Submitted by Sue Simmons
"Luke" is a 31 year-old Chinese student who recently graduated with two Master’s degrees from a Christian university in the Midwest. He is currently translating Christian literature into the Chinese language. Luke’s grandfather was an American Christian missionary to China, so Luke has American relatives in the eastern part of the United States. Luke’s Chinese parents remain in China, where his mother is a well-known physician. Prior to entering a Christian university, Luke was licensed as a physician in China, but he chose not to enter the medical profession.
In my interview, Luke told many family stories which illustrate traditions of the Chinese culture in death.
"My 90 year-old grandmother died five years ago. She died a good death. There were over 5000 people at her funeral; everyone was crying and wailing and all wanted to touch her because she died such a good death. Touching her could bring good luck. My grandmother had a 5-blossoms death. The five blossoms stand for things that you want to happen in your life. The five blossoms are marriage, having a son, being respected, having a grandson that loves you, and dying in your sleep after a long life. This was the best way to die. Everyone brought his or her own food for the meal after the funeral. There is the belief that eating will bring good luck.
In the Chinese culture it is important for the family to have a son. A son brings honor to his parents, and eternity is passed on through sons. Since I am the only grandson in my family, it was my responsibility and honor to notify my relatives of my grandmother’s death. As I went from house to house, I knocked on the door, and then knelt down. When the door was opened, they immediately knew a death had occurred. Upon seeing me, they placed their hands on their faces and began crying loudly, before I could say anything.
I still miss my grandmother. It is like I’ve lost a part of my soul. I talk to her daily. I am able to continue my daily responsibilities, because grief is like drawer that one opens, takes a look and puts back away. Chinese do not talk much about emotions. It is considered unhealthy. You will hear a Chinese say, "I think…." rather than "I feel…", because you cannot help how you feel. A traditional Chinese would not discuss death and funerals the way I am speaking about it.
The first son remains in mourning for 72 days. For six months after the funeral the son cannot wear the color red or get married. He has to pretend to be sad in front of others, even if he isn’t. The crying and wailing is often a ‘show’ instead of true emotion, but it is expected of the son. In Chinese history, the wealthy family used to stay close to the grave for one year. The family would build a hut, and the oldest or only son would live by the grave for 3 years. The oldest son is considered a "second father" to the family. He is the one who receives all the inheritance along with the expectation that he will use the inheritance to provide for the remainder of the family.
There are two kinds of endings: a happy ending like my grandmother’s, and sad endings. A sad ending could be the death of parents when a son has not been produced, because there will be no eternity in that family. There is also great sadness when an only son dies young. The saying is "White hair has to send black hair first". Death from an accident is considered a bad ending, especially if the body is mutilated. Suicide is a very bad ending. In suicide, the soul has been taken from the body at the wrong time. Whereas everyone wanted to touch my grandmother at her funeral, people keep a distance from the body if there has been a bad ending. A person who died from suicide must be buried separately from other ancestors.
Beliefs about death and afterlife are more influenced by philosophy than religion in China. People believe that after death, you are going ‘somewhere’. The soul never dies. Uneducated people believe that there are 10 kings who control the other world. If you led a bad life, you will go to the lowest kingdom (hell). Younger generations can rescue the bad deceased from the lowest kingdom by leading good lives.
Christian funerals in China are more similar to American funerals, but there is much singing of Christian songs. People still want to touch the body and eat together if it was a happy ending.
Chinese celebrate a Memorial Day on April 5th each year. It always rains on Memorial Day. Families get together to clean the gravesites and place flowers at the graves. There are flowers at graves all year, but especially on Memorial Day. Since I am absent from my family at this time, my family placed flowers on my grandmother’s grave with my name on them. It is a tradition to place the name of absent family members on flowers at our ancestors’ gravesites.
Burial sites are located far from the city, so the soul can rest and not be bothered. A good place for burial would be having a mountain in back and a river flowing in front of the gravesites. It would not be good to have a river flowing in front of gravesites of people who died from suicide.
After a funeral, the Chinese find comfort from burning paper. Chinese believe that by burning paper we are providing material goods for the dead. Family members purchase paper replicas of money, a house, cattle, and a car. By writing the name of the deceased on these items before burning them, Chinese believe the correct person then receives these items.
Christianity is in the early stage in China. Around 100 years ago, missionaries were not successful, because they wanted people to abandon traditions when they became Christian. I do not think it is not possible to separate beliefs and culture. The traditions and superstitions are so ingrained, that Chinese Christians continue to practice old traditions while professing new beliefs. For instance, although I am Christian, I chose one of the "good luck" days in July for my wedding date. I know it is a superstition, but the superstitions are a deep part of me.
Here’s another example of superstitions remaining an influence after converting to Christianity. A Christian friend was warned that he would kill his enemy. This comment was like a curse. The friend would never kill anyone intentionally, however, because of superstitions, he remained home for a long, long time. Much later, a relative invited him over for the 100th day celebration of the birth of his relative’s son. Since the friend decided the curse could not harm him as long as he stayed within his family, he finally consented. It was a great party. Everyone was happy, eating, and playing with the child. My friend happily played with the baby, also. In do so, he tossed the baby up in the air and caught him a few times. But in one toss, the baby accidentally hit the ceiling fan, and was killed by the blades. A few considered this an accident. Many considered this the fulfillment of the curse, and said that the baby was the ‘enemy’ the man was predicted to kill.
I do not think the younger generation will continue to honor traditions to the extent my generation has honored them. In opening the door for Western trade, both good and bad culture changes are occurring. Chinese youth used to have a strong sense of nationalism - that Chinese traditions are the best. I am not sure of that continuing in the future."