Women and the Family in Chinese History

By Patricia Buckley Ebrey | Go to book overview

6
Cremation in Song China*

Disposing of the dead arouses feelings of love, dread, anxiety, and pain. Despite these common human responses, different peoples learn to give form to their emotions in widely divergent ways and thus are often repelled by what others do. The Chinese abhorred some customs of their neighbors and ethnic minorities, such as the Tibetan practice of exposing corpses and the Muslim practice of burying without a coffin. They would surely have been just as horrified by the medieval European practice of dividing bodies. Europeans in China were often made uncomfortable by the northern Chinese practice of keeping encoffined bodies in the courtyard for decades or the southeastern Chinese practice of exhuming bodies after a few years to clean the bones and place them in urns.

These culturally constructed emotional responses to the handling of the dead body do not change easily. In the summer of 1988, the Chinese press carried articles showing that the government had not yet succeeded in its forty-year campaign to replace burial with cremation. For instance, the five children of a deputy chairman of a county party committee had within two days of his death buried him in a hillside grave that took up 90 square meters. They did this although party leaders had tried to keep them from removing the body from the hospital and had then visited their home to insist on cremation. After five weeks of pressure from many party and government officials, the family relented, and the water-logged coffin was exhumed as several hundred villagers watched. 1

In this essay, I examine a counter-example in the history of Chinese mortuary practice, a case in which customs did change. Beginning in the tenth century, many people willingly gave up the long-established custom of burying bodies in coffins to follow the practice introduced by Buddhist monks of cremating bodies and either scattering the ashes over water, storing them in urns aboveground, or burying the urn in a small grave. Throughout the native Song (960–1279) dynasty and its successor, the alien Yuan (1215–1368) dynasty founded by the Mongol conquerors, cremation flourished

____________________
*
This article was first published in American Historical Review 95 (1990:406–28). Reproduced with permission of the publisher.

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