I sometimes joke (to some people’s ire) that the Chinese traditions around death and worship were basically invented by pyromaniacs (or really good salesmen). You can catch a glimpse of it with this wikipedia entry about joss paper. There is a lot of burning involved in taking care of the dead, burning “hell notes” and joss paper, joss sticks, candles, and paper effigies. The incense smoke of the joss sticks carries prayers to heaven as it wafts upwards. The candles offer light on temple and ancestral altars. Everything else is a paper representation of something you’re sending to someone, the Chinese equivalent of Western Union or DHL for your dead relatives (I am not kidding), or bribes for dieties and officials in the heavenly bureaucracy. In other words, the spiritual realm of traditional Chinese culture remains materialistic.
It is against this backdrop that I grew up, and I was never quite satisfied with the explanations for these beliefs. It’s not the idea of an afterlife that I was against, but I was turned off by the idea of an afterlife which still revolved around the accumulation of money and material comforts (effigies of houses, cars, credit cards, servants, clothing, phones, and jewelry are still readily available at any Chinese shop selling “spiritual goods”). Defenders will point to filial piety (again), that we have to take care of our ancestors in their afterlife so they can pull favours for the living from the spiritual realm, but that idea still sits badly with me as it perpetuates a mercenary and materialistic view of both the afterlife and one’s dearly departed.
I was mulling over this recently not just during my grandmother’s death in March, but after a fun evening in Glastonbury (in December) with clairvoyant medium Jenny Ann, who connected several participants from a roughly 30-strong audience to the spirits of their dead relatives and pets. (I wasn’t picked.) The amount of information that poured from her was astounding, and some of the stories beautiful and touching. But perhaps, being a visitor from far away :) I felt that all of the relatives and stories revealed were very white and very “British”. This should of course be no surprise (only one fella learned he had spirit guides who were more exotic), but I did wonder if an Asian/Chinese audience would have had their passed-on relatives as present and as supportive as the families of the Glastonbury crowd. The concept of Hell, or at the very least Purgatory, is quite real in Chinese culture–in fact as I was once paid as a history guide to explain, the Chinese soul does a lot of multitasking: one part of the soul goes to the Courts of Hell to pay for debts and to be recycled in Samsara after, one part stays with the physical remains (to guard them carefully, or something–so much for Buddhist non-attachment), and one part stays with the ancestor tablet to receive offerings from the descendants, hear prayers and grant help. This three-way split is the only “rational” explanation for how the Chinese have managed to accommodate cognitive dissonance over the afterlife–they don’t want to throw out the Confucian concept that filial piety should continue beyond death, neither do they want to contradict Buddhist doctrine about rebirth or possible ascension to the Pure Land, nor do they want to abandon the folk belief that the afterlife is just like this life, complete with requiring daily necessities, but also passports and Louis Vuitton luggage for occasional luxury travel (again, not kidding). Are these multiple ideas of the afterlife contradictory? Sure, but that won’t stop the Chinese believing all three veins at once. (I’m not saying all three can’t be true either, but it would seem to necessitate a lot of self-division and lost pieces.)
As for those hell notes that keep being sent from this realm of the living to the dead–I’ve wondered forever what the rate of inflation “down under” must be like. I’ve ruminated so often about turning it into fantasy story of financial doom and disaster, but since many people still believe in hell money, there’s never been a way to write it without (even this post takes a risk) sounding insulting.
I do feel that these beliefs around death reveal a lot about the ever-present insecurities in Chinese culture–fear of lack of money and material comforts, for one, but they also reveal a rather simplistic way of instilling morals. Karma, for most Chinese, isn’t usually understood as cause and effect but, rather: what goes around comes around. Growing up, this was the motivation for me to learn how to behave myself or to be kind. Compassion was rarely taught as the motivating factor to be good. Retribution was.
So with much of the informal teaching on Chinese spirituality being in this vein, it seemed to me that the afterlife for the Chinese was basically: more of the same. There’s still bureaucracy, bribery as necessity, daily needs, bodily pains to endure (especially in Hell/Purgatory), and dependents to care for. It was only the especially virtuous and/or spiritual who could hope to go on to something better, in which case, the descendants were still expected to fulfill rituals around the departed’s birth and death anniversaries, because honour was still expected to be paid. (I’m not against honouring the dead, I just wonder about strict schedules, and the pettiness from the supposedly ascended.)
Put all of this together with the trauma of World War II, Communist rule, famine, debt, exploitation, you-name-it (it’s not commonly known but the Chinese were/are a people not against enslaving their own kind) and one would realise that most of the older-generation Chinese have had a tough life, and depending on their conduct/sense of shame can either look forward to hell, an afterlife as materialistic as before-death, or reincarnation. If they’re lucky, they may get into Pure Land (if they’re Buddhist), or rebirth into a rich family. Woot-inspiring stuff. My game of “pretend I’m in their shoes” may be skewed or horribly off the mark, but I’ve long figured that if I were still obsessed with hell notes and tribute after my death, my ego and fear would be my biggest problems in whatever spiritual realm I was in. Which wouldn’t make me very useful to my loved ones, expecting them to continue burning money for my upkeep/salvation in the afterlife.
In modern times, there has been some blowback among the Chinese themselves against these traditional ideas of the afterlife. I sometimes think Christianity has had the success it does in Asia because it’s just such a beautifully simple system compared to what the Chinese had before. You were good when you were alive? You get into heaven! No bureaucracy, no bribes needed. No ifs, hows, or buts. Grace is all that’s needed. Rich or poor (traditionally easier if you were poor, but irrelevant now with prosperity gospel), Heaven’s guaranteed for you, no reincarnation, no Samsara. I cannot begrudge anyone being attracted to Christianity after the confusing (and rather disempowering) mess of Chinese beliefs. If anyone can heal all their inherited ancestral trauma with Christian spirituality, I say all power to them.
Let me get to the inherited trauma. There’s a lot of it in Chinese culture, and I’ve mentioned the historical baggage like WWII, famine, exploitation, and for the mainlanders, the abuses of the Mao Tse-Tung era. The cultural baggage (which I mentioned in a previous post) comprise extreme materialism, misogyny, over-deference, obsession with face/reputation, and general lack of inquiry and innovation. It’s been the topic of other and more capable authors who’ve tackled how the Chinese, with their illustriously long history of literature and the sciences of feng shui, medicine, kung fu, governance, etc. had their asses kicked by foreign invaders like the Japanese and British in the 20th century, and since then have had a rather paranoid inferiority/superiority complex: China can’t let go of its grudging hate of the west, but is trying like mad to have the same material dressings and infrastructure and architectural showpieces, damn all the environmental costs, and nevermind the soft stuff (the cultural/historical lessons and attitudes) actually required to achieve/maintain the functional and visual aesthetics of the European cities they’re trying to copy. (Singapore, where I live, while not in China, suffers from this same thing.)
The short-term and visible effects of these things in the Chinese psyche are a lot of grandiose building projects from the bureaucracy, puffery and preening from rich individuals, and the perpetuation of unaddressed ills: corruption, gender and class inequality, and exploitation–issues of survival and moral conduct that seem utterly divorced from the “Asian values” of community, oneness, or serving society, things that Chinese chauvinists/historians like to claim as theirs. (More cognitive dissonance?) The long-term, invisible effect of this material-progress-at-all-costs is that more generations of Chinese, without help, are going to perpetuate that mentality of never having enough, never being good enough (in a nutshell, this is the main legacy of Chinese meritocratic systems and “Tiger mums”), never being of the right class or gender, or in the right place. All this unspoken societal programming, like background radiation, form a morass of extremely damaging and self-limiting beliefs that make real contentment or civic-mindedness a near impossibility. (Chinese are generally good at denying their negative emotions–one would lose face by letting on that their personal lives may be less than hunky-dory.) On a larger scale, a massive shadow aspect has been created by those Chinese who continue to deny the worst parts of Chinese culture and tradition, and as they continue to deny, the problems will persist.
So let me get back to the topic of death. It is possible that old pyromaniacal practices around effigies will die as the Chinese modernise, or they might not. It may be that many Chinese will never feel the need, nor have the time, to re-examine their beliefs around death, just as many seem to have no time to question/challenge the corrupt or broken systems around them, or the emotional guilt-tripping and controlling habits endemic of traditional (read: conservative, reputation-obsessed) Chinese families. Until there is a fundamental change and willingness by larger sections of the population and diaspora to examine long-held assumptions, to be emotionally and deeply honest and let go of–even challenge–the things that have not worked and do not work, a lot of the old hypocritical contradictions around morality, self-image, “duty”, and death will continue.
I write this for the dead as well as the living. I don’t mean this just as literary flourish, I’ve been in too many historic places where the misery of the Chinese immigrants, the indentured, the prostitutes tricked/sold/forced into the trade can be palpably felt. Not just by myself, it’s extremely interesting that where I’ve told the most heart-wrenching stories of suffering (usually in the place they happened), I’ve had people faint, blank out or start swaying/tipping mysteriously and unaware. And other guides have witnessed this too. There are not only psychic imprints in the local landscape and many places all over the world where extreme cruelty and misery have taken place, there are active haunts as well; places I’ve gotten the feeling are “busier” than meets the eye. (I’m not clairvoyant. I just get very occasional flashes.) If I tune in, the absolute misery and suffering can be felt easily . Singapore has plenty of ghost stories, and it would seem (and I feel) that there a lot of earthbound spirits here. Some may be so by choice, but I can’t help thinking most of them are stuck because of spirit PTSD or just the fear of the rather crappy afterlife offered by traditional Chinese belief.
The empath/healer in me knows it will takes lot of conscious effort in healing these places, but perhaps the pragmatist in me prefers to heal the wounds in the living first.
The damage must stop somewhere.
P.S. The relative political maturity and civic-mindedness of places like Taiwan and Hong Kong led me to largely exclude them from the above opinions, something I forgot to insert into an already rambling piece.