malaysia in the past few decades. Far from tolerating the practice as "cultural", or even dismissing it (as mainstream churches are wont to do) as "superstition", such sects and their followers often characterize ancestor worship along with much other Chinese rituals as "devil worship". As such, no form of tolerance or accommodation of the practice is afforded by believers, who reject it outright. Thus Christianity and its followers in general can be seen as having an ambivalent attitude towards ancestor worship with attitudes ranging from active participation to outright rejection. For the non-Christian majority this ambivalence has led to a perception of no particular policy on the part of Christianity towards ancestor worship, with attacks on the practice frequently ascribed to the "narrow-mindedness" or "prejudices" of particular Christians, rather than as being a consequence of the fundamental nature of Christianity itself.

Of the many smaller ideological religions found in Malaysia which have emerged from the pragmatic folk religious complex, few have any difficulty in incorporating ancestor worship into their system of beliefs. They are generally based on a specific "thin" interpretation of folk religious practice of which ancestor worship is a central element. Thus there is seldom any conflict with the practice of ancestor worship and the beliefs of the religion, though they may assign ancestor worship a distinct orthodox interpretation which believers are expected to accept. Even if they are inclined to prohibit the practice, the intense competition for believers such religious groups experience, coupled with the popularity of the practice with most Chinese, would make prohibition quite self-destructive.

Thus we can see that although the practice of ancestor worship has many meanings and is given many widely differing interpretations by ethnic Chinese in Ipoh, through this variety of interpretations it is made widely acceptable to a large majority of Malaysian Chinese regardless of their affiliation to any particular ideological system of belief or lack thereof. As the focus of ancestor worship is placed squarely on its practice, with the precise meaning underlying this practice seldom if ever made explicit, the ritual observances of ancestor worship can be seen to transcend the divisions along religious lines within the ethnic Chinese community achieving a high degree of social integration through common participation in ritual.

This is not to say that the marked difference in interpretation given to the ritual is insignificant; different meanings ascribed to ancestor worship by its practitioners undoubtedly reflect fundamentally different world-views associated with highly sociologically significant divisions within the Malaysian Chinese community. However, these differences are at one level normalized into a fundamental social unity through the practice of ancestor worship. An act of devotion to the immanent spirits of the dead ancestors, a ceremony which helps focus human concerns above the illusionary nature of this world, an act of remembrance devoid of religious significance, something people like to do or feel they should do without ever considering precisely what it means. Ancestor worship may mean any of these things to its practitioners. But the fact that in some way it is participated in by virtually all regardless of interpretation and that these differences of interpretation are left unstated allows ancestor worship to function as an institution through which individuals and groups of individuals across the majority of the ethnic Chinese community may relate to one another regardless of religious division. An important exception to this is Islam. Islam provides no "acceptable" interpretation of these practices and it is considered completely unacceptable for ethnic Chinese converts to Islam to participate in any ritual activity associated with ancestor worship (Ngata 1979, p. 197), a prohibition that most Chinese themselves are aware of and perceive as a consequence of the fundamental nature of the Islamic religion. While this prohibition may be related to the nature of Islam in itself, I would suggest it is largely a consequence of one of the fundamental social roles played by the institution of ancestor worship in Malaysia connected with social identity within this context and its relation to that played by Islam, a function I shall examine below.

Practice, Interpretation, and Ethnicity

As we can see, ancestor worship amongst ethnic Chinese in Malaysia shares some important similarities with the institution found in China itself, as well as important differences. As is the case in China and Taiwan, ancestor worship focuses primarily on the ritual action involved whose symbolic meaning is extremely "thick", that is, there are a large number of different possible interpretations for the same ritual. As in the Chinese case, little attempt is generally made to highlight or resolve the conflict between these different interpretations and ritual is rarely explicitly interpreted as possessing a single unambiguous meaning by its participants. This allows ritual associated with ancestor worship to be participated in to some extent by most of the ethnic Chinese community regardless of commitment to any particular ideological system of belief and plays an important role in social normalization transcending the social divisions between the followers of differing ideological systems. However, the number and nature of thesee ideological systems is quit different from those found in China itself. The interpretations given by particular ideological systems may differ markedly from any found traditionally in China, indicating distinctly different world-views posed by adherents to these traditions, and there seems to be a greater trend towards less "religious" ancestral spirit-based pragmatic interpretations and more secular memorialization interpretations, though this is somewhat hard to quantify.

More importantly, the social normalization function of ancestor worship, which transcends these divisions, is of a completely different order from that found in the mainland or Taiwan, related to aspects of social identity absent or of marginal significance in these societies. In particular, I would like to suggest that ancestor worship plays an important role in the creation and expression of ethnic Chinese identity in Malaysia, a crucial aspect of social identity in Malaysian society but largely irrelevant in the Han-dominated areas of Taiwan and southern China.

In the complex multi-ethnic society of Malaysia, ethnicity is a crucial dimension of social identity, permeating most aspects of public and private life within the nation. During my research in Malaysia, I found that ancestor worship played an important role in the creation and expression of ethnic Chinese identity in relation to other ethnic groups within Malaysian society, in particular the majority Malay. In contrast with Malay ethnicity, the terms and requirements of which are clearly set out in the nation's constitution (Andaya and Andaya 1984, p. 302), Chinese ethnicity is somewhat nebulous, vaguely defined in relation to particular cultural features. Instead, Chinese ethnicity is considered primarily a function of descent and thus, for many observers, beyond the realm of culture. However, it is important to realize that Chinese ethnicity is not predicated merely on the physical fact of an appropriate (normally patrilineal) descent relationship but rather upon the ascription of cultural significance to this relationship within the system of ethnic identification found within Malaysian society. Neither Malay nor Chinese ethnicity is dependent on the presence or lack of any genetically transmitted physical characteristic; there is no obvious physiological evidence of Chinese descent used as a criteria for the ascription of Chinese ethnicity to the individual. Instead, a particular form of descent relationship is ascribed significance within the Malaysian cultural system as a criterion for Chinese ethnicity and the somewhat nebulous "Chinese" way of being this implies for the individual. The ritual practice of ancestor worship plays a key role in this ascription, defining a particularly socially significant form of descent relationship within the structure of ethnic relations and hence the differentiation of ethnic Chinese from other ethnic groups. At the same time, it acts as a key mechanism in the ongoing process of structuration, the creation of this ephemeral social structure through social action, what Giddens refers to as "the recursive mobilization of knowledge" within a given cultural system which gives temporal continuity to this structure.(7)

Ancestor worship, whatever meaning it is given by its practitioners, involves the celebration of some form of relationship between the living and a particular group of their dead ascendants, typically males from whom they are directly descended and the wives of these males. For ethnic Chinese in Malaysia neither "descendant" (zicun) nor "ancestor" (zuxian) is a status which either the living or the dead achieve in any objective, isolated way. Rather it is a function of the relationship between the living and the dead. One person's ancestors are not "ancestors" to another, and the dead without descendants are ancestors to no one. By the same token, a living individual without ancestors (or whose ascendants are not celebrated as ancestors) is not a descendant of anyone, lacking the appropriate relationship with their dead ascendants which would define them as such. The ritual practice of ancestor worship is generative of the relationship between descendants and ancestors, socially defining a particular group of a practitioner's dead ascendants as his or her "ancestors". In this way ancestor worship serves to create a public relationship between the living and the dead, define the individual practitioner as a descendant of a particular group of dead individuals, "the ancestors" within the Malaysian Chinese cultural context. By participating in the ritual observance of ancestor worship, individuals are defining a relationship between themselves and a group of dead ascendants which makes them zicun or descendants of ancestors (zuxian) originating in China and thus defining themselves as huaren or ethnic Chinese in Malaysian society. It is this cultural definition which underlies the rules ascribing Chinese ethnicity within the structure of the institution of ethnicity in Malaysia.

A descent relation in itself is not sufficient to achieve Chinese ethnicity; the descendants of Chinese who have assimilated to Malay ethnicity may or may not be aware of the Chinese element of their origins, but by failing to assert the descent relationship which would define them as zicun of Chinese zuxian through the ritual practice of ancestor worship they are not regarded as ethnic Chinese within Malaysian society. By the same token the exact details of this descent relation are not required to make someone "Chinese". Many ethnic Chinese in Malaysia, particular the Baba and Peranakan subgroups have little or no record of their genealogy and are ignorant of the personal details of their Chinese-born ascendants. However, simply by commemorating their more recently deceased relatives as ancestors and asserting a Chinese origin to the family to which these ancestors and themselves are a part, they are able to define themselves as ethnic Chinese within Malaysian society.

This is probably a significant factor in the lack of an acceptable interpretation of ancestor worship by Islam. In Malaysia, Islam is seen as a central aspect of the Malay identity, an identity that exists within a system of ethnic differentiation with other groups in Malaysian society, in particular with ethnic Chinese (Lee and Ackerman 1997, p. 28). By converting to Islam, ethnic Chinese are widely regarded as ipso facto attempting to abandon an ethnic Chinese identity and assimilating to a Malay identity under the customary rule of masuk Islam, masuk Melayu (Ngata 1979, p. 46). While the degree of success converts achieve at becoming an accepted part of Malay society varies widely with their own personal circumstances, by their conversion to Islam they effectively marginalize themselves or exclude themselves entirely from the Chinese community (The 1993, pp. 87-88). "Chinese" and "Malay" are mutually exclusive categories within the system of ethnic identification found with Malaysian society. As Islam is regarded as an attribute of a Malay identity, incompatible with a Chinese identity, it is necessary that ethnic Chinese converts abandon any vestiges of "Chineseness" in their lives in order to be accepted as true Muslims (ibid., p. 93). This of course includes the practice of ancestor worship which, even when given an entirely secular interpretation, is central to a Chinese ethnic identity. Conversion to Christianity could be regarded in the same way as Christian Chinese who actively reject any aspect of the practice of ancestor worship may also be regarded as attempting to abandon their Chinese identity. The refusal by some Christians to take part in ancestor worship is certainly a powerful symbolic act, often generating considerable tension and debate between themselves and their families. In practice, this is seldom the case because, as is noted above, such a rejection is usually ascribed by the non-Christian majority to the attitude of particular individuals rather than to Christianity itself. As one non-Christian informant explained to me, "conversion to Islam means giving up everything you are, even your name(8) while conversion to Christianity means giving up a few hours on Sunday". Of course, Christians in general for whom the religion can have profound meaning in their lives would certainly not agree with this statement. But it does express a widely held view among Malaysian Chinese of a fundamental incompatibility between a Chinese identity and Islam, an incompatibility not shared by Christianity (though possibly shared by some individual Christians).

While ancestor worship can be seen as playing a major unifying role with regard to ethnic identity in the Malaysian Chinese community, it has many other meanings which serve to create and articulate major social divisions within this community. Ritual practice associated with ancestor worship serves as a symbolic element in the creation and expression of other important institutions within ethnic Chinese society, particularly those related to kinship identity and the family, as well as aspects of social identity related to the zuji-based "dialect group" divisions which have historically played a key role in social relations among the Malaysian Chinese community. These meanings, along with the differing interpretations by the variety of ideological religious traditions found amongst the Malaysian Chinese community, including its outright rejection by a small but growing minority, can be seen as symptomatic of major social divisions that exist within this community. While I have neither the time nor the data to deal here with these social divisions in any comprehensive manner, I would like to point out the potential insight that further investigations into ancestor worship and the wider system of ritual practice of which it is an integral part would allow into the nature of the complex web of social relationships that make up Malaysian society.


In this paper I have attempted to outline some of the basic features of the practice of ancestor worship by Malaysian Chinese. We can see that in some way it resembles the ritual system found in China and from which it historically derives. Based primarily on ritual action rather than any particular rational system of belief, it focuses on participation in ritual rather than adherence to any particular ideological interpretation of the ritual. This allows its incorporation into a range of "ideological" religious systems as well as the more "pragmatic" folk religious complex through differing institutional and personal interpretations, permitting individuals with completely different interpretations, or indeed no explicit interpretation of the ritual to take part in the same ritual action and in doing so achieve social unity at a variety of levels.

However, the Malaysian Chinese system of ancestor worship can be seen to differ from that found in China and Taiwan in a variety of important ways. It has been incorporated into a wider range of ideological religious systems than are found within China itself and in doing so has taken on a variety of quite distinct meanings for those Malaysian Chinese who are religiously inclined. Moreover, the social unities which it plays a central role in creating and expressing are of a completely different order from those found in China. Central amongst these is ethnicity, an ethnic Chinese huaren identity of crucial importance in the multi-ethnic social environment of Malaysia but quite irrelevant to the Han-dominated social environment of southern China. In this way we can see that ancestor worship, like many other elements of Malaysian Chinese culture, while displaying a strong resemblance in many respects to the original Chinese cultural institutions from which it historically derives, is in fact distinctly different from this cultural system: it is an expression of a unique ethnic Chinese Malaysian culture which is an integral part of the rich multi-ethnic tapestry of modern Malaysian society.


(1.) Though the authors merely allow for this possibility, it is a point I feel should be emphasized as it allows ritual to transcend the individual into the social sphere and thus become of interest to social scientists.

(2.) Watson (1988, pp. 3-19) refers to this phenomenon as "orthopraxy" or the standardization of practice as opposed to orthodoxy, the standardization of meaning.

(3.) See de Groot (1964, vol. 1), Freedman (1958, pp. 81-91), Yang (1967, pp. 39-43), Jordan (1972, pp. 96-102), and Maspero (1981, pp. 122-23) for detailed descriptions of examples in various historical and geographical contexts.

(4.) Space permits me to do no more than touch on this crucial topic here. See Freedman (1958, pp. 81-91) for examples pertaining to lineages in southern China, Ahern (1973, pp. 191-203), Wolf (1976, p. 357) for household/lineage formation in Taiwan, Watson (1988, pp. 203-7) for intra-lineage solidarity and conflict in the New Territories, and Zito (1997, pp. 201-6) for the formation of power relations/vertical hierarchies in the political and social spheres.

(5.) See Kipnis (1994) for a discussion of this aspect of ritual using the example of koutou.

(6.) See Nagata (1995b, p. 315) for similar findings concerning the relation between Buddhism and "folk practice" in Penang.

(7.) I use the terms "structure", "system", "structuration", and "institution" in accordance with Giddens (1979, pp. 61-73).

(8.) A commonly held misconception that Islam does not allow the use of surnames probably originate in the Malay use of patronymic rather than surname. This is also possibly associated with a perception of incompatibility between an Islamic identity and xing or surname, a crucial element of Chinese identity and which is a central feature of ancestor worship.


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Ian Clarke is a Ph.D. candidate in the Department of Anthropology, University of Otago, New Zealand.
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Author:CLARKE, Ian
Publication:SOJOURN: Journal of Social Issues in Southeast Asia
Date:Oct 1, 2000
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