Wednesday, November 16, 2011


According to a Daoist legend, the red-faced god, the Big Dipper (běi)(dǒu)(xīng), determines the hour of death of every human being. While the Nandou star (nán)(dòu)(xīng)[1] and the god are playing chess together, both will decide together about the fate of every human being upon earth.

A basic element in the Chinese tradition is that of the reciprocal link between the living and the dead.  The dead influence the quality of life of the living, for good or bad. In traditional China, proper burial, mourning ceremonies, and offerings to the ancestors, were believed to ensure their help, while failing to mourn appropriately was believed to evoke their rage, causing disharmony in families, economic disaster, or disease. As early on as the Shang   (shāng)dynasty (1600-1046 BCE), the Chinese believed that their deceased ancestors had magical powers, which is why they both feared and revered them. Kings were buried with articles of value for use in the afterlife, and with them hundreds of commoners, who may have been slaves, were buried alive. Likewise, offerings were given to keep the deceased kings happy. 

According to Chinese tradition, already established during the Zhou(zhōu) dynasty1046-221)   BCE), every human being has two souls - po () and hun (hún)[2] . Po, the female-natured (yin), is created at the moment of conception, while hun, the male-natured (yang), joins po after birth. Po, which is material in nature, is attached to the body and remains in the tomb for three years, before descending to the yellow springs[3], whereas hun, which is heavenly, ascends to heaven at death.

Mythic stories tell that after death the soul becomes a male floating element, like smoke in the air. At this point, in accordance with its deeds in this world, it reincarnates in the next life as human, male or female, animal, demon or plant. A woman who has done good deeds in this world will become a man in the next life. 

  According to Buddhism and Daoism, the human spirit (sometimes associated with hun), usually leaves the dying body before its operation totally stops, and ascends to heaven. The soul of the dead (sometimes associated with po) remains in the body for a period of two to seven weeks; hence the 49 days of mourning prayers. The number seven has a special meaning in ancestor worship, and the term (zuò)()(literally: doing seven) refers to these 49 days. Each seventh day from death until the 49th day following it, is a day of offerings and ceremonies, sometimes accompanied by monks chanting Buddhist scriptures. In another tradition, the prayer ceremony takes place every ten days, until cremation of the corpse.

The tradition of Mahayana (in Buddhism and practiced by most Chinese Buddhists) has it that between death and rebirth there is an intermediate period that can influence the shape of the reincarnated. Good rebirth is ensured by ceremonies and prayers.

The soul of the dead ascends to Heaven ()(tiān)(dào), or returns to Earth ()()(dào). It can reincarnate as man, or as an animal with the intestines of a dog or pig, or even as a big moth.  Shortly after death the soul visits its family. If it is happy and satisfied in the next world, the visit will take place 12-14 days after death, but if it is unhappy, the visit will only take place 6 -7 weeks after death.

Detailed descriptions of the mourning customs, including the ceremonies, are given in the Book of Rites ()()  from the Warring States period (475-221 BCE). According to this book, after the death of a father or a mother, a man must mourn for three years. This means that if at that time he was a government official, he would have to leave his position for three years, and if he was a scholar, he could not attend the government examinations during this period.

Funeral ceremonies in ancient China were meant to purify the corpse. During these ceremonies, the corpse would be washed and dressed. Lamenting women would beat their chest. The coffin and all that was needed for the ceremony were very costly. These included models of chariots, horses and servants, all burnt (in the ceremony) to accompany the dead into the next world, as well as a consultation with feng shui (fēng)(shuǐ) [4] experts about the best burial location.

The funeral ceremonies were modified in accordance with the financial means of the mourning families. Whereas only the closest relatives were admitted to the funerals of the poor, at the funerals of the rich the participants would be numerous, reaching even hundreds. These ceremonies included bands of musicians, chanting priests and an abundance of flowers, as well as an extravagant display of food. Such impressive funerals were intended to strengthen the position of the family in the community after a great tragedy. Likewise, it was an opportunity for the relatives and friends to support the family spiritually and materially in times of need.

At the moment of death, the deceased was believed to join his ancestors. People who had had confrontations with him during his life, especially his family members, were supposed to turn aside and avoid looking at the closing of the coffin and interment. The prevailing belief was that the soul would remember those of them who looked upon it and subsequently avenge itself, causing disease or some other distress to their families. The main purpose of the mourning ceremonies was to ensure the deceased's rest and his separation from the living, so that his shadow would not remain among them and their safety would be ensured. 

The burial ceremonies included placing a wooden tablet, symbolizing the deceased, in the family shrine. At this point began the daily, annual and collective sacrifices. The daily sacrifice incorporated burning incense and an eternal flame, which was lit in front of the deceased's tablet as a daily reminder of his soul being an integral part of the family structure. Every year, on the anniversary of the death, sacrifices would be offered and a feast would be served, according to the means of the family. The participation of the family in the meal, which represented the abundance achieved through its success, was intended to strengthen the sense of loyalty and sharing in a sacred atmosphere.

The ancient Chinese did not have one general cemetery for all the inhabitants of the city or the rural village; instead, each family had its own burial plot. A Daoist monk, specializing in funerals and feng shui, would lead the funeral procession and the burial ceremony, after choosing the best day and location for these events, according to the horoscope of the deceased.

When choosing a burial location, factors such as the topography, structure of the hills and proximity to a water source, were carefully considered, because they were believed to influence the fate of the deceased's descendents. After consulting the deceased's horoscope, the Daoist monk would say when the soul of the deceased would leave his body, what kind of form it would have in the next life, when it would visit the family, and when its confrontation with the family would take place.

The Chinese believed that finding a burial location without consulting feng shui would cause the deceased to be restless, and his descendents to be struck by bad luck or some other discomfort. Finding an appropriate burial location could take a long time (one or even two years), and until the location was found, the coffin, totally sealed, would remain in the family home. Among the feng shui experts there were some who took advantage of the situation and conspired with landowners to demand a high price for the burial site.

After the best burial location and hour had been fixed, the family of the deceased would prepare itself for the funeral. In front of the coffin would be placed dishes as a sacrifice for the dead. The mourners would wear white clothing and bow down in front of the coffin. At the head of the funeral would march a man carrying white clothes for the deceased. Behind him would march two other men carrying flags on which were inscribed words of consolation to the dead, copied from the classical scriptures. Behind these would march a man holding a white rooster, believed to bear the soul which was about to descend into the grave. Behind him would march men carrying two sedan chairs. In the first one would be placed the ancestors' tablets, and in the second - a picture of the deceased. The firstborn son of the deceased would march, head bent low, and after him the rest of the mourners. Behind them would march men bearing the coffin on their shoulders. A hearse was not allowed. Women were not obliged to participate in the funeral, but when they did, they remained separate from the men.

During the procession it was customary to disperse paper money (imitation). Together with the coffin, bowls full of rice would be buried. After the burial the head of the rooster would be turned three times and so too would the mourners turn their heads. At this point the white clothes of the deceased would be burnt. Likewise, models of houses, horses and clothing would be burnt, to accompany the deceased and serve him in the next world. After the ceremony the mourners would go back to the home of the deceased. Upon entering the house they would step over a fire lit on the doorstep, place the sacred tablet of the deceased on the family altar, and end the ceremony with a meal.

  After three, four or five weeks, according to the local custom, the head of the family would leave a mark of ink on the ancestor tablet, a kind of small signature to enable the soul in the tablet to remain in the home and protect the family against disaster.

Among those not fortunate enough to be honored by such a funeral ceremony, were bachelors, concubines' children, and slaves. It was, however, still possible to arrange a funeral ceremony for a bachelor whose family had found for him a wife after his death, and adopted a boy to serve as his son. This son would burn incense and offer sacrifice for the deceased's soul. Often an impoverished girl would marry the bachelor's soul, and with the money received from his parents she would support her poor parents for the rest of their life. Such a girl would live with her parents-in-law as their son's widow.

A husband was not obliged to mourn the death of his wife. After the death of an emperor, however, every citizen was required to mourn. For one hundred days they could not cut their hair and for three years they could not marry.

Cremation, although preferred today by the government, was customary only among Buddhist monks, or as punishment for criminals. Both Daoists and Buddhists were accustomed to lighting candles and lamps at funeral ceremonies. Lamps were placed at the foot of the corpse in order to light the way of the deceased's soul to the world of the dead.  Legend has it that when people die they journey along a dark river, which is why boat-shaped or lotus-shaped lamps (with lit candles on a wooden base) were floated on lakes or rivers. These were intended to prevent the souls from falling into the river. Before setting the lamps on the water, the mourners would chant magical prayers to improve the next reincarnation of the deceased.

According to one of the traditional Chinese beliefs, the deceased passes through a narrow bridge that leads him to the next world. Sinners, who do not deserve to pass to the next world, fall into malodorous water full of blood and pus.

As early as during the 8th century BCE the Chinese believed in the Heavenly Kingdom - Tian  (tiān)(literally: heaven), and in the world of the dead - Huang Chuang (huáng)(quán)(literally: yellow springs). The latter is located in the north, which is why it was customary to bury the dead in the northern part of the city, with their heads facing north.

The wealthy, while still alive, would build a coffin for themselves, made of hard wood. At the side of the coffin a hole would be opened to enable the hun (yang) to enter to the court of justice in the underworld, where it would be decided if it would be reborn as human or animal. The hole would also enable the po (yin) to flee, because otherwise it would haunt its family members as a ghost. In southern China less attention was given to the coffin because, in any event, two years after death the bones would be removed from the ground to be washed and placed in a clay vase.

The Daoists condemned the magnificent funerals held for the ancestors, considering the money better spent to serve the community. According to Daoist belief man has many souls – three kinds of spiritual souls and seven animalistic ones. After death, the spiritual ones pass to the world of the dead to be judged and sentenced either to punishment or to rebirth in reincarnation, while the animalistic souls remain around the corpse and the tomb. Another spiritual soul dwells in the ancestors' tablets, located in the place designated for them in the house. In front of the tablets there is an altar for offerings to the ancestors' souls. On the altar candles are lit to burn day and night. The souls of the dead are believed to dwell in the tablets, especially when "revived" by rooster blood. The number of memorial tablets in the house reflects the pride of the family, whose members turn to them for advice and help

 Sometimes the tablets are placed in a Buddhist temple, but this kind of arrangement entails great expense. The souls in the tablets are given offerings such as meat, fish and fruits, as much as the family can afford, and incense is burnt on the table. It is customary for the son who brings the offerings to the ancestors to bow several times in front of the tablets, greeting the souls and telling them about family matters.        

On the belief in life after death in China we can learn from a legend that tells how a woman who died in pregnancy left the grave every day as a live being and returned there to feed her baby, paying for the food with the paper money of the dead. When people sought her, they found her son alive in the grave.

Chinese tradition has it that a dead woman may appear before her live husband as a butterfly. This derives from a famous love story about a girl who dies and comes back to life as a butterfly. 

One custom testifying to the belief that the soul remains after death is that of the continued celebration of birthdays after death in front of the family altar, by burning incense, lighting candles and having festive meals. Believing that the soul of the dead finally departs this earth at the age of 91, it was at this age that the last after-death birthday would be celebrated. 

 Originally, the Chinese did not have any conception of hell or fate in the afterlife. They believed that the soul wanders on earth. New perceptions concerning the afterlife were introduced to the Chinese by Buddhist missionaries, and the Chinese themselves invented versions of their own to hell ()() (literally: earth prison). According to one of these versions, the judge of hell sentences the sinners. The Chinese hell is divided into ten compartments, each further divided into 16 sub-compartments, where different punishments are applied. After an intermediate period, the soul leaves hell and passes to its next incarnation.  

As opposed to Christians and Moslems, who believe that the soul, upon reaching hell, will remain there eternally, Buddhists believe that the sinners are reborn as a human beings or as animals, according to the gravity of their sins. Originally, Buddhists believed in eight hells found at the foot of a mountain at the end of the world. Later, the number of hells gradually increased, and there were some believers who contended that there were 84,000 different hells.

Pictures depicting hell can be found in temples. Legends tell that live judges are called to deal with especially difficult cases in hell. Upon returning home, they report on the horrific conditions existing in hell and on the continual dark that prevails there day and night.

According to one of the versions describing hell, it is always cold there. Another version has it that ten hells await the Buddhist sinners, and in every such hell sits a judge. In the seventh hell, the sinners are placed in a pot full of boiling oil; then, they are reborn and boiled again. This process, which repeats endlessly, is the kind of punishment meted out to corrupt government officials. In the eighth hell, sinners who used evil means to make money are forced to drink melted copper. In the sixth hell, the lustful are attracted to a mate whom they embrace, only to find later that they were actually embracing nothing more than a burning hot copper column. It was customary to tell the young about these hells in order to encourage them to behave well.

The worst nightmare of every Chinese man was that he would die without leaving a son to manage his funeral, which is why polygamy was allowed (until 1928). However, only the rich could afford to maintain several wives. In order to solve this problem, couples would adopt a child, such as a nephew from the extended family, to substitute the son they lacked.   

The Chinese traditional calendar includes a celebration for the dead, called "the pure brightness festival" (qīng)(míng)(jié)  or "tomb sweeping festival" (sǎo)()(jié)  . This celebration, which takes place close to the fifth day of April, is dedicated to all the souls of the dead. Everybody goes to the cemeteries to visit the dead and to honor them with offerings. A day before this, the tombs are cleaned and offerings are placed on the graves. Likewise, paper money (imitation) is burnt to serve the dead in the next world. On this day the souls of the people whose place of death is not known, and of those who did not leave behind any children after their death, are honored.

Another commemorative date which is associated with the souls of the dead is the 7th month of the traditional Chinese calendar, which is called "the month of ghosts" (guǐ)(yuè) .During this month the souls are believed to emerge from the underworld and visit the world upon earth. On the 14th day of this month the Chinese worship their ancestors and provide them with food and new clothes. Though it is not mandatory, some people visit their ancestral tombs, cut the weeds around them and bring offerings. There are also those who mark this event by burning incense on the family altar, lighting candles, feasting and giving offerings of paper money (imitation) to the souls. Colorful papers that represent clothing are burnt. Shiny paper represents silk, while rough paper represents cotton. After the ceremony the family gathers for a festive meal. On the night of the following day offerings are given to the souls, which are believed to wander the streets and lanes.

According to the Daoists, on the 7th day of the 7th lunar month all the gods and sages assemble in a palace to decide about human longevity. People bring them offerings such as flowers, fruits, precious stones, rare objects, flags and delicacies. Throughout the whole day and night Daoist masters preach from the scriptures.

The Chinese philosophers had differing ideas concerning the next world. Confucius refused to refer to the subject of life after death. When asked about it by one of his disciples, he answered that he did not know enough about the life in this world, so how could he know about life after death?

  The Confucians stressed the importance of the ancestor memorial rituals. The ceremonies were intended to help the souls to reach heaven and join the ancestors. Likewise, their purpose was to ensure rest and peace to the dead, and to separate the dead from the living, so that their shadows would not darken the lives of the living.

Wang Chong (wáng)(chōng) 27-97)  CE), a philosopher during the Han dynasty, wrote in his book Critical Essays (lùn)(héng), that when people die they become ghosts with the power to do harm to others. He believed that just as water, when it freezes, becomes ice, so too does the life force become the creation of man. Thus, just as when ice melts and becomes water, when humans die, they become spirit and are seen as ghosts that resemble living people in their form.

On the approach of the philosopher Zhuang Zi (zhuāng)()  (369?-286 BCE) to death, we can learn from Zhuang Zi’s own story about a character he names after himself.  The latter, while sleeping on the skull that served him as a pillow, dreamt that the dead told him that they are very happy. They have neither rulers above them nor subjects beneath, and no seasonal chores. Thus, being happier than kings, why would they want to return to the troubles suffered in the living world?

The attitude of the Chinese toward homonyms of the word "death" (), testifies to the negative connotation of death in their culture.  The word that signifies the number four (), as a homonym of "death", has a connotation of bad luck. Similarly, in Canton province, a watermelon is not given as a gift because the pronunciation of the character 西() from the word that signifies "watermelon" 西()(guā)in this region resembles that of the word () (meaning "dead" or "death"). The season that is identified with death is autumn, when nature is considered dead, which is why executions were carried out in autumn. The color associated with autumn is white; hence, the association between white and mourning.

The old traditions, including those relating to ancestor worship, were condemned by the Communists after the establishment of the People's Republic of China in 1949, but more recently these traditions seem to have returned. The custom of burning models of things from this world in order to serve the dead in the next life has been  revived. The nouveau riche burn models of expensive cars and houses so that these will accompany their deceased relative into the next world. Likewise, even items such as domestic appliances, computers, condoms and Viagra are burnt for the dead.



The fox is sad over the death of the hare

Said of he who mourns a friend. 

This is based on the following story:

Once there were a hare and a fox who united to defend themselves against their common enemy – the hunters, and vowed to share each other's fate. One day, while the fox and the hare were enjoying the beauty of the fields, a group of hunters suddenly appeared and shot the hare dead. The fox fled along a narrow path and escaped. After the hunters had left, he cried over the death of his friend. An old man, who was passing by was surprised to see this sight, and asked the fox why he was crying. Grief-stricken, the fox answered, "We are the victims of hunters, the small animals who have joined forces against them. We promised one another to share a common fate; and now his death today foretells my death tomorrow. We are real friends, and real friends have to share everything. How can I avoid crying?" "I see", replied the old man, "You have a good reason to cry".



Rather be a broken jade [vessel] than an unbroken clay [vessel]

Rather die immersed in glory than live in disgrace.


[Only after] the coffin is closed can one say things without doubt

Only after his death, can man be judged.



The death of a person is like a candle blown out

Life is vanity

 As is written in the Bible:

הבל הבלים הכל הבל.  קהלת א,2.

Utterly vain! Everything is vain. Ecclesiastes 1, 2.


[Only after] the coffin is closed can one say things without doubt

Only after his death, can man be judged.



The death of a person is like a candle blown out

Life is vanity

 As is written in the Bible:

הבל הבלים הכל הבל.  קהלת א,2.

Utterly vain! Everything is vain. Ecclesiastes 1, 2.



Man living in this world is like a resident in a hotel

 Life is transient.


(shàng)(fén)()(dài)(shāo)(zhǐ) ()()(zōng)(shēng)()

Visiting the ancestral tomb and not burning money (imitation) - annoys the ancestors

This is used in the vernacular to replace the sentence:

 This makes me agree. 



Literally: Beside the corpse there are living ghosts.

When someone is murdered, there are those who fight against the injustice.


()(néng)()(xing ) ()(xiōng)怀(huái)(suī)寿(shòu)

(bǎi)(suì)(yóu)(yao )()

He who has not realized his aspirations, though he has lived for a hundred years, dies ahead of time

[1] The Nandou star is known as the immortal of the South Pole who has the elixir of immortality.
     [2] On po and hun see also the chapter on demons, ghosts and superstitions.
[3] The yellow springs are the underground residence of the spirits of the dead.

[4] Feng shui  (fēng)(shuǐ))literally: wind [and] water) is an ancient theory that reveals how to balance the energies of the environment to ensure health, wealth and good fortune.

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