Feeding the Departed: Taiwan’s Food Offering Traditions

By Steven Crook and Katy Hui-wen Hung

Families across Taiwan continue to engage in an ancient tradition of offering up ritual feasts to their ancestors. One clan has been performing these rites in the northern city of Taoyuan for over two centuries.

Ancestor worship is an ancient and persistent custom among Han Chinese. Traditionally, deceased forebears are considered to still be part of the family and capable of intervening in the affairs of the living, giving rise to an unbreakable obligation for male descendants to offer prayers, incense, and food.

These days, few Taiwanese under the age of 50 truly believe that if they fail to make such offerings, the departed will lack necessities and comforts in the afterworld. Yet ancestor rites in homes and clan halls, sometimes featuring an elaborate array of cooked delicacies, remain an important part of the island’s spiritual life.

Attendance at such ceremonies is normally limited to male descendants and their spouses, but we were fortunate to receive an invitation to witness an ancestor-worship service at the Li Teng-fang Historic Residence (李騰芳古宅) in Taoyuan City’s Daxi District last September.

Entrance to the Li Teng-fang Historic Residence in Taoyuan City’s Daxi District. Photo: Wikipedia

Descendants of Li Teng-fang were living in this thoroughly traditional and visually stunning single-story compound as recently as the late 1990s. They moved out to enable the buildings, some of which date from the 1860s, to be properly restored. The site is classified as a national-level relic and is open to the public from Tuesday to Sunday, 9:30 a.m. to 5 p.m. Admission is free.

Because it coincides with the harvest season, the autumn equinox service is the most elaborate and best attended of the three major ancestor-worshipping observances the clan holds each year; the others are on the afternoon of the first day of the lunar year and on the spring equinox. Little has changed over the years in terms of the nature of the ceremony and the kind of attire worn by the participants, but there have been some surprising innovations in terms of what foods are offered and how they are handled.

This Li family has a Hakka background, yet because of constant interaction with Hokkien speakers and occasional intermarriage since the second half of the 19th century, they have long referred to themselves as originating from Zhangzhou in China’s Fujian Province. Now, few members of the clan’s younger generation speak Hakka.

The clan’s founding ancestor, Li Shan-ming (1722-1789) brought his family, including an uncle, over from Zhaoan, now part of Zhangzhou, either as early as 1755 or as late as 1774, depending on who is telling the story. He regarded himself as an 11th-generation descendant of the first Li to settle in the Hakka township of Zhaoan.

Li Lin-jin-wang, who led the opening procession last autumn, is a member of the 20th generation. His sub-branch of the clan relocated to Yilan and then Hualien during the 1895-1945 period of Japanese rule. 

One of Li Shan-ming’s grandsons, Li Bing-sheng (1793-1862), founded a business enterprise that prospered by converting wilderness into paddy fields that were rented out to tenant farmers, and by dealing in camphor and tea.

A portion of the land belonging to Bing-sheng and his brothers was not passed on to the next generation. Instead, it was set aside to establish what Taiwanese law recognizes as an “ancestor worship guild” – a kind of trust fund that would pay for sacrifices to ancestors. To this day, it is the guild that supports the triannual rites.

Components of the feast

The Cult of the Dead in a Chinese Village, written by New York University anthropologist Emily Martin in the early 1970s, is likely the most widely read English-language description of ancestor-worship practices in Taiwan. Martin did her fieldwork near Sanxia, barely a dozen kilometers from Daxi. 

Taiwanese society has changed hugely in the half century since Martin completed her research, yet some of her findings remain valid. A key observation is that the foods provided to ancestors are ready to eat, and usually consumed soon after the ceremony by those who offered them.

Martin wrote that, circa 1970, the food offered to ancestors was “essentially the same as the common fare of the villagers, though it may be richer in meat and other delicacies.” A typical ceremony featured chicken (“cleaned, cooked, seasoned, and sliced into bite-sized pieces”), a pork liver (an expensive delicacy in the past, “boiled, seasoned, and sliced”), stir-fried eggs, soups, and cooked rice. Chopsticks and bowls were always placed alongside the dishes.

By contrast, minor deities, like the Earth God, are served cooked but unseasoned food without utensils. The most senior members of the pantheon receive what Martin calls “the most untransformed food,” for example raw fowl, a whole raw pig, and a live fish.

If they can, traditionally minded Taiwanese carry out the “three consecrations” (三獻禮) and sacrifice a prescribed number of food dishes and cups of wine. Since the late Qing period, the ideal has been to imitate a banquet, but with dishes served simultaneously, not consecutively.

In terms of incense offerings, prescribed gestures and utterances, and traditional Beiguan music performed by clan members, ancestor rites at the Li Teng-fang Residence follow appropriate non-food customs as well as the culinary template.

Four large bowls (四大碗) are placed in the center of the offering table to form a diamond; each is accompanied by a snack dish (四點心). Four medium-sized bowls (四中碗) are positioned at each of the table’s corners. Eight small bowls (八小碗) are placed between the medium-sized bowls.

There is some leeway as to what the bowls should contain. At the Li Teng-fang Residence, larger bowls usually contain a whole chicken with its head and viscera, braised pig’s leg, sea cucumber, and pig tendon. Typical foods in the medium-sized and small bowls are braised pig’s heart, a Japanese one-pot dish called oden, Chinese sausage, fried tofu cubes, Taiwanese-style meatballs (貢丸, gongwan), and braised eggs.

The four snacks are usually steamed-dough treats chosen for their auspicious names, such as pink shoutao (壽桃, “longevity peaches” filled with lotus-seed paste), fagao (發粿, “prosperity cake”) cupcakes, “bunny buns” (小兔子包蛋糕), and turtle-shaped buns that Hokkien speakers call miku (麵龜).

Fagao, along with shoutao, middle, and jijuan, bottom, are three of the four snack dishes included in a food offering. Photo: Wikipedia
Shoutao. Photo: Wikipedia
Jijuan. Photo: Wikipedia

The character for rabbit (兔) appears in slogans that wish for a bright and prosperous future, while that for turtle (龜) features in phrases that mean “good luck comes” and “good fortune returns.”

For purely secular reasons, the various dishes are decorated with edible “flowers” (carved from daikons and dyed bright pink) and fresh Murraya paniculata leaves. The latter, which often appear on Taiwanese banquet tables, get their Chinese name (七里香, literally “seven-mile fragrance”) from their aroma, which can be smelled some way off.

Additional offerings of meats, cooked items, and seasonal fruits supplement the four-four-eight-four arrangement.

In our 2018 book, A Culinary History of Taipei: Beyond Pork and Ponlai, we wrote: “Neither tomatoes nor guavas should ever be offered [to gods or ancestors]. Because humans cannot digest the seeds, and they come out in excrement, they are regarded as growing in filth; it would be disrespectful to present them.”

We have since come across an alternative explanation for this taboo. Some Taiwanese who know or suspect they have lowland indigenous (Pingpu or Pênn-poo-huan) ancestry feel that indigenous forefathers might be offended if offered what Mandarin-speakers call “savage’s eggplant” (番茄, tomato) or “savage’s pomegranate” (番石榴, guava).

A few families in Lukang are said to obey a different yet equally distinct taboo by refraining from including pork in offerings to forebears they know were Muslim.

Four and eight are not the only numerical conventions that apply when the Li clan gathers to honor the deceased.

Watched by members of the Li clan, the head officiants kneel before a table on which there are two pitchers of wine. Photo: Li Lin-jin Wang

The “five sacrificed animals” (五牲) are placed on a single rectangular tray. At the Li Teng-fang Residence, these usually comprise one chicken and one duck (both with heads pointing toward the altar), pork belly that’s been steamed or boiled, a fish (usually deep fried so it will stay fresh longer), and either pork liver or a serving of jijuan (雞捲). Despite the name including the Chinese character for “chicken,” jijuan are in fact cylinders of pork mixed with other ingredients, then deep-fried in a tofu-skin wrapping. Traditionally, they were made to use up leftovers from temple offerings.

In the popular religion of China and Taiwan, the “five sacrificed animals” have long been a component of rites devoted to deities. Depending on their resources and their personal eating preferences, many worshippers nowadays  replace some or all of the meat offerings with replica animals made of cake, or with items such as cookies, instant noodles, and canned foods.

During Li family rites in Daxi, food offerings are crammed onto all but the highest
tier of the shrine’s three-tier table. Photo: Li Lin-jin Wang

Also crammed onto the lower two tiers of the three-tier offertory table are six oval plates filled with different proteins, such as Chinese sausages, fried chicken wings, slices of squid, and yet more meatballs. Recently, deep-fried vegetarian rolls wrapped in tofu sheets have appeared in this section of the offering. In the past, trays rather than plates were often used.

Like the living, the departed enjoy beverages. According to Li Lin-jin-wang, clan custom is to offer “three cups of tea, five cups of wine” (三茶五酒). The ceremony includes the ritual pouring of TTL’s 19.5%-ABV Red Label Rice Wine into five small red cups, then combining those into two larger cups so they can be raised and offered by the two head officiants at the top-tier table.

No tea or wine is consumed during the rite, and the choice of Red Label Rice Wine is intriguing. Living people use it to cook, not imbibe. Yet it remains a common component of offerings to gods or ancestors. Modern-day Taiwanese do not seem to share with their ancestors the beers and whiskies they themselves prefer to drink.

In addition to the offerings placed inside the chamber devoted year-round to ancestral worship, on the day of the autumn equinox service, a mock sheep (on the left) and a mock pig (on the right) are positioned in the courtyard, facing the ancestor shrine. The flesh of both consists of uncooked thin rice noodles (麵線).

Grabbing fistfuls of uncooked noodles from the mock sheep at the end of the ceremony. Photo: Katy Hui-wen Hung

This new, vegetarian-friendly practice seems to be unique to the Lis of Daxi. The switch from real animals to noodles was made over a decade ago, we were told, to cut costs and reduce waste. However, sacrificing a real pig and a real sheep – most recently done in 2014 – to mark a particularly special occasion is not ruled out.

An officiant pours a glass of rice wine for the mock pig made of uncooked thin rice noodles. Photo: Katy Hui-wen Hung

At the end of the ceremony, those in attendance are issued plastic bags and invited to grab handfuls of noodles. Last September, both the sheep and the pig were obliterated within 10 minutes. Some people got more than others, and some nothing. Similar good-natured yet competitive snatching happens in some of Taiwan’s best-known temple events.

Li clan members note proudly that none of the solid food goes to waste, and this is one reason why, in recent years, the size and content of ritual offerings has been adjusted.

Once the ceremony is finished, rather than take the offerings home, most of the food is handed over to a bando chef who conjures up a meal for the trustees of the Li ancestor-worship guild and the clansmen who officiated at the ritual. The gathering may begin as a sober remembrance, but it ends as a jolly repast.

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