Friday, 8 September 2017

Life and death (mainly death) in China

Marie Gameson has posted here before and I'm very happy to welcome her back with a piece about Chinese attitudes to death. I've visited China a couple of times and found their temples fascinating, but I did struggle with the layers upon layers of different belief systems that you could find embodied in one temple. And the elaborate paper objects that people buy to burn so that the dead will have them in the afterlife were quite amazing. I've just wasted a lot of time trying to find any photos I might have from all those years ago, but they pre-date digital cameras and if I ever took pictures I've lost them. Fortunately, Marie Gameson still has hers.

The Giddy Career of Mr Gadd (deceased) – Marie Gameson

The main theme of The Giddy Career of Mr Gadd (deceased) is grief, but not so much grief for the dead as for the living. The main character, Winnie Rigby, is exasperated that her conversion to Buddhism and attachment to the Orient is strongly resisted by her Catholic family, who make persistent attempts to drag her back to the person she used to be.

A subplot of the book is a quest to find out if ancestor worship is still prevalent in China: a practice that the Chinese Communist party (CCP) would love to eliminate. As this is mainly a 'History' blog, it gives me a chance to offer an amateur view on the changes to Chinese funeral culture and ancestor worship over the last century.

Traditional Chinese funerals reflect a range of beliefs, with elements of Buddhism, Daoism, Confucianism, Ancestor reverence, Feng Shui, and more. Even within one temple there could be a mixture of Buddhist, Daoist and ‘folk’ religious figures, with visitors to the temple calling on different figures depending on what intercession is required.  

As in China, there is evidence of ancestor worship in Britain from Neolithic times. Quite why it faded in Britain is lost in the misty past (but we’ll come back to that later). Whereas with the traditional Chinese attachment to kinship, (strengthened by Confucianism, with its emphasis on filial piety as a pillar of social organisation), of the range of beliefs mentioned above, ancestor worship appears to be the dominant spiritual influence. The relationship between ancestors and descendants is obligatory, reciprocal, and very much about the male lineage: the character for filial piety ( pronounced xiào )  represents a son beneath an elder.

So the belief is that ancestors can intervene in the affairs of the living – but whether that intervention is positive or negative is dependent upon the correct performance of rituals, which is primarily ritual offerings of food, but can – more colourfully – involve the burning of paper representations of objects which ancestors can use in the afterlife. Apart from at funerals, these ritual offerings are most prevalent during the annual Tomb-sweeping Day (Qingming Festival ) when people visit the graves of their ancestors to pay respects. While this tradition goes back 2,500 years, today’s offerings mirror modern luxuries: in addition to the burning of ‘Hell money’, ancestors can now receive paper laptops, mobile phones, houses with swimming pools (complete with paper servants), cars, even helicopters:

Unsurprisingly, the CCP takes quite a dim view of these ostentatious displays, and would prefer people’s loyalty to be to the State rather than to family. They banned the Qingming festival in 1949, to discourage the very visible manifestations of kinship. (Though they reinstated it in 2008, re-packaging it as a day for celebrating revolutionary heroes, for example, encouraging visits by schoolchildren to certain graves).  More recently, the government has encouraged the phenomenon of online Qingming, and it is possible to ‘burn’ virtual incense and ‘sweep’ virtual graves – perfect for the time-strapped modern worker who is based some distance from the ancestral graves.

But people’s strong preference for burial over cremation is a continuing issue – cremation being viewed as highly disrespectful to forebears, and leading to unsettled spirits.  Burial directives by the government to force people to cremate their deceased (in some cases even disinterring illegally buried corpses and burning them) has led to strong resistance, with people being buried in secret, and
elderly people committing suicide so that they could be buried ahead of the ban; in 2014 there were even cases of grave robbing so that officials could meet their local cremation targets.

It is hard to disagree with the government’s perspective that coffins waste wood, and burials waste good arable land (see the photograph below), but the presence of a corpse and a grave to visit also keeps the focus on the family rather than the State.

Shanxi province: graves use up arable land

Since 1949, the CCP have taken increasingly radical measures to disempower families from giving their relatives a traditional send-off. Urban funerals now usually involve conveyance of the body from hospital to funeral parlour, where either there will be a simple memorial ceremony at which a relative or friend might speak, or — if the person’s status at work warrants it — a more elaborate memorial service at which members of the deceased’s work unit would speak, the family’s role having diminished to a peripheral position – and with little chance of getting hold of the body. Mourners wear normal clothes — though armbands are permitted. Following cremation, the family can opt to deposit the ashes at the crematorium or take them home. There are some cemeteries for burials of the ashes, but this edict is typical of Chinese cemeteries: [my translation]: “In the area of the grave it is strictly forbidden to let off firecrackers and indulge in feudal superstitious practices (…) it is strictly forbidden to burn paper and other sacrificial offerings”.

Although China aims to have a near 100% cremation rate by 2020, policies that counter tradition are always harder to enforce in rural areas. Just think of the resistance to the One Birth Policy established in 1979; it has been impossible to completely erase the Chinese concept of zhong nan, qing nu (literally: of heavy importance is the male, of light importance is the female).

So if you want to see a traditional Chinese funeral in an urban setting, you would have more luck in Taiwan, where there has been little attempt to reform traditional practices. A recent attempt to encourage temples to allow less incense-burning (which was met with howls of protest) was a genuine attempt to protect the environment, rather than a wish to interfere with traditional Daoist practices. However some temples do now play recordings of firecrackers (to scare away bad spirits) rather than allowing the real polluting articles to be set off.

Funeral procession in Taiwan

The musicians seated on the first vehicle play traditional instruments; behind them is a marching band, dressed in near-military uniforms. The family walk behind the coffin: the women wearing triangular hoods, the men wearing pointed white hats or white headbands. The clothing is black, white or blue, depending on familial proximity to the deceased

And finally, back to ancestor worship in the UK. Maybe the nearest we get to it in the UK is the relatively modern (well, medieval!) laws on primogeniture. The idea that our forebears still have a presence amongst us might have a certain attraction, but the concept of reciprocity across the living/dead divide is - I think - quite alien to us. Having said that, if you're a Duke and a proponent (or product) of primogeniture, and live in a long established country home, with portraits of your ancestors staring at you as you climb the stairs, I would love to know if you sense the wrath of your ancestors when having to sell the family home.

Marie Gameson

Marie is half of the mother and daughter writing team who published The Turtle Run as 'Marie Evelyn'. Her latest book, The Giddy Career of Mr Gadd (deceased) was published this summer and is available on Amazon. You can find out more about her and her books at her website,


  1. This post was fascinating and fantastic. Thank you for guest blogging for Tom, Marie!

  2. Thanks Lydia, glad you enjoyed it!