13.30 Ancestral Temples in China: Between Tangible and Intangible
Ancestral temples (or ancestral halls 祠堂), which were historically spread all over China, are given increasingly more attention nowadays. Some dilapidated or abandoned temples have been renovated and reconstructed by local governments (instead of by families as in olden times) and then became tourism resources. However, it should be noted that the emergence of ancestral temples in Chinese history was related to the system of sacrifice. In that system, only an aristocratic family had the right to build an ancestral temple. But from the Han and Tang Dynasties, few aristocratic families had the financial resources and workforce required to maintain both the building and the sacrifice-offering ceremonies. A new situation arose in the tenth century: due to the increase of social mobility, families from non-aristocratic classes started building their ancestral temples and performing worship ceremonies. They even added new meanings to their newly built temples. Culturally, ancestral halls should be places where families solve all their problems instead of acting simply as symbols of social status. They also should be places where family members learn how to be good and polite individuals through ritual performance. Moreover, they should be places where families communicate and strengthen the very notion of being a family. It was in the process of the cultural construction that ancestral temples re-emerged in “common” people’s daily lives in the tenth century. Undoubtedly, they have acquired a profound cultural significance since then. As tangible cultural heritage, ancestral temples possess intangible cultural aspects. How can the old ritual system be maintained? How can people adjust to the new situation nowadays? How can we draw benefits from this intangible heritage for society at large?