Penang Story Lecture: Why the filial prosper: ancestral worship as an ethical end and as a business principle

Penang Story Lecture:

Why the filial prosper: ancestral worship as an ethical end and as a business principle

by David Faure, Professor of History, Chinese University, Hong Kong


Date:  Saturday, 7 September 2013dfaure

Time & venue:  10.00am – 1.00pm, Penang Teochew Association, Chulia Street

Targeted participants: Owners, trustees and managers of the ancestral halls, guilds, district associations in George Town, Penang, UNESCO World Heritage Site.

This Penang Story event was organised by the Penang Heritage Trust.

When the Chinese migrated from South China to Penang from the late eighteenth century onwards, they brought their cultural-religious traditions with them and founded organisations which perpetuated the rituals of ancestral veneration. Today, these family temples, clan kongsis and lineage associations in Penang are vibrant and viable institutions owning their own temples and landed properties. In fact, the city of George Town has one of the largest concentrations of lineage institutions outside of China. Both the tangible and intangible heritage of these institutions contribute to the Outstanding Universal Values of the George Town World Heritage Site.

When asked why they carry out certain rituals, these acts of filial piety prescribed by Confucius, custodians of these organisations will usually answer, ‘Because our forefathers did so’. It is important for us to articulate a deeper understanding of these traditions in order to share them with the younger generation. The Penang Heritage Trust presents an important lecture by Professor David Faure, author of the book Emperor and Ancestor: State and Lineage in South China (2007) published by Stanford University Press, on the history behind the evolution of this venerable lineage institution.


Merchants of Huizhou, in Anhui province of central China, known as China’s leading merchants through the Ming and Qing dynasties, were known for their filial piety. No doubt they were filial, many stories are extant to make the point. Less often said is they were also bankers, and were engaged in the business at a time when no law stipulated that sons must honour their fathers’ debts. Whoever would deposit money with a banker whose liabilities cease with his death? Because the Huizhou merchants were filial, nevertheless, you can rest assure that your money is safe. Filial piety is a virtuous end in itself, but it was also good for business in the Huizhou banks.


It wasn’t always that way in Chinese history. For much of Chinese history, the rituals that had been associated with the writings of Confucius were not applied to commoners. For much of Chinese history, it was also considered wrong that common people should seek to accumulate wealth, much better that one should work for the common good. Ancestral sacrifice came about in that setting as a series of accidents. Buddhist rites had served for many until the Song dynasty (say the tenth and eleventh centuries) when a rising body of educated people sought to rebel against those practices. In their efforts, they hit upon the idea that there might be secular rites that could be derived from antiquity. Zhu Xi (1130-1200), government official and philosopher, wrote the handbook that propagated those rites. He argued that commoners, like aristocrats, should also sacrifice to ancestors, and not only at the graves but also in houses. Nevertheless, it took three more centuries to standardize the houses in which ancestors were to be sacrificed to. Most of that history took place in the south of China: Jiangxi, Fujian and Guangdong. Those rituals made China. They also gave Chinese tradition its economic clout.


About the speaker:

David Faure is Wei Lun Professor of History at the Chinese University in Hong Kong. He was born and educated in Hong Kong, and has taught at the Chinese University on and off from 1976. He writes on Chinese social and business history and takes a particular interest in the history of the lineage in China. His recent works on the subject include China and Capitalism, A History of Business Enterprise in Modern China, 2006; Emperor and Ancestor: State and Lineage in South China, 2007, and (ed.) Chieftains into Ancestors: Imperial Expansion and Indigenous Society in Southwest China, 2013. He is fluent in English and Chinese (Putonghua and Cantonese).

For a review of David Faure’s book Emperor and Ancestor: State and Lineage in South China please click here (pdf).



Beyond filial piety: from soul salvation to intangible cultural heritage (Chinese Lecture)


Date: Saturday, 7 September, 2013

Time: 2.00pm – 5.00pm

Venue: Penang Teochew Association, Chulia Streetchoi

中国的中央政府在2005年已经把清明和重阳节列入第一批的国家级非物质文化遗产名录。可是,中元节(盂兰节)因为和鬼及迷信挂上关系,在中国其他各省市都没有申报为非物质文化遗产。2011年香港特别行政区政府成功地将香港潮属社团总会申报的“香港潮人盂兰胜会”列入中国的第三批名录。香港和海外华人社会,不仅重视祭祀祖先、强调孝道的清明和重阳节、对祭祀无祀先人、强调灵魂救赎的农历七月的中元节和不定期的万缘胜会,同样重视。祭祀无祀先人是孝道的延伸、灵魂救赎(济阴、阴施)是等同济阳(阳施)的仪式性的慈善活动 (ritual charity)。本讲尝试说明祖先去后、从魂魄归属的制度到安抚灵魂的仪式行为,华人社会不仅强调孝道、同时重视慈善。在远离原乡、缺乏宗族祠堂的海外华人社会中,会馆在救赎行为和仪式中担演了重要角色。在中国国家的视野中,华人社团的参与,让灵魂救赎的中元节(盂兰节)超越了迷信、提升到国际话语的“非物质文化遗产”中。也在这样的前提下,孝道超越了地域宗族、成为整合海外华人社会的要素之一。


The speaker:  Chi-cheung CHOI

蔡志祥是日本东京大学文学博士,香港中文大学历史系教授。他的研究兴趣包括中国节日与民间宗教、家庭与宗族以及商业历史。著作包括《打醮:香港的节日与地域社会》;〈出阁:1850-1950之间潮汕侨乡社会的妇女〉 、“亲属关系与商业:潮汕家族企业中的父系和母系亲属”等专书及文章,以及编著《许舒博士所藏商业及土地契约文书﹕乾隆隆文书》I及II、(合编)《仪式与科仪;香港新界地区的正一清醮》、(合编)《香港歷史文化與社會》等书。

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