I am a Chinese.

In China, every year on Ching Ming Festival, Chinese people go to the tombs of their dead ancestors to kowtow.

Christianity prohibits kowtow to ancestors, which means disrespect for ancestors in the Chinese concept.

During the Qing Dynasty, many missionaries came to China to preach, but very few Chinese believed in Christianity. Their attempt to turn China into a Christian country failed.

What do you think of this matter?

  • Is the Ching Ming Festival the same as the Qingming festival, also known as Tomb-Sweeping Day in English? If so, it would be helpful if you would provide a link to explain what it is.
    – Lesley
    Feb 28, 2021 at 14:27
  • 2
    This issue, among others, forms the basis of the Chinese Rites controversy. Feb 28, 2021 at 19:47
  • 1
    Can you be more specific? "What do you think about failed conversion of China" is too broad and opinion-based?
    – OrangeDog
    Mar 1, 2021 at 11:30
  • Every Qingming Festival, more than one billion Chinese will drive to the cemetery of their ancestors, clear the weeds from the cemetery, light something called incense, and then bow while holding the incense in their hands. Next to the cemetery, there will be tea, wine, chicken, and pork. These offerings are for the ancestors to eat.
    – li liang
    May 23, 2021 at 12:03

4 Answers 4


What is the concept of kowtow in Christianity?

According to the Wikipedia article partially quoted below, the Chinese tradition of bowing low three to nine times before the tomb of their ancestors is a mark of respect:

The Kowtowing ritual in front of the grave is performed in the order of patriarchal seniority within the family. After the ancestor worship at the grave site, the whole family or the whole clan feast on the food and drink they have brought for the worship either at the site or in nearby gardens in the memorial park, signifying the family's reunion with its ancestors. Source: Qingming Festival (Wikipedia)

There are various cultures that use bowing to living persons as a mark of respect. For example, Japanese businessmen will demonstrate the degree of respect being given depending on how low they bow, or how slightly they bow. The tradition of ‘kowtow’ to a living person is nowhere prohibited within Christianity. Indeed, the Bible has many instances of where a person would even prostrate themselves on the ground before a mighty ruler, or when in the presence of deity. Neither is the cleaning of gravesites prohibited within Christianity.

What the Christian Bible forbids is praying to dead ancestors.

In some cultures ancestors are believed to influence the lives of later generations by blessing or cursing them; in essence, acting as gods. So praying to them, presenting them with gifts, and making offerings are done to appease them and gain their favour. This is where showing respect morphs into worship and since Christians are told to worship only the Creator God of the universe, in whose image we are made, then it would be wrong for a Christian to engage in such things.

The Bible tells us in Exodus 20:3-6 that we are not to worship any god other than the Lord God Almighty. Furthermore, since diviners and sorcerers were thought to be able to contact the dead, they were also expressly forbidden by God (Exodus 22:18; Leviticus 19:32, 20:6, 27; Deuteronomy 18:10-11; 1 Samuel 28:3; Jeremiah 27:9-10).

The belief that spirits continue to reside on earth after death and influence the lives of others is not Christian. The Bible shows that the dead are unable to influence the living. They can no more bless or curse than they can breathe. The dead know nothing at all. They do not deserve any form of worship, and that includes praying to them. We are to pray to God, through Christ Jesus. He is the only mediator between God and men.

You say that during the Qing Dynasty, many missionaries came to China to preach, but very few Chinese believed in Christianity. Their attempt to turn China into a Christian country failed. Then you ask What do you think of this matter?

I think the fact that Christians in China are persecuted and forbidden by the Government to worship in freedom is testimony to the fact that those early missionaries did not fail. It also speaks volumes about the people who wish to suppress freedom of religion. What are they afraid of?

  • "So praying to them, presenting them with gifts, and making offerings are done to appease them and gain their favour. This is where showing respect morphs into worship". Could you expand on this more? It's a bit too vague for me to fully understand. Are both praying and making offerings required for it to be considered worshipping? If I make offerings and praying but only for comfort (don't expect any helping divine interventions) is it still worshipping?
    – formicini
    Mar 1, 2021 at 9:16
  • 2
    Either a note or rewording required, because (little-o) orthodox Christianity does believe in the intercessions of the Saints.
    – OrangeDog
    Mar 1, 2021 at 11:32
  • @OrangeDog - I have not mentioned "intercessions of the Saints". Please note that comments are not for extended discussion.
    – Lesley
    Mar 1, 2021 at 16:34
  • 1
    @Lesley exactly. If you're going to say stuff like "Christians don't pray to the dead" you need to mention the widely-practised (especially by the missionaries mentioned in the question) praying to Saints. And this isn't extended discussion, this is me pointing out an issue with the answer, which is what comments are for.
    – OrangeDog
    Mar 1, 2021 at 16:38
  • 1
    @OrangeDog - What the BIBLE forbids is praying to dead ancestors - I will edit my header accordingly.
    – Lesley
    Mar 1, 2021 at 16:40

What is the concept of kowtow in Christianity?

First of all what is kowtow?

Kowtow, which is borrowed from kau tau in Cantonese Chinese (koutou in Mandarin), is the act of deep respect shown by prostration, that is, kneeling and bowing so low as to have one's head touching the ground.

Modern Chinese Usage

The kowtow, and other traditional forms of reverence, were much maligned after the May Fourth Movement. Today, only vestiges of the traditional usage of the kowtow remain. In many situations, the standing bow has replaced the kowtow. For example, some, but not all, people would choose to kowtow before the grave of an ancestor, or while making traditional offerings to an ancestor. Direct descendants may also kowtow at the funeral of an ancestor, while others would simply bow. During a wedding, some couples may kowtow to their respective parents, though the standing bow is today more common. In extreme cases, the kowtow can be used to express profound gratitude, apology, or to beg for forgiveness.

The kowtow remains alive as part of a formal induction ceremony in certain traditional trades that involve apprenticeship or discipleship. For example, Chinese martial arts schools often require a student to kowtow to a master. Likewise, traditional performing arts often also require the kowtow.


Prostration is a general practice in Buddhism, and not restricted to China. The kowtow is often performed in groups of three before Buddhist statues and images or tombs of the dead. In Buddhism it is more commonly termed either "worship with the crown (of the head)" (頂禮 ding li) or "casting the five limbs to the earth" (五體投地 wuti tou di)—referring to the two arms, two legs and forehead. For example, in certain ceremonies, a person would perform a sequence of three sets of three kowtows—stand up and kneel down again between each set—as an extreme gesture of respect; hence the term three kneelings and nine head knockings (三跪九叩之禮 [zh]). Also, some Buddhist pilgrims would kowtow once for every three steps made during their long journeys, the number three referring to the Triple Gem of Buddhism, the Buddha, the Dharma, and the Sangha. Prostration is widely practiced in India by Hindus to give utmost respect to their deities in temples and to parents and elders. Nowadays in modern times people show the regards to elders by bowing down and touching their feet.

The key factor in all this what the word worship truly means or expresses in the minds of the average Chinese person who employs the kowtow as is traditionally thought in Chinese culture.

What does worship mean in different cultures?

Definition of worship

1 : reverence offered a divine being or supernatural power

also : an act of expressing such reverence

2 : a form of religious practice with its creed and ritual

3 : extravagant respect or admiration for or devotion to an object of esteem

worship of the dollar

4 chiefly British : a person of importance —used as a title for various officials (such as magistrates and some mayors)

Bowing to statues is not an unique traditional practice confined to Buddhism or Chinese culture. As such Chinese Buddhists do not worship statues, but they are honouring the person they represent. This is quite similar to the Catholic practice of having statues in their churches.

There is a tradition that when the Buddha went to Heaven to preach to his late mother, the king so missed his presence that he had artisans create a replica in sandalwood.

The statue was put in the place where he had sat and, when the Buddha returned, it stood and saluted him. "Sit back down, take your place," the Buddha was said to have told the statue. "After my departure from this world, you will serve as a guide to my followers."

Buddhist teachers point out that despite the images' importance, Buddhists do not worship them. "There is a misunderstanding that Buddhists try to worship idols," said Guoyuan Fashi, abbot at the Chan Meditation Center in New York City. "The main thing is that we respect the Buddha because we understand his teachings."

But there's a special hurt because Buddhists use such images to help put the Buddha's teachings at the center of their lives.

"The Buddhist tradition, in its canonical texts, greatly reveres and sees it as an important religious practice to create and respect and venerate and make offerings to images of the Buddha," Moerman said. "They would see this [destruction] as more than an act of sacrilege. According to the Buddhist scriptures themselves, this is one of the things that sends you into the deepest hell." - Buddha Statue Called Guide, Not Idol

As for kowtowing one’s ancestors that may or may not be a more difficult area to determine what worship in this regard truly means?

You state that ”Christianity prohibits kowtow to ancestors, which means disrespect for ancestors in the Chinese concept! However, I am not a 100% sold on that thought.

Acts of reverence may take on various forms in different cultures, even within Christian denominations. For example Catholics employ incense at funerals both in the church and occasionally at the grave site, but such act of reverence is done as a symbolic gesture to demonstrate the prayers of the faithful going up to heaven on behave of the deceased.

In the kowtow tradition, some bow according to their cultural usage. If in the mind of the one’s performing this usage they are genuinely worshipping (as in worshipping God) their ancestors, then such a tradition is morally wrong and forbidden within all branches of Christianity.

“You shall have no other gods before me.

“You shall not make for yourself an image in the form of anything in heaven above or on the earth beneath or in the waters below. You shall not bow down to them or worship them; for I, the Lord your God, am a jealous God, punishing the children for the sin of the parents to the third and fourth generation of those who hate me, but showing love to a thousand generations of those who love me and keep my commandments. - Exodus 20:3-6

If however, what is called “worshipping” their ancestors is actually a simple external act of reverence or act of respect for who the deceased meant to the kowtowers in question is a different matter all together.

Without an in-depth serious study on these issues I would hesitate to declare them objectively immoral or not in the eyes of global Christianity.

Christians can honour their deceased parents in many ways, but I would not consider that worshipping an ancestor.

The following articles may be of interest:

  • 1
    Excellent research (as usual) and some very informative links.
    – Lesley
    Mar 1, 2021 at 8:32
  • @Lesley Your response is excellent also.
    – Ken Graham
    Mar 1, 2021 at 17:40

The first two answers are protestant, this is from a catholic perspective. The protestants in general don't accept the concept of the prayer by intercession of the saints and prayer for the dead, and some might have problem with other concepts used here.

To sum up the Chinese Rites controversy, there are basically two ways how to understand kow-tow, either as a prayer to the dead, or as an act of honor to one's parents. In 17th and 18th century in the Catholic Church, there was a controversy between the jesuits ("honor your father and your mother" interpretation) and others ("prayer to the dead" interpretation).

Praying to the dead is prohibited in any form of Christianity. Even though we often say that we "pray to saints", this is not precise - we pray to God, either directly or by intercession of others, living either on Earth (asking other Christians to pray for us) or in Heaven (asking saints to pray for us). We can ask for prayers only the "living" spritiually, even though not necessarily physically. To be sure that someone dead physically is in heaven ("living" spiritually), this person have to be recognised as "saint" or at least "blessed" by the church. The doctrine of the possibility of the pagans to be saved evolved, but anyway the chance that their souls are in heaven is not so high to be able to encourage prayer by their intercession. A fortiori, prayer "to" them is forbidden.

We can show respect to men, dead or living, as long as it is clearly weaker than the respect reserved for God, as it is not "worship". We simply recognize what they were or did, or what God gave us through them, without attributing to them divine status or any supernatural powers. From the biblical examples, the praise of king Cyrus in Is 41:1-5 and 45:1-7 comes to mind. And we should pray for others, living or dead - praying for one's parents is part of the commandment "honor your father and your mother". Other marks of this "honor", such as visiting the graves of one's deceased ancestors and placing flowers there, are natural and thus encouraged as well, even though clearly less important than the prayer.

Even though confutianism is often seen as a"religion", it can be understood as a "philosophy". Since Antiquity, the Church had a lot of experience with integration of different teachings and practices coming from some philosophy, or even from a pagan religion. The Revelation (Bible + Tradition) must always come first, but if the practice or philosophical teaching may be interpretted in its light, it is acceptable, at least under certain conditions. An example from the Bible is the controversy of the meat of the animals sacrificed to pagan gods - saint Paul advocates eating meat bought in the market, likely to come from a pagan sacrifice, as long as it is not understood as an act of worship, either by the one who eats or by others.

Both kow-tow and eating meat of sacrificed animals may be seen as a participation on a non-christian worship and thus an idolatry. On the other hand, eating meat without considering its source or remembering one's ancestors is a completely natural thing, without any necessary link to any religion. The jesuit position is that kow-tow is analogic to eating meat, while others see it more like physical participation on the sacrifice, which is off course forbidden - the link with pagan cult is too strong. The two camps agree that understanding the act as natural and not religious (confutian or buddhist) is necessary to make it acceptable.

In 18th century, the pope banned the "chinese rites" (kow-tow and like) as "worship of the dead"; on the other hand, in 20th century, the Catholic Church rehabilitated the jesuit perspective, that it's rather "a chinese way of placing flowers on one's grave".


I'm rather surprised that nobody has mentioned the necessity of burying the dead in Christianity, at least Catholicism. It is one of the Seven Corporal Works of Mercy. Matthew 25:31 spells these out, but doesn't include Burying the dead the way the Catholic Church does https://www.usccb.org/beliefs-and-teachings/how-we-teach/new-evangelization/jubilee-of-mercy/the-corporal-works-of-mercy

A proper burial is a necessity in reverence for the dead, no spreading of ashes, but internment in the ground or a sepulcher is the only proper place to put a body.

Burying the dead was also Tobit was persecuted for in his eponymous book.

I would give my bread to the hungry and clothing to the naked. If I saw one of my people who had died and been thrown behind the wall of Nineveh, I used to bury him. Sennacherib returned from Judea, having fled during the days of the judgment enacted against him by the King of Heaven because of the blasphemies he had uttered; whomever he killed I buried. For in his rage he killed many Israelites, but I used to take their bodies away by stealth and bury them. So when Sennacherib looked for them, he could not find them.

And he suffered for it greatly

But a certain Ninevite went and informed the king about me, that I was burying them, and I went into hiding. When I realized that the king knew about me and that I was being hunted to be put to death, I became afraid and took flight. All my property was confiscated; I was left with nothing. All that I had was taken to the king’s palace, except for my wife Anna and my son Tobiah.

Tobit 1:17-20

In so doing, God showed us, through Tobit, the necessity of caring for the bodies of the dead. But we do not believe that the spirit or soul of the person resides in their bodies, we do believe in the resurrection, that the body and soul will be reunited at the end of time and then live forever.

Furthermore, in respect for the reverence for the dead: G.K. Chesterton's rather famous supposition that tradition is Democracy of the Dead, is a very Christian understanding of the relationship between the dead and the living and the reverence that we should give them, at risk to cutting off ourselves from the vine of humanity.

Tradition may be defined as an extension of the franchise. Tradition means giving votes to the most obscure of all classes, our ancestors. It is the democracy of the dead. Tradition refuses to submit to the small and arrogant oligarchy of those who merely happen to be walking about. All democrats object to men being disqualified by the accident of birth; tradition objects to their being disqualified by the accident of death. Democracy tells us not to neglect a good man's opinion, even if he is our groom; tradition asks us not to neglect a good man's opinion, even if he is our father. I, at any rate, cannot separate the two ideas of democracy and tradition; it seems evident to me that they are the same idea. We will have the dead at our councils. The ancient Greeks voted by stones; these shall vote by tombstones. It is all quite regular and official, for most tombstones, like most ballot papers, are marked with a cross.

So the kind of reverence that a Christian gives to his ancestors is imbued in keeping up their traditions, not just the Divine Traditions of the faith, but the subtle traditions of the family and principality.

Some Christians don't believe that it is right to pray to the dead, either to ask for their prayers or to pray that they enter heaven, but no Christians believe that we should worship the dead. Because, as Jesus quotes the old Testament, God is the "God of the Living", so we don't look for God among the dead, and we don't believe in supplicating spirits of the dead.

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