A Chinese View of Death

-Mary Hancock-



     My newfound friend, Xiao-Lan, was born and raised in central China. She is the youngest of three children and her brother, sister, and parents all still live in Xian, her hometown. Her father (she referred to him as “daddy”) was a country farmer before he became a soldier in Mao’s army. When the army entered the city of Xian he met and married her mother. Xian is one of the old capital sites in China and is noted for its mausoleum, which houses the tomb of China’s first emperor. Xiao-Lan told me that an army of terra cotta soldiers that have been buried for over 2,000 years are currently being unearthed around the tomb. History abounds in this land of her birth.

     Xiao-Lan is now forty years old and along with her husband and daughter she has lived in North America for around 9 years (the first several years were spent in Canada). Although she speaks English quite well she shared with me that sometimes, still, language is a barrier in her communications with Americans. By profession, Xiao-Lan is a computer programmer and she currently works on a part-time basis for a large radio station. In addition, she is quite active in the small Chinese community where she lives and volunteers at the Chinese school that holds classes once a week. Xiao-Lan also teaches the Chinese language to American business people. As intrigued as I was with this fascinating woman and her country I knew I had to address the issue at hand and so began our discussion about grief in a cultural context.



     A few days prior to our interview date I had provided Xiao-Lan with an idea of what I’d like to discuss with her so when I asked the first question about Chinese traditions and rituals for commemorating death, she was ready with both words and pictures. “Qing-ming is a holiday for remembering the dead,” she told me, and I discovered that it is also known as Tomb Sweeping Day. It occurs early in April, on the 5th, Xiao-Lan said as she showed me the picture depicting this in her daughter’s book about China. The picture was of a family cleaning around the tomb of the deceased. Xiao-Lan explained that the family also brings fruit, flowers, and sometimes a special cake to place on the grave. When I asked if there was any significance to these items she related to me that oftentimes the children ate the food and it was believed that this would bring them good health. Another interesting item that is often brought to the gravesite is fake money, which is burned before the visitors leave. The money is a type of offering and Xiao-Lan said that if a person dreamed often about a dead relative that such an offering would sometimes be made in an attempt to make peace with that person.



    The next interview question concerning beliefs that comfort in times of loss seemed, at first, to be a little confusing to Xiao-Lan. In an effort to clarify what I wanted to know I asked about religious beliefs that might be comforting. I have a friend from Taiwan who is Buddhist and I’ve read that many Chinese are Buddhist so I expected to hear of some religious belief. Xiao-Lan quickly replied that she was of no religious sect and that for quite some time there had been little or no religion in Mainland China. She told me that before 1949 religion was accepted and practiced but when Mao came to power it began to decline rapidly and that during the Cultural Revolution under Mao (1966-1976) almost all of the temples were burned. Today in China she said, “Christians probably outnumber Buddhists,” but she added, “Most often the Chinese view religion as superstitious and those who believe are looked upon as uneducated.” Noting my surprise, Xiao-Lan told me that Taiwan is more representative of what I had read about and that before 1949 much of China was more like Taiwan.

     Back to the original question about comforting beliefs or customs, Xiao-Lan shared with me the custom of buying cloth (of sad colors) and sending it to the relatives of the deceased and the bringing of “paper” flower arrangements to the home. These things are helpful when dealing with the sadness according to Xiao-Lan, as is the tomb-sweeping holiday.



   Our next point of discussion dealt with beliefs that might add to the pain of loss. After thinking a while about this Xiao-Lan indicated that probably one of the hardest parts of Chinese burial is the mandated cremation of the loved one. She explained that the government “asks” that all bodies be burned because there is very little land available to live on let alone to use as burial grounds. After the bodies are cremated they are placed in small boxes that are eventually buried, but these take up much less room than caskets as is customary in the United States. With a hint of sadness in her voice, Xiao-Lan said, “If we had a choice I think we would prefer to follow the tradition of keeping the body whole.”



  Now we progressed to life after death. Xiao-Lan had previously informed me that she did not believe that there was anything beyond death. She reiterated that again but this time her voice was softer, weaker. She said that she believed from a cultural standpoint there was no life after death, but I could see the confusion building on her face. As we talked she came to the realization that if indeed there was nothing after death and that the dead person was gone forever, why would they (her family, the Chinese people) do some of the things they do to commemorate the dead. Why celebrate Qing-ming and bring flowers and food? Why offer fake money to the dead person? She also mentioned Halloween. Xiao-Lan said that the Chinese people feared the dead and would view our celebration of Halloween as disrespectful. She sat quietly thinking about all of these things and I waited patiently. Finally she concluded, “I guess I believe that the dead go somewhere and it is forever.” But she strongly maintained the belief that there would be no reunion in an afterlife. I found her self-probing about her beliefs to be very interesting and noteworthy.



     When I asked Xiao-Lan about healthy and unhealthy grief, there appeared a moment of uncertainty in her eyes. I tried to explain the question by suggesting that some behaviors seem “normal” and acceptable and others maybe don’t. After contemplating what I had said she spoke of the differences in practices between city dwellers and those who lived in the country, though she didn’t provide much detail. She said that most people would wear black armbands when a family member died. In addition they would dress all in white, even their shoes. I asked if the color was significant and Xiao-Lan replied, “White is the death color just as red is the color of marriage. Black is also a death color.” The armbands, she said are generally worn for at least seven days and sometimes for months depending on the individuals and family involved. There was no set amount of time for grieving. At this point Xiao-Lan also mentioned the tradition of the eldest son coming home (if indeed he was away) when the father died and remaining there for three years to handle family matters. These all seemed to me to be examples of “healthy” grief, although Xiao-Lan did not use those words.

     Very interestingly Xiao-Lan then spoke of deaths that were “out of sequence”. She said that there were three “deaths” that were very bad. She said, “To lose a mother when young, or for a middle aged man to lose his wife, or for an elderly man to lose his son are all very bad.” This sounded very familiar to me. I felt that she was trying to say that some losses are worse than others and maybe the expressed grief is different. She also indicated that marrying too soon after the death of a spouse would be very bad (unhealthy). A general time frame for remarriage would be from 1-3 years after the death of a spouse. I definitely got the impression that this question was difficult for Xiao-Lan to understand. I suspect that discussions about “healthy/unhealthy” grief are not a regular or “normal” occurrence in her homeland.



     Our next interview question was about the relationship between private grief and public mourning. Xiao-Lan took this question as an opportunity to give me an overview of the customs and traditions that are followed when a family member dies. She first explained that regardless of where the person died (hospital or home) the family must immediately begin to prepare a room in their house that will be opened to the public. Xiao-Lan said, “This is Ling-Tang and the words mean ‘spirit’ and ‘place’.” She continued, “I think this is a way for the family to hold on to the loved one for a little while longer.” The room, she said, is adorned with a picture of the deceased (if the death occurred at home, the body might also be in the room). In addition the family must prepare food, which is placed in the room as well in anticipation of the expected visitors who will come to express their sadness. At least one family member is required to remain in the room at all times, 24 hours a day, for at least seven days. Visitors bring “paper flowers” (a unique floral arrangement), or other gifts (particularly the cloth that was mentioned earlier) to give to the family members. Xiao-Lan stressed that close friends of the family “should buy” flowers or cloth as a sincere expression of their sorrow. She also spoke of tents that some families would erect in their front yards (houses and yards are quite small) in order to hold the flowers and gifts. It was very interesting to me that Xiao-Lan noted that a simple sending of a card was not sufficient. She also said that the larger the arrangements and the more flowers the family received corresponded to the level of respect for the deceased. On the seventh day or sometime soon after, the actual funeral service is conducted at a mausoleum. This service is also open to the public (not very unlike our services in the United States). Afterwards the body is cremated and the remains placed in a box that the family then places in a space provided (the family rents the space) in the mausoleum. The box is inscribed with certain information about the deceased and it generally remains on display for three years, at which time the family moves the box to its final resting place in a cemetery. A stone is inscribed and placed over the burial place. Xiao-Lan explained that cemeteries are away from the city so the funeral is a “whole day” experience. She also informed me that at the end of the service the floral arrangements are burned, though she was unaware of any particular significance to this practice.

     From Xiao-Lan’s description it appeared to me that there was an intermingling of public and private mourning. The room, the sharing of food and gifts, the dress (wearing white and donning black armbands) are all public displays of the loss of a loved one. Xiao-Lan also mentioned how common it was for the family to cry. She said, “In China people cry a lot at the funeral and at home.” How long a person continued to grieve is more of a private matter and it often depends on the relationship with the deceased and the circumstances of death. At this point I noticed an almost “enlightened” look on my friend’s face. She had earlier questioned why it appeared that Americans didn’t cry much and seemed to “get over” a death fairly quickly. Xiao-Lan then commented, “Maybe the American belief in an afterlife lessens the hurt because people believe that they will see their loved one again in the future.” For the Chinese people they don’t expect such a reunion and as a result they feel “so sad”. Again I was impressed at the “soul searching” of this amazing woman during our interview.




     Our last question did not allow for much discussion. Group support in the facilitation of successful resolution of grief is not in any way an acceptable or necessary part of Chinese grieving. Xiao-Lan said that the Chinese people are not “talkative” in a psychological sense. She commented, “There is not too much public discussion. You deal with it inside your self.” The Chinese do not encourage group sessions and Xiao-Lan expressed the belief that she thought they were unnecessary. She also indicated that maybe Americans rely too much on psychology.



     Xiao-Lan made it clear to me that she was answering these questions from her perspective as a Chinese woman now living and working in America. She noted that there are differences within China as it is a very large country, like the United States. Some of the beliefs and customs she shared are very much a part of Chinese culture but others she commented were from her personal viewpoint and based on her personal and family history.

Xiao-Lan acknowledged that not everyone does everything in exactly the way she recounted. She provided me with some pictures to help in understanding and visualizing Ling-Tang and the paper flowers.

     I was very enlightened about many aspects of Chinese culture as experienced by this woman. She was very forthcoming with her thoughts about death and grief as well as about some of the differences between her culture and that of America. I feel very fortunate to have met and befriended Xiao-Lan, a beautiful person whose name by the way translates “small flower” – and that she is.

Written for Grief in a Family Context, HPER F460, Fall, 2001.
(C) 2001, Mary Hancock. All rights reserved. Interested parties may contact her through the course instructor, at gilbertk@indiana.edu.