“To forget ones ancestors is to be
a brook without a source or a tree without roots!”
– Ancient Chinese Proverb
In Chinese culture, showing respect to ones ancestors is a major part in family life. This can also be said for the traditional Gong Fu internal or external martial art family as well. Learning to show true respect to the teachers who have come before plays a major part in the journey of a Zhongshi Wushu中式武術(Chinese style martial art). A Xuesheng Wushu 學生武術 (martial student) following the traditional path should be aware of the importance, symbolism and meaning of traditions.
During the golden age of Chinese martial arts students often trained in the outer court yard of the masters home or at a commercial training hall. The Gong Fu功夫 (Kung Fu) schools known as Wuguan武館( martial training hall) were often operated by very strict standards.
Formal schools run by a traditional Shifu師父 (master or father teacher) operated like a family with beginning students being thought of as Ertong兒童 (young children) with older students being called Lao-ge 老哥 (elder brother). Within this formal setting Ertong were instructed by the Lao-ge and the elder brothers were taught by higher inner door students Zhangzhi 長子 (eldest son). The Zhangzhi were often students who had been formally accepted into the Gong Fu family in a traditional Bai Shi Yishi把式儀式 (ceremonial Gong Fu family initiation). These Zhangzhi were now inner-door students and were taught directly by the Shifu師父 (father). We will address the intricacies of the Gong Fu family hierarchy and Ba Shi Yishi ceremony in future articles.
Most formal Wuguan 武館had a Gongzhou供桌 (ancestors altar) on the south wall of the school in accordance to the traditions of Chinese Feng Shui風水 (geomancy lit: wind and water school). The entire Wuguan was arranged so that this Gongzhou was the focal point of the school. The school’s Gongzhou is the counterpart to the ancestor altar in the homes of Chinese traditional families.
The Gongzhou in a martial school although it is called an altar, unless it contained Buddhist or Daoist statues, was not meant to have religious significance or affiliations. Gongzhou of earlier times and today simply represents past masters who dedicated their lives to training and passing on knowledge that current students are privileged to receive.
Typically each class began and ended with the teacher and students facing the Gongzhou offering a show of thanks and respect, represented by a bow or series of bows. This was a way of honoring the ancestors of the clan who had passed on their knowledge through the years for the benefit of the Gong Fu family and survival of the art.
Additionally there was often a period of silent meditation before and or after class. The goal of this meditation was to clear the mind of distractions and allows reflection on the ancestors and the material presented during class. Some schools used sitting postures for this meditation while other adopted the Jing Zhan Zhuang靜 站樁( quiet post standing) method.
In other traditions before or after the meditation session the Shifu would read a passage from the martial classics, Daodejing or other inspirational work. Bowing to the altar in a traditional Wuguan should not be thought of as some form of spiritual worship. It is a disciplinary gesture to thank the ancestors for passing down knowledge to future generations so that the style of martial art practiced in the school will not perish. One should note that these traditions vary widely from one school and lineage to another.
Wude For The Gongzhou
There are many traditions and rules which vary from school to school. These are often called Wude武德 (martial virtue) and they provide a roadmap of conduct in the school, to the teacher, students and when in public. Here are a few of the basic Wude for the Gongzhou in a Wuguan.
• Images or photographs on the Gongzhou should be of ancestors who have passed on
• No photographs of the living Shifu or other living masters are placed on the Gongzhou
• The Gongzhou should not be disturbed or moved
• Dust should not be allowed to collect on the Gongzhou
• Only the Shifu or Zhangzhi should light the candles before the start of class
• Always bow right fist covered by left palm toward the Gongzhou when entering or leaving
• Do not to bump or disturb the Gongzhou. This shows a lack of awareness
• Students should never touch photos or objects on the Gongzhou without permission of Shifu
• Never not sit, stand or lean on the Gongzhou
• Do not place or leave anything on the Gongzhou except for incense or offerings
• Ask the for Shifu permission before leaving an offering or lighting incense
Offerings on the Gongzhou
Oranges, tangerines and peaches are a common sight in bowls or cups on the Gongzhou. Tangerines and oranges are given as a symbol of good fortune and riches because of the golden color and their round shape are both seen as auspicious. Tangerines represent wealth where oranges are a popular symbol of good luck.
The associations come from a similarity between the Chinese words for tangerine and gold, as well as a resemblance between the words orange and good luck. The peach is a symbol of longevity, fertility and immortality.
You may also see flowers or cups of water or tea as well as other types of food with incense burning nearby or in front of statues or figures of ancestors and in some cases Daoist or Buddhist statues. There may be some strange looking paper money In the traditional Wuguan offerings are not made to please a deity. Instead, Gongzhou and offerings promote positive energy for the students to honor and remember ancestors of the family or tradition.
It is possible that in a special meditation area a Shifu who is a follower of Daoist, Buddhist or other Asian disciplines and principles may have a special Gongzhou of his own dedicated to the practice of his personal meditative discipline. These personal Gongzhou are private areas for spiritual practice and are seldom placed as the focal point of the school like the Wuguan Gongzhou. They may be similar to the martial Gongzhou but will prominently feature the patron deity or bodhisattva of the Shifu’s on personal veneration.
A Wuguan Gongzhou may assume many forms and styles, from a small table decorated with objects representing the ancestors to a large-scale altar Some may be only the size of a big photograph frame others are as large as the whole south wall with much elaborate decoration.
that encompasses an entire wall.
Some students or a particular style want to have a Wushu Gongzhou in their home. This is permissible so long as the student has permission from his or her Shifu and is a respected member of the Gong Fu family to whom his Gongzhou is dedicated. To have a personal Gongzhou without being a member of a Wuguan is frowned upon as it is tantamount in Wude to declaring oneself a Shifu without portfolio. In other words a renegade with no lineage. Of course if one is following a non-martial or spiritual tradition or simply wants a family Gongzhou for ancestors this is permissible.
The home Wushu Gongzhou can be a small replica of the one in the students Wushu Wuguan. It could be simply a photo of the Wuguan Gongzhou framed on the south wall of ones training or meditation area or it can be a table as illustrate here with photos of the ancestors (not one current living Shifu) a place for statues or photos of the ancestors, an inspirational book, preferably one of the Chinese philosophical classics like the Daodejing, Yijing or Chuang Zi Inner Chapters, a candle and incense perhaps a small gong or Tingshaw to use during meditation.
A search on line for Chinese ancestor altars can turn up various styles that one may want to use for a home Gongzhou. Another source is of course Chinatown in large cities, however I have also found these in Chinese, Vietnamese and other Asian grocery stores even here in Texas.