Thursday, April 17, 2014

Traditional Chinese Funerary Customs in Northern China

A few weeks ago the students who could, went home for the weekend Tomb Sweeping holiday. Cindy is a sharp sophomore student this year. When I last talked to her she was getting ready to take a test for acceptance into the Communist Party. Funny how students will tell me that they're trying to gain such acceptance but when & if they are accepted….Silence. Sometime later I'll ask how they did and get a sheepish look; and we part ways politely.   Anyway, she gave an interesting presentation that tied  nicely with the recent holiday.

        "Traditional Chinese funerary customs actually seem even far from most Chinese townspeople now, not to mention the foreigners.  While in rural ares, there are still traditions left from old Chinese society; a society mainly supported by families, not persons.
         "Since the old society is based on families, when a member of the family went away, the whole family, here I'm not talking about a small family with 3 or 5 people, what I'm talking about is the very big family with hundreds of people will hold the ceremony all together.  So it is quite a spectacle when holding a funerary ceremony. The ceremony is not only grand but lasts long. For example, in my hometown, we count 7 days as a unit, and we have many units. So the whole ceremony would go for more than one month. Because it is too much for me to tell you and the time is too limited, I will just tell one detail very unique, interesting and representative in the ceremony. This part is called the dinner for the dead.
        "Before buried, the dead's closest relative, like brothers or sons or daughters, will prepare a dinner for him or her, so he or she wouldn't starve.  When the dinner is ready, the family would open the door, burn some paper coins, call the dead's name for dinner, switch down the lights, and wait half an hour on bended knees in the darkness for the dead to finish his or her meal.  Then here comes the paper carriage with a paper boy, a paper girl to to drive it and some paper golden ingots for the dead to spend. All these things, except the golden ingots which are made of yellow paper, are made of white paper. People burn this carriage to send the dead's soul back to where he should be.  And there is an interesting and real story about this staff. A man in my hometown loves to joke. And one day one of his best friends went away. He was sad and attended the funerary ceremony. When burning the paper carriage, the man couldn't help to joke again, saying, "It would be great for you to take me in your carriage to my home." While after he got home, he fell asleep and didn't wake up until three days later. People say that his friend did take his soul in the carriage with him. But who knows?
        "The second part I would like to share with you is the burial customs. More accurate, is how to choose the best site to set the grave. The principles are based on geomantic theory, using the Eight Diagrams. According to geomantic theory, the dead should 'have mountain beneath his head, and have water under his feet.' It would be great if there's really a mountain. But in the plains, there's no mountain, so people use Kan, one of the Eight Diagrams that represents mountain. So when the coffin was set, its head should be towards the direction of Kan. As for the water, it's not so difficult to find a river in the region. Just be sure that if we draw a line from the foot of the coffin, it can intersect with the river."

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