Traditions of Ancient China Regarding Death

The yin-yang was an important concept in ancient Chinese death traditions.
... Thomas Northcut/Photodisc/Getty Images

In ancient China, most traditions related to death were based on beliefs unique to villages and family members, not organized religious practices. These traditions are today thought of as "Chinese popular religion." Buddhism, Taoism and Confucianism all contributed to the development of customs, but the prevalence of local variations meant that broad religious concepts such as personal salvation or transformation played only a small role in ancient Chinese practices regarding death.

1 Guiding Principles

The ancient Chinese believed that persons must take responsibility for their own lives to ensure peace in the afterlife. The focus of their ideas around death was on the interaction between the living and their ancestors. The belief was that ancestors sacrificed material things for the happiness of future generations, and that sacrificing for one's children while alive would please the ancestors and help secure a place in the hereafter. The dead were able to live immortally when their children, grandchildren and future descendants were healthy and successful. The living saved the soul of the deceased by showing proper respect to their ancestor, and the dead were thought capable of influencing the lives of the living, for better or worse.

2 Ancestor Veneration

The ancient Chinese believed that the soul of one who had departed had two components, the yin and the yang. The yin, or "po," was associated with the grave, while the yang, or "hun," was associated with the ancestral family tree. Many thought that the po was buried along with the body, but out of it arose a soul that was judged in the "10 courts of hell." Without veneration being shown from one's living relatives, the soul could not hope to escape harsh punishment. The hun, on the other hand, descended to the ancestral family altar, where it joined other ancestors of the family.

3 Grave Goods

The ancient Chinese would bury the dead with grave goods, usually artifacts from a person's life that they thought would help or comfort that person's soul in the hereafter. The more elaborate the grave goods, the wealthier or more powerful the person was. For especially important people, large sculptures would be erected and placed near the tombs and small pottery figures would be placed in the coffin. These figures represented the attendants, servants and entertainers of the deceased.

4 Elaborate Burial Customs

In addition to their beliefs surrounding the afterlife and the veneration of the dead, the ancient Chinese performed elaborate burial customs. Historian James L. Watson has identified the steps in the standard funeral rites of the ancient Chinese. First, the family would give public notice of the death. It would wear mourning clothes, traditionally in white cloth and hemp. The corpse would be ritually bathed and various offerings of food and material possessions would be burnt to honor their legacy. Next, the deceased's name would be added to the ancestral tablet of the family and money would be paid to priests or clerics to pray for the soul's safe journey to the hereafter. Music would be arranged to accompany the movement of the body from the place of death to the site of burial where the corpse would be sealed in a coffin. An elaborate procession throughout the town or village would carry the body to the place of burial.

Jeremy Bradley works in the fields of educational consultancy and business administration. He holds a Master of Business Administration degree.