IDEAS ABOUT DEATH, GHOSTS AND THE AFTERLIFE IN CHINA

IDEAS ABOUT DEATH IN CHINA

20080222-preserved monk.jpg
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

See Separate Article on Ancestor Worship

Good Websites and Sources: Traditional Religion in China: Wikipedia article Wikipedia ; Religion Facts religionfacts.com; Deities Worshipped by Farmers China Vista ; Mazu China Vista ; Video: “Ancestor Worship, Confucian Teaching, featuring Myron L. Cohen Asia for Educators, Columbia University afe.easia.columbia.edu; Feng shui Wikipedia article Wikipedia ; Feng Shui Crazy fengshuicrazy.comfengshuisociety.org ;Skeptic’s Dictionary on Feng Shui skepdic.com ; Qi Gong Wikipedia article Wikipedia ; Classical text sources neigong.net ; Qi Gong Institute qigonginstitute.org ; Qi Gong association of America /www.qi.org ; Skeptic’s Dictionary on Qi Gong skepdic.com

Folk Beliefs and Superstitions: Chinatown Connection chinatownconnection.com ; New York Times on Earthquake superstitions nytimes.com ; Old Book on Superstitions archive.org/ or Old Book PDF Fileus.archive.org/2/items ; Five Elements chinatownconnection ; I Ching Wikipedia article Wikipedia ; China Vista chinavista.com ; Robert Eno, Indiana University indiana.edu;

Funerals and Death: Chinese Beliefs About Death deathreference.com ; Death and Burials in China chia.chinesemuseum.com.au ; Grief in China Culture www.indiana.edu ; Chinese Funeral Customs China Vista; Lucky Numbers Wikipedia article Wikipedia ; New York Times article nytimes.com ; China View article xinhuanet.com ; News in Science abc.net.au ; Symbols Chinese Symbols. Com chinese-symbols.com ; Chinatown Connection chinatownconnection.com ; What’s Your Sign whats-your-sign.com

Good Websites and Sources on Religion in China: Chinese Government White Paper on Religion china-embassy.org ; United States Commission on International Religious Freedom uscirf.gov/countries/china; Articles on Religion in China forum18.org ; Wikipedia article Wikipedia ; Council of Foreign Relations cfr.org ; Brooklyn College brooklyn.cuny.edu ; Religion Facts religionfacts.com; Religious Tolerance religioustolerance.org ; Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy stanford.edu ; Academic Info academicinfo.net ; Internet Guide to Chinese Studies sino.uni-heidelberg.de

Books: 1) James Watson and Evelyn Rawski, eds., “Death Ritual in Late Imperial and Modern China” (Berkeley, 1988); 2) the chapter by Maurice Freedman in “The Study of Chinese Society,” ed. G. William Skinner (Stanford, 1979), pp. 296-312; 3) Laurence Thompson, “Chinese Religion” (Belmont, 1979), Chapter 3; 4) C. K. Yang, “Religion in Chinese Society” (Berkeley, 1961), pp. 40-43, 52-53; 5) Henri Doré (1914-1933), “Researches into Chinese Superstitions,” trans. M. Kennelly, 6 vols. (Shanghai), vol. 4, pp. 417 ff.]; 5) Addison, James Thayer. “Chinese Ancestor Worship: A Study of its Meaning and its Relations with Christianity” (London: The Church Literature Committee of the Chung Hua Sheng Kung Hui, 1925); 6) Graham, David Crockett. “Folk Religion in Southwest China” (Washington: The Smithsonian Institution, 1961); Hsu, Francis L. K. “Under the Ancestor’s Shadow” (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1971); 7) "The Way of Qigong" by Kenneth Cohen (Ballantine Books); 8) "Astrology: A History" by Peter Whitfield (Abrams, 2001). You can help this site a little by ordering your Amazon books through this link: Amazon.com.

Chinese Soul

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

Ancestor Worship and the Afterlife in China


Ancestor veneration

Ancestor worship goes back deep into Chinese history. More than 5,000 years ago, the cultures of northern China were venerating the dead through highly systemized ceremonies. Echoes of these traditions still survive today. Peter Hessler wrote in National Geographic, “In ancient times the dead functioned in an extensive bureaucracy. Royal names were changed after death to mark the transition to new roles. The purpose of ancestor worship was not to remember the way people had been in life. Instead, it was about currying favor with the departed, who'd been given distinct responsibilities. Many oracle-bone inscriptions request that an ancestor make an offering of his own to an even higher power. [Source: Peter Hessler, National Geographic, January 2010 ^^^]

“In a culture as rich and ancient as China's, the line from past to present is never perfectly straight, and countless influences have shaped and shifted the Chinese view of the afterlife. Some Taoist philosophers didn't believe in life after death, but Buddhism, which began to influence Chinese thought in the second century A.D., introduced concepts of rebirth after death. Ideas of eternal reward and punishment also filtered in from Buddhism and Christianity." ^^^

“China's current changes are anything but conservative, and they are hard on the dead. Cemeteries are often destroyed by building projects, and many rural Chinese have migrated to cities, making it impossible to return home for Qingming. Some try alternative forms of grave care---there are websites that allow descendants to tend "virtual tombs." But it's difficult to think about the past in a fast-changing country, and many traditions simply fade away." ^^^

“Each year in Spring Valley it seems that fewer people turn out to celebrate Qingming. Yet the holiday survives, and some elements still recall ancient rituals. Village graves are organized with bureaucratic precision, each generation in its own row. Material concerns remain important: cigarettes, alcohol, and grave money for the dead. Perhaps someday even these traditions will be abandoned, but for now they still provide a link between past and present." ^^^

Early History of Chinese Religion and the Afterlife

Peter Hessler wrote in National Geographic,"The Chinese view of the afterlife has always been marked by qualities many Westerners would perceive as earthly. In ancient times the vision of the next world tended to be pragmatic, materialistic, even bureaucratic---values that are apparent in today's archaeological discoveries. When royal tombs are opened, they're usually characterized by meticulous organization and impressive wealth. The tradition of burying bodies with precious goods goes back at least as far as the fifth millennium B.C., when some tombs contained jade and pottery."[Source: Peter Hessler, National Geographic, January 2010]


Zhou-era sacrificial horsepit

“It's not until the Shang, a culture that flourished in northern China from roughly 1600 to 1045 B.C., that we have written evidence of how people viewed the afterlife. The earliest known Chinese writing appears on Shang oracle bones---ox scapulae and turtle shells used in rituals at the royal court. Cracked and interpreted, the bones were a means of communicating with the unseen world, including passing messages to ancestors of the royal family. “We ritually report the king's sick eyes to Grandfather Ding." “As to the coming of the Shaofang [an enemy], we make ritual-report to Father Ding."" ^^^

“The dead were believed to have great power over daily events. Unhappy ancestors could cause illness or disaster among the living, and many oracle bones refer to human sacrifices meant to appease these spirits. At one complex of tombs in Henan Province, excavations have uncovered more than 1,200 sacrificial pits, most of which contain human victims. An archaeologist once told me that he had counted 60 different ways a person could be killed during a Shang ceremony. But he also reminded me that these were rituals, not murder and mayhem. From the Shang perspective, human sacrifice was simply part of a remarkably well organized system. The Shang kept a strict calendar, with certain sacrificial days devoted to certain ancestors. They were meticulous almost to the point of scientific inquiry. In one instance, a diviner patiently made 70 individual oracle-bone cracks in order to determine which ancestor was responsible for a living king's toothache." ^^^

David N. Keightley, a historian at the University of California, Berkeley, told Hessler that he's particularly struck by how oracle-bone inscriptions convey a sense of hierarchy and order. "The more recently dead deal with the small things; the ones who have been dead for longer deal with the bigger things," he said. "This is a way to organize the world." ^^^

“After the Shang collapsed in 1045 B.C., divination using oracle bones was continued by the Zhou, a dynasty that ruled parts of northern China until the third century B.C. But the practice of human sacrifice gradually became less common, and royal tombs began to feature mingqi, or spirit objects, as substitutes for real goods. Ceramic figurines took the place of people. The terra-cotta soldiers commissioned by China's first emperor, Qin Shi Huang Di, who united the country under one dynasty in 221 B.C., are the most famous example. This army of an estimated 8,000 life-size statues was intended to serve the emperor in the hereafter." ^^^

“The next dynasty, the Han, left a collection of funeral goods that is less military in character. The tomb of Han Jing Di, who ruled from 157 to 141 B.C., has yielded an amazing array of spirit goods designed to reflect the needs of everyday life: reproductions of pigs, sheep, dogs, chariots, spades, saws, adzes, chisels, stoves, measuring devices. There are even official chops, or ink stamps, to be used by netherworld bureaucrats." ^^^

Ancient Ideas About the Afterlife Live on in China

“Yet many elements of early cultures such as the Shang and the Zhou remained recognizable across the millennia. The Chinese continued to worship their ancestors, and they continued to imagine the afterlife in material and bureaucratic terms. Near-death experiences gave rise to popular legends about how some low-level clerk in the netherworld miswrote a name on a ledger of the dead, nearly cutting a life short before the mistake was discovered. [Source: Peter Hessler, National Geographic, January 2010]

David Keightley told Hessler that the traditional Chinese view of death impressed him as optimistic. There's no concept of original sin, so entering the afterlife doesn't require a radical change. The world isn't fatally flawed; it provides a perfectly adequate model for the next stage. "In the West, it's all about rebirth, redemption, salvation," he said. "In the Chinese tradition, you die, but you remain what you are." Keightley believes that such ideas contributed to the stability of Chinese society. "Cultures that engage in ancestor worship are going to be conservative cultures," he said. "You're not going to find new things attractive, because that will be a challenge to the ancestors." ^^^

Ancient Burial Practices in China


Shang-era tomb of Fu Hao

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

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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. See Cultural Revolution.

Chinese Underworld

According to Columbia University’s Asia for Educators: “According to Chinese popular religion, there are three domains in the cosmos -- Heaven, Earth, and the Underworld -- and each domain is populated by a host of important gods and goddesses. The Underworld Domain is where the souls of the deceased are held accountable for their actions in life. All souls receive their “final judgment” in the Underworld Domain, after which they are reincarnated. [Source: Asia for Educators, Columbia University afe.easia.columbia <|>]

“Although partially derived from Buddhism, the Underworld in its Chinese form had long been assimilated into the hierarchical framework of popular religion and was seen as the domain of ten judges or Magistrates of Hell. This domain was a transitory space and time for the souls of the dead and could not properly be called “hell” in the Christian sense of a place of perpetual punishment for a permanent, unchanging self. Still, the domain of the ten magistrates was a place where souls were held accountable for their actions in life and had to submit to sometimes horrible punishments. <|>

“The Underworld was thought to be a vast duplicate or alternate version of the Earthly realm, complete with houses and furniture, streets and gardens, and of course teeming with souls “passing through” on their way to being reincarnated back into the world of the living. These waiting souls were taken care of by their living descendants, who burned paper offerings to them at their funerals. The paper offerings included items such as houses, horses, and money and were meant to ensure that the soul of the deceased would have a “pleasant stay” in the Underworld realm and enjoy the same trappings of life there that the living enjoyed in the Earthly realm. <|>

Journey to the Underworld


One of the Ten Kings of Hell

According to Columbia University’s Asia for Educators: “According to popular religious beliefs in traditional China, when a person died the local Earth God (or, as some accounts went, the god who had accompanied the person throughout his or her life and kept a record or his or her good and evil deeds) immediately took charge of the soul that was to undertake the journey to the Underworld and brought this soul before the local City God, who looked over the record of deeds that accompanied the soul. The City God then sent the soul down into the Underworld to go before the first of ten judges, also called the ten Magistrates of Hell. [Source: Asia for Educators, Columbia University afe.easia.columbia.edu/cosmos <|>]

“The Underworld domain of the Chinese cosmos was a transitory space and time for just one of the multiple souls of the dead and could not properly be called “hell” in the Christian sense of a place of perpetual punishment for a permanent, unchanging self. Still, the domain of the ten magistrates was a place where souls were held accountable for their actions in life and harsh punishments were meted out. <|>

“The few who had led exemplary lives could hope to obtain early or even immediate release from the Underworld realm and enter either the blissful “Western Pure Land” of the Buddha Amitabha or the Heaven of the Jade Emperor, but the majority had to go before all ten Hell Magistrates and atone for their misdeeds in life. The basic conduct of mourning and funerary rituals was carried on with this assumption: that very few people, if any, obtain an “early release” from the Underworld for having lived an unusually virtuous life. Thus, the point of the rituals was to get the deceased through the ten Courts of Hell as quickly as possible.” <|>

Chinese Heaven (Pure Land) and the Golden Bridge

According to Columbia University’s Asia for Educators: “ Heaven, Earth, and the Underworld are each populated by a host of important gods and goddesses. The Heavenly Domain is ruled by the Jade Emperor, who presides over a court of important deities who are worshipped throughout China. Human beings who have lived exemplary lives can enter this domain after death by crossing the “the silver bridge” and being reborn as gods. [Source: Asia for Educators, Columbia University afe.easia.columbia.edu/cosmos <|>]

The rare soul that had led an exemplary life could gain immediate release from the Underworld Realm and leave by way of two bridges, often called the “Golden Bridge” and the “Silver Bridge.” Each bridge led to a very different destiny, and the soul had to choose between the two. The Golden Bridge took the soul to the “Pure Land of the West” (Xifang jingtu; also see Note 8, below), which was not a part of the cosmos. This Pure Land was presided over by the Buddha Amitabha, and after encountering Amitabha face-to-face, the soul could finally achieve what institutional Buddhism called nirvana -- complete release from the cycle of birth and rebirth. Thus, a soul choosing the Western Pure Land attained salvation from the cosmos itself. The Silver Bridge, on the other hand, led to Heaven, which was an important domain of the cosmos. Heaven was ruled by the Jade Emperor and populated by gods and heavenly officials. The soul entering into Heaven via the Silver Bridge would be reborn as a god and become an important figure in the cosmos. [ 8 The “Pure Land of the West” at the end of the Golden Bridge has nothing to do with the term “the West,” which is now commonly used to refer to Europe and the Americas. The notion that paradise is toward the west is a very ancient one in China, dating as far back as pre-Buddhist times] <|>

“This choice between the Pure Land beyond the cosmos and the Heavenly domain within the cosmos represents a major tension in Chinese popular religion. Was it more desirable to escape the cosmos altogether and experience eternal bliss in the Pure Land, or to remain in the cosmos as a god in Heaven? Both options rely on ideas that originated with the arrival of Buddhism in China and point to the important impact of Buddhism on the totality of Chinese religious thinking. <|>

“Though all souls in the Underworld might hope for immediate release to the Pure Land or to Heaven, the majority must face judgment and some punishment before all ten Magistrates of Hell. The basic conduct of mourning and funerary rituals was carried on with this assumption: that very few people, if any, get to cross either the Golden Bridge or the Silver Bridge. Thus, the point of the rituals was to get the deceased through the ten Courts of Hell as quickly as possible.” <|>


Pure Land of the Western Buddha


Ten Magistrates of the Underworld and the Tenth Court of Hell

According to Columbia University’s Asia for Educators: “The popular conception of the ten Magistrates of Hell was modeled on bureaucrats of the imperial government. Each magistrate had control over a specific domain -- a separate “hell” -- just as a county magistrate in the imperial system had his own domain, separate from that of the other county magistrates. And just as the imperial bureaucrat had his own staff, the Underworld Magistrate was surrounded by ferocious lictors who aided in the execution of the various punishments. In paintings the Underworld Magistrates were depicted almost exactly like government magistrates, so that they even had “offices” that looked just like the offices of earthly government magistrates. [More on how the Chinese conception of gods is based on the Chinese bureaucracy...] [Source: Asia for Educators, Columbia University afe.easia.columbia.edu/cosmos <|>]

“The various punishments inflicted by the Hell Magistrates’ lictors, along with the layout of the ten (or eighteen, by some accounts) hells of the Underworld, were very commonly known in late-imperial China. Every City God temple had depictions of the Courts of Hell that included graphic representations of the harshest, most gruesome punishments allotted to sinners. Visitors to the temple would see a depiction of, for example, a grain merchant cheating on his weights, next to a depiction of the same merchant’s soul in one of the courts of hell being crushed by the very weight measures that he had distorted in his life. <|>

“At the tenth and final court of hell souls received their final judgment and were reincarnated. Some were reincarnated as animals, as punishment for bad behavior; others were reincarnated as human beings, but given a more or less favorable social position than in their past life, depending on how virtuous they had been in that life. Before reincarnation occurred, according to many popular accounts, a woman called “Aunt Meng” forced the soul to drink a kind of potion for forgetting the previous life. <|>

“No matter how sinful a soul had been, punishment in the Underworld realm was not eternal, and with the exception of the very few who were virtuous enough to gain entry into the “Pure Land of the West,” all souls were eventually reincarnated. In this way the originally Buddhist idea of the unending cycle of life, death, and rebirth (sa?sara) was prominently incorporated into popular notions of cosmic continuity and cosmic reproduction.” <|>


King of Hell


Chinese Hell Scrolls

Ken E. Brashier of Reed College wrote: Chinese hell scrolls “treat the afterlife as a spectacle, as a display intended for public consumption. Ostensibly based on popular tales such as Tang Emperor Taizong's visit to hell in the first half of the seventh century C.E., they attract their viewers through their dark and yet cartoonish torture scenes, appealing to the same morbid curiosity fed by gothic novels, horror movies and Halloween ghosts in the West. Yet their main function was not entertainment but didactic, propagating a basic message of retribution. Every act of goodness will be rewarded; every act of evil will be justly answered. Releasing an animal intended for slaughter or financing the distribution of sutras will be recorded by scribes in heaven, improving one's chances of escaping hell for the "Pure Land" in the west. Cheating in the marketplace with deceptive weights and measures or behaving in an unfilial manner toward one's parents will be revealed in the karma mirror at judgment time, dooming the perpetrator to hideous torture. Retribution is certain, and the only unkown variable is just when it might occur. It could come in a year, a day or an hour, and that uncertainty in itself was incentive for immediate and constant moral vigilence. [Source: Ken E. Brashier, Reed College, Reed College Chinese Hell Scrolls Website ==]

“The tradition of depicting hell as a bureaucratic series of courts overseen by magistrates dates back to at least the Tang Dynasty (618-907), but the hell scrolls in this study collection are much more recent and date from the 18th to the 20th centuries, the oldest dated scroll being 1735. These scrolls are typically informed by stories preserved in popular epics such as "The journey to the West" (a.k.a. "Monkey") and operas such as "Mulian saves his mother," and characters from these various tales - including the character of Taizong himself - appear among the torture scenes. Often in sets of ten, the scrolls were displayed during protracted funeral observances to give an itinerary of the deceased's days between death and rebirth. The tenth hell serves as a redistribution center for the souls of the dead as they yet again attempt to become good human beings unless their sins were sufficiently heinous to merit another kind of rebirth. ==

Sutra of the past vows of Earth Store Bodhisattva reads: “On hearing this, Bright Eyes asked, "What happens during retribution in the hells?", The servant's son answered, "Merely to speak of those sufferings is unbearable, and even a hundred thousand years would not suffice to describe them all."

Funeral Practices in China

According to Columbia University’s Asia for Educators: “There were two universal aspects of ancestor veneration in traditional China: mortuary rites (sangli) and sacrificial rites (jili). Mortuary rites involved elaborate mourning practices that differed in particulars from region to region but shared certain major features. These were, in the order they usually occurred: 1) public notification of the death through wailing and other expression of grief; 2) the wearing of white mourning clothing by members of the bereaved family; 3) ritualized bathing of the corpse; 4) the transfer of food, money, and other symbolic goods from the living to the dead; 5) the preparation and installation of a spirit tablet for the deceased; 6) the payment of ritual specialists, including Buddhist monks and Daoist priests; 7) the playing of music to accompany the corpse and settle the spirit; 8) the sealing of the corpse in an air-tight coffin; 9) the expulsion of the coffin from the community. [James Watson and Evelyn Rawski, eds., Death Ritual in Late Imperial and Modern China (Berkeley, 1988), pp. 12-15] [Source: Asia for Educators, Columbia University afe.easia.columbia <|>]


Procession with a xingshen (traveling image of god)


“In most regions of China a funeral procession for the body and spirit tablet, followed by a feast for family members, marked the formal conclusion of the mourning process. Sacrificial rites consisted of daily or bimonthly devotions and anniversary services. Families burned incense every day on the domestic ancestral altar, which houses the family spirit tablets in hierarchical order. In front of the tablets often glowed an eternal flame, symbol of the ancestor’s abiding presence within the household. Anniversary rites took place on the death date of each major deceased member of the family. Sacrificial food was offered, and living members of the family participated in the ceremony in ritual order based on age and generation. Sacrifices were also made to the ancestors during major festival periods and on important family occasions such as births and weddings. In general, these domestic devotions reflected a ritual apparatus characteristic of most other forms of Chinese religious practice. [ See chapter by Richard J. Smith in Orthodoxy in Late Imperial China, ed. Kwang-Ching Liu (Berkeley, 1990)] <|>

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 Zhuangzi 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.


Chinese equivalent of the Judgement Day


Chinese Ghosts

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.


Hungry ghost goddrama


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 and Revolutionary Martyrs 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.

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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: Dead monk, Brooklyn College; urn, alibi.com, Wikimedia Commons,

Text Sources: Robert Eno, Indiana University indiana.edu /+/ ; Asia for Educators, Columbia University afe.easia.columbia.edu <|>; University of Washington’s Visual Sourcebook of Chinese Civilization, depts.washington.edu/chinaciv /=\; National Palace Museum, Taipei npm.gov.tw \=/; Library of Congress; New York Times; Washington Post; Los Angeles Times; China National Tourist Office (CNTO); Xinhua; China.org; China Daily; Japan News; Times of London; National Geographic; The New Yorker; Time; Newsweek; Reuters; Associated Press; Lonely Planet Guides; Compton’s Encyclopedia; Smithsonian magazine; The Guardian; Yomiuri Shimbun; AFP; Wikipedia; BBC. Many sources are cited at the end of the facts for which they are used.

Last updated September 2016

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