Afterlife: Chinese Concepts

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It is commonly accepted that conceptions of soul and afterlife must have developed among many human societiesChina includedlong before the appearance of written evidence. Unsparing efforts to discover traces in archaeological remains have yielded varying degrees of success. In the case of ancient China, the position of bodies buried at the Banpo Neolithic (c. 50004000 bce) cemetery near present-day Xian was often interpreted as indicating the existence of an idea of an afterlife. The evidencea unified westward head positionwas explained as the expression of a belief in the west as the world of the dead. There is, however, very little further evidence, and nothing else is known of such a belief in a world after death during this period. A parallel situation in ancient Egypt indicates that burial positions varied from cemetery to cemetery, which should be considered a warning against interpreting burial position as evidence of a concept of the netherworld.

The earliest textual evidence from China concerning an idea of an afterlife is in oracle bone inscriptions from the Shang dynasty (c. 15001050 bce). Primarily divination records, the inscriptions mentioned that deceased kings dwelled in heaven together with the God on High. This was clearly a very special afterlife, available only for royalty. There is no textual evidence indicating an afterlife for commoners, though burial custom continued to develop along the model of vertical pits with wooden coffins in varying degrees of elaboration. This implies that the belief system of the society at the time was by and large homogenous. Later, during the transition from the Warring States period (c. 403221 bce) to the Qin (221206 bce) and Han (206 bce220 ce) dynasties, when tomb style began to change, a detectable transformation in the perception of the afterlife occurred.

Inscriptions on bronze vessels found in tombs of the Shang and Zhou (c. 1150256 bce) dynasties are in general commemorative in nature, and the deeds of the owners were magnified and praised. Occasionally, the "underground" is mentioned as the place where a deceased noble will serve his lord after death. This "underground" is not described in detail, but it must indicate a common conception for the destination of the dead. Evidence of human sacrifices as well as accompanying tombs of servants and concubines are found among Shang royal tombs and certain later tombs. These are corroborated by textual evidence from the Book of Odes, attributed to the Zhou period, which indicates that for a long time people believed that deceased kings and rulers needed their servants after death.

The Changing Concept of the Netherworld: Eastern Zhou to Han

During the Eastern Zhou (770256 bce) and the Warring States periods, for which written documents are relatively abundant, two termsYellow Spring and Dark Citywere used to represent the idea of a netherworld. The term Yellow Spring (huangquan ) was probably a reference to underground water, which was a metaphor for the netherworld. The Zuozhuan, a work that relates historical events of the Eastern Zhou period, preserved a story that concerns this idea of the Yellow Spring. The duke of Zheng was angry with his unfaithful mother and vowed never to see her again in life with the expression "we shall not meet each other unless we all reach the Yellow Spring" (i.e., the netherworld). Later, when he regretted his anger, he dug an underground tunnel to meet with her, since the tunnel was supposed to have reached the Yellow Spring. The underground tunnel is clearly a substitute for a tomb or the netherworld. Exactly what there was in the Yellow Spring, however, is not specified.

The term Dark City (youdu ) first appears in the Chuci (Songs of the south), written by the famous Chu poet Qu Yuan (c. 343277 bce). In a chapter titled "Summoning the Soul," which describes the soul-recalling ritual, the poet wrote: "O soul, Go not down to the City of Darkness, where the Lord Earth lies, nine-coiled, with dreadful horns on his forehead, and a great humped back and bloody thumbs, pursuing men, swift-footed: Three eyes he has in his tiger's head, and his body is like a bull's" (Hawkes, 1959, p. 105). Here the Dark City was ruled by Lord Earth (Tu Bo), a sinister-looking horned python. Such a description betrays a certain aversion toward the afterlife, as the Dark City was clearly not a desirable place for the soul of the dead to be. Again, little is known about this Dark City. Indeed, darkness is a quality often attributed to the world of the dead. The ancient Mesopotamians believed that the world of the dead was a dark and cold place, ruled by the deities Ereshkigal and Nergal. The Jewish Sheʾol, also a dark place, was intimately related to the ancient Mesopotamian concept of the netherworld. The ancient Greeks conceived of the netherworld as a gloomy place, where the souls of the dead exist in a pale and shadow-like form. The idea of the darkness of the Chinese netherworld, the Dark City, is retained well into the Eastern Han period (25220 ce). An Eastern Han funerary text states that the deceased "joined the long night, without seeing the sun and the stars. His soul dwelled alone, returned down to the darkness."

Exactly how prevalent this concept of a Dark City was in the late Warring States period, when the Chuci was written, is uncertain. A slightly later text found in a Qin dynasty tomb in the present-day Gansu province mentioned that the deceased "lived" in his tomb and that he did not like to wear many clothes, nor did he like offerings of food soaked with sauce. In this case, the relationship between the tomb and the Dark City is not clear.

In the Western Han during the second century bce, texts found in tombs referred to the world of the dead as simply "underground" (dixia ) and ruled by a host of bureaucrats, including the Lord of Underworld, the Assistant Magistrate of the Underworld, the Assistant of the Dead, the Retinue of the Graves, the Minister and Magistrate of Grave Mounds, the Commander of Ordinance for the Mounds, the Neighborhood Head of the Gate of the Souls, the Police of the Grave Mounds, the Marquis of the Eastern Mound, the Count of the Western Mound, the Official of Underneath, and the Head of Five of Gaoli (i.e., the netherworld). Governing this bureaucratic establishment was an overlord, variously known as the Yellow Emperor (Huangdi), Yellow God (Huangshen), or Heavenly Emperor (Tiandi). It is unclear how the Heavenly Emperor could be involved in the affairs of the netherworld if heaven and the underground were separate regions. All the same, the picture of the underground shaped by these figures reflects what happened above ground. In other words, a conception of a bureaucratic netherworld only became possible when the world of the living was already bureaucratized. This evidence from the Han period, in its description of the bureaucratization of the netherworld, also reflects the signs of a unified empire.

On the other hand, at every locality there was always the issue of the incorporation of local traditions into the larger structure. A group of wooden slips dated to 79 ce provided a wealth of information on local religious beliefs related to the conception of the afterlife. The texts were written in the form of contracts that recorded that, when a person was about to die, the family would employ a wu shaman to pray and make ale and meat offerings for the dying person. When the person died, the family members would pray to a variety of deities, including the Lord Hearth, the Controller of Fate, and a number of local deities. Sacrifice to the deities was also ministered by local wu shamans. When the prayer was finished, the content of the prayer and the offering was written on the wooden slips, which were meant to be taken by the deceased as a kind of contract to the Heavenly Sire (tiangong ) to testify that indeed prayers and offerings had been performed on behalf of the deceased. It is unclear who this Heavenly Sire was, though he must have been one of the important deities in charge of the deceased. This, of course, is another form of the bureaucratization of the afterworld, as official documents on earth were imitated in the world of the dead. It is particularly interesting that here the deceased was referred to as ascending to heaven and descending to the Yellow Spring at the same time when death occurred.

Similar situations can be found in the use of contracts for the purchase of land. Archaeological excavations of tombs have produced a substantial number of contracts for the purpose of buying a piece of land for the deceased as the place of the burial. It is possible that such land contracts were originally copies of real contracts that the family members of the deceased placed in the tomb in order to provide a legitimate claim to the land. Gradually, the contract became symbolic; as the piece of land became an imaginary space, the sellers became deities or immortals and the price of the land became astronomical.

Finally, the bureaucratization of the afterlife was evidenced by the fact that it was thought that the deceased had to pay taxes even in the netherworld. A text found in an Eastern Han tomb includes the following:

Today is an auspicious day. It is for no other reason but the deceased Zhang Shujing, who unfortunately died prematurely, is scheduled to descend into the grave. The Yellow God, who produced the Five Mountains, is in charge of the roster of the deceased, recalling the hun and po, and in charge of the list of the dead. The living may build a high tower; the dead returns and is buried deeply underneath. Eyebrows and beards having fallen, they drop and became dirt and dust. Now therefore I (the Messenger of Heavenly Emperor) present the medicine for removing poll-tax and corvée conscription, so that the descendants will not die. Nine pieces of renshen from Shangdang substitute for the living. The lead man is intended to substitute for the dead. The soybeans and mellon-seeds are for the dead to pay for the taxation underneath. Hereby I issue a decree to remove the earthly evil, so that no disaster will occur. When this decree arrives, restrict the officer of the Underworld, and do not disturb the Zhang family again. Doubly urgent as prescribed by the laws and ordinances. (Poo, 1998, pp. 171172)

Not only did the deceased have to pay tax in the netherworld, they also faced the prospect of forced labor. A small lead figurine of a man, crudely made and placed in a clay jar to be buried in the tomb, was said to be able to do all sorts of errands for the deceased, including serving as a substitute laborer. It is interesting to note a similarity between this lead man and the ushabti of ancient Egypt; both served as substitutes for the deceased in the performance of conscripted labor in the afterlife. Spells written on the ushabti engaged the double to answer (the literal meaning of ushabti ) for all the required works.

The text quoted above was actually a protective spell aimed at securing a comfortable place for the dead in the netherworld and at the same time protecting the family members. The author of this spell is unknown but presumably belonged to the class of fangshi magician, an early type of Daoist priest. Thus, two categories of religious personnel were involved in mediating this world and the afterlife. The wu shaman was responsible for the preparation and performance of sacrificial rituals, while the fangshi magician was mainly involved in the manipulation of secret and sacred powers by producing spells and recipes, together with certain actions, that could control various evil spirits and ghosts.

During the Eastern Han period, Mount Tai emerged as the final destination of the dead. This place was ruled by the Lord of Mount Tai, who was in charge of the dead. This does not mean that belief in an underground netherworld, or the Yellow Spring, was completely replaced by belief in Mount Tai as the abode of the dead or that people in every corner of the empire gave up their local traditions concerning the afterlife. The process through which Mount Tai gained its importance is obscure, but it might have to do with the position of Mount Tai in the state cult. The Shujing (Book of history) mentions that the sage-king Shun once made sacrifice at Mount Tai. Another ancient tradition has it that the Yellow Emperor performed a sacrifice to heaven at Mount Tai and became immortal. A number of classical texts testify that mountain deities were worshipped by the rulers in order to appropriate the mandate of heaven and therefore the legitimacy to rule. The first emperor of the Qin dynasty (Qin Shihuang, r. 221210 bce) and Emperor Wu (r. 14087 bce) of the Han dynasty also performed the Grand Ceremony (fengshan ) at Mount Tai. The sacred nature of Mount Tai was therefore well established during the early Han. One can only assume that the sacredness of Mount Tai was the basis for it to become the abode of the dead. Nonetheless, it is only in the Eastern Han period that one finds funerary texts clearly indicating that Mount Tai had become the abode of ghosts. One such text reads, "The living belong to the jurisdiction of Chang'an to the west; the dead belong to the jurisdiction of Mount Tai to the east." This indicates that the capital of the living was Chang'an, the capital of Western Han, and the capital of the dead was Mount Tai. Thus, it seems that it was during the Western Han that Mount Tai gained the attribute of being the abode of the dead, although the text was found in an Eastern Han tomb. Two small mounds below Mount Tai, Liangfu and Gaoli, also became associated with this world of the dead and were often mentioned in texts of the Eastern Han and later eras.

Burial Styles and the Conception of Afterlife

The evolution of tomb styles reveals the transformation of the conception of the afterlife from another angle. The traditional burial style in China from the Neolithic period until the Warring States period was the vertical-pit wooden-casket tomb. The degree of personal status was shown in the size of the pit and the layers of caskets provided for the deceased as well as in the elaborateness of the funerary objects. The burial place, though certainly considered the abode of the dead, was constructed to reflect the personal sociopolitical status of the deceased. The number of accompanying bronze vessels and the layers of caskets, for example, were provided in a hierarchical order.

A change gradually took place during the Warring States period with the appearance of brick tombs, indicating a shift in emphasis in the perception of the function of the tomb. In its earlier form, the brick tomb was constructed with large bricks, which replaced the wooden outer casket of the vertical-pit tomb. During the early Western Han period, this burial style gradually gained acceptance among the people, and the tomb structure began to develop into more complicated forms. The brick burial chamber grew larger and often included an antechamber, some of which included further side chambers for storing funerary objects or even symbolic kitchens and stables with surrogate kitchen utensils and carriages. The tomb was more like an underground house for the deceased. It seems that with the emergence of brick tombs and funerary objects of daily use, the afterlife was conceived in a more realist fashion.

Similar trends can also be observed in the traditional form of vertical-pit wooden-casket tombs, particularly in former Chu areas. Beginning from the late Warring States period, the caskets developed from a single-level to a double-level structure with doors, windows, and stairs that connected the upper and lower levels. Some caskets even had pigpens in the lower levels, which undoubtedly were replicas of the houses of the living. Funerary objects, such as clay models of rice paddies, boats, carriages, cattle, even chicken and fish, created a sense of a well-provided household. Some elements that earlier had indicated the political status of the tomb owner, such as bronze vessels, were missing from the scenes.

The change observed in burial styles from the Warring States to the Han reveals a change of conception toward the afterlife. Corresponding to the textual evidence, which suggests a bureaucratized netherworld emerging with the establishment of the Han empire, the change in burial style indicates a more realistic imagining of the world after deathan imagining, however, based on an imitation of the world of the living. The textual and archaeological evidence clearly suggests that by the Eastern Han period the idea that the netherworld was similar to the mundane world had become common. By making the abode after death practically identical to the normal abode, the dead (or the dying) perhaps were thought to be relieved of the dread of uncertainty.

Attitudes toward Life in the Netherworld

Attitudes toward the afterlife were ambiguous and cannot be separated from attitudes toward death and the existence of the soul after death. The early Daoist philosopher Zhuangzi (c. fourth century bce) held a materialist and naturalist view of the essence of life, and he perceived that the physical being was merely a gathering of the qi ether in the universe. When a person, or indeed any life-form, died, the body decomposed and returned to the state of qi. There was therefore no life after death. The Confucians, on the other hand, took a conservative stand in accepting what had long existed in Chinese cultureghosts and spirits. Yet Confucius himself did not wish to discuss the unknown world of the spirits, and he devoted little attention to the afterlife. As a consequence, the Confucian view did not reflect what was actually believed by common people regarding death and life in the netherworld. The archaeological and textual evidence described in the previous sections demonstrates that the nature of the afterlife was a constant concern of the people. The Eastern Han philosopher Wang Chong (first century ce) gave a vivid description of the popular mentality of his time:

Thus ordinary people, on the one side, have these very doubtful arguments (about whether ghosts exist or not), and on the other they hear of Duke Du and the like, and note that the dead in their tombs arise and have intercourse with sick people whose end is near. They then believe in this, and imagine that the dead are like the living. They commiserate with them, [thinking] that in their graves they are lonely, that their souls are solitary and without companions, that their tombs and mounds are closed and devoid of grain and other things. Therefore they make dummies to serve the corpses in their coffins, and fill the latter with eatables, to gratify the spirits. This custom has become so inveterate, and has gone to such lengths, that very often people will ruin their families and use up all their property for the coffins of the dead. (Forke, 1962, vol. 2, p. 369)

An ambiguous attitude toward death and the afterlife can be seen in these diverging views. On the one hand, life hereafter could be portrayed as a state of happiness. Tomb paintings and reliefs from the Han period often portray a happy afterlife: scenes of banquets, festivals, hunting, and traveling often occupy the central position. Inscriptions on bronze mirrors found in tombs often carry eulogies about a carefree life comparable to that of the immortals. One inscription reads: "There is happiness daily, and fortune monthly. There is joy without (bad) events, fit for having wine and food. Live leisurely, free from anxiety. Accompanied by flute and zither, with contentment of heart. Years of happiness are secure and lasting" (Karlgren, 1934, no. 79). However, other texts describing taxes and corvée labor in the afterlife as well as contracts concerning prayers and offerings to the deities betray a sense of anxiety and fear. Even the elaborate funerary paraphernalia could be seen as emerging from a sense of insecurity about an uncertain future.

See Also

Alchemy, article on Chinese Alchemy; Chinese Religion, overview article, article on Mythic Themes; Daoism, overview article, article on The Daoist Religious Community; Fangshi; Huangdi; Soul, article on Chinese Concepts; Tian; Xian; Xi Wang Mu; Zhenren.


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Mu-chou Poo (2005)