The Ancestor Cult and the Dual Soul

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  • 0:01 Introduction to Filial Piety
  • 0:53 Xiao
  • 2:00 Ancestor Veneration
  • 2:31 Po & Hun
  • 4:24 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Jessica Whittemore

Jessica has taught junior high history and college seminar courses. She has a master's degree in education.

This lesson will explain filial piety and its relationship to ancestor veneration. In doing so, it will highlight the Po and Hun of Confucianism's dual soul, while also discussing the funeral rites that accompany this belief.

Filial Piety

Growing up, the idea of respecting your elders was very important in my family. When my grandmother entered the room, we were taught to stand up and offer her our seat. When my parents disciplined us, rolling our eyes at them or talking back to them was the surest way to get ourselves in some serious trouble. To put it simply, grown-ups were in charge and to be treated with respect. Any child who decided to mess with this order would very quickly feel the sting of it.

If any of this sounds familiar to you, today's lesson on filial piety, which is very closely linked to ancestor veneration or the ancestor cult, will be a bit easier to grasp than for those of you who grew up in a more loosey-goosey system of family hierarchy. With that being said, I think this lesson will still hold some pretty new things, even for those of us who grew up with authoritarian parents.


For starters, filial piety, known in the East as xiao, plays a large role in the practice of Confucianism. It is a hierarchical system of family governance in which the elderly outrank the young. In other words, grandparents, moms and dads hold way more weight than children. In very simple terms, it can also be defined as deep respect for ancestors. So important is filial piety to Confucianism that it's considered the beginning of all virtue.

In this family system, the elderly are tasked with the responsibility of raising and caring for the young. In turn, the young are required to respect and obey their elders. Although this sounds very familiar to the way which I was raised, filial piety goes much deeper, having very spiritual connotations. For instance, the doctrines of filial piety, or xiao, apply to both the living and dead family members. With this in mind, many consider filial piety to be ancestor worship or ancestor veneration.

Ancestor Veneration

Building on filial piety, ancestor veneration is a ritual belief based on the idea that dead family members still exist and have the ability to influence the lives of the living. To put it simply, the dead sort of become like deities with greater spiritual power than the living. With this in mind, the end game in ancestor veneration is to make sure your ancestors are still pleased with you because keeping up good relationships with them is the very best way to ensure they'll be working in your favor.

Po and Hun

To dig deeper, ancestor veneration holds firmly to the belief that the soul continues to exist, but splits after death. Known as the dual soul, this doctrine holds to the idea that the soul splits into parts, known as the Po and the Hun. According to this school of thought, the Po is sort of the lower soul that goes down to the grave with the body, while the Hun, or the upper, intellectual soul, continues to reside in the world above. To help keep these two straight, I like to think of the Po being put in the grave, while the Hun hovers above.

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