Notes Week 10
Chinese Religions – Death and Afterlife
Chinese religion reflects four strands of influence – the ancient indigenous beliefs in spirits and
the triple world of gods, humans and underworld -- and the influence of 3 great religious
traditions – Confucianism, Taoism and Buddhism.
From Confucianism, comes the emphasis on this life and proper behaviour towards the living
and the dead,
from Taoism, the interest in the mystical way of nature and the magic that is inherent in the
nature of things and from Buddhism, the concern with karma, with cause and effect – merit and
1. Boundaries between this life and death are porous – life and death form a continuum not a
break – just as the family has an ancestor, the dead are under the high ancestor
2. Main religious issue is the health and well-being of the person in this life and beyond this
life. How does one maintain and enhance one’s physical, mental and economic vitality.
3. Concern with the long term fate of the person, meaning the ongoing welfare of the person
4. That although there were ideas of an end of time and final eternal salvation, these were never
as prominent as in western traditions and really do not have much to do with how religion is
Soul –theory –
Everything in the universe manifests qualities of yin and yang -- the person, nature, time -- yang
qualities are of lightness, hotness, dryness, expansiveness, activity—yin qualities are darkness,
coolness, wetness, contraction, passivity.
Light and dark, day and night, hot and cold, sky and earth, summer and winter – this list is
inexhaustible – male and female, right and left, front and back, up and down, out and in, sound
and silence, birth and death, odd numbers and even numbers – the names for the two opposite
but complementary principles are yang and yin.
Not the same as good and evil – yang is not trying to gain dominance over yin or vice versa – the
ideal is a dynamic balance between the forces – the dot in the diagram represents the idea that
everything contains its opposite and will eventually become its opposite – the forces are dynamic
and balanced as they change.
The soul is no different – it too is a balance of yin elements and yang elements -- while the
person is alive the yin and yang aspects of the soul are entirely homogeneous, but upon death they separate out into the idea of two souls – the yang or “hun” soul which is the spirit of the
ancestor that is revered and which is thought to go up to the heaven. The yang soul would be
associated with the spirit tablet that would be kept in the shrine in the home, and is the focus for
The life-force and vitality is associated with the yang soul – this is the force that leaves the
person upon death and is weakened when someone is sick – it is also the force that leaves the
body and wonders about during dream.
The yin or “p’o” soul goes downward into the earth – it is the yin soul that is associated with the
grave – and which if it was not treated or buried properly could become a malevolent spirit that
brings misfortune to the family. The preservation of the corpse and care of the grave was also
very important as the corpse and the grave was the seat of the yin soul and to ignore it would be
detrimental to the family.
Feng-shui – is the ancient chinese art of geomancy, the art of positioning the graves and other
homes so as to best benefit from the universal energy or “chi” that manifests in that area.
On the subject of death and afterlife Chinese thought is not systematized – in other words there
have been many ideas that continue to coexist just like the Egyptian ideas of the dead going to
live with the stars or with the sun or with Osiris – all coexisting
So there was the idea that the dead went to a kind of underworld called the Yellow Springs
Other ideas of afterlife were influenced by the Buddhist cosmology of Heaven and hell – the
Chinese version of heaven and hell mirrored the bureaucracy of the worldly ruling power
with heaven being represented as the wonderful court of the Jade Emperor and hell being
represented as the horrible prisons where one was punished by cruel jailers and could
possibly get out sooner than one’s sentence required by bribing the guards – hence the
practice of sending “spirit money” with the deceased to help with one’s life in the