The Circle of Life, Death, and Obligation

It’s not the most pleasant topic, to be sure, but what do you do with the dead in a country with the landmass roughly the size of the United States and 1.4 billion inhabitants? Like virtually everything else in China, the answer is changing.

The Chinese traditionally buried their dead in coffins and organized cemeteries that look pretty much like their counter-parts the world over, although in the rural areas around Beijing the coffins are buried under grouped but seemingly random conical piles of earth scattered among the wooded stands that line the roads and highways of the area.

In the major urban areas, however, traditional coffin burial has been outlawed for some time now, a ban now spreading to other cities interested in preserving precious land for economic development and further urbanization. Just last month, in fact, it was widely reported that several elderly Chinese in the city of Anqing, in the province of Anhui, committed suicide to beat a June 1 deadline for the cessation of all coffin burials in the area. (The local government disputes the connection.)

And while cremation has been the norm in larger cities for many years several urban governments are now looking to the sea as a way to further reduce funerary land usage. “He Qingxun, head of the burial and funeral management division at the Ministry of Civil Affairs, said on Tuesday that more urban residents are choosing sea burials through the encouragement of local governments.” (China Daily April 4, 2014) In some cities, the article went on to note, local governments are even offering free sea burial services or cash subsidies to families to promote the practice.

The Chinese mourn death with tributes of flowers in much the same way Western cultures do.  Families come together and friends offer their condolences.
The Chinese mourn death with tributes of flowers in much the same way Western cultures do. Families come together and friends offer their condolences.

And what do the Chinese think about death? Well, like the rest of the world, they mourn it.  It is customary for friends to pay respects to the family of the deceased in much the same way they do in the West, although usually without the religious ritual or overtones.

Beyond that simple generalization, however, individual notions about the end of life are as broad and varied here as they are elsewhere, there being no scientific way to prove or disprove any of the many theories that have been offered on the topic.

Buddhists, from what I’ve learned, generally accept the Hindu concepts of karma and reincarnation. While the body is impermanent, the spirit lives on in one of six realms – heaven, human beings, Asura, hungry ghost, animal and hell – depending on the accumulated karma, or cause and effect of one’s positive and negative actions.

These subsequent lives are themselves impermanent as one continues to move through the six levels of existence until one potentially reaches the ultimate goal of Nirvana, escaping the limitations of existence and achieving ultimate peace through the extinction of desire.

The Chinese, including those who do not identify themselves as Buddhists, seem to share many of these same beliefs, albeit in varied forms, but with one important distinction. As in life, Chinese notions of death turn more on family and ancestral heritage than the supremacy of a spiritual deity or force, or the more individualistic orientation of most organized religion. (Nearly all organized religions, of course, promote collective identity and responsibility, but it is a collectivism defined by a spirituality external to self rather than an identity defined by self and our biological relationships.)

The Chinese perspective on death, as a result, appears to lack the clear line of demarcation between life and death found in most organized religion. The living and their ancestors, it appears, continue to interact between death and life in much the same way that the living still do. In this view the Chinese soul has a yin-yang flavor to it, the yin (po) soul being more material in nature (i.e. the living) and the yang (hun) soul being more ethereal (i.e. the departed).

From the Chinese I’ve talked to, however, the world in which the departed soul lives is rather ill-defined. While I have heard references to both good places and bad places, these destinations appear more in line with the Buddhist notions of levels than the polar extremes of heaven and hell. What is fairly consistent among the Chinese I’ve spoken with, however, is the belief that whatever the after-world looks like the departed struggle with the same everyday challenges faced by the living. They continue to strive, in other words, to achieve a better life; in the process struggling with the same practical impediments and need for funds that the living do.

Sheets of paper like these are place atop burial mounds during the Qingming Festival.  While I've never read one for obvious reasons I'm told they are not letters, but pictures of a house or other items of comfort and good fortune.
Sheets of paper like these are placed atop burial mounds during the Qingming Festival. While I’ve never read one for obvious reasons I’m told they are not letters, but pictures of a house or other items of comfort and good fortune.

This is why it is common practice on the national holiday known as Qingming Festival, or Tomb Sweeping Day, for family members to leave money, food, and drink at the gravesite of their ancestors. In some cases the money is burned as a kind of offering. (It’s not legal tender, of course. It may, in fact, be a picture of a new home or some other symbol of comfort and prosperity.) In other cases, it is simply placed on top of the burial mound with a rock to keep it from blowing away. (Always pragmatic, the Chinese.)

But the real objective of the holiday and the everyday honor and respect universally paid by the Chinese to their ancestors, I believe, comes back to the desire to seek balance and harmony in the interplay of yin and yang. It is generally believed that due to the yin-yang connection between the living and the departed one’s ancestors have an ongoing influence over the life and well-being of the family left behind.

It is the same notion of reciprocity that drives all yin-yang relationships. If you honor, respect, and provide for your ancestors, they, in turn, will help you along in this world. Somehow disrespect or dishonor your deceased extended family and you can expect they will place roadblocks in your path to happiness and success.

All of which serves to reinforce the gravity of obligation on which much of Chinese cultural tradition is built. For the Chinese, in fact, such obligation extends back literally thousands of years.

If that sounds a bit overwhelming, we must remember that with obligation comes important benefits. You can certainly see how an only child setting out in life in a mega-city of 20 million people far away from friends and family might feel a little bit less alone knowing that a long line of ancestors is behind them. You’re never entirely alone in life but then again you’re never entirely on your own. The family is looking out for you – assuming, of course, that you have fulfilled your familial obligations.

It also explains an observation I made almost upon arrival but never completely understood – the Chinese emphasis on the place of birth which, for older generations of Chinese was more likely than not to have been a village or small town. “Where is your hometown?” is a standard question posed when two people meet for the first time and in job interviews, and it is standard information in any proclamation of your identity (e.g. letters of introduction, the Chinese equivalent of Facebook pages, etc.).

Your hometown, in fact, is just as much a part of your identity as your age or gender. And, to a degree, just as neutral. People appear to inquire about hometowns not so much because there are good ones and bad ones, although the Chinese, like people everywhere, are often quick to make generalizations about people based solely on where they are from (e.g. Fujian people have a good head for business. The girls from Chongqing have good skin, but the girls from Harbin are the prettiest, etc.). In general it appears that the question has a deeper, almost spiritual purpose. As in “Where are you anchored?”

Why? There is the very practical explanation that the hukou system, the national registration system designed to control internal migration and limit the pace of urbanization, and which has a significant impact on the health care and education you have access to, is generally linked to your place of birth.

It is clear to me now, however, that your hometown, being the base of your extensive and tall ancestral tree, must provide a very comforting sense of permanence to an otherwise impermanent life. If Westerners believe that “You can never go home again,” in the immortal words of Thomas Wolfe, the Chinese, it appears, believe that you never really leave it.

It is tradition during the Qingming Festival to burn symbolic money for the comfort and benefit of deceased ancestors.
It is tradition during the Qingming Festival to burn symbolic money for the comfort and benefit of deceased ancestors.

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