Popular Science Monthly/Volume 33/September 1888/Some Chinese Mortuary Customs

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WHEN the Chinese wish to declare the extreme vexatiousness of any piece of work, they say, "It is more trouble than a funeral"; the obsequies of a parent being reckoned the most maddening affair in human experience.

Infants are buried summarily, without coffins, and the young are interred with few rites; but the funerals of the aged, of both sexes, are elaborate in proportion to the number of the descendants and to their wealth. When a childless married man dies, his widow may perform all the duties of a son toward him, may remain in his house, and may adopt children to rear as his heirs and as worshipers of the family manes. If his widow purposes marrying again, a young male relative may, with the consent of senior members of the clan, undertake the services expected from a son, and may inherit the estate of the deceased.

When one is about to die, he is removed from his couch to a bench or to a mat on the floor, because of a belief that he who dies in bed will carry the bedstead as a burden into the other world. He is washed in a new pot, in warm water in which a bundle of incense-sticks is merged. After the washing, the pot and the water are thrown away together. He is then arrayed in a full suit of new clothing, that he may appear in hades at his best. He breathes his last in the main room, before the largest door of the house, that the departing soul may easily find its way out into the air. A sheet of spirit-money, brown paper having a patch of gilding on one surface, is laid over the upturned face, because it is said that, if the eyes are left uncovered, the corpse may count the rows of tiles in the roof, and that in such case the family could never build a more spacious domicile.

The sons unbraid their queues, and by this dishevelment indicate the confusion of the household. They also take off their tunics, turn one half sidewise over the other half, and put them on again in such a way as to clothe only a moiety of the body. The left shoulder is made bare if it be the father, and the right shoulder if it be the mother, who has died. Thus the son shows that he is denuded of his usual protection, on the one hand or the other, the left ranking above the right in Chinese etiquette. If he be orphaned, he goes naked to the waist in any weather. He also girds himself with a wadded garment twisted into a rope. This cumbrous girdle expresses the fact that he has been obliged to hastily brace himself for the arduous labors that have come upon him through bereavement.

Messengers go to inform all the kindred of the demise, and an elderly man, of the same surname as the deceased, dressed in sackcloth and followed by the eldest son, takes a new earthen saucepan, goes to a running stream, throws three sheets of spirit-money upon it, and, dipping in the direction of the current, takes water with which to cleanse the corpse. A sprig of bamboo or of banyan is inserted in the snout of the saucepan, the bamboo with its straight, evenly jointed stem being the type of paternal rule, and the banyan, with its unfading verdure, being the symbol of maternal affection. While the son is gone to buy the water of purification, the relatives assemble in the house, and, when his return is announced by his moans, they burst out simultaneously into a loud wail, each naming the relationship of the deceased to himself. It is thought that the son may be comforted by this indirect reminder that his parent had many friends who share the grief of the nearest of kin. The corpse is sprinkled with the water shaken from a branch of pomegranate, the many-seeded emblem of increase, and it is then ready for encoffining. Two paper images, one of a man, the other of a maid-servant, are bought and placed beside the body. A son puts some boiled rice in the mouth of the corpse, saying, "You fed me while I grew, I feed you when you are dead," and then commands two images to obey the behests of the departed and to run on all errands as directed by him. The images stand rigid before any number of prostrations made by the mourners, but are blown down by a breath of wind. They perhaps inspire the general feeling of superstitious aversion against being fanned by another, and originate the common polite inhibition, "I would receive a hundred obeisances from you sooner than one puff of air from your fan."

The male relatives then go in a body to the temple of the local tutelary deity, and announce the death. They carry lighted lanterns, because the daytime of men is the night of gods and spirits. The bell is tolled, the eldest son prostrates himself before the shrine as many times as will correctly indicate the years of the departed, and gives the sad information of his decease. They then return to the house of mourning, and some one goes to a soothsayer to ascertain what time will be lucky for the encoffining of the corpse. The natal dates, recorded for every member of the family, must be laid before the soothsayer, and some moment must be chosen whose signs are geomantically in accord with those of the birthdays and hours of the living, else evil will accrue to any whose horoscope conflicts. To lay the dead in the coffin without regard to the birth-times of those who assist would endanger life needlessly. Some propitious hour during the first, second, or third day is usually discovered and fixed upon. This time having arrived, the clothes of the deceased, or new cloth cut into lengths sufficient for a tunic, are distributed among the assistants, are used as girdles while the body is lifted into the coffin, and are afterward kept by the wearers.

Thrifty, elderly persons have stanch coffins made for themselves while in good health. They are kept in a loft, receive a new coat of lacquer occasionally, and harden during perhaps a score of years for final use. If the coffin has not been previously prepared, a son buys one from a maker, who gives the buyer a couple of oranges or a package of confectionery, that the transfer of goods may not be an unmixed sadness to his customer. Some person, familiar with the route, must guide the bearers by the shortest road to the house of the purchaser, for an empty coffin imperils the welfare of the inmates of any dwelling to which it is taken, and a mistake in regard to its destination would bring rough treatment to those who carried it.

After the body is laid in the coffin, a piece of silver, real or counterfeit, is placed under the tongue. It is said that in ancient times the full value of a man's possessions was paid to him by his heirs at his demise, and was deposited with him in his coffin for burial. But later on, though long ago, a man who had foreknowledge, warned his children that there would be a rebellion in their day, and that a certain noble would rifle graves to get funds for the carrying out of his treasonable designs. When this man died, the prospective rebel was invited to assist in encoffining the corpse, and the sons put into the coffin only a small piece of silver, which they slipped under his tongue. Years passed, and the prophecy of the dead father was fulfilled; but, while other graves were opened, his remained undisturbed, because the rebel chieftain knew it contained no treasure. Since that time the practice of putting a bit of silver under the tongue has superseded the older custom of burying large sums of money with the corpse.

The evening after the encoffining a supper is spread for all the relatives of other surname than that of the deceased. Those of the same surname, reckoning themselves sinners, and therefore in sorrow, cook and serve the banquet.

As soon as the corpse is encoffined, a screen of white cloth is stretched across the main room just in front of the shelf on which sit the household gods, opposite the front entrance to the house. The coffin stands parallel with the screen, and close behind it, shut off from the view of those who pass the open door. In front of the screen, at its center, a chair is placed, holding an effigy of the deceased, and dressed in his clothing. This is called the seat of the spirit. Before the effigy a square table is set as an altar, and draped with a white cover and valance. A pair of large bouquets of white artificial flowers, stuck in balls of clay, are set upon the altar, and the worship of the dead then commences. Many female relatives stay behind the screen to wail. A child is appointed to watch and give notice of the approach of a worshiper, and at his signal the women wail in chorus. A male relative goes out, receives the guest, and kneels beside him while he bows and touches his forehead to the ground. The guest is then invited into another room to partake of tea, and the wailing ceases until another visitor arrives. Friends of various surnames and clans come during the first six days to pay obeisance to the dead, and bring bundles of spirit-money to be burned before the altar. The son of the recipient of these posthumous honors returns to each a present of a few feet of home-made white cloth, and invites all to the great performances of the seventh day.

The effigy and altar remain a hundred days, and before them the near relatives bow down and weep twice a day. Those who can wail in verse, eulogizing the departed, gain much approbation. Every morning and evening, so long as the coffin is in the house, or for one hundred days if the burial should be longer delayed, a daughter-in-law puts upon the altar a meal of vegetable food. The deceased is supposed to partake of its essence, and it is afterward added to the family mess. Beside the fare set forth for the dead man, there is laid upon the table a single chopstick and an egg for the jailer that has charge of the spirit until it is judged in hades. Having but half a pair of chopsticks to use, he must needs eat slowly, and so the dead man may get his share of the viands set forth!

Besides the occupations already described, the men of the afflicted family must procure food-stuffs, including pork, geese, and ducks, for the entertainment of guests; must hire mourning garments, or buy cloth for making them; must put an awning over the court in front of the house, to enlarge the space wherein the priests are to perform the ceremonies of the seventh day; and must order at the shops where outfits for ghosts are made all the paper paraphernalia which is to be burned at the funeral.

The women must, meanwhile, cook abundant meals for all who assist in the obsequies; must pound bushels of rice into flour for making steamed cakes to offer, with tea, to all comers; must make many little white bags, and put into each two long rolls of raw cotton, some green peas, some unhusked rice, and two copper coins, and must fasten these bags upon cords, whereby they can be tied around the waist. On the seventh day each son and son's wife wears three of these bags, all the children of the sons wear two bags, and each married daughter and son-in-law wears one bag. Mourning badges must also be made—wristlets of white for all the sons, and wristlets of blue for all the grandsons. These are to be worn on the seventh day, and thereafter until they drop off through decay. The women must also make new red shoes for themselves, and cover them with sackcloth, and must make new mourning garments, or else sew shreds of white cotton along the seams and edges of their old tunics, to make them look like unfinished dresses that have been put on under the stress of sad circumstances.

On the seventh day after the demise, the deceased is supposed to become aware that he has departed this life, and on that day is performed the ceremony of accompanying him to the land of shades. Priests, Buddhist and. Tauist, have been engaged for a fixed sum of money, with their entertainment, tobacco to smoke, tea to sip, and at least three substantial meals. Early in the morning the sons and daughters-in-law put on tunics of coarse sackcloth. The sons wear shoes patched with linen, a small or a large patch on the toe indicating whether one or both parents are dead. They put on a tall cap of sackcloth having a wad of spirit money suspended on either side to dangle over the ears and shut out the criticisms of relatives who may be dissatisfied with their management of the funeral rites or with the quality of the repasts provided for the assisting mourners.

The Buddhist priests arrive and hang upon the white screen three pictures of Buddha, which are worshiped by the members of the bereaved family, especially by its women. Water is heated for the deceased to bathe in, and is put into a tub beside the coffin, and inclosed by a new mat. A paper towel and a complete suit of paper clothing are burned beside the coffin to furnish the spirit with suitable attire for the day's exercises. The Buddhist priests meanwhile chant an invitation to make use of the things provided. They continue to chant at intervals during the day, acting in concert with the Tauist priest, who takes the lead in conducting the spirit to hades. For one or three days and nights, according to the wealth and faith of the family, the priests continue their incantations, ringing bells, sprinkling the altar with holy water from a pomegranate-branch, and burning incense whose smoke fills the court. A plank is supported at its ends by two stools, and represents bridges. The Tauist priest, followed by the eldest son carrying an armful of copper coins, and by all the rest of the family in file carrying lighted incense-sticks, goes on a circuit through the house, court, or street, repeatedly crossing the mimic bridge. This is the exponent of the long journey made by the deceased across marshes, meadows, streams, and mountains toward the bourn from which no traveler returns. After many wearisome circuits, the priest stops and calls for the opening of the gate into hades. An assistant responds that the gate-keeper's fee must first be paid, and the eldest son throws coins into the priest's bowl. After a turn or two more, the call is repeated, the invisible door is opened, and the spirit is supposed to pass in and to mount a lofty platform, from which it takes a final view of the house and village in which it has dwelt. The priests chant its valediction, saying:

"On the last, highest lookout now I stand,
And gaze toward home, with weeping loud and sore:
Those who go farthest on an earthly strand
May come again to kin and native land,
But he who enters hell returns no more."

The mourners wail loudly, and the spirit is considered to have departed into the realm of shadows. The party led by the priest now take the short return journey, crossing the mimic bridge but once; for they say:

"For going, ages scarce suffice;
The coming back takes but a trice."

The priest then brings a miniature artificial lotus-garden, on whose terraces are images of the immortals, and sets it whirling on its standard over a basin of clean water. The mourners throw coins into the basin, to secure an abundance of pure water for the use of the deceased in the nether world. Various arts are used by the priest, at this and other stages of the performance, to increase the amount of cash thrown into his basin.

At nightfall the offerings which supply the dead with the necessaries of spirit-life are sent to him by burning them. Silver and gold coins, clothing of every sort and in many colors, opium and tobacco-pipes, spectacles, wallets, boxes, horses, sedan-chairs, boats, and servants, counterfeited skillfully in paper, and costing hundreds of dollars, are offered by the descendants and friends of the deceased, and are consumed in little bonfires that fill the court-yard with flame, smoke, and ashes. Married daughters bring armfuls of paper clothing and add it to the blaze, kneeling and leaning their heads against a bar from their looms. Neighbors and acquaintances bring packages of similar goods, and commit them, through the flames, to the care of the deceased, to be transferred by him to their own relatives in the region to which he is going. Some offer real articles, which are spread on tables, with edibles, and these are usually carried away during the night by poor souls still in the flesh. Supplies of paper goods are also burned for the poverty-stricken and friendless dead, who might without this pacification rob the beloved traveler of the things intended for his sole behoof. All night the fires glow, the smoke ascends, the priests chant, and the mourners wail.

On the morning of the eighth day the priests usually depart, and the family resumes, in some degree, its ordinary occupations. Three times, at the new and the full moon, the married daughters of the deceased each bring a pig's head and a large steamed cake, and join their brothers in worship before the seat of the spirit in their father's house. On the sixth day of the sixth Chinese month, after the removal of the seat of the spirit, the sons buy one cock, one water-melon, cakes, and incense, and offer them to their father's spirit, that being the day on which he, having been judged before ten courts in hades, crosses its narrow bridge and passes into a region decreed to him according to his deserts. The cock wakens him, and is afterward presented by him to the keeper of the bridge; the melon and cakes are distributed on the route, and the incense is burned in ceremonious respect to the deceased. After the first hundred days the dead parent receives offerings of food, with the burning of incense and spirit-money, about ten times a year, including always his birthday and the anniversary of his death

White is, in a general way, the color of mourning. Sons, during the first three days, wear the tunic wrong side out, and on one side of the body only. After that time they wear, like other mourners, garments of unbleached hempen cloth, except on the seventh day, when they and their wives wear sackcloth tunics, usually hired from a shop at which coffins are sold. The sons do not shave their heads for one hundred days, and they wear mourning for twenty-seven months, during which time they can not legally marry. Daughters and daughters-in-law put off mourning at the end of one year, when they resume their golden head-ornaments and don some bit of red.

The burial of the encoffined body is sometimes deferred for many years, awaiting the death of a spouse, or the favorable decision of a geomancer concerning a site for a tomb. As the prosperity of every man's descendants is thought to depend upon his being laid in a spot having such relationship to wind and water as will afford him undisturbed repose, the selection of a place of interment is sometimes difficult, and there are men who make their living by searching out good places for graves.

The grave being prepared, friends are informed of the burial, and they assemble at the appointed time to follow the coffin to the hills. The coffin is covered with a red pall. Two lanterns are tied together with a red cord, and arranged so as to hang one on either side of the coffin; and there may be as many pairs of lanterns as there are married couples among the descendants of the deceased. Small bags, with a red and a green side, are also hung upon the coffin, one for each member of the mourning household. The bags contain linen thread, cotton-rolls, peas, rice, hemp-seed, and coins, emblems of longevity, fecundity, and wealth. They have an occult influence on the weal of the living.

Before the procession moves, twelve bowls of soup, in which pellets of dough float, are offered, with prostrations, to the dead. The number twelve and the vernacular name of the pellets express completeness, and are a funereal charade. Four or more men, hired for high wages, bear the coffin. It is followed to the grave by male friends, all in mourning, with tall white caps. The women, with white scarfs on their heads, go but a short distance from the house to a fork in the road, where a lad has been stationed with a banyan-branch. There they burn incense, make obeisance to the coffin, break off a twig of the banyan, and return by a route other than the one by which they came. A convenient superstition preserves them from a long journey on their maimed feet, and declares that they "must not follow the dead to death."

The sons of the deceased carry each a staff of bamboo or of banyan, which is left at the grave. Spirit-money is scattered along the road to buy right of way from demons that might oppose. The coffin being lowered, each person in the procession takes up some mortar in the flap of his tunic and casts it into the grave. When the pit is filled and rounded, sesame, whose vernacular name means completion, is planted on the top, to grow in sun and rain. A new, small gilded image, that has been brought with the coffin to the tomb, has a dot added to a hieroglyphic upon it, changing the meaning of the said hieroglyphic from king to lord. At this instant it becomes a household god, and is carried back with reverence to be placed on the shrine of the lares in the house, and worshiped with oblations.

During three years, on the anniversary of the death, presents of paper clothing are sent to the deceased by burning them. So long as there are male descendants living, they worship the grave in the seventh month of each year. When the family becomes so large that a division of the estate and separate dwellings are expedient, the images of the progenitors are inherited by the eldest son.

Mr. Balfour would make interest the ultimate criterion in the selection of reading for improvement. Knowledge is most easily attained in those subjects which we like most and take the most interest in. Our best course should be, having become interested in a subject, to read the best books upon it. By this rule we will read widely, and perhaps superficially; but thus reading, with freshness and vigor eager to be enlightened on this particular thing, will we not get more knowledge and be vastly more benefited than the man "who, with slow and painful steps, wearily plods through a list of books, though that list has in it all the masterpieces of creation"?

  1. The author writes from her own observations at Swatow, but does not mean to be understood as implying that all the customs described are general throughout the empire.—Editor.