China: A Down-to-Earth Hereafter

By Aubin, Francoise | UNESCO Courier, March 1998 | Go to article overview

China: A Down-to-Earth Hereafter


Aubin, Francoise, UNESCO Courier


In Chinese civilization, the dead, the gods and the living have sound practical reasons to keep in contact

Chinese civilization has never held a hard-and-fast view of the hereafter, although some aspects of it have never changed. The gods are believed to be all-pervasive: they are an immanent part of the earthly world, and if carefully handled they can help fulfil human aspirations to material well-being. In Mediterranean societies, on the other hand, the gods (or the one God the creator) are transcendental and live outside the perceptible universe. According to another time-honoured Chinese tradition, the human soul is divided into a series of superior souls, destined for a spiritual future after death, and a series of inferior, material souls linked to the corpse and the grave.

When China was united into an Empire in the third century B.C., popular expectations of the afterlife were couched in terms of a rather dismal sojourn at the springs of the Yellow River. Those who could do so tried to avoid this fate by engaging in a frantic quest for immortality and in mystic journeys under the guidance of a Taoist master. The disciples of Confucius, on the other hand, sought only to achieve a state of moral righteousness with which to serve the ruler. They regarded immortality only as an allegory for mental purity.

Between the third and sixth centuries A.D., the introduction of Buddhism revolutionized the religious landscape, and the different religions began to adapt to each other. The Indian religion soon became a Chinese one as its writings were translated and as it came to absorb local beliefs and practices. Taoism, for its part, made substantial borrowings from Buddhism. Meanwhile, the popular religion practised daily by lay people of all social classes took from Buddhism and Taoism a pantheon of protective gods, and Confucianism continued to uphold filial piety as the model of all virtue.

Underworld tribunals

By about the ninth century, the shape of the hereafter had been clearly established. A man is endowed with three souls or series of souls. Women are rarely mentioned, except to confirm that they follow their menfolk in the next world, as they do in this one, although usually without laying down their lives to do so.

Of the three souls with which men are endowed, the hun or spiritual soul remains attached to the gravestone in memory of the deceased on the family altar and receives tribute from the descendants in the form of offerings of incense and food. The earthly soul, p'o, resides in the grave, and is also sustained by the gifts of descendants during festivals honouring the dead. The third soul is tried by a series of tribunals in an underground world located, according to the most common tradition, on the Eastern Sacred Peak of T'ai-shan, in Shantung province.

The pragmatism of Chinese civilization shows itself here. The underworld tribunals, although Buddhist in origin, are structured and run on the lines of imperial tribunals. The dead person is held there as a prisoner accused of a crime. But, as in earthly justice, a favourable verdict can be bought from an underworld tribunal with paper money handed over by the family of the deceased.

The time spent beyond the grave is not an everlasting confinement but a period of transition, varying in length, between two earthly episodes. The usual period is three years, except in the case of particularly heinous crimes, which earn the culprit a longer roasting over the fires of hell. Usually, and especially if the descendants have been moved by their filial piety to pay the proper price for their salvation, the deceased awaits the end of his three years in a purgatory similar to the earthly surroundings to which he was accustomed. All his needs are provided for by his pious descendants, who burn for him all kinds of objects in the form of paper - a house, furniture and money and even, these days, a car and a television set. …

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