The Offering of Food and the Creation of Order: The Practice of Sacrifice in Early China

  • Michael Puett


Anthropologists of contemporary Chinese religion have often pointed out that the lines between spirits, ghosts, and ancestors are highly permeable. Indeed, the primary difference between them is to be found in food—both in the types of food offered and the ways in which it is given. Ghosts are dead humans who are not fed by living descendants (and thus become hungry and highly dangerous, but also objects of offerings by individuals outside of more established avenues of worship); ancestors are fed by their living descendants (and thus are not dangerous and may even be helpful to the descendants); and spirits are fed by larger numbers of people than just simply their descendants (and thus become far more powerful than ghosts or ancestors). Moreover, each of these can become any of the others if the food offerings are changed: a ghost can become an ancestor, an ancestor can become a ghost, a ghost can become a spirit. In other words, it is living humans, through the act of feeding, who define the differences between spirits, ghosts, and ancestors.1


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© Roel Sterckx 2005

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  • Michael Puett

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