IDEAS ABOUT DEATH IN CHINA
Dead monk The Communists dismissed traditional ideas about death and burial. In the Mao era, cremation was made the norm and funerals were discouraged and looked upon as superstitious acts associated with feudalism. Graves were regarded as a waste of good farm land; coffins a waste of wood. In some cities burying bodies was made a crime and the bodies of foreigners were disinterred so the land could be put more constructive uses. The government still discourages body burials and elaborate funerals but these directives are widely ignored.
There are about 8.7 million deaths a year in China. It is a lot of work dealing with all these bodies. The main crematoria in Shanghai, which cremates more than 100,000 corpses a year, has been compared to an assembly line factory. The average cost of a funeral is $50. See Funerals
Good Websites and Sources: Chinese Beliefs About Death deathreference.com ; Death and Burials in China chia.chinesemuseum.com.au ; Grief in China Culture www.indiana.edu ; China Funeral bearspage.info ; Chinese Funeral Customs China Vista : Links in this Website: FUNERALS IN CHINA Factsanddetails.com/China ;TIBETAN FUNERALS Factsanddetails.com/China
The Chinese concept of the soul is influenced by Buddhism, Confucianism, Taoism and folk religions. Confucians have traditionally promoted the idea that there is a hierarchy of souls within an individual and these souls are linked with cosmic energies of the universe. Taoists, Confucians and followers of folk religion believe that after death the energies of the human soul return to basic energies of the universe, often in the form of yin and yang forces, and the different souls need help to go their separate ways, with the hun-soul associated with the yang force being the most important.
Taoists have traditionally been obsessed with immortality and believe that human energies live on in underworlds, spiritual mountains and heavenly places. Buddhists promote the idea of judgments and reincarnations. The traditional Chinese view on judgement is that there are Ten Kings who make decisions on who is sent to an Earth Prison in the Underworld and who is reborn in heaven.
“Ghosts” are souls that remain on earth harassing and causing trouble for the living. They are thought to be souls that failed to reach the afterlife because of 1) some problem they encountered on their journey; 2) a lack of a proper send off by their living relatives on earth; or 3) tragic circumstances surrounding their death or life. Special rituals are often held to send these ghosts to their afterlife destination. See Ghosts, Superstitions
See Taoism, Life, Death and the Afterlife
See Folk Religions
Ancient Burial Practices in China
Metal cremation urn In ancient times, many people believed that the souls of the dead lived on after death in another world, where they needed all the same things they needed when they were alive on earth. In the Shang dynasty, real people and animals were often killed to accompany people of high status into the afterlife. See Shang Dynasty, History
The practice continued until relatively recent times. In 1849, King Thien tri in present-day Vietnam was buried with all of his childless wives so they could prepare his meals in the afterlife.
During the Zhou Dynasty (1122-221 B.C), this custom of burying real people and animals with the deceased was abandoned and pottery and wooden burial figures were buried with them instead. This means of expression reached it peak with terra cotta army of Emperor Qin. See Xian, Places; Empeor Qon, History
By the Han Dynasty (206 B.C.-220 A.D.), it was common for emperors and other noblemen to decorate their tombs with pottery replicas of warriors, concubines, servants, horses, domestic animals, trees, plants, furniture, models of towers, granaries, mortars and pestles, stoves and toilets, and almost everything found in the real world. Royal concubines were buried with fine silks, precious jades and cosmetic boxes. Storytellers were sent to the afterlife with ink stand and bamboo pens. Musicians took their instruments with them.
Because of its beauty and hardness, jade was a symbol of long life. About 40 jade suits—mummy-like casing made of stamp-size jade plates that cover the body of the dead from head to foot—have been discovered. The oldest has been dated to the 2nd century B.C. One belonging to a prince named Liu Sheng, discovered near Chengdu, Sichuan, was made of 2,498 jade plates sewn together with silk and gold wire.
Wealth was has often been the determining factor in how was a person was burried. At one extreme, some rulers were buried in elaborate suits accompanied by 50 or so extra burial suits. On other extreme children in poor families were wrapped in matting and were left at a street corner to be picked by a man with a black cart pulled by a black cow.
See History and Art
Beliefs About Death in China
bodies in the Yellow River White is the traditional color of mourning in China. Chinese believe that it is lucky to die in your own home and unlucky for your hosts if you die in someone else's home, where the dead person's spirits will haunt those people for a long time.
The Chinese have traditionally regarded the lives of people who didn’t have children as less meaningful than those who did and considered the deaths of babies, bachelors, spinsters or married people without children as something less than the deaths of adults with children. Some believe unmarried souls are not allowed to enter heaven and the death of person who has lived a full life is more worthy of deep sadness than the premature death of a young person whose life had not yet begun.
The custom of cannibalizing enemies to acquire their strength and power continued into the 20th century. In 1912, the heart of a well-known rebel leader was extracted after he was killed by soldiers and ritually cooked and eaten so the soldiers could gain some of the leader’s courage. During the Cultural Revolution there were reports of several hundred “counter-revolutionaries” being publically killed, cooked and eaten in Guangxi province.
Death Customs in China
Chinese place great importance on being buried in their home villages. Chinese say "the leaves fall close to the roots" and have traditionally believed that if people are not buried in their home village their spirits will wander the earth forever. Even Chinese who have lived overseas for generations want to be buried with their ancestors in China. Elderly people have traditionally prepared for death by making sure they were in their home towns, in some cases performing their own pre-death rituals, picking out their own coffins and the clothes they will wear and making their own funeral arrangements.
Another important consideration is being buried without any body parts missing. The Chinese have traditionally been reluctant to donate organs and eye corneas, or even give blood, because of the belief they need to "stay whole" or their body parts won't accompany them to the hereafter or an incomplete body will prevent them from being allowed into heaven. Hospitals are frequently unable to perform required autopsies because families refuse consent out of concerns over damaging the body. See Organ Transplants, Health; Eunuchs, Imperial History
Keeping the body intact is based in part on Confucian belief that every hair your parents give you deserves respect. In ancient times traitors and spies were sentenced by imperial courts to "five horses split the body," a punishment intended to destroy the person not only on earth but in the hereafter. Even today one of the worst Chinese insults you can hurl at some is to "die an incomplete corpse."
Not everyone was concerned about the integrity of the body after death. Shortly before his own death the famous Taoist philosopher Chuang Tzu turned down an offer to be buried in an elaborate coffin that was supposed to protect him from birds of prey. "Above the ground," he said, "it's crows and the kites who will eat me; below the ground it's the worms and ants. What prejudice is this, that you wish to take from the one to give to the other?"
In southern China people who handle the dead are social pariahs. In the Canton area, priests who preside over funerals are known by a special derogatory name and are not regarded as members of the village community. They are the only people who are allowed to communicate with the body-handling specialists but otherwise they try to avoid contact with corpses and coffins.
In some places it is a custom for parents to send their children into the forest to cut wood for the parent's coffin.
The Chinese generally recognize three kinds of ghosts: 1) “orphaned ghosts,” who left no descendants to make offerings to them; 2) “vengeful ghosts,” who have died in an accident or have been angered by some perceived injustice and need to be appeased; and 3) “hungry ghosts,” who have been condemned to their ghostly form for some misdeeds they have done. They usually have huge bellies but small mouths and are so named because they are perpetually hungry because they can never get enough food to satisfy them.
Most ghosts are regarded as women because women have traditionally been more likely to be mistreated during their lives on earth and want to seek revenge against the men that mistreated them from the otherworld after they are dead. Even today many suicidal women put on red underwear before they kill themselves because they believe it will help them seek justice from the otherworld.
Many Chinese believe that ghosts reside among the living. The writer Amy Tan wrote that her father’s ghost “sat at our dinner table and ate Chinese food. We laid out chopsticks, and a bowl for our unseen guest at every meal.” She said there were other ghosts. “I could sense them. My mother told me I could.”
Ghost Month in China
Ghost Month, or Hungry Ghost Month, begins on the full moon of the seventh month of the lunar calendar, usually around mid August, and lasts for 15 days to a month. It is a time when some Chinese believe spirits get a "summer vacation" from the other world and return to the mortal world to cause mischief and enjoy feasts, performances of Chinese opera and other activities. Firecrackers are set off to scare away dangerous ghosts while ancestors are welcomed with bonfire offerings and recitations of Buddhist scripture.
Chinese go out of their to be nice to ghosts and go about their activities with more caution than usual. Many people avoid traveling, moving into new homes, opening businesses, or getting married because ghosts associated with these endevours could cause mischief. People who die during Ghost Month are sometimes stored and buried when Ghost Month is over.
Businessmen dread Ghost Month because people are often reluctant to buy anything; partiers stay home; wives orders their husbands to come home straight form work; and tourists stay away from beach resorts out of fear of being captured by ghosts in the water. The ghost month in 2006 was particularly nasty because it was a calender year with two seventh months, when the gates of hell open and the dead walk among the living twice.
Spirits are placated with k’o t’ous (bows), prayers, offerings of chicken, pork, rice spirits and wine, and banquets and operas. Buddhists sutras are chanted to transfer merit to the dead and 2.5-meter candles are lit to honor them. After sunset many people make small fires and burn incense, paper televisions, paper Rolexes, paper cell phones, paper Mercedes Benzes and wads of “hell money” to appease the ghosts and encourage them to bring about good fortune. An old saying goes: "The bigger the flame, the better your luck will be."
The offerings and burnings can take place at the graves of ancestors but are usually directed towards “soul tablets” of the deceased in homes and temples. Buddhist monks and Taoist priests are hired to conduct special rituals to placate “hungry ghosts.”
Operas featuring ghosts are fixtures of Ghost Month, especially in Hong Kong. Explaining the purpose of an opera for ghosts one Hong Kong theater owner told Reuters, "This show is for the gods and the ghosts, but humans can come and watch too...What we're doing is telling the ghosts to leave us alone, not to create trouble or frighten our neighbors and kids." Empty chairs are set out for ghosts.
Ghost Month is a Chinese holiday celebrated mostly by Chinese in Taiwan, Singapore, Malaysia, and Hong Kong although it is making a come back in China even though it has been denounced by the government as foolish superstition.
Dead Monks in China
Chin Hang was a Buddhist monk with a great many followers in Taiwan. Shortly before his death he asked his followers to place his body in an urn after he died to test his holiness. He said if his body had not decayed he wanted to be painted with pure gold. After five years, when enough money for gold had been collected, the urn was opened and the body was still intact. Today Chin Hang's gilded body can be seen at a display at a Tai pei pagoda.
Until recently Chinese who died a heroic death were given the title “revolutionary martyr.” The requirement for receiving the honor was being “killed by his enemy when carrying out revolutionary tasks.” In the early years of Communist rule, most such martyrs were soldiers or people who gave their lives for others. As of 2008, about 340,000 individuals had been named “revolutionary martyrs.” The most famous honoree was Lee Feng, the model soldier.
As the Communist Party consolidated its power and soldier spents most of their time in their barracks, the award began to be given more and more to non-soldiers. In 1980 the award was opened up to civil servants and member of the general public with the right political credentials.
In 2008, the word “revolutionary” was removed from the title, leaving simply “martyr.” The stipulation that one had to be a socialist to receive the award was also removed. Families of a “martyr” receive a full pension based on the martyr’s income and a one-time payment equivalent to 15 times the avenge annual income (currently $33,600).
Image Sources: 1) Dead monk, Brooklyn College ; 2) urn, alibi.com; 3) McClatchy-Tribune News Service; 4) Laogai Museum
Text Sources: New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Times of London, National Geographic, The New Yorker, Time, Newsweek, Reuters, AP, Lonely Planet Guides, Compton’s Encyclopedia and various books and other publications.
© 2008 Jeffrey Hays
Last updated April 2010