4 The Significances of Tomb Burial (Regina Lau)

Key Terms

  • Coffin (棺)
  • Filial Piety
  • Biography of Chen Fan  陈蕃
  • Above Ground/ Underground
  • hun/ po spirits
  • “Spirit Seat”
  • li (禮)  
  • vertical pits (with ramps)

Introduction

What comes to mind when you hear the words afterlife of the dead or the burial tomb? Have you thought the dead will have a second life when they are dead? Often, people do not think of providing offerings for the dead. Not the Chinese, because they value providing offerings to the dead; it is beneficial and they practice filial piety. There are different layers that we need to understand to learn more about the ideas about the afterlife in China, in particular about the burial in a tomb. We will go back in time to the dynasties in ancient Chinese history to figure out the true meaning.

Subsection 1: Separation of the Dead

 

Coffin descriptions
Inner coffin (guan) is where the dead body will be stored and grave goods are put into the outer coffin (guo).

[1]

Coffin (guan) and guo are the essentials for the dead[2]. It is important because of their structure design and the object itself too. Since burial is most common in China today, there must be a reason for this ritual. A coffin is a container that can separate and hide the body from a human eye. It is symbolic because the object can “seal” and “lock” the spirits of the hun and po.  Once the coffin and the guo are sealed, it would  not be open again so that both spirits would not come out.  As this is the first reason for using tomb burial, there are also other concepts that contribute to this story.

Subsection 2: Fear of Death

There is a “myth” of fearing the dead. The fear that the dead will come back to haunt and give bad luck to others. Chinese people believed that this idea could not be challenged. The fear has been fully immersed into other’s minds that there is power involved. Power can be determined by how powerful the dead can be. Power has influenced others to provide offerings as a respect and also as the need to do it. The idea behind the word “fear” can describe the culture of tomb burial. It is because when a coffin is locked away it also locks the spirits metaphorically and physically it can make others pray for the dead. We must understand that there are other ways to bury someone but the Chinese preferred it this way and this can tell the significance of tomb burial.

Subsection 3: Afterlife Bureaucracy

The living and the dead have two different bureaucracies. The afterlife has a lot of power than most people thought. In the afterlife, it has its own set of rules, position, and status that the dead have to follow. People provide offerings to make the dead happy and content so they do not want the dead to come and haunt them with ghosts and bad luck. With this idea, there is a force for providing offerings to the dead like providing utensils and goods inside the coffin. There could be other ways to offer to the dead. People can shift offering methods like putting goods inside the tomb or burning materials like incense, money, houses, and etc. This practice did not start from the Han rather in the Shang dynasty with their famous oracle bones. During the Han, there was a tradition that people who had a criminal record were not allowed to attend to provide offerings[3].  If you want more information about offerings for the dead, read one of the classics of Chinese history- Book of Rites 禮記.  Book of Rites

 

Tomb structure of vertical pit with ramp
The design with the ramp shows the convenience of mourners to provide offerings rituals.

[4]

 

 

Subsection 4: Filial Piety

Why would people be determined to go far beyond their way to make extravagant funerals? Why would they interact with the dead despite their fear of death? The answer comes to filial piety that was developed by Confucius. [5]Filial piety is the “motivating” factor of tomb burial because it represents “people’s performance of proper ritual li (禮)”[6]. [7]The main reason for this practice was to put the society in order and peace but it was never imagined that it would have a huge influence in this ritual. During the Pre-Han period and followed by many dynasties after, it has developed a culture to serve people according to the standards of li. An example would be the Han dynasty’s strong emphasis of filial piety: officials will be selected for government service if they show filial piety obedience which causes funerals to be extravagant during Han’s ruling[8].

Text of Biography of Chen Fan
Zhao Xuan (赵宣), was an official in the Eastern Han and lived in his parents' tomb for 20 years and was noticed by Chen Fan, the local governor.

Previous stories during the Han like the Biography of Chen Fan 陈蕃 (Zhao Xuan) 赵宣 lived in the tomb-in chamber with his parents for 20 years that shows “exceptional filial piety”[9]. Filial piety has been a long living concept that will continue to influence others today.  In fact, no other ancient civilizations in the world would devote time and effort for concealment of the dead.[10]

Subsection 5: To be Continued

Just like history continues to discover new findings, this topic also needs to be researched. According to Wu Hung, the director and professor of Chinese history at the University of Chicago, he thought about the theory of “the spirit seat stood for the invisible soul of the tomb occupant”[11].  This proposes that this seat can preserve the soul of the dead but unfortunately it has not been proven yet. As this topic continues to be researched, ideas in this textbook may not paint a whole picture but further research can evolve our understanding of this topic.

Utensils and the paint screen behind the empty seat
Utensils were in front of the empty seat and the painting screen was behind the empty seat in the Mawangdui Tomb. (Western Han).

[12]

Acknowledgements 

- Hung, Wu, The Art of the Yellow Springs:  Understanding the Chinese Tombs. (London,  Reaktion Books, 2011)

-  Wu Hung, “Representing the Soul”, in The Art of the Yellow Springs:  Understanding the Chinese Tombs. 

- Wu Hung, “Spatiality”, in The Art of the Yellow Springs:  Understanding the Chinese Tombs. 

-  Mu-Chu- Poo, "Ideas Concerning Death and Burial in Pre-Han and Han China" Asian Major, Third Series, 3, no.2 (1990): 25-62

- Ligang, Zhou, “Obscuring the Line between the Living and the Dead: Mortuary Activities inside the Grave Chamber of the East Han Dynasty China”, Asian Perspectives, Vol. 54, No. 2 (Fall 2015), pp. 238-252 

 

 


  1. Wu Hung, “Spatiality”, in The Art of the Yellow Springs:  Understanding the Chinese Tombs, pp.22
  2. Wu Hung, “Spatiality”, in The Art of the Yellow Springs:  Understanding the Chinese Tombs, Page 20
  3. Ligang, Zhou, “Obscuring the Line between the Living and the Dead: Mortuary Activities inside the Grave Chamber of the East Han Dynasty China”, Asian Perspectives, Vol. 54, No. 2 (Fall 2015), pp 244
  4. [footnote]Ligang, Zhou, “Obscuring the Line between the Living and the Dead: Mortuary Activities inside the Grave Chamber of the East Han Dynasty China”, Asian Perspectives, Vol. 54, No. 2 (Fall 2015), pp. 242
  5. Ligang, Zhou, “Obscuring the Line between the Living and the Dead: Mortuary Activities inside the Grave Chamber of the East Han Dynasty China”, Asian Perspectives, Vol. 54, No. 2 (Fall 2015), pp. 239
  6. Mu-Chu- Poo, "Ideas Concerning Death and Burial in Pre-Han and Han China" Asian Major, Third Series, 3, no.2 (1990), pp. 26
  7. Mu-Chu- Poo, "Ideas Concerning Death and Burial in Pre-Han and Han China" Asian Major, Third Series, 3, no.2 (1990), pp. 26
  8. Ligang, Zhou, “Obscuring the Line between the Living and the Dead: Mortuary Activities inside the Grave Chamber of the East Han Dynasty China”, Asian Perspectives, Vol. 54, No. 2 (Fall 2015), pp. 238
  9. Ligang, Zhou, “Obscuring the Line between the Living and the Dead: Mortuary Activities inside the Grave Chamber of the East Han Dynasty China”, Asian Perspectives, Vol. 54, No. 2 (Fall 2015), pp. 245
  10. Hung, Wu, The Art of the Yellow Springs:  Understanding the Chinese Tombs. (London,  Reaktion Books, 2011)
  11. Wu Hung, “Representing the Soul”, in The Art of the Yellow Springs:  Understanding the Chinese Tombs, pp.65-67
  12. Wu Hung, “Representing the Soul”, in The Art of the Yellow Springs:  Understanding the Chinese Tombs, pp.66

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