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Chinese Attitudes About Death Essay, Research Paper

Throughout the history of mankind, ?death? has always been a fascination.

People have always wondered about the causes of death, the aftermath of death,

and whether it could be stopped. Among these people were the Chinese, who like

many other people, believed there was life after death. They performed certain

rituals ? to help them along their way.? Chinese attitudes toward death are

reflected in funerary rituals, Buddhist philosophy and reverence for the

deceased. Death is a very important issue to the Chinese people. The son of a

family has the obligation to give his parents a proper funeral. ?This includes

such essential elements as; a large coffin, a funeral procession, a well-chosen

gravesite, gifts and offerings to the soul of the deceased, a period of

mourning, and keeping an ancestral shrine. If a Chinese son fails to follow

these obligations, he has committed a serious offense against society.?1 The

Chinese believed in giving a proper funeral to their elders because when the

elders were alive, they had shared their experiences and knowledge with the

young. The Chinese followed the requirements to a proper funeral because they

believed in remembering the dead, who were once close to them. They wanted to

remember the dead by praying to them daily and making them offerings. The

Chinese believed that there were certain rituals that were necessary for certain

events. For example, during a wedding, the Chinese believed that the couple must

bow to the parents and offer them tea. Only then, can the couple be happily

married. Because the Chinese believe in performing certain rituals for certain

events, anyone who doesn?t give his parents a proper funeral would have mocked

traditional beliefs. This son would be considered as a pariah in his village and

looked upon as ?dirty? by his neighbors. To the Chinese, being buried in a

coffin was very important. Chinese people wanted to bury the dead in coffins to

preserve their bodies, protect them from decaying as fast. Although the soul of

the person was to move on, the Chinese wanted to save the body as a way to

remember the elderly. To some people being buried in a coffin is so important

that they rather spend their money on a coffin than on necessary provisions.

Although burial in a coffin is preferred, cremations also take place. A

cremation is when a corpse is placed on a pyre and burned to ashes. In the

cities of present day China, because of the great overpopulation and lack of

usable land, the government has made cremation a necessity. Cremation is also

encouraged in rural areas in efforts of saving arable land for farming. Since

the people living in the rural areas are farmers who can provide their own

necessities and are independent of the government, they are more concerned with

their traditional beliefs and practices than the concerns of the government. In

the villages, peasants begin saving to buy coffins for themselves after they

pass the age of sixty; which was considered the number of years a life cycle

should be.2 People have claimed that if a person died before turning sixty years

old, he/she was a ?short-life devil.? Because of this belief, the people

that died before turning the age of sixty years old were not buried and left

wherever the happened to ?drop.?3 To show how important burying the dead is,

the Chinese hire elderly people who are familiar with the ancient wisdom of

feng-shui, or the spirits of ?the wind and water.? This type of ancient art

was also called geomancy. The reason why the Chinese hire elderly people is

because they want someone who is experienced in the field, not someone who?s

new and had recently learned it from books. The Chinese believe that the more

experience a person has, the more reliable is that person. The geomancer helped

the dead select favorable sites for graves.4 These favorable sites not only had

to be affordable to the family but had to bring good luck to the family and

ensure that there will be no evil spirits haunting them. Like the traditional

matchmaker, the geomancer is respected for his wisdom and experience in life.

Some similarities between the jobs of the matchmaker and geomancer are those of

which they both check the social statuses of their clients. The matchmaker has

to make sure that he does not match a rich young lady to a poor young man, and

the geomancer has to make sure that he picks a gravesite that is affordable to

the family. The matchmaker and the geomancer also have to ensure that the

matches and graves that they choose will only bring good luck to the families

and not bad luck. Calculating the ages of the people involved and comparing to

the stars of the sky does this: astrology. In foreign countries like France and

Spain, during funerals the undertakers, mourners, and pallbearers are supposed

to wear black. The black clothing shows their grief and also protects them from

evil spirits and ghosts that night be hovering nearby. Also used during funeral

processions are wreaths, which reflect their heathen beliefs. The many circles

of a wreath are designed to keep the spirit of the dead with in bounds.5 During

Chinese funerals, the mourners are supposed to wear unbleached, unhemmed, white

clothing. White was considered the color of death to the Chinese people because

they believe that white represents pureness. They believed that since the dead

were moving on, they should wear something reflecting innocence to show how the

deceased had lead a life of good deeds and charity, therefore moving on to a

better place. It is an offense to wear such flashy colors as red, yellow, or

green. 6 Buddhism, Taoism, and Confucianism influence Chinese attitudes towards

death. The Chinese tradition usually discourages anxiety about death. Since

Taoism is rigidly aligned with nature, death is considered a natural part of the

life cycle. Confucianism taught the people that showing grief after death was

appropriate. They believed that grieving for the dead was a sign of respect, a

sign of how they will miss the guidance and help of their elders and loved ones.

Even though Confucianism encourages the grieving of the deceased, they also

believe that it should not last too long-because all things have an end.7 The

religion that has the most influence on Chinese attitudes towards death is

Buddhism. The reason that Buddhism has such a great influence is that it

provides a ?correct? way to a funeral. There are certain dos and do nots

that must be followed. In other beliefs such as Taoism and Confucianism, there

are no rules, no exact way in which a funeral should proceed in. Because there

are no exact rules in Taoism and Confucianism, the people often fear that they

might be doing the wrong thing, therefore hindering the proceeding of the

deceased to nirvana. Buddhists believe that people should celebrate death as a

way to pass to the next incarnation and move closer to nirvana (heaven). To

Buddhists, the way in which a person dies is very important. They believed that

a person?s last thoughts along with his accomplishments while alive determined

what his next life would be like. The goal of most Chinese Buddhists is to have

followed the eight-fold path and to die without fear or regret.8 Buddhist

funerals are very much like noisy celebrations. There is a lot of chanting,

banging of gongs, and incense burning. The reason for the noise, is to tell

everyone that this person was dead and moving on to the next life.9 The noise is

also used to express to the dead that they were all happy that the person is

free from the pressures and sufferings of life, which are stated in the Four

Noble Truths. After the traditional funeral, most Buddhists are cremated. They

believed that by being cremated, their soul will be released from the body and

move on to the next incarnation. ?The funeral pyre is usually sprinkled with

consecrated oil and other offerings wrapped in white scarves.?10 Since white

was the color of death, the Chinese believed that by wrapping items in white and

burning them, the dead people will get these items in the other realm. These

?items? are the things that were most cherished by the deceased. For

example, they might give a teddy bear to a child because he loved it so much.

The reason the Chinese people give such items to the dead is to give them

comfort, so that they will not be afraid and feel lonely while they are

travelling to their next life or nirvana. The Chinese also believe in spirits

and ghosts. Generally, ghosts are understood as the spirit of some deceased

person appearing in visible form. In China, a ghost is the spirit of someone who

has died an unusual death. ?Ghosts of bandits were believed to linger close to

the site of their execution. If a pregnant woman passed this spot, the ghost

might later try to wrest out the child?s soul during birth and be born in

instead.?11 Among the many beliefs and attitudes about death, the Chinese also

believe in ancestral worship. They believe in remembering the deceased elders.

They would have tablets with the names of the deceased on them put upon shrines

and burn incense and pray to them daily. The Chinese have great respect for

their elders, honoring them regularly with offerings of roasted pigs and other

foods they had loved, and praying to them. These practices contribute to a sense

that death is an everyday part of daily life.12 The Chinese people have great

respect for their elders. They believed that since the elders were experienced

and wise, they should be respected for their knowledge and guidance. The Chinese

people believed that even though the ancestors are deceased, their spirits will

always live on, watching over the descendants. In honor of their dead, the

Chinese have set holidays, one holiday is Qing Ming This is in the early April

of the American calendar and is one of the most important traditional Chinese

festivals. ? During Qing Ming, the people are supposed to visit their family

graves to ?sweep? or clean them of weeds.? 13 In present day China,

because of the introduction of Communist beliefs, the traditional beliefs and

attitudes have been changed. Communists believed that religion and the ?old

ways? were not important, that believing in the government and the nation as a

whole was important. Because of this, Chinese people no longer buy their coffins

at the age of sixty, buy they do still pray to their ancestors for protection

and guidance, mourn their parents, and sweep the family graves at the spring

festivals To the Chinese, death will always remain a mystery and they will

always be fascinated with it- just as the rest of the rest of the world has

been. Even though dying means losing some one close in this world, the Chinese

will always celebrate deaths, because only through death, can you be one step

closer to nirvana. Endnotes 1) John S. Major, The Land and People of China (New

York: Harper & Row Publishers, Inc. 1989) p. 14. 2) My mom told me this. 3)

Fox Butterfield China- Alive in the Bitter Sea (New York: TIMES BOOKS, 1982) p.

256. 4) Fox Butterfield p. 256. 5) Constance Jones R.I.P.-The Complete Book of

Death & Dying (New York: Harper Collins Publishers, 1997) p. 120. 6)

Constance Jones p. 163. 7) Constance Jones p. 12. 8) Constance Jones p. 20. 9)

My mom told me this. 10) Constance Jones p. 20. 11) Constance Jones p. 129. 12)

Constance Jones p. 12. 13) Fox Butterfield p. 257. Bibliography – Butterfield,

Fox. China- Alive in the Bitter Sea. New York: TIMES BOOKS, 1982. – Jones,

Constance. R.I.P. The Complete Book of Death & Dying. New York: Harper

Collins Publishers, 1997. – Major, John. The Land and People of China. New York:

Harper & Row, Publishers, Inc. 1989. Throughout the history of mankind,

?death? has always been a fascination. People have always wondered about the

causes of death, the aftermath of death, and whether it could be stopped. Among

these people were the Chinese, who like many other people, believed there was

life after death. They performed certain rituals ? to help them along their

way.? Chinese attitudes toward death are reflected in funerary rituals,

Buddhist philosophy and reverence for the deceased. Death is a very important

issue to the Chinese people. The son of a family has the obligation to give his

parents a proper funeral. ?This includes such essential elements as; a large

coffin, a funeral procession, a well-chosen gravesite, gifts and offerings to

the soul of the deceased, a period of mourning, and keeping an ancestral shrine.

If a Chinese son fails to follow these obligations, he has committed a serious

offense against society.?1 The Chinese believed in giving a proper funeral to

their elders because when the elders were alive, they had shared their

experiences and knowledge with the young. The Chinese followed the requirements

to a proper funeral because they believed in remembering the dead, who were once

close to them. They wanted to remember the dead by praying to them daily and

making them offerings. The Chinese believed that there were certain rituals that

were necessary for certain events. For example, during a wedding, the Chinese

believed that the couple must bow to the parents and offer them tea. Only then,

can the couple be happily married. Because the Chinese believe in performing

certain rituals for certain events, anyone who doesn?t give his parents a

proper funeral would have mocked traditional beliefs. This son would be

considered as a pariah in his village and looked upon as ?dirty? by his

neighbors. To the Chinese, being buried in a coffin was very important. Chinese

people wanted to bury the dead in coffins to preserve their bodies, protect them

from decaying as fast. Although the soul of the person was to move on, the

Chinese wanted to save the body as a way to remember the elderly. To some people

being buried in a coffin is so important that they rather spend their money on a

coffin than on necessary provisions. Although burial in a coffin is preferred,

cremations also take place. A cremation is when a corpse is placed on a pyre and

burned to ashes. In the cities of present day China, because of the great

overpopulation and lack of usable land, the government has made cremation a

necessity. Cremation is also encouraged in rural areas in efforts of saving

arable land for farming. Since the people living in the rural areas are farmers

who can provide their own necessities and are independent of the government,

they are more concerned with their traditional beliefs and practices than the

concerns of the government. In the villages, peasants begin saving to buy

coffins for themselves after they pass the age of sixty; which was considered

the number of years a life cycle should be.2 People have claimed that if a

person died before turning sixty years old, he/she was a ?short-life devil.?

Because of this belief, the people that died before turning the age of sixty

years old were not buried and left wherever the happened to ?drop.?3 To show

how important burying the dead is, the Chinese hire elderly people who are

familiar with the ancient wisdom of feng-shui, or the spirits of ?the wind and

water.? This type of ancient art was also called geomancy. The reason why the

Chinese hire elderly people is because they want someone who is experienced in

the field, not someone who?s new and had recently learned it from books. The

Chinese believe that the more experience a person has, the more reliable is that

person. The geomancer helped the dead select favorable sites for graves.4 These

favorable sites not only had to be affordable to the family but had to bring

good luck to the family and ensure that there will be no evil spirits haunting

them. Like the traditional matchmaker, the geomancer is respected for his wisdom

and experience in life. Some similarities between the jobs of the matchmaker and

geomancer are those of which they both check the social statuses of their

clients. The matchmaker has to make sure that he does not match a rich young

lady to a poor young man, and the geomancer has to make sure that he picks a

gravesite that is affordable to the family. The matchmaker and the geomancer

also have to ensure that the matches and graves that they choose will only bring

good luck to the families and not bad luck. Calculating the ages of the people

involved and comparing to the stars of the sky does this: astrology. In foreign

countries like France and Spain, during funerals the undertakers, mourners, and

pallbearers are supposed to wear black. The black clothing shows their grief and

also protects them from evil spirits and ghosts that night be hovering nearby.

Also used during funeral processions are wreaths, which reflect their heathen

beliefs. The many circles of a wreath are designed to keep the spirit of the

dead with in bounds.5 During Chinese funerals, the mourners are supposed to wear

unbleached, unhemmed, white clothing. White was considered the color of death to

the Chinese people because they believe that white represents pureness. They

believed that since the dead were moving on, they should wear something

reflecting innocence to show how the deceased had lead a life of good deeds and

charity, therefore moving on to a better place. It is an offense to wear such

flashy colors as red, yellow, or green. 6 Buddhism, Taoism, and Confucianism

influence Chinese attitudes towards death. The Chinese tradition usually

discourages anxiety about death. Since Taoism is rigidly aligned with nature,

death is considered a natural part of the life cycle. Confucianism taught the

people that showing grief after death was appropriate. They believed that

grieving for the dead was a sign of respect, a sign of how they will miss the

guidance and help of their elders and loved ones. Even though Confucianism

encourages the grieving of the deceased, they also believe that it should not

last too long-because all things have an end.7 The religion that has the most

influence on Chinese attitudes towards death is Buddhism. The reason that

Buddhism has such a great influence is that it provides a ?correct? way to a

funeral. There are certain dos and do nots that must be followed. In other

beliefs such as Taoism and Confucianism, there are no rules, no exact way in

which a funeral should proceed in. Because there are no exact rules in Taoism

and Confucianism, the people often fear that they might be doing the wrong

thing, therefore hindering the proceeding of the deceased to nirvana. Buddhists

believe that people should celebrate death as a way to pass to the next

incarnation and move closer to nirvana (heaven). To Buddhists, the way in which

a person dies is very important. They believed that a person?s last thoughts

along with his accomplishments while alive determined what his next life would

be like. The goal of most Chinese Buddhists is to have followed the eight-fold

path and to die without fear or regret.8 Buddhist funerals are very much like

noisy celebrations. There is a lot of chanting, banging of gongs, and incense

burning. The reason for the noise, is to tell everyone that this person was dead

and moving on to the next life.9 The noise is also used to express to the dead

that they were all happy that the person is free from the pressures and

sufferings of life, which are stated in the Four Noble Truths. After the

traditional funeral, most Buddhists are cremated. They believed that by being

cremated, their soul will be released from the body and move on to the next

incarnation. ?The funeral pyre is usually sprinkled with consecrated oil and

other offerings wrapped in white scarves.?10 Since white was the color of

death, the Chinese believed that by wrapping items in white and burning them,

the dead people will get these items in the other realm. These ?items? are

the things that were most cherished by the deceased. For example, they might

give a teddy bear to a child because he loved it so much. The reason the Chinese

people give such items to the dead is to give them comfort, so that they will

not be afraid and feel lonely while they are travelling to their next life or

nirvana. The Chinese also believe in spirits and ghosts. Generally, ghosts are

understood as the spirit of some deceased person appearing in visible form. In

China, a ghost is the spirit of someone who has died an unusual death. ?Ghosts

of bandits were believed to linger close to the site of their execution. If a

pregnant woman passed this spot, the ghost might later try to wrest out the

child?s soul during birth and be born in instead.?11 Among the many beliefs

and attitudes about death, the Chinese also believe in ancestral worship. They

believe in remembering the deceased elders. They would have tablets with the

names of the deceased on them put upon shrines and burn incense and pray to them

daily. The Chinese have great respect for their elders, honoring them regularly

with offerings of roasted pigs and other foods they had loved, and praying to

them. These practices contribute to a sense that death is an everyday part of

daily life.12 The Chinese people have great respect for their elders. They

believed that since the elders were experienced and wise, they should be

respected for their knowledge and guidance. The Chinese people believed that

even though the ancestors are deceased, their spirits will always live on,

watching over the descendants. In honor of their dead, the Chinese have set

holidays, one holiday is Qing Ming This is in the early April of the American

calendar and is one of the most important traditional Chinese festivals. ?

During Qing Ming, the people are supposed to visit their family graves to

?sweep? or clean them of weeds.? 13 In present day China, because of the

introduction of Communist beliefs, the traditional beliefs and attitudes have

been changed. Communists believed that religion and the ?old ways? were not

important, that believing in the government and the nation as a whole was

important. Because of this, Chinese people no longer buy their coffins at the

age of sixty, buy they do still pray to their ancestors for protection and

guidance, mourn their parents, and sweep the family graves at the spring

festivals To the Chinese, death will always remain a mystery and they will

always be fascinated with it- just as the rest of the rest of the world has

been. Even though dying means losing some one close in this world, the Chinese

will always celebrate deaths, because only through death, can you be one step

closer to nirvana.

1) John S. Major, The Land and People of China (New York: Harper & Row

Publishers, Inc. 1989) p. 14. 2) My mom told me this. 3) Fox Butterfield China-

Alive in the Bitter Sea (New York: TIMES BOOKS, 1982) p. 256. 4) Fox Butterfield

p. 256. 5) Constance Jones R.I.P.-The Complete Book of Death & Dying (New

York: Harper Collins Publishers, 1997) p. 120. 6) Constance Jones p. 163. 7)

Constance Jones p. 12. 8) Constance Jones p. 20. 9) My mom told me this. 10)

Constance Jones p. 20. 11) Constance Jones p. 129. 12) Constance Jones p. 12.

13) Fox Butterfield p. 257. Bibliography – Butterfield, Fox. China- Alive in the

Bitter Sea. New York: TIMES BOOKS, 1982. – Jones, Constance. R.I.P. The Complete

Book of Death & Dying. New York: Harper Collins Publishers, 1997. – Major,

John. The Land and People of China. New York: Harper & Row, Publishers, Inc.

1989.


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