Chinese Beliefs


In premodern China, the great majority of people held beliefs and observed practices related to death that they learned as members of families and villages, not as members of organized religions. Such beliefs and practices are often subsumed under the umbrella of “Chinese popular religion.” Institutional forms of Buddhism, Confucianism, Taoism, and other traditions contributed many beliefs and practices to popular religion in its local variants. These traditions, especially Buddhism, included the idea of personal cultivation for the purpose of living an ideal life and, as a consequence, attaining some kind of afterlife salvation, such as immortality, enlightenment, or birth in a heavenly realm. However, individual salvation played a small role in most popular religions. In typical local variants of popular religion, the emphasis was on (1) passing from this world into an ancestral realm that in key ways mirrored this world and (2) the interactions between living persons and their ancestors.

Basic Beliefs and Assumptions

In every human society one can find manifestations of the human desire for some kind of continuance beyond death. In the modern West, much of human experience has been with religious theories of continuance that stress the fate of the individual, often conceived as a discrete spiritual “self” or “soul.” Typically, a person is encouraged to live in a way that prepares one for personal salvation, whether by moral self-discipline, seeking God’s grace, or other means. Indic traditions, such as Buddhism and Hinduism, include similar assumptions about the human self/soul and personal salvation. In premodern China, especially if one discounts Buddhist influence, a person’s desire for continuance beyond death was rooted in different assumptions and manifested in practices not closely related to the pursuit of individual salvation.

First, Chinese emphasized biological continuance through descendants to whom they gave the gift of life and for whom they sacrificed many of life’s material pleasures. Moreover, personal sacrifice was not rooted in a belief in asceticism per se but in a belief that sacrificing for one’s offspring would engender in them obligations toward elders and ancestors. As stated in the ancient text, Scripture of Filiality(Warring States Period, 453-221 B.C.E. ), these included obligations to care for one’s body as a gift from one’s parents and to succeed in life so as to glorify the family ancestors. Thus, one lived beyond the grave above all through the health and success of one’s children, grandchildren, and great-grandchildren.

Second, because of the obligations inculcated in children and grandchildren, one could assume they would care for one in old age and in the afterlife. Indeed, afterlife care involved the most significant and complex rituals in Chinese religious life, including funerals, burials, mourning practices, and rites for ancestors. All this was important not only as an expression of each person’s hope for continuance beyond death but as an expression of people’s concern that souls for whom no one cared would become ghosts intent on causing mischief.

Finally, there was a stress on mutual obligations between the living and the dead; in other words, an emphasis on the same principle of reciprocity that governed relations among the living members of a Chinese community. It was assumed that the dead could influence the quality of life for those still in this world—either for good or for ill. On the one hand, proper burial, careful observance of mourning practices, and ongoing offerings of food and gifts for ancestors assured their continued aid. On the other hand, failure to observe ritual obligations might bring on the wrath of one’s ancestors, resulting in family disharmony, economic ruin, or sickness. Ancestral souls for whom no one cared would become “hungry ghosts” ( egui ), which might attack anyone in the community. Royal ancestors, whose worship was the special responsibility of the reigning emperor, could aid or harm people throughout the empire, depending on whether or not the emperor upheld ritual obligations to his ancestors.

In traditional China, the idea that personal continuance after death could be found in the lives of one’s descendants has been closely linked to practices rooted in mutual obligations between the living and the dead: those who had moved on to the ancestral state of existence. But what is the nature of the ancestral state? What kind of rituals for the dead have been performed by most Chinese? And under what circumstances have individual Chinese sought something more than an afterlife as a comfortable and proud ancestor with loving and successful descendants; that is, some kind of personal salvation?

Conceptions of Souls and Ancestral Existence

There is evidence from as early as the Shang period (c. 1500–1050 B.C.E. ) that Chinese cared for ancestors as well as feared them. This may well have been the main factor in the development of beliefs in dual and multiple souls. Late in the Zhou dynasty (1050–256 B.C.E. ), cosmological thought was dominated by the yin-yang dichotomy, according to which all aspects of existence were a result of alternation and interplay between passive (yin) and active (yang) forces. Philosophers applied the dichotomy to soul theory. Lacking any absolute distinction between physical and spiritual, they considered the yin soul ( po ) as more material, and the yang soul ( hun ) as more ethereal. In practice, the po was linked to the body and the grave. The less fearsome hun was linked to the ancestral tablet kept in the family home and the one installed in an ancestral hall (if the family’s clan could afford to build one). For some, this meant there were two hun, just as, for others, there might be multiple po. One common view included the idea of three hun and seven po. These multiple soul theories were among the factors in popular religion that mitigated widespread acceptance of belief in salvation of the individual soul. At the same time, however, multiple soul theories helped Chinese to manage contrasting perceptions of ancestral souls (as benevolent or malevolent, for example) and to provide an explanatory framework for the differing rituals of the domestic, gravesite, and clan hall cults for ancestors.

While the intent of all these rites was clear—to comfort ancestors rather than to suffer their wrath—the nature of ancestral existence was relatively undefined. Generally speaking, the world of the ancestors was conceived as a murky, dark realm, a “yin” space ( yinjian ). While not clear on the exact details, Chinese considered the world of departed spirits similar to the world of the living in key ways. They believed residents of the other realm need money and sustenance, must deal with bureaucrats, and should work (with the help of the living) to improve their fate. After the arrival of Buddhism in the early centuries of the common era, it contributed more specific ideas about the realm of the dead as well as more exact conceptions of the relationship between one’s deeds while alive and one’s fate afterward.

For example, the “bureaucratic” dimension of the underworld was enhanced by visions of the Buddhist Ten Courts of Hell, at which judges meted out punishments according to karmic principles that required recompense for every good or evil deed. Moreover, regardless of whether or not they followed Buddhism in other ways, most Chinese embraced the doctrines of karma (retribution for past actions) andsamsara (cyclical existence) in their thinking about life and death. These doctrines helped people to explain the fate of residents in the realms of the living and the dead, not to mention interactions between them. For example, the ghost stories that fill Chinese religious tracts as well as secular literature typically present ghosts as vehicles of karmic retribution against those evildoers who escaped punishment by worldly authorities (perhaps in a former lifetime). While reading such stories often has been just a casual diversion, performing rites to assure that departed ancestors do not become wandering ghosts has been a serious matter.

Rites for the Dead

Over the course of Chinese history, classical texts on ritual and commentaries on them had increasing influence on the practice of rites for the dead. The text Records of Rituals ( Liji ), after being designated one of Confucianism’s “Five Scriptures” during the Han era (206 B.C.E. –220 C.E. ), became the most influential book in this regard. The Family Rituals according to Master Zhu ( Zhuzi jiali ), by the leading thinker of later Confucianism (Zhu Xi, 1130–1200 C.E.), became the most influential commentary. The influence of these texts resulted in widespread standardization of funeral rites in particular and rites for the dead in general. According to the cultural anthropologist James Watson, standardized funeral rites became a marker of “Chineseness” for Han (ethnically Chinese) people in their interactions with other ethnic groups as they spread into new territories.

In his article, “The Structure of Chinese Funerary Rites,” Watson identifies nine elements of standardized funeral rites: (1) the family gives public notification by wailing, pasting up banners, and other acts; (2) family members don mourning attire of white cloth and hemp; (3) they ritually bathe the corpse; (4) they make food offerings and transfer to the dead (by burning) spirit money and various goods (houses, furniture, and other items made of paper); (5) they prepare and install an ancestral tablet at the domestic altar; (6) they pay money to ritual specialists (usually Taoists priests or Buddhist clerics) so that the corpse can be safely expelled from the community (and the spirit sent forth on its otherworldly journey); (7) they arrange for music to accompany movement of the corpse and to settle the spirit; (8) they have the corpse sealed in an airtight coffin; and (9) they expel the coffin from the community in a procession to the gravesite that marks the completion of the funeral rites and sets the stage for burial.

While burial customs were more subject to local variation than funeral rites as such, throughout China there was a preference for burial over alternative means of dealing with the corpse. For example, few Chinese opted for Buddhism’s custom of cremation, despite the otherwise strong influence this religion had on Chinese ideas and practices related to life and death. Unlike Indians, for whom the body could be seen as a temporary vehicle for one’s eternal spirit, Chinese typically saw the body as a valued gift from the ancestors that one should place whole under the soil near one’s ancestral village. In modern China, especially under the Communist Party since 1949, Chinese have turned to cremation more often. But this has been for practical reasons related to land use and to the party’s campaign against “superstitious” behavior and in favor of frugality in performing rituals.

Traditionally, the corpse, or at least the bones, represented powers that lasted beyond death and could affect the fate of living relatives. For this reason, the use of an expert in feng-shui (Chinese geomancy) was needed to determine the time, place, and orientation of the burial of a corpse. This usage was in line with the aforementioned belief that the po, which lingered at the grave, was more physical in character than the hun soul(s). Its importance is underlined by the fact that the practice is being revived in China after years of condemnation by Communist officials.

Caring for the hun soul(s) has been at the heart of ritual observances that occurred away from the

The procession to the gravesite of this funeral in China signifies a completion of the funeral rites. CORBIS

The procession to the gravesite of this funeral in China signifies a completion of the funeral rites .


grave. Among these observances were very complex mourning customs. They were governed by the general principle that the closeness of one’s relationship to the deceased determined the degree of mourning one must observe (symbolized by the coarseness of one’s clothes and the length of the mourning period, for example). In addition to observing mourning customs, relatives of the deceased were obliged to care for his or her soul(s) at the home altar and at the clan ancestral hall, if one existed. At the home altar the family remembered a recently deceased relative through highly personalized offerings of favorite foods and other items. They remembered more distant relatives as a group in generic ancestral rites, such as those which occurred prior to family feasts at the New Year, mid-Autumn, and other festivals. Indeed, one of the most significant symbolic reminders that ancestors were still part of the family was their inclusion as honored guests at holiday meals.

Individual Salvation

Chinese beliefs and practices related to death were closely tied to family life and, therefore, shaped by its collectivist mentality. In his article, “Souls and Salvation: Conflicting Themes in Chinese Popular Religion,” the anthropologist Myron Cohen, has even argued that the pursuit of individual salvation was inimical to orthodox popular religion. Nonetheless, this pursuit was not absent from traditional religious life. The spread of Buddhism throughout China was one factor contributing to its acceptance. Another factor was the increasingly urban and mobile nature of Chinese society over time. Since at least the Song dynasty (960–1279), both factors have exerted strong influence, so that for the last millennium China has seen tremendous growth in lay-oriented Buddhism and in other religions with salvationist ideologies derived from Buddhist, Taoist, and other sources.

Lay Buddhists have been interested to an even greater extent than their monastic counterparts in the goal of rebirth in the Western paradise, or “Pure Land” ( jingtu ), of Amitabha Buddha. Unlike the ordinary realm of ancestors, which mirrors this world in most ways, the Pure Land is desired for ways in which it differs from this world. It is inhabited not by relatives, but by wise and compassionate teachers of the Buddhist Dharma, and it is free of the impurities and sufferings of the mortal realm. For some it is not a place at all, only a symbol of the peace of nirvana (enlightened state beyond cyclical existence).

To an even greater extent than Buddhism, certain syncretic religions set forth ideas that stood in tension with the hierarchical, earthbound, and collectivist assumptions of the traditional Chinese state and society. Whether one studies the White Lotus Religion of late imperial times, the Way of Unity (Yiguan Dao) in modern China and Taiwan, or the Falun Gong movement in the twenty-firstcentury’s People’s Republic of China, the emphasis is on individual spiritual cultivation and, when relevant, the fate of the individual after death. Evidence of interest in individual spiritual cultivation and salvation is found in these sects’ remarkable popularity, which has alarmed both traditional and contemporary governments.

Groups like the Way of Unity or Falun Gong typically stress the need for a morally disciplined lifestyle and training in techniques of spiritual cultivation that are uniquely available to members. Their moral norms are largely from Confucianism, and their spiritual techniques from Taoism and Buddhism. Falun Gong promises that its techniques are powerful enough to save members from fatal illnesses. The Way of Unity promises that individuals who take the right moral-spiritual path will avoid the catastrophe that faces others as they near the end of the world. Unlike others, these individuals will join the Eternal Venerable Mother in her paradise. Since the 1600s, the idea of salvation through Jesus has also attracted the attention of some Chinese. In the past, these Chinese Christians were required to abandon ancestral rites, since 1939 the Catholic church has allowed Chinese to worship Jesus as well as perform rituals for ancestors, with some Protestant groups following the trend.

As the acids of modernity continue to eat away at the fabric of traditional Chinese society, many more Chinese are embracing religions that preach individual salvation after death. Those who do so may abandon practices related to traditional beliefs about life, death, and ancestral souls, or they may find ways to reconcile these practices with the new belief systems they adopt.


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