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Unearthing the taboos of death in Chinese culture

By Jodie Lam 21 July 2020

Header image courtesy of the New York Public Library (Wikimedia Commons)

There is a well-known idiom in Chinese that summarises the pivotal stages of life: 生老病死, which translates to “birth, age, sickness, and death.”

Grim and unambiguous as it is, its lexical arrangement mirrors the general impression of the lifetime journey. Birth is the first stage of life where we take physical form as a human being; then we walk through the world day by day and experience the process of ageing; further down, there is inevitably a chance of falling ill; and the last stage of life is where death strikes, thereby completing the journey. The idiom’s finality suggests that, out of all the above, death is the most inevitable stage of life, and by the sheer weight of its placement at the end of the phrase, it also insinuates a sense of completion.

Intriguingly, this Chinese idiom is the start to unfolding centuries of history, cultures, and traditions that have long determined our present behaviour and attitude towards death. Chinese culture, in particular, delivers a mystifying correspondence towards the subject, which can be unravelled by the understanding of the main philosophy behind the culture.

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‘Six Virtues and Elegant Scholars‘ 《六贤雅士图》 by Jin Tingbiao (金廷标)

Tracing the taboos of death through history

The dominant school of thought in Chinese culture is Confucianism, which at its core is secularised. Its long-standing philosophy lies in the beating heart of life—what we say, what we do, and what we think. Philosopher and politician Confucius upheld the pursuit of a ‘perfect’ life, which he believed could be achieved by our own values and choices, breeding the foundation of most Chinese values such as filial piety, benevolence, and morality. Surprisingly, there was little discussion of death in the emphatic pursuit of life, to which Confucius himself replied, “You do not yet know about the living; how can you know about the dead?” To him, the afterlife is beyond human comprehension, even though death is a natural part of our lifespan. In stark contrast, Western culture, which is largely shaped by Christianity, speaks of the spirit and soul as transcendent and eternal in either Purgatory or Heaven.

Confucian philosophy has greatly influenced the future and development of Chinese culture; its impact on Hong Kong, in particular, is evident in its intrinsic beliefs. While a history of Western colonisation has had everlasting cultural effects, the most prominent Chinese principle passed on to Hong Kong is perhaps familial values. From the nineteenth century to the end of the Second World War, the demographic of Hong Kong was largely built upon an influx of Chinese people from the southern part of mainland China, furnishing customs that have been ingrained in Hong Kong culture ever since. While existing as a blend of Chinese and Western societies, Hong Kong shares the same views on ‘death’ of the former. In Hong Kong culture, death, too, is masked with a level of mystery and ambivalence—it is not approached with an open attitude, but with apprehension.

Chinese burial rites. Photo credit: ‘A La California’ (1873) by Col. Albert S. Evans (Wikimedia Commons)

Appropriating death in contemporary culture

Cantonese speakers in Hong Kong are perhaps quite well acquainted with the following scenario: The word sei, which means “to die” or ”death,” is often attached to slang phrases and spoken as an exclamation of strong feelings. For example, when we try to convey the weather as “insanely hot,” the word sei is attached after jit, meaning “hot.” There are no misgivings about such utterances, and admonishment comes only in the form of parent to child.

However, things take a completely different turn at celebratory festivals like Chinese New Year, which herald the beginning of a brand-new year. Here, death-related utterance or taboos are deemed “unmentionable” due to the profound fear of consequences, especially at a time when many hope to be greeted with good health and prosperity. Elderly family members are especially attuned to the word and people actively avoid mentioning death or even attaching it to conversations; in fact, a study named ‘Death Metaphors in Chinese’ suggests that there is a “denial tendency” in our culture, that we dislike the mention of death due to a fear of consequences. The consequences are, of course, the actualisation of one dying.

Traditional Chinese funeral march. Photo credit: New York Tribune (Wikimedia Commons)

Funereal rituals through the ages

Apart from the word itself, the actions connected to the practices at funerals are also considered to be taboo at all times. The existence of these taboos is rooted in the sense of omen towards death, as embedded in Chinese culture. A common example is the burning of Chinese incense sticks, replicated by chopsticks sticking upright a bowl of rice—a huge faux-pas in society. The purpose of incensing is to communicate with the deceased and the action of placing a pair of chopsticks vertically into a bowl of rice shares similar optimism, hoping the deceased would have enough food and energy upon death. While chopsticks and rice are items of daily life, this action is unfavored. There is an ominous, uncanny sense regarding the premonition of death. 

Another action that is off-limits is bowing thrice to a person. Traditionally, there is only the need to bow three times in front of the altar at a funeral to pay respect to the deceased’s picture. It is perhaps this severity of taboos and prohibition from mentioning that shields our contemplation and understanding towards this universal topic as there is an attached sense of unspoken yet uneasy reverence of death. Additionally, the lack of transparency of funerary rituals that causes its mysterious and somewhat impenetrable fashion in Chinese culture.

A Chinese funeral. Photo credit: New York Public Library (Wikimedia Commons)

Funerary rituals are the embodiment of a culture’s profound understanding of the human experience. After all, it is an act of paying tribute to a person’s last stage of life. In Hong Kong, the mainstream tradition is a combination of Taoist and some Buddhist customs. These funerals involve various rules and have a set of regimes that is strictly followed. There are numerous items, clothes, chants, and procedures associated with a Taoist funeral and in all such categories, specific rules are implemented and followed strictly to ensure that the deceased can leave the physical world in the most decent manner.

While this heavily regulated scheme is carefully followed by professional mourners, it may sound surprising that these rituals are not much of knowledge to the general public. Perhaps you have noticed when crossing the highway next to Hung Hom MTR station that there stands a tall, beige building. Numerous tiny shops line that street. In fact, all of these businesses provide services to the funeral parlours above. Some even curate comprehensive packages, from organising the venue of the funeral and the assigned Taoist priest to the venue of cremation. Some offer carefully designed wreaths and coffins. While we all know that funeral services exist, it is also important to note that it is not the most welcomed topic and industry in Hong Kong.

Similar to the verbal restraint mentioned earlier, parents or the elderly often tell children to avoid looking at these places. To us who grew up in Hong Kong with Chinese families, this particular part of Hung Hom channels a baffling sensation of secrecy and esotericism. Otherwise, to a regular Hongkonger in a regular Chinese community, there is hardly any known fact associated with funerals. From the incineration of joss money to the type of people who are allowed to look directly at the deceased’s coffin, Chinese funerary practice remains bewildering to the community which has no direct responsibility for it, further confirming an unsettling and frightening atmosphere with its continued segregation.

Burials in an overcrowded city

Apart from the funeral, burial, too, is an indispensable procedure of death rituals. Burial practices are closely bound to core Chinese values, especially with its reception of home. Confucianism advocates family as the basic unit of all social relationships; before we maintain any kind of social relationship, such as neighbourhood and friendship, we must have secured a close kinship.

Expectedly, Confucian familial values have shaped the overall Chinese community and are accountable for its attitude towards burial practice. A 2011 study conducted by Paul C. Rosenblatt and Xiaohui Li revealed the most common figures of speech related to the family in Chinese; among them, one of the similes states, “Family is the centre of the earth. It is the place toward which one orients, and it is the centre of a person’s life.” With that comes an undeniable truth: Family has an undebatable status in a person’s life, carrying the suggestion that a person’s life ultimately belongs to his home.

Burial practices in Chinese culture champion this idea. When a person passes away in a foreign land, the Chinese call it 客死他鄉 (haak sei ta heung) which translates as ‘being dead in an alien land.’ It highlights the sense of home that encompasses the Chinese culture—it isn’t just the act of dying, it is also the fact that one is dying elsewhere but his home. Often, there is heightened importance placed on the fact that the coffins and remains of the deceased must return to his hometown in order for the funeral and burial to be settled; the deceased must return to the ‘centre’ that life revolves around.

Cape Collinson Chinese Permanent Cemetery Columbarium. Photo credit: Winnie Yeung (IMAGE28)

In spite of this urge and filial conviction to be around family, there have been difficulties surrounding time-honoured burial practices in modern Hong Kong. Predictably, as the price of land continues to inflate over the years and the saturation of areas already dedicated to the dead reaches breaking point, there has been an increase of cremations instead of a traditional burial to meet demands. In response, the Hong Kong government offers cremation services and the storage of cremated remains in a facility known as the columbarium, which is shared with many others.

The shift from traditional burials to cremation seems to solve the problem of insufficient land and high cost, but there has also been an increasing difficulty in seeking a proper columbarium in Hong Kong for long-term storage. This, in turn, created temporary columbariums. During the Ching Ming Festival a few years ago, numerous news reporters visited these temporary columbariums, only to discover that the facility was extremely crowded and people visiting had to worship their ancestors on the streets outside the columbarium. The personal act of personal and private ritual-performing was reduced to a public spectacle, and people had no choice but to share their rituals with many others outside the building. Some were also unable to look at the picture of their ancestors due to the lack of space within the columbarium.

‘Chinese Tomb With Two Mourners’ by Thomas & William Daniell. Photo credit: Fine Art America

Death remains a topic that is spoken of too little in the Chinese community, where most prefer to remain mum on the subject rather than become familiar with funerary customs and its taboos. In turn, there is little room to ponder this veiled leitmotif. Yet, at the same time, we fully acknowledge death as part of life. The irony lies in that the acknowledgement is openly received but the theme of death is severely taciturn. Despite the manifestation of Western ideologies and cultures over the years, Hong Kong remains under this umbrella of Confucian teaching and culture.

Still, as younger generations continue to practice greater acceptance of the unknown, some are beginning to suggest that even death can be an open topic that welcomes discussion and planning ahead. Such a turn from traditional dogmas may take time to be digested and find solid footing in our modern society, but if this change of attitude marches along the passage of time, it, too, can install a whole new system of belief and culture.

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Jodie Lam

Contributor

Jodie is currently an English major at the Chinese University of Hong Kong. Being a performing arts and English literature enthusiast, she has come to embrace the beauty of expressing oneself in different art forms. Her passion for writing lies in its capacity to express with depth and nuance, as well as to inform and inspire others. As she grows older, she has also shifted her gaze to the city that has long wrapped her in that homely comfort. She is determined to document the little and big moments in Hong Kong culture that have shaped herself and the people around her.

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