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Death and Rebirth

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Afterlife in Ancient and Medieval China

      By Thich Thanh Nguyen 

      China is one of the oldest civilizations in the world that still continuous till this day. It has made great contributions in thoughts and philosophies to the world. Studying Chinese thoughts and philosophies are always interesting but it is also difficult to comprehend since it has a long and complex history. Ancient and Medieval China has long been an attractive field of study because it was the period of emergence, development, and mixture of some famous thoughts and religions, such as popular religions, Confucianism, Taoism, and Buddhism. One of the greatest concerns of people at that time was said to be the caring of life and death. After death, where did human beings go: to heaven or the underworld or somewhere else? Were there any relationships between the living and the dead? This paper will examine the concept of the afterlife from the periods of ancient to Medieval China.

      Chinese religious practices started from as early as the Neolithic era, around 7,000 B.C.E. However, the understanding of Neolithic religions is limited and tentative at best, so our field of study will start from the Shang period (c. 1600 – 1046 BCE). In the Shang period, China entered the Bronze Age where the first written records for Chinese religious practices were found.1 This period led to the formation and development of native traditions/popular religions. At this time, Chinese people believed and worshipped nature gods, such as the god of weather, god of wind, the Supreme (Shang Ti) god, and ancestors as well. On the other hand, the medieval period took place from the Former Han (206 B.C.E.) up to the tenth century. This period saw the emergence of Taoism as a religion as well as the entry, development, and domination of Buddhism in China.

      As we will see, there are some Taoist concepts about the afterlife which were borrowed from Buddhism. Thus, it was considered that the Taoist concept of afterlife was developed after Buddhism, but the paper still follows the order starting with popular religions, Taoism, and then Buddhism. Moreover, afterlife beliefs were varied from ascending as a heavenly being, achieving Immortality, and attaining Nirvana. However, they will not be the subject to be analyzed in this paper; rather, it pays attention to the life after death which happens in the netherworld or in hell.

      Firstly, we examine the afterlife in popular religions. As mentioned above, ancient people believed and worshipped a variety of gods. All of these gods were divided into three main types: “the ghosts of Heaven, the ghosts of the mountains and rivers, and the ghosts of men who have died.”2 Again, the attention will be placed on the last one. By means of “the ghosts of men who have died,” ancient people believed that there existed “something” after death. In fact, the life after death was supposedly superior to the living, and was called the “extra human power.” These beings appeared in three kinds: human form, animal form, or a mixture of human and animal form that can aid the living.

      Also, ancient people believed that human beings have a soul which was of two kinds: hun and p’o. Each individual is made up of three hun and seven p’o. Hun came into existence at the moment of birth, and was fed by breathing chi. Meanwhile, p’o was sustained by eating food. Eating and breathing are two essential processes of life. Without these, there is no life, so without hun and p’o, there exist no human beings. Soon after, the Yang and Yin dichotomy was applied to this soul theory. Yang was identical with hun which represented the spiritual and intellectual aspects of human beings. Yin made up of p’o that was bodily and an animating principle. After one’s death, the lighter part of hun would ascend to the Heaven while the form of the body p’o would descend to the underworld.3 Thus, the dead were divided into hun and p’o. These parts were considered the “soul,” but without a bodily vessel. Under certain conditions, this “soul” was capable of being seen by the living.

      With the theory of hun ascending to Heaven and p’o descending the underworld, people believed that, after death, the ruler would go to heaven, and the commoner would go to the underworld. Then there were popular beliefs that almost all souls should live in the underworld after death: “Judging from the custom of human sacrificial burials, however, there is reason to maintain that people then believed that ruler could follow the ruler after death, if not in heaven, then perhaps under earth.”4 The underworld then came to have other names, such as the Dark City, the Yellow Springs, or the Netherworld. This was where the dead resided which had nothing to do with the punishment yet.

      So, how and what did the Netherworld look like? There was a common belief that the life in the Netherworld was similar to life on earth. This similarity was clearly depicted through the life of dead being and the netherworld’s government. Firstly, people believed that the dead beings were just the continuation of the living; for example, they needed food and possessed various desires: “Yellow Springs reflected the hierarchy nature of the moral world. If a person had a poor and miserable time when alive, they would have the same in the afterlife.”5 Thus, people started to provide the dead with almost everything to enable the dead to live a happy and comfortable life in the netherworld:

Toward the end of the Warring States, however, this burial system began to change … In a word, they were clearly intended to serve as models of the houses of the living. As the burial chambers expanded from single to multiple, the entire structure came to resemble the houses of the living.6

Funerary objects containing real or surrogate food, utensils, cattle, mansions, fields, clay money, figurines of servants, all intended for the deceased’s happy life after death. Many wall paintings and reliefs in tombs, furthermore, portray daily activities that may be seen as also representing future activities in the netherworld.7 

People’s idea was that the dead also need everything like the living. People offered the dead comfortable houses, and all the necessities of life as a way to comfort the dead in the Netherworld. From the quotation above, we also can learn that people, from the Warring States, started to hold a pessimistic view about life in the netherworld. They thought that the dead might be in difficult situations, and needed support from the living. Secondly, people insisted that there was a government body in the Netherworld, and this government should be similar to the one on earth. However, this government was better than on earth, since there was no injustice in the netherworld. A deity name Ssu-ming possessed the authority over life after death. People believed that if one did enough good things, the minor offences would not affect him/her. The earliest evidence for this idea is the record which we found in a Ch’in tomb in Kansu province. Through the story, we learn that a man name Tan had died. When he faced the deity Ssu-ming, the deity thought that it would be unfair for him to die from a minor offence, so he resurrected Tan’s life on earth.8

      Thus, the skeptical view about the afterlife first rose toward the end of the Warring States; overall, the dead were always seen in a higher state than the living, and the dead were seen as the source of blessing. The dead became almost gods-like, ghosts or spirits who watched and helped the living (relatives). By worshipping these deities or spirits, people expected to gain welfare and avoid disaster, and by sacrificing these deities, people would be blessed. “The royal ancestors were thought to be able to ‘be guests with Ti’ and to protect descendents.”9 This idea formed the framework for the development of clan hall cults for ancestors. There is a mutual relationship between the dead and the living in which the latter is for sacrifices and the former is for blessings:

      For offerings, for sacrifices

      [The Personator of the ancestors] is seated and invited to partakes,

      And thereby bring down great blessing


      The sacrifices are very splendid.

      The august forefather –

      Their spirits enjoy the offerings,

      Their filial descendants shall receive good fortune.

      They will reward them with many blessings,

      With limitless myriads of years of life.10 

Thus, from ancient times, there was the assumption that the living and the dead were dependent on one another. On the one hand, the living has the duty to offer and sacrifice to the dead, and they will get the blessing from their ancestor. On the other hand, the ancestors enjoy the living’s offerings, and their functions are to reward and to protect the living. In ancient times, there was no hint that ghosts were malicious to the living. However, toward the end of the Warring States, people possessed a less optimistic view about the netherworld, for they thought that was an uncertain and gloomy place. Consequently, the contact between them was less than before, and although people still held the view that ancestors were the source of blessing, they were not really welcome: “Although the living mourned the dead, they preferred to have no more contact with the dead, except through sacrifices and offerings … The living and the dead go different ways; they should not become obstacles to each other.”11

      In short, from the most ancient time, people believed that there should be some kind of existence after one’s death. An individual is made up of two kinds of soul: hun (yang) and p’o (yin). After death, these two souls go separately. Hun ascends and has its abode in the heaven, while p’o descends and lives underground. Living underground is similar to earth, and there is nothing to do with punishment for the dead in the underground. After one’s death, his relationship with the living has not yet ended. The dead were seen as the source of blessings. The living have the duty to offer and sacrifice to the dead, and the dead, in response, bless the living. Toward the end of the Warring States, people started to doubt and fear the dead. As a result, they wanted less contact with the dead. There no evidence that the dead did any harm to the living, but instead they were the source of blessing.

      Secondly, we examine the concept of the afterlife in Taoism. Taoism was found by Lao-tzu during the 6th century BCE. However, it emerged as a religion at the first century CE. Early Taoism focused on the worldly goal or on immortality of the physical body. So, the concept of afterlife was not well-developed in Taoism. Early Taoist afterlife was an adoption and development of the ancient period. Soon after, in response to Buddhism, Taoist incorporated the Buddhist concepts of heaven, hell, and rebirth, thus makes the afterlife in Taoism clearer. In the following, we will examine the Taoist afterlife in two different contexts: prior to and after the influence of Buddhism.

      Prior to the influence of Buddhism, Taoist afterlife was similar to that of the ancient time. However, Taoist also contributed some new ideas about life after death. As mentioned above, toward the end of the Warring States, people started to doubt and fear the beings underground. This idea was the framework for Taoist to believe that the dead were the source of disaster. There were two kinds of livings people for whom the dead could cause trouble. The first one was the person with whom the dead had private vendettas. The second one could be the dead relatives if the dead relatives did not fulfill their responsibility to them, for Taoist believes that “it is responsibility of the living to provide the thing the dead will need to be comfortable: food, money, and other amenities.”12 If the dead were starving, abandoned, or buried insufficiently to their station, they can sue in the offices of the underworld. The result of this led to disaster, disease, or havocs the living. People at that time wished: “O, Soul, do not come back!”13 To avoid this source of disaster, people had to do proper offerings or sacrifices so that the dead would rest peacefully underground, and do no harm to the living: “Priests help affect the transformation of a dead family member into a benevolent ancestor. Without such a change he or she could become a dangerous ghost.”14

      Despite the fact that people held the view that the dead were the source of disaster, there was evidence that the interaction between them still carried on. However, there was a contradiction in the theory of Taoism regarding this relationship. On the one hand, evidence exists to show that there is still a mutual relationship between the dead and the living. As previously mentioned, with the proper offering and sacrifices, the dangerous ghosts can be transformed into benevolent ones. So, the ancient idea about the relationship between the dead and the living still carry on. The duty of the living is to offer to and sacrifice for the dead, and the dead will aid the living instead of causing them trouble. In the dream of Jie, we find, “yet asserting his emotions [Jie’s father’s emotion] led him to save Jie from further punishment.”15 In another story between Guo Fan and his son, we also find that the concern of the dead to the living has not yet ended. They still have connections: “When one has been dead for long time, one no longer thinks of the living. But for those who have just died, like me, personal concerns have not yet come to an end. I still think [of my descendents].”16 On the other hand, evidence also suggests that there is no connection between the dead and the living. In the story between Su Shao and his son, Jie, Su Shao said he has “no further emotions” to think or take care of his relatives. Even if Su Shao’s family’s members provide him with a rich burial with a high mound, he is not delighted with that because he is “not present.”

      Thus, at its outset, Taoism’s concept of the afterlife is somehow problematic. It often appears to contradict itself. Another concern is: What is going on in the underworld? Or were there any differences between the life in the underworld and the life on earth?

      A common belief that there is a place for the dead to reside is also carried on. That place is either called Yellow Springs or Mount Tai. There is nothing to do with the punishment in these places; rather, they are a place for the dead to stay: “There was the subterranean Yellow Springs, where commoners were believed to labor ... This labor was not punitive, but rather a continuation of their lives above ground.”17 The life of the dead is the same as the living. Taoist depiction of the afterlife is clearer: “There is no difference [between death and life], except that the dead are immaterial and the living material.”18  The dead also possessed various desires, but the ways they do so are different from the living: “when they drank or ate, the sustenance remained; when they wrote, the writing was unrecognizable.”19 The most distinguishing feature of the Taoist afterlife is that all beings in the underworld have longevity. Another thing is that in ancient times, many accounts for the underworld’s government could not be found, and this government was just simple with the only account of the Lord of the underworld. Here, we find a number of Taoist accounts about the underworld’s government. Besides the Lord of the underworld, there were several officials with assistants, and these officials were well-developed and superior to the courts of the living: “The courts of the dead were modeled on the courts of the living in all respects except one: the offices sent to apprehend defendants were invisible to normal vision.”20

      Moreover, when Taoism developed the idea of Fengdu Shan, an interesting view of Taoism about life after death emerged. Fengdu Shan served as the connecting point of life, death, and immortality: “life and death, earth and void, all gathered in the same body, that of the mountain …, this small mountain brings together the authentic territories of death, and the ‘pure lands’ of Immortality which border it.”21 Again, Fengdu Shan for Taoism was not entirely pleasant, but it was not the place for punishment. More importantly, it was not the final place for the dead to reside. It is a kind of a junction for the dead to continue their journey to immortality if they have not achieved when they were alive:

The Gui, the souls of the dead who are in the hells, can practice immortality xian like men; they can do Taoist exercises, and when seven generations (in other words ancestors) are established in Virtue, their merit come down on their descendants and guide them to the state of shen, and of Immortal.22 

      From the above, we learn that Taoist concept of afterlife prior to the influence of Buddhism is simply a continuation of the ancient times. However, it contributes some new point, and makes the concept of afterlife clearer. Of these contributions, we have to mention the longevity of the dead, and the equality and justice of the underworld’s bureaucracy. With the emergence of Fengdu Shan, Taoism for the first time has a concept of hell. But this hell still had nothing to do with punishment; rather, it is a connecting point to a higher achievement, the immortality.

      However, Taoist view on the concept of afterlife started to change when Taoism came into contact with Buddhism. When Taoism imported the Buddhist concept of karma, rebirth, and hell, the Taoist hell was no more a neutral place. As we will see, Taoist hell and its government’s form are similar with the Buddhist one. “The Taoist is now called on to believe in a purgatory, consisting of ten courts of Justice situated at the bottom of a great ocean which lies down in the depths of the earth.”23 All beings have to undergo the purgatory. If one’s good deeds are prevalent, he will be escorted to the land of immortality. If one’s good deeds and evils are equal, he will be reborn among men. If one did many bad deeds when he was alive, he has to pass through various courts of purgatory to suffer bitterness, and then be reborn as a human being. Their future life is uncertain, and depends on a decision of the second time upon trial. If they behave well, he will be reborn to a happy state. On the other hand, if his behavior is bad, he will be reborn again either in human or other forms and undergoes a bitter life. At death, they have to enter the everlasting hell, and suffer there forever.24 How do the dead experience life in purgatory? The dead have to pass one up to ten courts depending on their evil or good deeds for judgment. The judgment was approved by the savior Pu-sa (Chinese name for a ruller Bodhisattva who rules over Infernal Regions), and then all decisions of the eleven courts are submitted to Yu-Ti (Yu Hwang Shang Ti). After that, the dead will be reborn either into a happy state or evil one in accord with his deeds.

      Since seeing the netherworld as a terrifying place and the dead has to experience suffering there; the living wanted to transfer merit to the dead in order to rescue or release the sins of the dead, so that they can be reborn in happy states.

      Lastly, we examine the concept of the afterlife in the Chinese Buddhism. Thompson in his book Chinese Religion: An Introduction, states: “Buddhism [was] the only alien tradition both to infiltrate and modify Chinese culture.”25 Buddhism with its basic concepts of karma, rebirth, hell, and samsara had changed the Chinese view and understanding about the afterlife. Prior to the influence of Buddhism, Chinese had the concept of retribution, (i.e. if you did good, you will reward good, and vice versa). However, they found difficulty in explaining some aspects of life. For example, there were many virtuous men who suffered in their lives while many evil ones but had good fortune. The Buddhist theory of karma and rebirth helped the Chinese to solve this problem. Furthermore, Buddhist karma and rebirth together with its hell, in combination with the netherworld in popular religions, offered the Chinese a clear understanding of the wheel of life-death-rebirth. What is really going on before one is reborn or what happens to a person after his death? Buddhists believe that after one’s death and before one is ready to be reborn, he has to expiate in hell (purgatory) for the sins that they committed during their life time. The period of purgatory often “lasts from the moment of death until the spirit of the deceased is reborn in another bodily form, usually in the third year after death.”26However, there are some exceptions. If the merit of the death is prevalent, he will immediately be reborn to a higher realm or a happy state without undergoing the period of purgatory. In contrast, if the person has committed too many evils, he is also reborn immediately, but instead of a good state, he has to be reborn in hell to get retribution for his sins. According to Buddhism, there are eight levels of hell in accord with the levels of one’s sins, namely: “(1) The Hell of Resuscitation, where people constantly die and are resuscitated for more torture, (2) The Black Rope Hell, (3) The Crowded Hell, (4) The Screaming Hell, (5) The Great Screaming Hell, (6) The Hell of Fiery Heat, (7) The Hell of Great Heat, and (8) Avici Hell, or the Hell of No-Interval.”27 Generally, people possess the good deeds and evils which are unclear, so they all have the period of purgatory in which they have to pass through all ten courts for their own retribution and for judging their next births. There are ten important nodes in total for the death during his life in the purgatory, and each node takes place in one court. They are the nodes of every seven days after death (the node of every seven days ends in forty days after one’s death), the node of one hundred days, the node of one year, and the node of three years after one’s death. In the following section, the examination will place on what the dead have to undergo in all ten courts.

      Before going through the ten courts, three days after death, the dead have to cross the River Nai (or River of No Recourse). By crossing this river, the dead enter the stage of despair of turning back. They are totally hopeless, and ready for retribution. Thus, the first three days after death can be another important node of the dead. As a result, “To ensure the spirit’s safe passage it is customary to invite priests to recite the scriptures on the third night after death.”28

      After crossing the river, at the first seven days after death, the dead reach the first court which is under the rule of Chin Kuang Wang (The Great [or Extended] King of Ch’in). The King is in charge of the register of life and death. At this court, the dead experience fear, but have not yet get retribution for his sins yet. He is still free from suffering. After registering the name of the dead with his sins, the dead are forwarded to the second court.

      At the second court (8-14 days after death) ruled by Chu-chiang Wang (The King of the First River), the dead enter the stage of no hope of escape, and the punishment starts. “Cangues have been placed around their necks, and they find themselves cut off from the rest of the world by mountains, which in some traditional Buddhist cosmologies were thought to separate the human continent from the regions of hell.”29

      At the third court (15-21 days after death) ruled by Sung Ti Wang, the dead have to face one annoyance after the next. The King, one by one, checks off the name of the dead. Then, the guardians drive them to the King of the Five Offices (We-kuan Wang).

      The fourth court takes place 22 to 28 days after death. The King of the Five Offices carries on judgment to the dead. In his right hand, the Boy of Evil displays the record and shows the scale of karma of the sinners.

      Then, the dead enter the fifth court (29-35 days after death) ruled by King Yama who is said to be more severe than the others. So, it is traditional for people to invite the monastic to make the offer to the King Yama so that the dead will not be treated too severely. At this court, the sinners claim their innocence. However, “as a ruler of the underworld, he [King Yama] keeps records of people’s actions in their previous lives,”30 so the plea of the dead is useless. Moreover, at this court, the sinners have to stand in front of the infamous karma mirror; all his evil deeds of previous life will be displayed, so he has to accept the judgment of the King.

      Then the dead are sent to the sixth court which is ruled by King Pien-cheng Wang (King of Transformations). This court takes place 36 to 42 days after death. Here, the dead will transform into another form of life. Happiness or sorrow depend on their actions: “The donors in this court … ascend by clouds to paradise, while the evil person, his head visible just inside the walls, enter the prison to witness the punishment inflicted on people reborn there.”31

      During the last week of forty-nine days, the dead enter the court of King of Mount Tai (Tai Shan Wang). The King of this court keeps the register for life and death of the spirits. The spirits, at this court, start to “search for their fathers and mothers, [hoping] to meet with loved ones and kin.”32

      After one hundred days, the dead pass the eighth court which is ruled by Ping-teng Wang (Impartial King). Here, the dead are divided into two groups: donors are grouped at the top while the sinners are grouped in a lower level, even they “will be spared from dropping into the underground prisons, those places of external suffering.”33 

      After one year, the dead are forwarded to the ninth court which is ruled by Tu-shih wang (King of the Capital). At this court, the dead experience less grief, and their next birth to the Six Realms will be revolve, but rebirth has not yet taken place.

      Lastly, the dead are sent to the tenth court when they are in the third years after death. The ruler of the tenth court is Chuan Lun Wang (He who turns the Wheel of Life). Here, “the dead are assigned to the next mode of life,”34 either in one among six realms. Their next appropriate birth is guided by the king’s assistants.

      Thus, Buddhist view about the underworld is no longer neutral. It is the place where the dead should experience misery. Following the Buddha’s teaching, Chinese people also want to transfer merit to the dead so that it can relieve or liberate the suffering of the dead in the underworld. Transferring merit can be practiced in three common ways. The first one is making of an offering or sacrifice to the underworld’s bureaucracy:

The Buddha preaches that after one’s death, if one’s descendant make offerings to the Ten Kings, then the deceased will escape punishment for previous sins and be reborn in the heavens … King Yama promises the Buddha that he will dispatch envoys riding black horses from the dark regions to go to the homes of the deceased to see whether or not their descendants make offerings.35 

The second way is chanting scripture, name of a Buddha, or a Bodhisattva especially the Ti-tsang Bodhisattva, for “ [he] promises that anyone who chants his name will have their sins wiped away and that anyone who gazes upon his picture will gain merit.”36 The most popular one is an offering and donation to the temple and monastic, especially in the Vulanpen’s festival. This practice is based on the story of Mu-lian who entered the hell of Avici to save his mother. Mu-lien with his supernatural power could not do any favor to his mother. He came back and asked the Buddha for aid. The Buddha said the only effective way to release his mother from that hell is to make an offering to the Sangha:

He [The Buddha] instructs Mu-lian to provide a grand feast of ‘yu-lan bowls’ on the fifteenth day of the seventh month, just as monks emerge from their summer retreat. The Buddha prescribes this same method of ancestor salvation for other filial sons to follow in future generations …37 

Thus, all three ways of transferring merit to the dead not long built up one of the biggest festivals in China: the Ghost Festival whereby the living earn as many merits as they can on the behalf of the dead. This way, the dead can be released from their suffering in the underworld.

      From the above mentioned, we can come to the conclusion that Chinese ancient and medieval concepts of afterlife underwent a long process of development. Initially, people simply believed that there is a continuation of life after death. Human beings have two kinds of souls (hun and po) in which hun is identical with yang, and will ascend to heaven after one’s death. On the other hand, the po soul is made up of yin which will descend to the ground. The underground is just the place for the dead to live, and there is nothing to do with punishment. The dead then become the source of blessings that can aid the living. However, people did not want to contact with the dead except through offering and sacrifice. There is evidence to show that the dead are not welcomed by the living. With the emergence as a religion in the early medieval time, Taoism contributed some new ideas to the Chinese understanding of the afterlife. Taoist views of the afterlife include: (1) the dead is totally the same as the living except they are immaterial, (2) all the dead achieve longevity, (3) there exists an everlasting hell, and (4) the government of the underworld was more well-organized with the Lord of underworld, his assistants, and varieties of offices. However, the concept of the afterlife was not clearly understood by the Chinese until the introduction of Buddhism to China. Buddhism has made great contributions to the Chinese understanding of the afterlife. Among them, the concept of purgatory, hell, and transferring merit are the most important. With the concept of purgatory and hell, the image of life after death of a person is fully depicted. With the idea of transferring merit, the ghost festival came into existence by which people made offerings to the netherworld’s bureaucracy, the savior, or to the Sangha. By making of offerings, people hope to reduce the amount of sins of the dead or to rescue their ancestors from suffering in the underground, and enable the dead to be reborn in a happy or a higher state. 


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