Chinese religion and strict cultural beliefs are inseparable from the death rites performed. Many different names for death are scattered throughout Chinese history, including an ideogram that depicts a person kneeling in front of their ancestor’s bones 1. In Chinese culture, death rites are intricate and well thought out works on preparing one for the afterlife and rebirth. Chinese funeral rites have strict guidelines as to where the rites are to be performed, how the rites are performed (ritual bathing of the corpse), the dress of the attendees and the dead, the transfer of material goods on Earth to the dead, acknowledgement of the deceased and the actual burial of the body.
All these sacred rites are performed by specialists (usually priests or otherwise) who are paid by the deceased’s family members. Death rituals carry on long after the burial of the body in terms of grieving for the dead. These rites include returning to the burial site on specific dates to mourn, perform yuan-fen (a symbolic act in which the burial site is rounded off with dirt to give it a nice and proper shape) and burning of incense and earthly offerings 2.
Attitudes and beliefs on death and the afterlife are quite the same among the Chinese people of the late Imperial Chinese culture and the Chinese culture of today. The continuing traditions of the ritualistic burials sheds light on one way a society can be linked culturally.
1. T.C. Lai “To The Yellow Springs: The Chinese View of Death” (17) Hong Kong: Joint Publbishing Co. and Kelly & Walsh, 1983
2. Watson, James L. and Evelyn L. Rawski “Death Ritual in Late Imperial and Modern China” (12-15) Berklely: University of California Press, 1988
Different cultures harbor different views on death and dying, and it is important to understand the significance of these contrasting elements of other cultures and our own. The Chinese cultures do not see death as something shy away from, but rather it is a part of life that is revered. Death is such a scared step that it embodies many different characters for definition such as ni 3a and qi shi 3b. The transition from being a mortal and alive and being deceased is very important to the Chinese. The Chinese have a strict set of funeral rites that must be followed completely in order for the transition between this world and the world after death to be smooth- the rites are so embedded in culture and rich with rules that there is even a set time for certain levels of grievances. Death rites are often followed by a series of mourning sessions over the year. However, death rituals for those higher up in society, of course, differ from those of the common man.
James L. Watson states that “To be Chinese is to understand, and accept the view, that there is a correct way to perform rites associated with the life-cycle, the most important being weddings and funerals. By following accepted ritual routines ordinary citizens participated in the process of cultural unification.” 4 and with this in mind we can begin to understand the reason why the Chinese abode by such rigid structure for the burial of a deceased person. The structure that was imposed on the people of China was embraced because it brought everyone together.
3. T.C. Lai “To the Yellow Springs: The Chinese View of Death” (18) Hong Kong: Joint Publbishing Co. and Kelly & Walsh, 1983
4. Quote from: Watson, James L. “Death Ritual in Late Imperial and Modern China” The Structure of Chinese Funerary Rites: Elementary Forms, Ritual Sequence, and the Primacy of Performance (3)
The sequence in which the ritual is performed is laid out perfectly and begins with public notification that a death has occurred. As soon as a death has occurred women in the presence of the death must announce the death by wailing at the top of her lungs, such wailings, as documented by Watson were not voluntary. Along with the informal announcement of death was a formal one where white banners and blue lanterns are placed around the abode and along the doorway. Some of the formal notices were voluntary in part of China, whereas in some parts they were also mandatory.
Not much unlike Western culture, different colors hint to a time of mourning. Instead of wearing black (like in Western cultures), those who are mourning the deceased in China are seen wearing white clothes, shoes and cloaks that are usually made out of sackcloth or hemp. Although mourning colors differ in different parts of China, white is the universal color of mourning for the Chinese. These mourning clothes are usually ragged, unbleached, unhemmed and white. 5
The corpse must go through a series of cleansings and blessings before it is allowed to be buried. A ritualized bathing of the corpse is required before it goes on to the next step in the rites. In south China the water is not gathered by the family themselves, but rather, bought from a deity of a sacred well. This particular rite is called mai-shui or roughly translated, “buying water”. There are
5. Jones, Constance R.I.P. The Complete Book Of Death And Dying New York: HarperCollins Publishers, 1997 (Pg. 163) several ways the corpse is cleansed–from scrubbing with the water bought, or a gentle dab on the forehead with the sacred water. Along with the cleaning is the donning of new clothes on the corpse.
The next step in the funerary rites would be the transfer of material goods to the dead. Things like paper clothes, cardboard houses, furniture and servants and other things the dead might need in the afterlife would be transferred into the world of the dead by burning them in a big pot. Food was presented as an offering to the deceased and afterwards, the mourners would partake in the food. 6
Food is an integral part of Chinese tradition and culture, especially with the ritualized steps of burial. Stuart E. Thompson says that, “To be Chinese is to perform Chinese ritual and vice-versa; to be Chinese is also to eat Chinese-style food with Chinese-style implements.” It is explained that the food used in the rites are to transform a corpse into an ancestor. Food is a centerpiece in the ritual more than once.
1. Foods are presented as soon as the person dies and once again during the ceremonial coffining of the body. Rice is a crucial part of Chinese diet and rice balls and other food products (roast pork and such) are usually placed on top of his/her coffin to accompany the dead on their journey. Parts of the ceremony are used to separate the living from the dead, for instance, the breaking of bowls to break the ties between the dead and his/her descendants. After the breaking of the bowls, the
6. Watson, James L. “The Structure of Chinese Funerary Rites” from Death Ritual in Late Imperial and Modern China. (12-13) family members must insure that the deceased does not return upset, so the belongings of the deceased must be symbolically distributed among his/her heirs using the food on top of the coffin.
2. After the coffining of the body, food is presented to the coffin at least twice a day by the daughter-in-law of the deceased. These offerings are made until the coffin is buried. Sometimes, the offerings continue even after burial.
3. A farewell feast is giving either the day before, or on the day of the burial. This tradition is to ensure that transformation from being deceased into an ancestor is complete. Prized offerings consist of either pig heads or whole pigs along with rice. Along with the farewell feast for the deceased, some offerings are given to hungry ghosts whom would usually steal from the deceased on his/her journey.
4. Wine, usually rice wine, is poured into three cups for the dead on the burial grounds. This is the last rite before the body passes on to become an ancestor.
5. Food is presented again after the burial when everyone returns to the home where the ceremony began. Ancestral tablets (explained further in this paper) are then set on specially built alters or mantles. (My own family has the ashes of the deceased on a mantle in which food is presented to them at every meal) 7
7. Thompson, Stuart E. “Death, Food, And Fertility” from Death Ritual in the Late Imperial and Modern China. (75-76)
Soul tablets are made for the deceased (except for children and unknown people) as a symbol of a part of their soul. These soul tablets are made by ritual specialists and are placed either on an alter (of those who are married) or in temples, specified institutions or covenants for a fee (for unwed women). These tablets were very important to the rites of the dead. A written Chinese name was required for these tablet, hence the reason why unknown strangers could not receive one. The dead were not recognized by any materialistic idol or pictures, but only by their written Chinese name.
Music was also an integral part of the burial sequence. There were two different kinds of sounds that were used to either ward off evil spirits or aid the passing of the soul. High-pitched piping and drumming were the two common sounds heard during burial rites. These sounds are usually played during transitions in the ritual, usually when physical movement of the corpse is taking place. Music is also played during the sealing of the corpse. The Chinese found that this is the most important feature of all the different acts. The coffins made of wood have been with the Chinese since the Neolithic. Again, paid specialists are the ones who make sure the corpse is stationary within the coffin. They secure the lid on with nails and caulking compounds to be sure that the coffin is airtight. The nailing of the coffin is the most important part of the whole ritual. The hammering is usually done by the main mourner or by an invited guest who holds a high social status.
The final sequence is the removal of the coffin from the village. However, this last rite does not need to be performed immediately. It is actually a sign of respect for the coffin to be kept close to the family over a long period of time. But of course, there comes a time when the coffin must leave the hands of the living. 8
Those who are relatively wealthy will be able to carry out every burial rite with the assistance of a burial specialist. Watson explains that, “The ethnographic evidence suggests that, among the Cantonese, there is a hierarchy of specialists ranked according to the relative exposure to the pollution of death. This hierarchy also reflects the standards of skill, training, and literacy required to carry out ritual tasks” (Death Ritual in Late Imperial and Modern China. 109) The highest ranking specialist is the Geomancer (a person who has the ability to foretell the future by using signs from the earth) whose work demands high levels of skill and literacy. Next in line are priests who receive their knowledge through years of apprenticeship. Priests are moderately literate in order to perform mortuary rites.
Those who rank below priests are usually illiterate, mainly because their line of work usually does not require any reading or skill. These specialists range from pipers, nuns, musicians, and overall helpers. There are also helpers who rank even lower than those below priests and these are the corpse handlers. Corpse handlers’ tasks involve washing the corpse, dressing the corpse and arranging the corpse in the coffin, and finally carrying the coffin to its burial ground, digging the grave, and disposing items that are directly associated with the corpse 9. Corpse handlers are of the lowest ranking ritual specialists because they are deemed as highly polluted by death and are set apart from the other specialists.
8. Watson, James L. Death Rituals in Late Imperial and Modern China (12-15)
9. Watson, James L. “Funeral Specialists in Cantonese Society: Pollution, Performance, and Social Hierarchy” Death Ritual in Late Imperial and Modern China (109-110)
Along with the ritual sequence come the many names for death. As explained before, the earliest concept of death was characterized as a person kneeling before his ancestor’s bones. The deaths of people of different ranks in society are characterized differently from one another. The death of sovereign is called beng ,which comes from the sound of a large building collapsing. The death of a prince is called hong (the sound of something breaking), a government minister’s death is called cu (“the end”), and that of an official is called bu lu (meaning: ending the enjoyment of emolument), however, the death of a common person is less extravagant–si simply means “to expire”. Just like the many characters there are for the people who pass away, there are many characters for the ways people can die, for example, death from old age is called shou zhong which translates to “the termination of longevity”, which death while young is called yao which means “breaking in mid-journey”. 10
With the different ways they have to describe death in one or two words, it is hard not to notice that the Chinese are very much interested in the process of death. In China, the spring time is time for purification and regeneration. The Spring Festival is held every spring and it is very important to the comfort of the dead. During the festival, descendants will visit graves of their ancestors to honor and care for the burial ground and body it incases. Prayers and sacrifices are made to the dead during that time and the act of “saluting the tomb” is practiced.
10. Text adapted from To the Yellow Springs: The Chinese View of Death by T.C. Lai. Hong Kong: Joint Publishing Co. and Kelly & Walsh. (1983) (Text 18)
“Saluting the tomb” is an act where red-colored rice and peeled eggs, which are symbolic of the saying “old gives way to the new”, are placed on top of the burial ground. November is the month that harbors Ghost Day celebrations. Ghost day is a special day where people burn paper money as offerings to their ancestors. Another day of celebration is the Winter Dress Festival where paper clothes and such are burned for their ancestors, again this holiday is celebrated in October and November 11.
These celebrations do not directly pertain to spirits who are in a state of unrest. In China a ghost, a male ghost is called kuei while the female is called yao, is a spirit whose death was either very unusual or very violent criminal act. The Chinese are extremely superstitious. It is said that ghosts linger relatively close to the location of their death. For example, Ghosts of thieves would sometimes be seen close to the area of their execution. Another common superstition (one that was also taught to me) was that if a pregnant woman were to walk past a spot where a person has died, that spirit would attempt to expel the child’s soul and replace it with its own to be reborn 12. Anniversary ghosts also exist in Chinese culture. Anniversary ghosts are essentially ghosts who appear on the anniversary of their death to re-enact the scene. The only way this can be stopped is if someone dies in its place on that same day, the same way, in the same spot so that the soul that is trapped and doomed to repeat its painful death will be released.
Unfortunately, the person who has died in their place will be doomed to repeat his
11. Jones, Constance The Complete Book of Death and Dying (135)
12. Jones, Constance The Complete Book of Death and Dying (129) or her death, unless a specialist performs a ritual to set the spirit free.
One can already tell that the Chinese have great respect for the dead and their ancestors. Chinese attitudes and beliefs about death are influenced by Buddhism, Taoism and Confucianism 13.
“If one does not know life, how can he begin to know death.”
Confucius (Fig. 1)
The Chinese honors the dead regularly by presenting offerings and prayers since they believe that these practices push forth the sense that death occurs all the time and that it should be accepted into daily life.
13. Jones, Constance R.I.P. The Complete Book of Death and Dying (12)
14. Figure 1 is from T.C. Lai To The Yellow Springs (14)
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