Chinese Mourning Rituals

Topics: Funeral, China, Death Pages: 10 (3412 words) Published: October 17, 2013
CHINESE MOURNING RITUALS
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.

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.

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. 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....
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