With the cultural importance of the ancestors and geomancy (fengshui)—perhaps the defining characteristic of Chinese culture—funerals are a key component of Chinese rituals. Funerals are highly charged emotional events that delineate kinship and community relations, part of the cultural transformation of deceased people into ancestors. For Han Chinese (ethnic minority groups have a wide variety of funeral practices), there are two phases to Chinese funerals: what James L.Watson refers to as ‘funerary rites’ and ‘rites of disposal’.
‘Funerary rites’ are the ritual practices that extend from the death of an individual to the body’s removal from the community. There are ten distinct practices that structure the funerary rites: (1) the announcement of the death to the community, as in the ritual wailing of women; (2) the wearing of mourning clothes and other symbols of mourning worn; (3) the ritualized preparation of the corpse for burial, as in the ‘purchasing of water’ (maishui) to cleanse the body; (4) the transfer of goods to the deceased, as in the burning of paper objects or food offerings; (5) the preparation of a written memorial, such as the soul tablet; (6) the use of money in ritualized contexts; (7) the performance of music to mark transitions in the rites; (8) the sealing of the corpse in the coffin; (9) the transfer of the coffin out of the community, as in the funeral procession; and (10) the funerary banquet. Chinese funerary rites, however, reflect a diversity of beliefs and include localized or idiosyncratic practices within this structure. For example, families may organize a Catholic service, or employ Buddhist monks or Daoist priests (Daoshi) as part of the transition between events, and use a wide variety of sacrificial offerings.
‘Rites of disposal’, the second phase of funerary ritual, include a wide array of ritual practices. Cremation, the method preferred by the PRC government, is common in urban areas throughout China (see tombs and cremation). In south China, secondary burial is the traditional style. In secondary burial (ercizang), the deceased is first buried in a temporary grave. After three or four years, depending upon soil conditions, families exhume the body, clean the remaining flesh from the bones, and place them in a large urn inside the ancestor’s final tomb. If they can afford it, descendants of the deceased build a permanent cement tomb to house their ancestor’s remains.
Chinese funerals are a key social and political topic, and not only a familial or individual concern. James Watson has argued that a shared cultural emphasis on orthopraxy in funerary rites provides the base upon which Han Chinese identity is constructed. Orthopraxy is the ‘proper performance of rites’. The proper conduct of funerary ritual as described above distinguishes Han Chinese from non-Han minority groups in China, and from other foreigners. In historical times, the Chinese elite and the imperial state sought to regulate and standardize the proper practice of funerary ritual, while largely disregarding the realm of belief. In contemporary China, the Communist state continues to intervene in funeral practices, seeking to reduce the cost and effort that families expend on such practices. Funerals are important on the cultural level because they are the first step in the transformation of a deceased person into an ancestor; if performed incorrectly, the individual might become a ghost, making life difficult for the descendants. Permanent tombs and continued veneration of the ancestors are important because of geomancy, whereby houses in the countryside are structured in relation to the placement of tombs and other geomantic considerations. In Chinese culture, good geomantic conditions result in good fortune for families, while bad geomancy results in misfortune. As a result, funerals are public demonstrations of wealth, status and power by families, lineage segments and lineages. Tombs are maintained throughout the year, but especially during the Qingming Festival, when whole lineages gather together in a sign of strength to worship common ancestors. Once the most common ancestor has been venerated, lineage segments and families will proceed to the tombs of their own ancestors and ‘sweep the graves’ (saomu).
Watson, James L. (1993). ‘Rites or Beliefs? The Construction of a Unified Culture in Late Imperial China’. In Lowell Dittmer and Samuel S.Kim (eds), China’s Quest for National Identity. Ithaca: Cornell University Press: 80–103.
Watson, James L. and Rawski, Evelyn S. (eds) (1988). Death Ritual in Late Imperial and Modern China. Berkeley: University of California Press.

Encyclopedia of contemporary Chinese culture. . 2011.

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