Through a cultural analysis of the symbols of death - flesh, blood, bones, souls, time numbers, food and money - Chinese
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English Pages 208  Year 2004
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Table of contents :
BOOK COVER......Page 1
1 THE PROBLEM OF DEATH......Page 11
Cultural logic of Chinese death rituals......Page 12
Death, family and the kinship group......Page 14
Gift exchange and the appropriation of death......Page 16
Pollution and the power of death......Page 18
The pollution of death......Page 19
Unnatural deaths......Page 20
Views on death and death rituals......Page 21
Views on Chinese religion and death......Page 25
The fieldwork......Page 32
Forthcoming chapters......Page 34
Preparation for death......Page 36
Ritual paraphernalia for the funeral......Page 40
Daily rituals at the funeral......Page 42
The final night rituals......Page 44
Burial and cremation......Page 48
Significance of ritual variations......Page 50
Home-based ancestor worship......Page 55
Hall-based ancestor worship......Page 61
Temple halls......Page 66
Memorialism and ancestor worship......Page 70
Death and the unity of kin......Page 74
Filial piety and family continuity......Page 76
Death rituals and social differentiation......Page 78
The private world—conflicts and resolutions......Page 80
Conflicts over ritual enactment......Page 81
Tensions between the individual and the social group......Page 86
5 BONES AND SOULS......Page 87
Pervasive influence of ancestors......Page 88
Death and the inheritance of property......Page 90
Transfer of authority......Page 94
Acquisition of status......Page 97
Tapping the powers of the dead......Page 101
Appropriating the soul of the dead......Page 103
Placement of the bones......Page 106
6 FLESH AND BLOOD......Page 110
Pollution and the family group......Page 111
What is polluting about death?......Page 113
Chinese concept of pollution......Page 114
Refinement of the dead......Page 116
The separation and reincorporation of the dead......Page 118
Continuous and discontinuous time......Page 121
Flesh and bones......Page 122
Pollution of the dead mother......Page 123
Pollution and vitality of blood......Page 127
Birth and death......Page 128
7 UNNATURAL DEATHS......Page 130
Watery graves—death by drowning......Page 131
Powers and dangers of violent deaths......Page 133
Child deaths......Page 135
Unmarried daughters and ghost marriages......Page 138
Good and bad deaths......Page 139
The hungry ghosts festival......Page 140
Descent, duty, and status elevation......Page 146
Inheritance, exchange, and calculated self-interest......Page 148
Bones, souls, and death pollution......Page 149
Effects of death on the social group......Page 151
Overcoming death, reaffirming life......Page 153
Good and bad deaths......Page 155
The funeral hearse and Chinese cultural values......Page 156
Whither Chinese death rituals?......Page 157
CHINESE DEATH RITUALS IN SINGAPORE
In recent years Singapore society has undergone a rapid process of modernization and industrialization, which has vastly changed the physical and cultural milieu of the Chinese, and yet the Chinese in Singapore are still ready to incur huge expenses in the enactment of death rituals. Viewing the rituals as heightened activities which conflate, refract and highlight the most important values of the Chinese, this book examines the changes and adaptations in Chinese death rituals and accounts for the continuing significance of death rituals in an increasingly industrialized, technologically orientated society. Through a cultural analysis of the symbols of death—flesh, blood, bones, souls, time, numbers, food and money—Chinese Death Rituals in Singapore throws light upon the Chinese perception of death and how they cope with its eventuality. In the seeming mass of religious rituals and beliefs, it suggests that there is an underlying logic to the rituals. This in turn leads Tong to examine the interrelationship between death and the socio-economic value system of the Chinese as a whole. Based upon primary research, this work is the first comprehensive study of Chinese death rituals in an urban setting. Its analysis of the development and adaptation of a traditional religious belief in a modernizing society will interest all students of Asian religions as well as Asian anthropologists and sociologists. Tong Chee-Kiong teaches in the Department of Sociology at the National University of Singapore.
ANTHROPOLOGY OF ASIA SERIES Series Editors: Grant Evans, University of Hong Kong and Shaun Malarney, International Christian University, Japan Asia today is one of the most dynamic regions of the world. The previously predominant image of “timeless peasants” has given way to the image of fastpaced business people, mass consumerism and high-rise urban conglomerations. Yet much discourse remains entrenched in the polarities of “East vs. West,” “Tradition vs. Change.” This series hopes to provide a forum for anthropological studies which break with such polarities. It will publish titles dealing with cosmopolitanism, cultural identity, representations, arts and performance. The complexities of urban Asia, its elites, its political rituals, and its families will also be explored. HONG KONG The anthropology of a Chinese metropolis Edited by Grant Evans and Maria Tam FOLK ART POTTERS OF JAPAN Brian Moeran ANTHROPOLOGY AND COLONIALISM IN ASIA AND OCEANIA Jan van Bremen and Akitoshi Shimizu JAPANESE BOSSES, CHINESE WORKERS Power and control in a Hong Kong megastore Wong Heung Wah THE LEGEND OF THE GOLDEN BOAT Regulation, trade and traders in the borderlands of Laos, Thailand, China and Burma Andrew Walker CULTURAL CRISIS AND SOCIAL MEMORY Modernity and identity in Thailand and Laos Edited by Shigeharu Tanabe and Charles F.Keyes THE GLOBALIZATION OF CHINESE FOOD Edited by David Y.H.Wu and Sidney C.H.Cheung CULTURE, RITUAL AND REVOLUTION IN VIETNAM Shaun Kingsley Malarney THE ETHNOGRAPHY OF VIETNAM’S CENTRAL HIGHLANDERS A historical contextualization, 1850–1990 Oscar Salemink NIGHT-TIME AND SLEEP IN ASIA AND THE WEST Exploring the dark side of life
Edited by Brigitte Steger and Lodewijk Brunt CHINESE DEATH RITUALS IN SINGAPORE Tong Chee-Kiong CALLIGRAPHY AND POWER IN CONTEMPORARY CHINESE SOCIETY Yuehping Yen BUDDHISM OBSERVED Western travellers, Tibetan exiles and the culture of Dharma in Kathmanudu Peter Moran
CHINESE DEATH RITUALS IN SINGAPORE Tong Chee-Kiong
LONDON AND NEW YORK
First published 2004 by RoutledgeCurzon 11 New Fetter Lane, London EC4P 4EE Simultaneously published in the USA and Canada by RoutledgeCurzon 29 West 35th Street, New York, NY 10001 This edition published in the Taylor & Francis e-Library, 2005. “To purchase your own copy of this or any of Taylor & Francis or Routledge’s collection of thousands of eBooks please go to www.eBookstore.tandf.co.uk.” RoutledgeCurzon is an imprint of the Taylor & Francis Group © 2004 Tong Chee-Kiong All rights reserved. No part of this book may be reprinted or reproduced or utilized in any form or by any electronic, mechanical, or other means, now known or hereafter invented, including photocopying and recording, or in any information storage or retrieval system, without permission in writing from the publishers. The publisher makes no representation, express or implied, with regard to the accuracy of the information contained in this book and cannot accept any legal responsibility or liability for any errors or omissions that may be made. British Library Cataloguing in Publication Data A catalogue record for this book is available from the British Library Library of Congress Cataloging in Publication Data A catalog record for this book has been requested ISBN 0-203-49366-4 Master e-book ISBN
ISBN 0-203-58102-4 (Adobe eReader Format) ISBN 0-700-70603-8 (Print Edition)
IN MEMORY OF MY TEACHERS AND FRIENDS, A.THOMAS KIRSCH MILTON L.BARNETT
The li (rites) consist in being careful about the treatment of life and death. Life is the beginning of man. Death is the end of man. When the end and the beginning are both good, the way of humanity is complete…. Funeral rituals are for the living to give beautified ceremonial to the dead; to send off the dead as if they were living; to render the same services to the dead as to the living; to the absent as to the present; and to make the end to be the same as the beginning…. Hence funerals are for no other purpose than to make clear the meaning of death and life, to send off the dead with sorrow and reverence…. Service to the living is beautifying their beginning; sending off the dead is beautifying the end. When the end and the beginning are both attended to, the service of a filial son is ended and the way of the sage is completed. (Hsun Tzu)
List of plates
The problem of death
The process of death: funeral rituals
Temples and graveyards: ancestral rituals
Kin and kindred: death and social relations
Bones and souls: death and inheritance
Flesh and blood: putrescence and the pollution of death
Conclusions: dangerous blood, refined souls
Appendix: list of Chinese characters
2.1 The coffin and the ritual chair with the longevity portrait 2.2 The crossing of the nai he qiao ritual 2.3 The shen zuo 3.1 A “framed paper” ancestral tablet 3.2 The ancestral altar in the Lin clan ancestral hall 3.3 The graveyard at Cai cuo kang 4.1 The ritual screen and the altar to the deceased 4.2 The various grades of mourning 5.1 The burning of goods and money to the deceased 5.2 The paper mansion 5.3 Various items sacrificed to the deceased 6.1 The zhuan lun or reincarnation ritual 6.2 Preparations for the “bloody pond” ritual 8.1 The elaborately decorated funeral hearse on its way to the graveyard
31 34 35 46 54 58 69 71 84 88 89 110 113 145
1 THE PROBLEM OF DEATH
One of the most striking features about Chinese death rituals in Singapore is the astronomical sum of money spent to ensure their performance. It is not uncommon for families to spend the equivalent of S$30,000 to S$40,000 to enact these rituals; the average family spends between S$ 10,000 and S$20,000.1 Even poorer families desire and attempt to make the death rituals as elaborate as possible, often incurring huge debts that will take them years to repay. The Chinese in general, including the immigrant Chinese in Southeast Asia, are generally perceived to be a very pragmatic people, especially regarding economic matters. Why, then, would they spend so much money to ensure the proper enactment of rituals? How do we account for the conviction, even among people who clearly do not have sufficient resources, that death rituals must be as elaborate and ostentatious as possible? Many Chinese in Singapore prepare for death long before its arrival is imminent. It is not unusual, even for those in their twenties and thirties, to subscribe to mutual aid associations to ensure adequate funding for and participation in their death rituals. Many set aside small amounts of money every month for that purpose whilst others pay a deposit to reserve a place in a Mahayana Buddhist temple to accommodate their ancestral tablets. Known as chang sheng lu wei, or “long-life tablets,” these look exactly like a normal ancestral tablet, except that they are covered with pieces of red cloth that will be removed upon the person’s death. Similarly, graveyard plots are purchased long before death. What is the rationale for this seeming preoccupation with death, especially when we consider the high value that these people place on hope for a long and prosperous life? The high value and importance that the Chinese in Singapore attach to death rituals raise a simple yet significant question: What does death signify to a purportedly pragmatic people? The book seeks an answer to this central question on the meaning and significance of death by observing and analyzing the rituals related to death, beginning with the preparations for a person’s death, followed by the funeral and burial of the deceased. Death rituals continue with the worship of the ancestors at the family ancestral altar. The book also describes daily ritual propitiation and special rituals conducted during the ancestors’ death anniversaries and other important family events, such as the birth of a child or the marriage of a son.
CHINESE DEATH RITUALS IN SINGAPORE
In addition to the rituals performed in the household, death rituals are also performed in ancestral halls. These rituals are corporate in nature, and ancestors, except for the founding ancestor, are worshiped as part of a “body of ancestral spirits,” not as individual entities. Their role as a member of a group of ancestors guarantees that the individual ancestor will continue to be worshiped. However, despite their importance, I will also show that there have been significant modifications in the nature of ancestor worship in both the familial altar and ancestral hall which are partly a consequence of the immigrant status of the Singapore Chinese. Unlike traditional Chinese society, which regulates admission of persons into the lineage ancestral hall by the strict criterion of proving patrilineal descent, entrance to ancestral halls in Singapore is based on more flexible criteria of surname, dialect, or locality, meaning that clan ancestral halls have replaced lineage ancestral halls, and modifications in rituals reflect these changes. In addition to household and clan hall ceremonies, annual rituals are conducted at the graveyards during the Qing Ming, literally, “clear and bright” festival. Singapore society has been undergoing a rapid process of modernization and industrialization, particularly since World War II, which has vastly changed the physical and socio-cultural milieu of the Chinese. These changes have necessitated adaptations in the practice of death rituals, and have affected “traditional” perceptions of such rituals. Nevertheless, there is clear evidence that, despite the modernization process, death rituals are still prevalent and their performance is seen as a necessity. How do we account for their permanence and significance in an increasingly industrialized, technologically oriented society? The book will also examine the increasingly popular practice of disposing of the dead by cremation rather than burial, the exhumation of traditional graveyards to make way for urban renewal projects, and the keeping of bone remains in columbaria. The form and process of Chinese death rituals will be described and the ramifications of such changes will be discussed. Because of the “folk” nature of these rituals, however, there is no fixed, singular way of performing them. Variations occur, often reflecting regional or dialect differences or even personal preferences. Among other things, my objective is to identify the common and essential elements of the rituals and to explain the significance of the variations. Cultural logic of Chinese death rituals I adopt a cultural anthropological approach to the study of death and its rituals that is based on ideas first articulated by Max Weber and Clifford Geertz. Geertz proposes that anthropologists study meaning rather than behavior, seek understanding rather than causal laws, and reject mechanistic explanations in favor of interpretive explanations. Culture is symbolic and meaningful. To Geertz, the concept of culture is essentially semiotic.2 Believing with Max Weber “that man is an animal suspended in webs of significance he himself has
THE PROBLEM OF DEATH 3
spun,” Geertz finds culture to consist of those webs, and an analysis of culture to be an interpretive process that searches for meaning. Thus, for Geertz, “analysis is the sorting out of structures of signification and determining their social ground and import.”3 A central assumption of this book therefore is that death and the rituals associated with it cannot be seen merely as an event with a haphazard collection of ceremonies and activities; rather, it is always meaningful, coherent, and expressive. Death is not simply a natural fact but a culturally constructed and highly variable idea. Richard Huntington and Peter Metcalf note: In all societies, regardless of whether their customs call for festive or restrained behavior, the issue of death throws into relief the most important cultural values by which people live their lives and evaluate their experiences. Life becomes transparent against the background of death and fundamental social and cultural values are revealed.4 Following in Weber’s footsteps, we must view humans as cultural beings, endowed with the capacity and the will to take a deliberate attitude toward the world and to lend it significance. This significance, whatever it may be, will lead them to judge certain phenomena of human existence in this light and respond to these in a meaningful way.5 In this respect, an individual acquires, creates, and subscribes to meaning central to his ethical world. Indeed, man, according to Weber, is constantly striving to articulate his life and search for the meaning of the human condition. Man always faces moral choices, not so much as ideals but as a continuous, necessary fact of existence. I will carry out a cultural analysis of the belief system and rituals associated with death. It will be shown that, despite the many variations and diverse interpretations, amidst the seeming mass of religious beliefs and rituals, there is an underlying logic to these rituals. From the perspective of the participants involved, they are rational behaviors; they make sense to the ritual sponsors and one task of this book is to uncover these meanings. Through an analysis of the symbols used in death rituals, the perception of the meaning of death and how they deal with this eventuality will be illuminated. In addition to the cultural analysis, the book also includes a social analysis of Chinese death rituals. I suggest that the logic of death, particularly in its organizational features, is consistent with the larger socio-cultural value system of the ritual participants in Singapore, most obviously in its kinship and economic networks. This book examines the effects of death rituals and associated ideas on social behavior; that is, the reciprocal relationship between ritual and society. Death rituals must be viewed as heightened activities that conflate, refract, and highlight the most important values of the Chinese. By looking at death rituals, values that are not always visible, explicit, or understood, are revealed and become understandable. Moral values that are significant in life, such as filial piety, loyalty, continuity, and provision of posterity, are all
CHINESE DEATH RITUALS IN SINGAPORE
prevalent in death rituals. The ability of ritual to reflect as well as to shape social life therefore makes it a useful tool to understand the complex nature of Chinese society as the dynamic values important to the Chinese are worked out in the ritual process. Death, to the Chinese, is inevitable but not final. It is merely a point of transition and does not signify the end of a person’s participation in the lives and activities of his family, nor of they with him. Indeed, ancestors are not to be considered as persons apart from life but are given crucial roles in the life of the living. This notion of mutual interdependence between the dead and the living reinforces the importance of the rituals because each depends on the other for emotional, social, and economic security. Ancestors depend on the descendants for food, shelter, and money; the family, in turn, requires the assistance of the ancestors to deal with the problems of daily life. A process of continual exchange takes place between the family and the ancestors. Death, family and the kinship group What effects do death rituals have on the social group? Most studies on Chinese death rituals have emphasized the importance of the rituals in the integration of the family, the cohesion of kinship unity, and the perpetuation of the continuum of descent,6 with death rituals seen as a function of descent. Such an approach is not incorrect, but it is a simplification and idealization of a very complex process. In the functionalist tradition of Emile Durkheim, most of these studies see only one facet of the total picture—the unifying power of rituals. To provide a more complete picture, we have to examine death rituals at two levels. At the public level, religious ideas form the basis of group formation and cohesion, particularly within the family unit, and to a lesser extent in the kin network. The family is required to put on a show of cohesion in making a presentation for the community, and will “lose face” if they are not perceived to be united at a time of crisis. A closer examination, however, reveals that at the private level, the enactment of death rituals is often punctuated by many incidents of conflicts, quarrels, compromises, tensions, and even bitter feuding among family members. Arguments erupt over such matters as how the rituals are to be performed; monetary contributions from family members; and, who can and cannot participate in the death rituals. Conflicts arise and are resolved, if only partially, within the private domain of the family. In contrast to the public level, where kinship relations are essentially formalistic, at the private level, or the level of practical strategies, kinship relations are mobilized and manipulated to serve the necessity of practical functions.7 Victor Turner suggests that, although rituals are aimed at the reanimation of societal norms and values, conflicts or representations are as an inherent part of many rituals as they are of social life in general. Portrayals of conflict underscore segregation of social groups, the overt verbalization of which is often
THE PROBLEM OF DEATH 5
inappropriate.8 Drawing on Turner, it is suggested that an analysis of these conflicts, when, how, and why they occur, will help our understanding of the meaning of death rituals. They are a ritual drama in which practical social relations within the family are acted out, bringing to the surface the social interactions, individual interests, group alliances, and points of tension. Instead of a static model of formalistic kinship ordering, death reveals the dynamics of social relationships, allowing members to define and redefine their allegiances within the group. People make choices within the framework of culturally prescribed action, and the way in which they arrive at their decisions tells us much about their values and beliefs. One key to understanding Chinese death rituals is the role of the social actor or ritual sponsor. What meanings does he confer on the rituals and why? Death unites the members of the kinship group but it also separates them. It unites by bringing together a diverse group of people for a common purpose—to bury the dead. Cooperation, both financial and social, is required to ensure the enactment of the rituals. In addition, death also invokes the convention of exclusivity. It delineates the family group against outsiders, as exemplified by demarcations of who can and who cannot take part in the ritual or touch the corpse. It will be shown, however, that the very enactment of the rituals allows for the social differentiation of the group and the articulation of these divisions. At the same time as bringing it together, death, particularly that of the patriarch, segments the family unit. Most studies have characterized the domination of the collectivity over the individual as a central feature of Chinese social life;9 indeed, one of these studies goes so far as to suggest that the individual is unimportant and exists only to continue the family. He is a personification of all his forebears and all his unborn descendants and though his existence as an individual is necessary, it is insignificant beside his purpose as representative of the whole.10 A careful examination of the execution of death rituals suggests that constant tension exists between the interests of the individual and the needs of the group or collectivity. Central to Weber’s work is the idea that man is in a constant struggle to control his social environment. Social man is seen as a creator of society— an actor interacting with others on the basis of his attempts to control their action in an attempt to impose his own meanings and definitions upon situations involving himself and others. The world consists of individuals, autonomous in a sense, choosing from an infinity of values and imposing meanings upon concrete reality: The highest ideals which move us most forcefully, are always formed only in the struggle with other ideals which are just as sacred to them as ours are to us.11
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Understanding the choices people make and the way they resolve tensions allow greater insights into the relationship between individual strategies and collective mandates among the Chinese in Singapore. In examining the social implications of death, I suggest that death mobilizes and reflects material and social distinctions. This is especially true in the case of the Chinese, whose social organizations are basically hierarchical in nature, with their social relationships based on the generation-age-sex principle. This hierarchy is replicated in the death rituals, and is visible in the proximity and social distance required between the living and the dead and the differentiation in the various grades of mourning garments. At the public level, formal kinship relationships are rigidly followed. At the private level, however, the hierarchy within the family is decided not by kin relationships alone but by the relative power of the members as well. This is often dependent on wealth, education, and achievement, rather than simply by ascription. In making arrangements for the ceremonies, there are many disagreements involving the placement of the dead and the working out of the kin relationship to the deceased. This is especially true in cases when a person has more than one wife and many children. Because of their migrant origins, the social organization of the Chinese in Singapore is highly diversified according to economic activities as well as by dialect and regional variations. Moreover, Singapore society has undergone tremendous transformations in the last twenty-five years, with rapid economic growth resulting in drastic changes in occupational, residential, and social organizational patterns. The evolving social structure of Singapore in terms of its socio-cultural, economic, and political environment, is quite different from that of traditional Chinese society. Among other things, the kinship structure of the Chinese in Singapore does not replicate the lineage organization found in southeastern China. Instead, clan associations replace it. I will argue that death rituals among the Chinese in Singapore are constantly being modified and adapted to reflect this evolving social structure. This is exemplified in the use of “substitution ancestral tablets” and theincreasing emphasis on family-centered rather than corporate-centered worship. These are not merely changes in form, but have serious consequencesfor the idea of death rituals themselves. Gift exchange and the appropriation of death Apart from the examination of the cultural logic of death and its rituals, and insights into kinship relations, this book also analyzes the material and ideal interests of the different individuals and groups involved in the enactment of the death rituals. Wee suggests that ritual performance among the Chinese is anthropocentric and egocentric. Chinese religion is human-centered instead of spirit-centered, and it is from the human standpoint that the entire cosmos is viewed. Religion is primarily concerned with solving the problems of human existence and humans are the key religious figures acting upon the rest of the
THE PROBLEM OF DEATH 7
cosmos.12 It is egocentric because the ritual participants enact rituals to serve calculated self-interests. The performance of rituals is perceived to improve the ritual sponsor’s fate and luck in this life; a belief clearly demonstrated by the instrumental quality of the rituals. It will be established that all features of the death rituals, from the nature of the bai,13 to the types of food offered and items sacrificed to the dead, are directed toward the idea that these rituals are performed because the participants (individually and/or collectively) expect to get something out of it. The very enactment of the death rituals assures the descendants of their rights to appropriate and inherit from the dead father. Death ceremonies involve a complex system of presentation. Viewed from the perspective developed by Marcel Mauss,14 gift exchanges are marked by three related obligations: to give, receive, and reciprocate. I suggest that death rituals must be understood as a process of reciprocal gift exchange between the dead and the living. Through the enactment of the rituals, the living descendants give the gift of life to the dead by ensuring their rebirth and transformation into an ancestor. Gift offerings are important because they not only ensure the wellbeing of the ancestor through the provision of items that they will need in the Otherworld, but the gifts act as an agent of transformation, converting a hungry ghost into a property-owning spirit. This is an important part of the process because, as informants assert, a person without property cannot conceivably become an ancestor. In return, the descendants receive gifts of luck, wealth, good health, long life and the general well-being of the family. Death rituals embody and accelerate the process of exchange. Death rituals allow the descendants to inherit the property of the deceased, to transfer his authority, and to acquire his status. But it will also become clear that it is not simply the inheritance of the properties the deceased possesses at death, but also the potential for greater benefits, that motivates the descendants to hold elaborate rituals and spend large sums of money. By converting the deceased from a hungry ghost into a rich ancestor, the now well-off ancestor will see fit, and is in fact expected, to reciprocate with even greater countergifts and benefits to the descendants. Exchange takes place at two levels—between the living and the dead, and between the family and the larger community. Funerals are elaborate and noisy affairs, with an atmosphere of constant activity that is related to the social status and prestige of all involved. An elaborate funeral is an indication of the family’s ability to mobilize social resources and thus is a reflection of their status. I will show that death rituals are important because they allow the ritual participants to tap into the powers and resources of the dead. An analysis of the treatment of the soul and bone remains of the dead will illuminate this idea. The ritual participants, I suggest, actually attempt to appropriate the soul and bones of the deceased for themselves. Why would they do this? One of the reasons is because the informants equate the bones with power, and proper management allows the descendants to access this power source. Because of the idea that there
CHINESE DEATH RITUALS IN SINGAPORE
is a natural extension between the human world and the natural environment, great emphasis is placed on the correct orientation when burying the dead, in line with the principles of fengshui or geomancy. It is claimed that man can manipulate nature to ensure his own well-being, which resonates with Maurice Freedman’s idea that through geomancy men use their ancestors as the media for the attainment of worldly desires, making puppets of forebears and dominating the dominators.15 Many informants do use their ancestors to attain personal benefits, but the relationship between the living and the dead is a reciprocal, not a dominant-subordinate one that Freedman seems to suggest. Ancestors are conceived not as passive but as active participants, capable of punishing the descendants as well as rewarding them. Punishment could also be in the form of non-reward; that is, to punish by not blessing. It may be added that the informants do not conceive of fengshui as a purely abstract force, but in real terms; that is, they are interested in the physical comfort of the dead. Chinese informants performing death rituals emphasize ethical and moral values. Drawing on the work of Pierre Bourdieu,16 there is a “guaranteed misrecognition” of the gift exchange. The calculated self-interest or egocentric motivation is almost never made public but is masked by the emphasis on ethical and moral values such as filial piety and duty, which are often the reasons given for the necessity of performing the rituals. But an examination of the things requested and expected from the dead will reinforce the idea that death rituals are also to do with giving gifts to the dead and the obligation of the deceased to reciprocate with larger countergifts. Pollution and the power of death Informants conceive of the linghun or soul as consisting of two components; the hun element, and the po element. When a person dies, his soul leaves his body and goes to Hell to be judged. During rebirth, the two souls bifurcate.17 One, the po, is reborn into this world in another form, and the other, the hun, returns to the home to become the ancestral spirit. This dichotomy of the soul is important because it manifests itself in the dual nature of Chinese death rituals. It can be argued that rituals function to dispose of, and separate from the family, the negative aspects of death by ensuring the rebirth of the po. At the same time, death rituals are also for the purpose of appropriating the positive features of death by reincorporating the hun back into the family. The completion of the rituals ensures that the soul is refined and under control, fit to be recovered by the descendants. Correctly managed, death offers great benefits. The dual nature of Chinese death rituals is further clarified by examining the treatment of the flesh and bones of the deceased. I suggest that death rituals seek to get rid of the flesh, the putrescent part of death, and incorporate the bone remains, which are imbued with the powers of the dead. The dual nature of the soul explains the seeming paradox in ritual behavior; that many death rituals emphasize the separation of the living from the dead, while others stress the
THE PROBLEM OF DEATH 9
reintegration of the dead with the living. Because rituals surrounding death are often permeated by symbols of rebirth, Bloch and Parry have suggested that the promise of rebirth is often used in many cultures to negate the finality of death.18 For the Chinese in Singapore, the principle of rebirth is given a unique twist. Because of the idea of a dual soul, reincarnation is not seen simply as the reincorporation of the deceased back into the community, but also an attempt to expiate the negative soul. Rebirth thus rids the family of the unwanted, while the wanted is incorporated. The pollution of death Death is extremely polluting. Death rituals can therefore also be seen as a process of refinement of the dead, making the deceased into a purer form and finally transforming him into an object of worship by his descendants. Death creates an impure ghost; rituals modify him into a settled ancestor. The manipulation of food symbols and the ritual condition of the mourners are keys to understanding this process. In this sense, the rituals must be viewed as an attempt to control death, to make it manageable. The book examines the conception of pollution, suggesting that it must be seen at both physical and symbolic levels. Pollution is connected, at one level, with the idea of uncleanliness and impurity, meaning that bodily excrements, menstruation blood, dirt, and death are all thought to be polluting. Following Mary Douglas, it is suggested that pollution is also linked to the idea of “things out of place.”19 Informants often use the word luan, or “chaos,” to describe pollution. Death is polluting because it causes a disjunction, violating order. For example, it is said that death releases a wandering, unbounded soul that is unpredictable and dangerous. Rituals bind the soul, making it predictable and safe. Death rituals therefore provide a means of converting an unpredictable event into a predictable sequence, and by restoring order, eliminate pollution. To understand the idea of pollution, we cannot look only at death but must see how Chinese informants conceive of pollution in birth, marriage rituals, and social life in general. Having defined pollution, the book proceeds to examine why certain categories of people must necessarily take on a portion of death pollution while others take measures to avoid it. To arrive at an answer, we have to see which people are polluted by death and why they are polluted. Who can and cannot participate in the death rituals? I will show how ideas regarding pollution demarcate the family group against outsiders. Family members are necessarily polluted by death, both by their physical proximity and by their social relations with the deceased. Friends and visitors to the funeral are not intrinsically polluted, although their physical proximity means that they are in constant danger from it. Family members are not only polluted by death but become polluting because they carry the aura of death around them. Hence, they need to undergo a process of ritual isolation.
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Special attention is paid to the “bloody pond” rituals, in which sons symbolically drink the blood of the dead mother. To account for the desire to take on this extreme form of pollution, I suggest that the ritual must be understood as a transaction between the mother and her sons, an exchange of her fertility for their taking on her pollution, freeing her from the bloody pond. By giving her fertility, she can finally be joined into the body of her husband’s ancestors. Sons, by taking her pollution, accept the gift of fertility and are obligated to conduct rituals on her behalf. At another level, the bloody pond ritual demonstrates the dual position of a woman in Chinese society. She is both subordinate, with an inferior role and social status, especially in public, and powerful, wielding immense influence within the family and, because of her procreative powers, responsible for ensuring the provision of descendants. Blood and the color red are also dominant symbols. By analyzing the multivocal meanings of these symbols, it can be surmised that blood has dual symbolism, signifying both pollution and the vitality of life, and most of the time it resonates between the two. Similarly, red is not only associated with life but is thought to have prophylactic powers to neutralize the effects of death. Red not only wards off evil; it brings blessings too. It is important to stress that death rituals must be seen as having multiple foci. Descent is but one, albeit the most important, of a range of factors that create an obligation to worship the dead. Another focus is the linkage between death rituals and moral imperatives, such as filial piety and duty. The invoking of tradition—“it has always been done this way”—is a reason that is often given for the enactment of death rituals. Mian zi, or “face,” is also extremely important to the Chinese. There is a great deal of social pressure to ensure that the proper rituals are enacted. Furthermore, there is a sense that death rituals function to elicit blessings and prevent ill-effects. Death rituals are also related to ideas of inheritance, gift exchange, and the management of pollution. Unnatural deaths An analysis of the extraordinary, that which is deemed to be outside the system, provides a mirror of society’s conception of itself as the ordinary. The book inquires into the cases of exclusions and examines the reasons why certain categories of people are not given the benefits of a normal funeral. According to informants, two causes of death are unnatural—violent deaths, which include death by drowning, automobile accidents, suicides and murders, and immature deaths, those of children and unmarried women. The souls of people who die unnatural deaths are trapped and cannot complete the ritual cycle. This marginal state is a source of extreme pollution and a danger to the living. Special rituals are therefore enacted to rescue the souls of persons who die through unnatural circumstances. An analysis of the treatment of unnatural deaths will illuminate the perception of “normality” and “abnormality” for the Chinese in Singapore.
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Community rituals, such as zhong yuan celebrations to rid the community of hungry ghosts, are described, and an analysis of the process of enactment of these rituals will show the points of tension and alliances within the community. It also demonstrates the ability of the ritual participants to manipulate the impure and dangerous to derive positive benefits. Edmund Leach suggests that rituals denote the communicative aspect of behavior—they “say things” about how a society sees itself. He writes that: ritual action and belief alike are to be understood as forms of symbolic statement about the social order…the main task of anthropology is to attempt such interpretations.20 If ritual enhances the social importance of values that are esteemed in society, the analysis of Chinese death rituals therefore allows us to understand the values that the informants hold important. For the Chinese, as C.K.Yang suggests, religion is closely intermeshed with society, or what he calls “diffused religion.”21 The study of death tells us much about Chinese social life and social organization as it is a manifestation of the coherent meanings that the living give to the world around them and establishes the conception of social order for the Chinese in Singapore. Review of death and death rituals Views on death and death rituals The anthropological study of death has witnessed many ebbs and flows. According to Huntington and Metcalf, early anthropologists, such as McLennan, Morgan, Lubbock, and Wake, were more interested in sexual morality and its relation to the evolution of social structure than in the significance of death.22 Edward B.Tylor and James Frazer were among the first anthropologists to study death and its rituals seriously. Tylor, for example, maintained that the worship of the manes (ancestors) is one of the great branches of the religion of mankind, and that the principles of ancestor worship are to keep up the social relations of the living world: The dead ancestor, now passed into a deity, simply goes on protecting his own family and receiving suits and services from them as of old; the dead chief still watches over his own tribe, still holds his authority by helping friends and harming enemies, still rewards the right and sharply punishes the wrong.23 Frazer comments on the widespread significance of death rituals in a similar fashion:
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To judge by the accounts we possess not only of savage and barbarous tribes but of some highly civilized peoples, the worship of the human dead has been one of the commonest and most influential forms of natural religion, perhaps the commonest and most influential of all. This belief in the survival of the human spirit after death is world wide; it is found among men in all stages of culture from the lowest to the highest; we need not wonder therefore that the custom of propitiating the ghosts or souls of the departed should be widespread also.24 Both Tylor and Frazer were interested in an “intellectualist” understanding of death by reference to men’s attempts to deal with questions presented by natural phenomena. They assert that early humans’ contemplation of death and deathlike states, such as sleeping and dreaming, was the origin of the concept of soul and hence of all religions. Both Tylor and Frazer proceeded from an evolutionary perspective typical of their day, with the thoughts and institutions of primitive people held to represent early stages of the evolutionary process. The “primitive” were thought to be qualitatively different from “advanced” societies, thus the “primitive” had taboos, whereas “civilized” people had evolved the concept of the sacred. Frazer, for example, suggests a developmental scheme wherein magic represents an earlier mental attitude and science represents civilized thought. Similarly, ancestor worship for Tylor represents an archetypal form of primitive religion, and offerings to the dead are regarded as the prototype of sacrifices to the ancestors.25 Although the works of Tylor and Frazer have come under scathing attacks from various scholars on numerous issues,26 varying from their idea of the “primitive,” to considering their evolutionary categories to be wrong and unprovable, they did contribute to focusing attention on the study of death. After the initial impetus of Tylor and Frazer, a different tradition in the study of death and its rituals emerged. Heavily influenced by the works of Emile Durkheim and the année sociologique school, the emphasis was on the function of death rituals in the moral and social cohesion of society; most clearly exemplified by the studies of Robert Hertz and Van Gennep. In a brief but important paper on the study of death, Hertz, basing his work on the Durkheimian model, suggests that the conception of death and the rituals serve primarily social functions. To Hertz, the deceased is not merely a biological individual but a “social being grafted upon the physical individual” whose “destruction is tantamount to a sacrilege against the social order.”27 There are thus two phases to the mortuary rituals: a phase of disaggregation with the temporal disposal of the corpse, and, with the second burial, a phase of reincorporation from which the collectivity emerges triumphant over death. This dual process is mirrored in the ideas held about the fate of the soul and the ritual condition of the mourners. Time is needed for the collectivity to adjust to the death of one of its members, and this need is expressed in the belief that there is a dangerous period when the departed soul is potentially benevolent and socially uncontrollable and the mourner must therefore be separated from
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everyday life. The final ceremony, however, involves a reassertion of society manifested by the end of the period of mourning; the soul has been incorporated into the society of the dead and has settled down in the same way that the collective consciousness of the living has been resettled by the funerary rituals. The fate of the soul does not determine the treatment of the corpse, but rather the nature of the society and the state of the collective conscience determining both the treatment of the corpse and the supposed condition of the soul.28 To quote Hertz: Thus, when a man dies, society loses in him much more than a unit; it is stricken in the very principle of its life, in the faith it has in itself…the notion of death is linked with that of resurrection; exclusion is always followed by a new integration.29 Hertz’s model is overly rigid, and by overemphasizing the “collective conscience,” he reifies society. He is nonetheless an important figure in the study of death. To E.E.Evans-Pritchard, Hertz’s essays exemplify the descriptive integration; the meaning of the facts does not lie in themselves individually but in their interrelation.30 Jack Goody uses Hertzian analysis to show that rituals restore the social fabric of a society after death has threatened it; demonstrating the transformation of economic, social and emotional relationships wrought by funeral rituals.31 Other scholars, such as Radcliffe-Brown and Malinowski, went on to draw extensively from his insights and adapted his framework. His emphasis on the treatment of the corpse and soul are important points of departure for the present book. Van Gennep’s Rites of Passage was concerned primarily with rituals that change the social status of individuals in society.32 The crux of Van Gennep’s thesis is that all rites of passage share a similar structure, and function of marking the transition from one social status to another. Among other things, Van Gennep suggests that the universality of a transition scheme dominates funeral symbolism and that the general structure underpinning ritual behavior relates to the social function of recruiting and incorporating individuals into a fixed system of culturally defined roles and statuses. This function is necessary because society outlasts the individuals that constitute it. Among Van Gennep’s contributions are the nature of his social classification and the logic of his categories. He also emphasized the importance of studying social processes. For example, his survey of death rituals throughout the world highlights the theme of transition in funeral symbolism. Water journeys and islandlike afterworlds appear over and over again. He also noted the concepts of regeneration and growth expressed in symbols of agricultural and human fertility. Anthropological interest in death has also focused on the relationship between the symbols of death and sexuality and rebirth. In Celebrations of Death Huntington and Metcalf took up the Hertzian analysis of secondary treatment of the dead and the striking parallel between death and other rites of passage.
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Taking the cue from Hertz, they paid particular attention to the fate of the corpse in trying to unravel the ideological and sociological implications of funerary rites, Using their own ethnographies of the Bara of Madagascar and the Berawan of Central Borneo, they attempt to validate and extend Hertz’s analysis of the practice of burials to the issue of the transition of life.33 Huntington and Metcalf have been criticized for emphasizing Hertz’s idea of the need to pay attention to the treatment of the corpse but totally ignoring Hertz’s central preoccupation with the social construction of emotion and the relationship between the biological individual and the social collectivity.34 Although they provide an elegant analysis of funerals in southern Madagascar, their more general views on the connection between death and fertility are less elaborate and seem to amount to little more than an observation that such symbolism is a reassertion of life in the face of death. Another contribution to the study of death rituals is Maurice Bloch and Jonathan Parry’s Death and the Regeneration of Life. An edited book, containing seven articles and an important introduction, its rather ambitious aim is to incorporate sociological, symbolic, and psychoanalytic approaches to explain the significance of symbols of fertility and rebirth in mortuary rituals. Using a comparative approach, it suggests that the fertility symbols are prominent in death rituals because of the conception that death is a source of life. Moreover, drawing from Leach, who notes that religious ideology uses the promise of rebirth to negate the finality of death through a manipulation of the ambiguous concept of time, it suggests that the dead are imbued with the source of recurrent fertility. Death must be successfully harnessed to ensure regeneration.35 Noting that sexuality, particularly female sexuality, is often seen as the cause of death, it sought to extend the analysis by examining the ways in which the various elements—death, female sexuality, birth, and fertility— may be combined into a coherent thesis. Female sexuality, it is noted, is often linked to fertility, a source of human procreation, yet, at the same time, is also seen as a cause of death and a source of pollution and putrescence. The study concludes that: the negative aspects of death are commonly seen as inseparable from other biological phenomena (like copulation and parturition); that is common with other biological processes, decomposition and decay are often preeminently associated with women; and that this world of biology is elaborately constructed as something to be got rid of so as to make way for the regeneration of the ideal order.36 Bloch and Parry’s book is extremely illuminating and raises many significant problems for further investigation and it provides this book with a point for continual cross-referencing, especially in the analysis of the ideas of rebirth and fertility; issues that are taken up in Chapter 6.
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Views on Chinese religion and death Early studies on the religion of the Chinese were primarily carried out by administrators such as J.J.M.DeGroot or missionaries such as Justus Doolittle, Henri Dore, and Joseph Edkins.37 The missionaries’ study of the Chinese in particular was biased by their determination to convert atheists, evidenced by such statements as “rank superstition” and “charlatanism.”38 Of these early ethnographies, DeGroot has most influenced present-day study of Chinese religion. In his monumental six-volume book, The Religious System of China, DeGroot attempts to depict “Chinese Religion as it is really practiced by the Nation”39 from a perspective based on the social evolutionary views of his day. For example, he notes that: Many rites and practices still flourish among the Chinese, which one would scarcely expect to find anywhere except among savages in a low state of culture.40 Even though there was little analysis, his careful observation and detailed data have provided an important source for later scholars, especially for historicalcomparative purposes. The theoretical influence of Emile Durkheim extends to the study of Chinese religion as can be seen in the works of Marcel Granet, C.K.Yang, and Maurice Freedman. Marcel Granet, in The Religion of the Chinese People,41 sets out to understand “total China.” A student of Durkheim’s, a close friend of Marcel Mauss, and moving in the année sociologique circle,42 Granet’s theoretical background is profoundly influenced by Durkheim. He finds it fascinating that, although the Chinese world is crisscrossed by sacred forces, its people seem to have no apparent religious preoccupations. Granet suggests that, in reality, almost all Chinese observe customary practices out of a spirit of tradition and a taste for conformity: In general, one can say that the system of Chinese practices is not an assemblage of superstitious rules, each of them being deliberately used to obtain a particular advantage. Only a general obedience to those rules is valid: they form a body of age-old conventions the observance of which frees life from undefined risks. These risks are not thought of in the realistic and common form of a hell to come: by a host of small acts that one performs routinely and without giving them thought, one succeeds in eliminating all mystical care from daily preoccupation.43 For Granet, the motivation for the performance of rituals is a profound conviction regarding the value of moral traditions. Rituals are seen as obligatory behavior; belief in them is of little interest, and even their efficaciousness is not significant. What is important is that Chinese life is governed by a sense of
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sentiment regarding the idea of an active solidarity between man and the world. Put another way, every Chinese feels that there is a need to be in congruence with the order of things. Granet notes the central place of the cult of ancestor worship in Chinese religious life. Physical death for the Chinese does not mean the end of the soul, which possesses a certain durable potency and retains its personality and independent life. Ancestor worship centers upon the family and is expressed through filial piety: This piety was not addressed only to the dead; it was composed of all the homage that a person should receive during his life on earth, at the moment of his death, and in the course of his ancestral life.44 Granet observes that the two values of great importance to the Chinese, the bond of belonging between an individual and his native soil and the duty not to let one’s family die out, constitute the most realistic element and motivation existing in Chinese ancestor worship. Chinese ancestor rituals are important because they reinforce moral traditions, which are conceived as a transcendental necessity— they are sacred and morally obligatory. Granet’s contribution lies in his attempt to undertake a total analysis of Chinese society and thought, an attempt that never fully came to fruition because of his early death at the age of fifty-six. He was a student of classical literature, and his fidelity to texts led to an inadequate analysis of data. As Freedman notes, “The China that Granet saw was remote,…never venturing to see for himself what China was like.”45 His characterization of early Chinese society, although highly imaginative, is, at best, speculative and ahistorical.46 Even so, his notions of religious sentiments, and the links that he establishes between ancestor worship and kinship organization, and between sacred values and social behavior, have been validated by subsequent research and are important points of reference for this book. C.K.Yang begins with a problem similar to that explored by Granet, leading him to question why, when viewed from one level, the Chinese assign a relatively unimportant place to religion while, at another level, their social life is filled with a vast number of magical practices and beliefs, and their whole pattern of life is heavily colored by the shadowy world of gods, spirits, and specters.47 He generalizes that the Chinese common people have always felt that, even with the utmost exertion, human abilities and efforts alone are not sufficient to guarantee physical well-being, economic success, or family harmony, and argues that there is always the profound feeling that success or failure is not entirely within human control but needs the blessing of spiritual forces.48 This leads Yang to define religion as: the system of beliefs, ritualistic practices, and organizational relationships designed to deal with ultimate matters of human life, such as, the tragedy of
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death, unjustifiable sufferings, unaccountable frustrations, uncontrollable hostilities that threaten to shatter human social ties, and the vindication of dogmas against contradictory evidences from realistic experience. Such matters transcend the conditional, finite world of empirical rational knowledge, and to cope with them as an inherent part of life, man is impelled to seek strength from faith in such non-empirical realms as spiritual power inspired by man’s conception of the supernatural.49 Taking a functionalist approach, Yang suggests that the importance of the ancestral cult lies in the fact that it contributes substantially to the integration and perpetuation of the family as a basic unit of Chinese society. Ancestral rituals must be viewed as an attempt to reinforce the social and economic position of the family; they are an effort to strengthen the organizational foundation of a family weakened by death whilst, at the same time, they seek to reassert the formal status and relations of the family. Yang also notes a close relationship between religion and the social structure, observable in the close patterning of the supernatural realm in Chinese religious tradition after the image of the human world. In the economic group, religion provides a bond to ensure the cohesion of a group with specific common interests through the provision of a supernatural sanctioning of the reliability and justice in contractual economic relationships.50 Yang’s thesis, like those of most functionalists, can be criticized for its overemphasis on equilibrium and societal maintenance, and he also has a tendency to make broad, sweeping statements about Chinese society. Its strength lies in its attempts to characterize Chinese religion as a whole and in relation to the society within which it was thought and practiced. It will become clear that Yang’s characterization of Chinese ancestor worship is correct, in so far as it emphasizes the unifying feature of death rituals. However, he neglects the possibility of conflicts arising in the ritual process. The majority of studies on Chinese religion come out of functionalist perspectives. For example, Hugh Baker’s work on religion and kinship structures in Hong Kong,51 sees ancestor worship as providing cohesion and stability, and continuity of the social group. Similarly, Laurence Thompson views ancestor worship as playing an indispensable role in reinforcing the cohesion of the family and lineage.52 And, although David Jordan’s objective in analyzing the relationship between religious beliefs and social structure is to see religion as part of a living society, a dynamic model, religion ultimately functions to maintain the stability and continuity of the social system.53 No review on the study of Chinese religion can be complete without some statements on the immense contribution of Maurice Freedman.54 He is the author of three books on the Chinese: a study of family and kinship in Singapore and two studies of lineage organizations in southeastern China,55 and his more important articles have been collected into a single volume by G.William Skinner.56 Freedman was primarily interested in the relationship between kinship and religion:
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It is clear that both the domestic and hall cults throw certain organizational principles of lineage into relief and expressed ideas central to the competition within, and the unity of the lineage communities.57 He stresses the role of filial piety in the understanding of Chinese ancestor worship. Filial piety is a duty for the children, who owe their parents obedience for the gift of life, meaning that a man’s loyalty to the interests and wishes of his father is supposed to outweigh all other loyalties and attachments: The supreme act of filial piety owed by the sons is the performance of the mortuary and funeral ceremonies for the parents. These ceremonies are the first step in the transformation of parents into ancestor spirits, and the worship of the ancestors is in essence, the ritualization of filial piety.58 Freedman raises the important dualism between the cult of immediate jural superiors and the cult of descent group. The domestic cult, according to Freedman, revolves around tablets of the recently dead, which are worshiped in order to preserve the memory of the dead, serve their needs, and satisfy the demands of their slight authority. Worship of each tablet continues in this way for three or four generations then the tablet is destroyed and its place in the domestic cult comes to an end.59 Thus, in the cult of jural superiors, the care and commemoration of forebears are done for their own sake and revolve around the family. Another tablet may be made and placed in the lineage ancestral hall. Here, where the most remote ancestors are enshrined, men conduct all worship and the tablets represent agnatic ascendants in an abstract sense, not wellremembered fathers and grandfathers. The cult of descent group is “a set of rites linking together all the agnatic descendants of a given forebear.”60 It is associated with extrafamilial kin groups, clans, lineages and lineage segments. Freedman suggests that, whereas the domestic cult was very nearly universal, the cult of descent group was absent wherever lineages were absent. He argues that in Singapore, the cult of ancestor worship, in the true sense of the word, is not practiced but rather is a kind of “memorialism,” a “commemoration of forebears as it were for their own sake.”61 I will suggest that such a notion of Chinese ancestor worship in Singapore is misinformed, but I will leave this subject for now and will discuss it, in detail, in Chapter 4. In addition, Freedman also notes a close relationship between ancestor worship and geomancy, suggesting that, while the cult has to do with the worship of ancestors, geomancy relates to manipulation of the ancestors: Men use their ancestors as a media for the attainment of worldly desires… the tables are turned: descendants strive to force their ancestors to convey good fortune, making puppets of forebears and dominating the dominators.62
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However, although Freedman is correct in asserting that descendants use their ancestors, the ancestors are not passive but active participants in this reciprocal relationship; Freedman’s assumption regarding the passivity of ancestors in geomancy are related to his notion that Chinese ancestors are generally benevolent and benign: They are essentially benign and considerate of their issue. Before taking action against their descendants, they need to be provoked; capricious behavior is certainly alien to their benevolent and protective nature.63 Although it is true that the Chinese in Singapore perceive ancestors as generally helpful, it will become clear that, contrary to what is stated by Freedman, ancestors are also seen as capable of malicious behavior and are apt to initiate punishment, issues that will be explored further in Chapter 5. The nature of Freedman’s interest is primarily sociological, to the degree that he tries to get control of ethnographic facts in order to specify relevant structural principles and examine how those rules and principles shape social interaction. His approach is basically functionalist, influenced by the works of Evans-Pritchard and Meyer Fortes. Through his reformulation of intellectual issues surrounding the study of the Chinese, he has had a profound influence on the direction of research in sinological anthropology, and he has produced many students, such as Hugh Baker, who carried out research in the Freedmanian framework. His work is also an impetus for the study of overseas Chinese, whom he saw as a “window to China proper.”64 One major criticism of Freedman is that, because his conclusions are reconstructions based on secondary published literature, they are often too rigid and do not reflect social reality or the various recombinations that are actually found. Except for his work in Singapore and a short stay in Hong Kong, he did very little fieldwork meaning that, even though his study, Lineage Organizations in Southeastern China, has been praised by Skinner as revealing an exceptional skill for recreating social institutions in the round from myriad facts and clues,65 it suffers from the inherent problems of “arm-chair anthropology.” Perhaps Freedman’s most important contribution is that he raises serious intellectual issues that can and have been taken up, confirmed or revised by later scholars based on more accurate ethnographic information, with Emily Ahern’s work in Taiwan an example of his ability to inspire, stimulate and provoke thought. This study also addresses many issues raised by Freedman. My stance on Freedman is often critical, but the frequency with which his name appears in this book should be an indication of the effect his thinking has had on my own. Most studies have attempted to study Chinese religion as a totality, leading to a failure to give detailed analysis of death rituals. Two major exceptions are Francis Hsu’s Under the Ancestors’ Shadow, and Emily Ahern’s The Cult of the Dead in a Chinese Village.66 The anthropologist Francis Hsu studied the Chinese of West Town in Yunnan China in the 1940s, and argues that Chinese social
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behavior centers on authority and competition. Authority relates to the father-son identification and the ideal of a large family, whilst competition relates to the glory of the ancestors and the lineage. According to Hsu, the “ancestors’ shadow” affects all aspects of West Town social life, from the ordering of the direction of the house to the pacification of the dead in the graveyard. In his analysis of the various ancestral rituals, he shows the interrelationship between ancestors, kin organization, and economic relations. Hsu also notes the importance of the reciprocal relationship between father and son. The responsibilities and privileges of the relationship are mutual. The father must provide for the sons when they are young, educate them in the ancestral tradition and ensure that they are suitably married. The older man is obliged to do these things, not so much because he owes it to the youngsters, but because he owes an obligation to their common ancestors. In his turn, the son owes his father absolute obedience, and he must support his parents, mourn for them, bury them according to social status and financial ability, provide for their needs in the Otherworld, and take all necessary steps to ensure the continuation of the male line. The younger man is obliged to do all this because he is indebted not only to his father but also to his father’s common ancestors.67 In the kinship organization, the father-son relationship forms the basis of a family continuum, with numerous ancestors on one end and innumerable descendants on the other. To maintain family continuity, there must be an esprit de corps and a unity of purpose. The attitudes of the living toward the dead and the dead toward the living are intertwined and are essentially modeled upon the social relations of the living. Glorifying the dead both idealizes and sets the standard and pattern for kinship relations. In fact, the cult of the ancestors derives its existence from the family organization. The family is a part of the religion, and the religion a part of the family. Hsu maintains that the cult of ancestors in West Town is not just a matter of belief but of everyday behavior: It is a fact to which every sane West Towner subscribes as a matter of course and which no sane West Towner ever challenges. No question of beliefs ever arises. The ancestors of West Towners literally live among their descendants, not only biologically, but also socially and psychologically.68 Hsu’s research was conducted in a relatively homogenous community where the kinship organization was very strong and played an important role in ordering the social behavior of the individual. Would the cult of ancestor worship therefore be different in Singapore, where there is greater social and economic differentiation? Have the changes in family organization affected the practice of ancestral rituals? Emily Ahern studied ancestor worship and lineage organization of the Chinese in Chi’nan, a village in northern Taiwan, concentrating on the aspects of community organization that had the most influence on the form of the ancestral
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cult. She notes a strong relationship between economic inheritance and ancestor worship and maintains that the obligation to worship the dead is not only dependent on familial responsibilities but is also related to property inheritance. Just as property inheritance accompanied by descent entails the obligation to worship, so too may property inheritance in the absence of descent require worship. The act of worshiping the dead is an accepted way of repaying an obligation or debt in return both for a gift of land and in return for use of the land.69 To Ahern, the cult of the dead reveals how groups are articulated and how they are subdivided along economic and political lines. Her analysis of the cult reveals the social fabric of the society and shows the alliances and tensions between groups; it is a code that reveals the basic design of society as well as being an expression of the agnatic relationships within the community. She draws particular attention to the sociological correlation between ancestor worship and community life. First, this connection can be seen in the villagers’ perception of the reciprocal obligation between the living and the dead: The living are expected to care for the dead in repayment of the debt they owe them. In the act of meeting this obligation, the living hope to inspire a further reciprocal response from the ancestors.70 Second, in a four-lineage community, Ahern demonstrates how ancestral halls are symbols of the wealth and prestige of the lineage and the basis of competition between lineages: The four lineages set themselves off against one another, vie with one another, and represent themselves to one another through their respective ancestral halls.71 Ahern found that, in Chi’nan, the ancestral halls are the property of the corporate descent group, and strict rules govern admission of the ancestral tablets into the hall. By analyzing the categories of people excluded— unmarried women, uxorilocally married men, and dead children—she argues that admission is based on the potential contribution of the deceased to the lineage. Finally, Ahern examines the obverse feature of ancestors, in which the dead stand out as dangerous creatures capable of harming the living. In a dialogue with Freedman, she argues that the ancestors of Chi’nan have an active character, and are capable of meting out harsh punishment if they are not worshiped correctly. This view is confirmed by my fieldwork in Singapore. Ahern’s study offers a systematic and detailed account of Chinese ancestor worship and shows how sociological theories can be aptly related to fieldwork data. It has become a standard reference for the study of Chinese death rituals, with Arthur Wolf finding Ahern’s study to be:
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admirably detailed…[Anyone] who wants to know more about Chinese ancestor worship could do no better than to read this book.72 Her notion of the relationship between obligation to worship the dead and property inheritance is an important point of departure for my discussion on rituals as gift exchange. It also raises certain issues that warrant further investigation. First, it must be remembered that Ahern did her study in a homogenous and highly integrated community in which the practices of one group exerts an immediate and direct impact on the practices of others. Can one therefore extrapolate Ahern’s findings regarding ancestor worship in Chi’nan to other Chinese communities? Would the practice of ancestor worship be different in a multiethnic and multidialectal environment like Singapore? According to her, ancestor worship is related to property. Would the same finding hold true in a society with diverse occupational groups and little agricultural land? A distinctive feature of Chi’nan organizational structure is that the internal segmentation of many mainland lineages emphasizes internal solidarity and represses all signs of segmentation. Would ancestors be viewed differently in Singapore, a society that does not have strong lineage groupings? The fieldwork The anthropologist is, in fact, studying himself—he is both the subject and object of his own study. (M.N.Srinivas) Strangers are always present at Chinese death rituals. It is not uncommon to find strangers and beggars congregating at a funeral to consume food specifically provided for them. At the graveyards, beggars ask for money while the family is conducting the rituals and they are always rewarded for their efforts. Strangers and beggars must be treated with respect and caution because they are ambiguous people. It is said that they may be gods or ghosts disguised in human form, and it would be dangerous and foolhardy to offend them. It was with this foreknowledge that I began my fieldwork on death rituals among the Chinese in Singapore. The ease in getting informants to talk to me, even at a time of family crisis, made me realize that, in many cases, my position as a stranger helped rather than impeded the data collection process. Most informants, when told that I was studying Chinese culture, gladly shared their knowledge with me, even though a few were baffled why anyone would be interested in studying death. Initial preparation and a field site survey was conducted between June 1981 and July 1982. Preliminary efforts were undertaken to explore the general research area, encompassing various features of Chinese religion, including death rituals, spirit-mediums, Chinese temples, and deities in Singapore. This early groundwork was done to gain a better understanding of the field, to identify
THE PROBLEM OF DEATH 23
issues, focus the research interests, and to locate informants. The initial fieldwork was carried out from May 1984 until January 1985. During this period, I was able to attend a large number of funerals. The research also included observations at clan ancestral halls, graveyards, Buddhist temples, crematoria and columbaria, and “hungry ghost” celebrations. Participant observation was felt to be the most useful method for a study of this nature and, whenever possible, I took part in the rituals in order to get firsthand experience of the ritual process. During the fieldwork period, two of my relatives, my wife’s maternal grandfather and my father’s elder sister, passed away. These unfortunate occurrences offered me an opportunity to participate in the funeral as a mourner. This experience not only offered an analysis of the rituals from the very beginning to the end, allowing for a comprehensive picture of the ritual process, but it also provided the chance for an insider’s view of the rituals; privy to the private, family domain of the ritual enactment, where the dynamics of interaction are open for observation and analysis. In 1999, after a long break, I decided to return to the field to conduct additional fieldwork for this book. It was important to collect additional data, given the varieties of rituals associated with death. In addition, given the wide dialect variations, it was also important to collect data for the other subethnic groups, especially the smaller groups, such as the Hakkas and Hainanese. Finally, given the rapid modernization of Singapore society, I wanted to explore potentially significant changes in the way that funerary rituals were conducted in Singapore. This period of fieldwork lasted 18 months, from July 1999 to January 2001. The fieldwork involved intensive interviewing. For the purpose of the research, two categories of people were interviewed: the religious specialists and the ritual participants. Religious specialists included both Buddhist and Taoist priests, laymen sometimes also serve as religious specialists. In one case, for example, the person engaged to conduct the burial rituals actually worked as a grass-cutter in the graveyard. Thus a religious specialist can be defined as any person regarded by the ritual participants as an “expert” in the area of ritual enactment. Interviews were unstructured and lasted from fifteen minutes to a few hours. Furthermore, other secondary sources of data were used to supplement the observations. Census statistics, newspaper clippings, and old photographs were found to be particularly useful. Validity checks were implemented at various stages of the fieldwork. First, I observed as many rituals as possible, which allowed similarities and variations in the ritual performances to be identified. Second, interview data were counterchecked with other informants to ensure their accuracy; when they differed, the reasons were sought. The interview data were also cross-checked with my own observations. The taking of photographs posed some unexpected difficulties. Many informants were hesitant about allowing the rituals to be photographed. This, I found out, was because of the idea that the soul of the dead person may become imbued in the picture. Another problem was the collection of data on pollution
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by women. Being male, I was not privy to information on “women’s affairs,” menstruation, or the birth process. I therefore had to depend on my spouse to obtain the information on these processes. As I am an English-educated Chinese anthropologist studying his own culture, the fieldwork experience has been both enlightening and humbling. It has been enlightening in that it was a process of personal discovery; humbling in that I could not help but feel inferior to the informants I was studying because they knew so much more about the culture than I did. Initial fieldwork was characterized by bewilderment, as I was confronted by the seeming mass of religious rituals, but I gradually came to understand and reach a final realization that their behavior is, in fact, eminently rational. Forthcoming chapters Chapter 2 begins with a narrative of the process of death. The intent is to present a systematic description of the various funeral rituals, with the chapter also dealing with variations in ritual enactment and the significance of such variations. Ancestral rituals carried out at home, in the ancestral hall, and at the graveyard are introduced in Chapter 3, which also examines modifications and adaptations in ritual performance resulting from the changing occupational, residential, and social patterns in Singapore. The effects of death on the social group are dealt with in Chapter 4. By looking at the enactment of death rituals in both the public and private spheres, the unifying and divisive influence of death are discussed. An examination of conflict and competition in ritual execution shows that death mobilizes material and social distinctions. The focus of Chapter 5 is on inheritance and gift exchange which argues that death allows the descendants to appropriate the property, authority, status, and powers of the deceased. The nature of the reciprocal exchange between the living and the dead is illuminated through an analysis of the treatment of the soul and bone remains of the deceased. Chapter 6 examines the nature of death pollution. Death rituals are seen as an attempt to refine the soul of the dead, clearly illustrated in food symbolism, the ritual condition of the mourners, and the management of the flesh and blood of the deceased. This chapter includes a discussion of the significance of the “bloody pond” ritual, when sons symbolically drink the blood of the dead mother. The subject of Chapter 7 is unnatural deaths. Special rituals enacted for people who die violent and premature deaths are described and the analysis of cases of exclusion illuminates the underlying ideas of “normality” and “abnormality.” The concluding chapter begins with a summary of the major ideas discussed in the book. In addition to this, Chapter 8 also shows how the study of Chinese death rituals informs us about Chinese social life and social organization, the Chinese view of the world around them, and the conception of social order.
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Finally, the book examines the impact of rapid modernization and social change on traditional Chinese beliefs.
2 THE PROCESS OF DEATH Funeral rituals
In this chapter, I present an analytical narrative of the funeral rituals, giving an account of both form and process and discussing the meaning of each ritual. This description begins with the preparation for death, followed by the treatment of the corpse, the daily rituals conducted at the funeral, the important final night rituals and, finally, the burial. It also examines the popular practice in Singapore of cremating the dead. My intention is to present a coherent picture of the different death rituals and procedures, but it must be kept in mind that there is no single way of performing and interpreting the rituals. Variations can be observed but, for reasons of coherence and clarity, I will describe a single funeral which I observed and in which I participated. Variations in ritual performance and their significance will be dealt with later in the chapter. Rituals of death Preparation for death According to informants, the preparation for death begins a few years before a person is on his deathbed. The ancient Chinese Book of Rites states that: After attaining sixty years of age, the coffin should be inspected once a year, after seventy, once a season, after eighty, once a month and after ninety, every day.1 It is not unusual for Chinese informants aged over fifty to subscribe to mutual aid or clan associations to ensure that there will be enough money to perform the rituals as well as to ensure a good turnout of people at the funeral. One informant said he had to make sure that he had a coffin to be buried in whilst another informant said he had already purchased his: It is a very good coffin, made of wood specially imported from China. It is guaranteed not to rot for a hundred years.
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Many Chinese in Singapore reserve a place in a clan ancestral hall or a Mahayana Buddhist temple to accommodate their ancestral tablets. These look exactly like the normal ancestral tablet except that they are covered with pieces of red cloth that are removed upon their owner’s demise. A popular reason given for this action is the desire to choose a propitious spot in the temple because “this will ensure that the person will have a comfortable life in the Otherworld.” Graveyard plots, like temple spaces, are purchased long before the death of a person. Plots with good fengshui are very popular, command high prices and are snapped up very quickly. When a person is near death, all the family members—sons, grandsons, daughters, and daughters-in-law—are summoned and gathered around the bedside to await his death.2 It is considered an unfilial act not to be at the deathbed of one’s parent. People travel long distances, and sons who are overseas are expected to make the trip home. On the deathbed, last words are exchanged between the dying and his descendants and final instructions by the dying with regard to the funeral rituals are also communicated. In one case, red packets were distributed by the dying person to all his sons containing final instructions regarding the division of the property. Menstruating women are not allowed near the dying for fear of polluting him. Pregnant women are also not permitted near the dying because the spirit might enter the embryo and possess the unborn child.3 To prepare for the funeral rituals, the main living room is cleared of all furniture and household items because anything that comes into contact with death is thought to be polluted and would then have to be disposed of by burning. The shen zuo or “god altar” and the ancestral tablets are draped with a red cloth. According to informants, the gods and ancestors cannot come into contact with or even see the dead because he is considered to be dirty and dangerous and they would be insulted if exposed to this. At the moment of death, the family bursts out into loud wailing and crying. Sons implore the father’s soul not to leave them and to come back into the body. After an appropriate interval, the crying quietens. Sons carry the body of the deceased and lay it on a previously prepared spot in the center of the living room. A red blanket is placed over the body, completely covering it. This blanket is called fen bu, “the division.” The blanket signifies the division between heaven and earth; at that moment “the deceased is still on earth as he has not yet been properly prepared for the journey to heaven.” At the same time, another piece of cloth is hung over the front door. This cloth serves three functions: It prevents malicious spirits from entering the house, and at the same time, prevents the soul of the deceased from wandering out of the home. This will protect innocent bystanders from harm. Finally, it informs the community that a death has occurred in the family. They can then take appropriate measures to ward off the dirty effects of death.
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Word is sent out to inform kin and friends of the death in the family, and a lighted joss stick in a red urn and three food items are placed near the head of the deceased by the eldest son, who kneels before the corpse and makes three ritual bai. The body is then prepared for the “washing and dressing” rituals. Traditionally, the water for washing the dead must be purchased from the gods: Sons and grandsons leave the house in a body and walk silently with their heads lowered in grief to the nearest well, stream or river, preceded by the eldest son carrying a bucket. After solemnly filling the bucket with water, it is the practice for a few copper coins to be thrown into the water to pay its guardian spirit. The practice is known as “buying the water.”4 Nowadays, it is more common for tap water to be used instead of water from the river, but this does not change the contents of the rituals. However, water from the home of the deceased cannot be used in the washing ritual as, according to one ritual specialist: Death causes everything in the home to be dirty, including the water. It would be ridiculous to use dirty water to clean the dead. In some cases, the water is scented with pomegranate flower, to increase its cleansing potency. This water is called tian shui or “heavenly water.” The eldest son and eldest daughter-in-law perform the actual ritual of washing the dead which is very important because “a person with an unclean body will be despised and punished in Hell.” The very act of dying makes the deceased a dirty person, and he must be cleansed. This ritual purifies the dead and prepares him for his journey through Hell, and his final passage to Heaven. In present day Singapore, it is not uncommon to find families engaging the services of a ritual specialist to aid in the enactment of this ritual, although the actual ritual itself is still carried out by the eldest son. The rationale given is that there is fear that the family will not perform the ritual correctly and, in the process, place the dead in serious danger. This specialist is always rewarded with a red packet for his services and willingness to come into such close contact with the dead. The red packet is said to also have the effect of warding-off the negative influences of death. After the ritual bath, the deceased is dressed in many layers of clothing. In the past, the dead were traditionally dressed in full regalia: In monarchial days in China, the “shou i” or burial robes were most elaborate and if the deceased held an official rank, then he is dressed in the full regalia of his rank. Sometimes as many as twenty robes were made.5 In general, at least seven to nine layers of clothing are needed, to “ensure that the deceased will have adequate clothing for all the seasons in Heaven.” However,
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one religious specialist noted that, in the case of the Hainanese, if the deceased is male, he will be clothed with three shirts and four pairs of trousers. If the deceased is female, then she would need three shirts and five pairs of trousers. He suggests that in Singapore, with such humid and warm weather, it is not necessary to wear so many layers of clothing. The clothes are lavish and elaborate “to give the impression that the deceased was an important person in this world, thus ensuring good treatment in his passage through Hell.” These are known as shou yi or “generational clothes.” Each layer represents a generation of the deceased’s descendants; the more layers he has on, the greater the number of his descendants, and the greater the indication that he has led a good life. Pearls are placed in the mouth and hands of the deceased. They are said to have preservative qualities to protect the body of the deceased. They can also be used to bribe the “judges in Hell.” After washing and dressing the deceased, the family performs the ru mu, literally, “entering the wood,” ritual. The body of the deceased is placed in the coffin. It is important to make the coffin as comfortable as possible for the deceased and some personal articles of the deceased are placed in the coffin, such as his toothbrush, comb, spectacles, and even his favorite pillow. It is said that the deceased will continue to make use of them in the Otherworld. A mirror, “to light the way for the deceased,” and a bag of grain, “to ensure that the deceased always has enough to eat,”6 are placed inside the coffin. A large amount of joss paper and paper money is also included for the deceased’s use in the Otherworld. Precautions are taken to prevent the entry of foreign objects into the coffin, such as metallic and sharp objects that can hurt the deceased and insects that can destroy the body. After the body of the deceased has been properly arranged in the coffin, the sons, led by the eldest, take a spoonful of rice and symbolically feed the deceased. This feeding of the dead is important because a person will supposedly become a hungry ghost if he is not fed. The family then gathers round the coffin for one last moment with the deceased, at which time some of the family members will bend over the coffin to whisper into the ears of the corpse. According to one informant, they are saying hao hua, literally “good words,” to the deceased to comfort his soul. It is also a final attempt to communicate with the deceased before his coffining. The coffin is then nailed shut, a nail in each corner. After the four nails have been hammered in, a fifth one called the zi-sunding, or “posterity nail,” is placed at the center of the coffin by the eldest son. It signifies that, although the person is dead, he will have many generations of descendants who will worship him.7 Small pieces of red paper are stuck to the seams of the coffin for “warding off evil spirits that might try to enter.” The coffin is then carried out of the home and placed under the canopy which is a huge rectangular structure made of wood and canvas constructed near the home of the deceased that is the site of the funeral rituals. Traditionally, the coffin would be kept in the main room of the home or in the ancestral hall. In Singapore, however, because most homes are too small to conduct the rituals, it
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is done outside the home. In a sense, the funeral, which is a private ritual of the family, has therefore become a ritual in the public domain which has resulted in the creation of several new rituals in order to protect the public. For example, small pieces of red paper are placed at strategic locations along the route from the home of the deceased to the funeral site. These are meant to protect people who inadvertently come into contact with death as well as to protect them from harm by the deceased. People who live near the site of the funeral will also take a variety of measures to avoid coming into contact with death, including taking long detours. Informants also noted that the funeral is a place of death and there are many spirits lurking around. Families who live near the funeral site will therefore place red charms on their doors to ensure that the spirits will not come into their homes. An altar is set up at one end of the canopy upon which is placed an elaborate offering of food. The eldest son then kneels before the altar and, holding a lighted joss stick in his hands, he bows three times. At the same time, he implores the spirit of the dead father to partake of the food placed on the altar. After he has completed this ritual, each family member, in order of seniority, performs the same act. Ritual paraphernalia for the funeral A red sheet of paper containing vital information about the deceased is posted at the site of the funeral. It informs people and presumably the gods of the birthdate and deathdate of the deceased, the number of wives, and other information. At the north side of the canopy, the coffin is placed in a horizontal position on two tripods. An urn, called the yao hu, literally, “the pot for boiling herbs,” covered with a bamboo fan, is placed under the coffin. Situated beside the coffin is an elaborate paper lantern known as the zhi deng long or zi sun deng (see Plate 2.1). The eldest son carries it during the performance of the funeral rituals. In front of the coffin is a chair with the character hun, or “soul,” written on it and the clothes and shoes of the deceased. A large picture of the deceased known as the “longevity portrait” is set on the chair. Beside the chair is a wash basin filled with a cup, toothbrush, toothpaste and a towel; objects which the deceased will use, as if he is a living person (see Plate 2.1). Informants insist that it is not just a symbolic representation, but that the deceased is thought to be present and sitting in the chair. Flanking the longevity portrait are two figurines, servants who will accompany the deceased on his journey. As one son of the deceased explains, “The servants will ensure that my father will have a comfortable life. He will not even have to lift a finger to do anything.” In real life, only the rich can afford to have servants in their homes. Servants are not found in homes of poor families and therefore the provision of servants for the deceased signifies the elevation of his status. An altar with two candles is then placed in front of the chair. Between the candles is placed the xiang lu, a red joss urn, which must always contain lighted
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Plate 2.1 The coffin and the ritual chair with the longevity portrait.
joss sticks, the candles must remain lit all the time. In addition, on the side of the altar, is found an oil lamp, known as the chang ming deng, or longevity lamp. This light allows the deceased to see in the dark, and represents the continuous worship of the deceased. Placed on the altar are a variety of food offerings, including plates of fruits, bowls of rice, and cups of tea. The back portion of the coffin is hidden from view by a screen with the words zhong xiao chuan jia, or “loyalty, filiality and continuation of the family name.” Other common characters found on the ritual screen include, jin xiao da li, literally “fulfill filial piety, know the rites,” and yin rong wan zai, which can be
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translated as “your voice and appearance are as though with us.” The screen also depicts the twenty-four acts of supreme filial piety found in traditional Chinese classics. This makes public the family’s tradition and serves as a reminder to the family members, especially the descendants of the deceased, on how to conduct themselves. A straw mat is placed beside the coffin and there is also a tin for burning joss paper. Banners and wreaths sent by friends are hung all around the funeral site; the number received is usually taken as an indication of the social status of the deceased and his descendants. Under the canopy are many tables and chairs with plates of tidbits, consisting of groundnuts and watermelon seeds, placed on the tables for the guests’ consumption. At the side of the canopy is placed a table where the treasurer collects the contributions for the funeral. Daily rituals at the funeral Funerals in Singapore normally last from three to seven days, the number of days being always in odd numbers, such as three, five or seven. I will be describing the routine rituals carried out daily during this period. After the initial sacrifices, routine food offerings are made to the deceased in the morning, at noon, and in the evening. At these times, the eldest son, with a lighted joss stick in his hands, will bow three times and ask his deceased father to eat the daily meals. The implication is that these are the normal mealtimes of the father and, even though he is now dead, he continues to have the same needs as when he was living. The idea of the living presence of the deceased can be observed in the ritual of placing his favorite food on the altar. In one case, a daughter of the deceased even placed a lighted cigarette in the joss urn: “My father always smoked a cigarette after his meals.” She insisted on getting her father’s favorite brand of cigarettes. Beside the coffin, family members, usually females, burn joss paper as a sacrifice to the deceased. This must be done slowly to ensure that the deceased gets all the money that is due to him. Unburned or partially burned joss paper, informants maintain, cannot be used by the dead. Moreover, this ritual must be performed continuously “to assure the deceased that he is being cared for by his filial descendants.” In one case, a female member of the family who was given the task of carrying out this ritual was errant, and she was severely reprimanded by the eldest son for being lazy and unfilial. The bu yao, or “feeding the herbs,” ritual is also carried out daily. Each morning, the eldest son or eldest daughter-inlaw kneels beside the coffin and, using a bamboo fan, fans the yao hu and ritually repeats the words: When I was young, you took care of me. When I was sick, you fed me medicine. Now that you are sick, I will take care of you, prepare herbs to feed you so that you will get well soon.
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Toward evening, a large number of friends of the family attend the funeral. On arrival, they bow or kneel before the altar and, with a single lighted joss stick in hand, they perform the ritual bai, prostrating themselves or bowing three times to the deceased. A few family members will kneel beside the coffin and accompany the visitors in the ritual bai. This is very important. A visitor will be very insulted if there is no one to accompany him in the bai because this indicates a “loss of face.” After this ritual, they settle down and chat with one another, with family members making a point of going round to exchange words with the visitors. Visitors will invariably make a trip to the treasurer’s table to give a small contribution toward meeting the cost of the funeral but this must be done discreetly, and the money hidden from public view. Moreover, the contribution is not called “money,” but rather a gift. Very few young children except family members are found at the site of the funeral. Informants maintain that young children are more vulnerable to attacks by evil spirits and their presence at the funeral is not encouraged. Pregnant women and newly-wed couples are also not allowed to attend. There are two reasons for these taboos. First, since funerals are associated with death, the vicinity of the funeral is potentially dangerous to all the living. Strangers and visitors regard the deceased with fear and dread because the corpse is thought to be inherently dangerous. Precautions must be taken to protect them from harm by the deceased, who during this transitory period between being a dead person and an ancestor is not easily controllable. Second, it is said that many evil spirits are attracted to the area surrounding the funeral and these uninvited spirits also pose a danger to the living, particularly to weaker women and children. These spirits can harm anyone they meet;8 therefore, each visitor is given a piece of red thread to protect against evil influences and to ensure that the visitor will have a safe journey home. Visitors are never “seen off” but leave quietly, without saying goodbye to the deceased’s family. Words like “please come again” are never used because they can be taken to be an invitation for another death to occur. Visitors must also wash their faces and take a bath with pomegranate scented water upon reaching home to ensure eradication of the contamination of death, or to absolve themselves of the fear of having taken on the “dirt” of death by virtue of being near the dead. An overnight vigil is kept at the funeral for fear that something unnatural could happen to the corpse if the coffin is left unattended. Informants said that, if a black cat jumped over the coffin, the corpse of the deceased will supposedly be reanimated and become a “walking zombie.” Another reason cited for keeping an overnight vigil is to accompany the deceased: “As a filial son, I must watch over the body of the dead father, to protect him from evil influences.” Throughout the funeral, the family members wear very simple mourning clothes, consisting of a black or white blouse and trousers. No “loud” colors such as red or yellow are permitted. On the final night of the funeral, however, the family of the deceased put on very elaborate mourning clothes. Five grades of mourning garments are found. The first order mourners, that is the sons, eldest
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Plate 2.2 The crossing of the nai he qiao ritual.
grandson, daughters, and daughters-in-law, wear the coarsest clothes, consisting of white shirts and trousers, straw overcoats, hats and slippers (see Plate 2.2). The second order mourners, that is, the deceased’s sons-in-law, wear white mourning clothes without the coarse overalls.9 The third order mourners, consisting of brothers and sisters of the deceased, wear black mourning clothes. The daughter’s children are the fourth order mourners. They wear blue mourning garments, with blue caps (for the males) and shrouds (for the females) and blue sashes. The sash in all funeral garments must not be tied in a knot, but just tucked into the garment. This is especially critical for the clothes worn by the deceased as a tied garment “will cause the deceased to be trapped, and [he will] be unable to complete his journey.” The fifth order mourners, the greatgrandchildren, wear green mourning clothes, with green caps and sashes. Mourning pins or xiao bu are worn from the first day of the funeral. These are small pieces of cloth, about one-and-a-half inches by one inch, and are pinned on the shirtsleeves. The grades of xiao bu generally correspond with the order of the mourning garments. The final night rituals The final night of the funeral holds the greatest ritual significance. An elaborate altar is constructed at the south end of the canopy. This is called the shen zuo or “altar to the gods,” in contrast to the altar for the deceased (see Plate 2.3). Behind the shen zuo are pictures of several gods, including the sanqing, regarded as the
THE PROCESS OF DEATH 35
Plate 2.3 The shen zuo.
paramount deities in the Taoist pantheon.10 Beside the altar are two lanterns, with the age of the deceased inscribed on each. The lanterns do not reflect the true age of the deceased as several years are normally added although, according to some religious specialists, if the deceased is below 60 years old, you cannot do this. In addition, you can only use joss sticks with green ends. This is to symbolize that the deceased has yet to achieve longevity. If the deceased is between 60 to 70 years old, males would have three years added while females could have five years added to their age at the time of their death. Mourners are also entitled to use red candles and joss sticks with red ends to signify that they have lived a full life. If the person dies after the age of 80, five years would be added, regardless of gender. The practice demonstrates the informants’ regard for longevity, which is believed to show that the deceased has lived a long and prosperous life. The funeral service normally begins at six o’clock in the evening. It begins with the qi tan, or the “commencement of rites.” A group of musicians strike their gongs, accompanied by loud music, to signify the start of the rituals. Family members, particularly the women, begin to wail, some uncontrollably. The chief priest summons family members to kneel before the shen zuo, staggered according to the generational hierarchy. Three priests, dressed in white robes, stand at the shen zuo and begin to chant. These chants revolve around the idea of informing the deities of the rituals being carried out for the deceased. Seventy-two documents are issued; thirty-six yellow documents to inform the deities in heaven, and thirty-six white documents to the deities in Hell. While chanting, the
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priest holds a tablet in his hand. This is known as the tian huang hao ling, literally, “by the authority of the heavenly emperor.” After about half an hour of chanting, the chief priest takes a papier mâché donkey and sets it on fire. Pasted on the back of the donkey is a piece of red paper, inscribed with the name of the deceased, birthdate and deathdate; according to the priest, the donkey is being sent to heaven to inform the gods that funeral rituals are being conducted for the deceased. The priests then proceed with their chanting. Half an hour later, a pair of feng huang or phoenix, are burned. These birds are sent to heaven to invite the gods to descend to earth and attend the funeral rituals. Two more pairs of phoenix are burned to ensure that all the gods have been invited and that no god has been slighted. Having invited the deities to attend the funeral, the next set of rituals are the qing guan, or “clearing the coffin,” and the rao guan, literally “encircling the coffin.” The priest takes a piece of yellow joss paper and begins to chant the chu xiao qing guan ci liang jin ke, or the “golden verses for clearing the coffin” scripture. Then, holding the joss paper over the coffin, he burns it. From an urn filled with pomegranate scented water, he takes a sprig of leaves and splashes the liquid over the coffin. This is meant to “clear” the coffin of any evil influences that may be lurking around. After completing this, he commands the assembled family members to stand in a single file and, chanting scriptures, he leads the procession, walking three times around the coffin. If the deceased is male, the procession will walk in an anti-clockwise direction but if the deceased is female, the rao guan is conducted in a clockwise direction. It is meant to inform the deceased of the family members present at the funeral and for them to pay their respects to the dead. The priest then continues chanting before the altar. After about half an hour, the family members again assemble in a line before the altar to the deceased. The line is staggered according to the order of relationship to the deceased, with the eldest son first, followed by the other sons, grandsons, daughters-in-law, daughters, and so on. In one case, the eldest son was too old and weak to participate in the rituals, and the eldest grandson stood in his place. The eldest son carries a red joss urn with a single lighted joss stick. Informants insist that the soul of the deceased resides in the joss urn, and that this is not just a symbolic representation, but a physical reality. Over his shoulder, the eldest son also carries the zi sun deng, which is to light the way for the deceased. Each family member also carries a joss stick. Led by the chief priest, the procession walks around the canopy seven times, a ritual known as the wang xi fang, literally, “walking in the westerly direction.” This ritual performs the function of accompanying and aiding the soul of the deceased in his journey to bliss, located in xi tian or “Western Heaven.” The term wang xi fang is Buddhist. For Taoist priests who perform the same ritual, it is known as wang chang le jie, or “Return to the world of ever happiness.” However, the aim of the ritual is similar, to assist the dead in his reincarnation and alleviate the sorrows he had in the past life.
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After this ritual is completed, the family settles down before the shen zuo while the priests chant more prayers for another half-hour. The family then reassembles to perform the “crossing of the bridges” ritual. A wooden bridge is placed at the center of the canopy. This is the nai he qiao, literally, “The Bridge of No Return,” or “The Bridge of Sighs” (see Plate 2.2). The priest leads the procession over the bridge and thirteen crossings are made, signifying the thirteen bridges that lead to the “Gates of Hell.” At each crossing, coins meant to appease dangerous spirits present on the deceased’s hazardous journey to Hell are thrown into a bowl placed under the bridge. It is the duty of all family members to accompany the deceased on this journey. On the thirteenth crossing, the soul is said to be about to enter into Hell and, at this juncture, family members break into loud wailing. They bid a final farewell to the deceased, wishing him a smooth journey. After the crossings have been completed, the family kneels before the altar while the priests continue to chant more prayers. This is considered to be a very dangerous period because it is said that the soul of the deceased is now making his way through the “Ten Courts of Hell,” or more precisely, ten di yu or “earthly prisons.” In each court, the deceased stands before a presiding magistrate who tries him based on his actions and deeds on earth. There are sets of mandatory punishments for specific crimes and wrongdoing; for example, in the second court, ignorant doctors who mutilate people are sliced up like butchered animals whilst, in the third court, dishonest mandarins, forgers, slanderers, and those who sell the family burial grounds, are punished by having their knees pulverized, their hearts and eyes torn out and their feet and hands cut off. The miserly rich, swindlers, and dishonest merchants are kept in the fourth court. Here, they are forced to remain seated on a bed of nails and then crushed under wooden beams. Murderers, rapists, and prostitutes are punished by having their chests opened, and their hearts plucked out and fed to animals. Sacrilegious persons are crushed by rollers or flayed alive and stuffed whilst unfilial sons have their tongues cut out and nails driven into their head.11 Finally, the deceased reaches the Tenth Court of Hell, or the Court of Reincarnation. Here, the judge decides, based on a person’s deeds on earth, whether he should be reborn as an animal or man, and also what his new status in life will be. At this juncture of the funeral, an elaborately decorated pagoda known as the zhuan lun, or the “wheel of reincarnation” is hung from the roof of the canopy (see Plate 6.1). With the family of the deceased kneeling before the pagoda, the priest reads a report (to the gods) about the deceased: his name, address, age, and sex, number of wives and children, and occupation. After reading the report, he twirls the pagoda, and it spins round and round. As it spins, the priest continues to chant prayers. The point where the pagoda comes to a stop, according to the priest, is the person or animal into which the deceased will be reincarnated.12 Most informants are aware of the existence of Hell and the punishments found there. Although it is accepted that there is always the possibility that the deceased may not complete the journey through Hell, the thought that one’s own parents are
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stranded in Hell is never entertained. Other people’s dead may get trapped in Hell; one’s own never does. The performance of the zhuan lun rituals attest to the idea that the deceased has been given a rebirth. The certainty that one’s parents are reincarnated is due to the conviction that the very enactment of the death rituals is a means to ensure that one’s parents will have a smooth journey through Hell. One informant said, “This is why we give so much money to the deceased. He can use them to bribe the judges of Hell.” A large amount of paper goods is then sacrificed to the deceased. Everything that the deceased could possibly need will be burned as a sacrifice; toothbrushes, shoes, clothes, blankets, and a large quantity of paper money.13 To prevent wandering spirits from stealing the sacrifices meant for the deceased, family members kneel in a circle around the fire and strike the ground with bamboo sticks, making a loud noise. Rice wine is also poured around the fire, demarcating the area for the ancestral spirit to collect the offerings meant for him. It is the duty of the descendants to ensure that the deceased is adequately and even luxuriously provided for in the Otherworld to ensure his happiness, and in turn, bring blessings to the family. The final night rituals come to an end. The family settles down for the final overnight vigil and prepares for the deceased’s burial. Burial and cremation Early the next morning, a religious specialist arrives to perform the burial rituals. This specialist usually is not a Taoist or Buddhist priest but a layman regarded as knowledgeable in burial affairs. In one case, the religious specialist was not adept at chanting prayers so, to compensate, he put on a cassette tape of a previously recorded Buddhist chant and played that instead. Again, an elaborate offering is placed on the altar, consisting of a pig, chicken, duck, various sweetcakes and fruits, bowls of rice, and cups of wine. The eldest son kneels before the altar and offers each dish to the deceased. After a suitable interval, when it is perceived that the deceased has eaten enough, the whole family kneels beside the altar while the visitors pay their last respects to the deceased. Six volunteers then carry the coffin and place it on the ling che, an elaborately decorated lorry (see Plate 4.2). At this point, the family breaks into loud wailing. The coffin, I am told, cannot be touched by anyone but the family members. Informants claim that persons who inadvertently touch the coffin will be struck with ill-fortune and even death. Thus volunteers who carry the coffin do so with pieces of red paper in their hands. It is interesting to note that, although only family members are allowed to touch the coffin, they are not allowed to load the coffin onto the lorry. This can only be done by friends of the deceased or by professional helpers. The funeral procession is headed by one or more bands of musicians, dressed in military-style uniforms and playing discordant music. The noise is meant to frighten away any malicious spirits lurking around the funeral site but, at the same
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time, it gives the funeral an air of festivity, or re nao. Behind the musicians are a number of people carrying blue banners inscribed with the names of the people who have given contributions toward the funeral. These banners are called ming jing, and are meant to open the path for the spirit of the deceased. These are usually paid for by sons-in-law. Other banners are inscribed with the names of the various clan organizations. The cortege then forms behind the lorry, with the sons and daughters in the first row, followed by other family members. Two long ropes are attached to the front of the lorry and friends of the deceased pull the cortege along. The eldest son kneels beside the road and bids farewell to the deceased. Although death is inevitable, family members must not be seen to lead the deceased to the grave. That is why only friends are allowed to load the coffin into the lorry and lead the cortege to the graveyard, with the family following behind, pulling at the cortege as if to prevent it from leaving. On arrival at the graveyard, the coffin is lowered into the ground. This too is done by friends or professional helpers. The coffin must be perfectly aligned with the gravestone because failure to do so will result in the inability of the soul of the deceased to receive the offerings made to him. Others engage a fengshui expert, or geomancer, to ensure that this is done correctly. In one case of a family that did not engage a fengshui expert, the sonssquabbled for almost an hour trying to decide the proper alignment for thecoffin. After this is satisfactorily completed, a temporary altar is then set upbefore the coffin. Here are placed a picture of the deceased, two lightedcandles, a pair of joss sticks, and a simple food offering. Again, startingwith the eldest son, and followed by the rest of the family, each prayerfullyand tearfully bids farewell to the body of the deceased. Finally, the ritual specialist throws a white cockerel across the grave in the direction of the chief mourner, who catches it. This act ensures the perpetuation of descendants of the deceased. It can also be taken to mean the final passing of the rights of the deceased to his descendants. The family watches as professional gravediggers fill up the hole, and the eldest son carries the picture of the deceased and the joss urn. These will be placed on the family ancestral altar at home. From this moment on, the deceased is regarded as an ancestor and no longer a dead person, and the worship of the ancestor begins. In recent years, because of the land shortage in Singapore, the government has advocated cremation as a means of disposal of the dead in preference to graveyard burials.14 Priority is given to the use of land for urban development and housing, and this has led to a sharp decrease in the land available for graveyards. This means that burial plots are expensive, and their acquisition involves a tedious process to obtain a special permit from the government. As a result, cremation is often chosen as an alternative to burial. Except for the process of burning instead of burying, the rituals are similar. On arrival at the crematorium, the coffin is set on a tripod before an altar. Most crematoria in Singapore are run by Buddhist temples. Buddhist monks chant prayers for the dead and lead the family round the coffin three times, after which the coffin is
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pushed into an enclosed propane burner. On the following day, the family members return to the crematorium to collect the bones of the deceased. The bones and ashes are spread on a tray, and using chopsticks, family members carefully pick up the small pieces of bones and place them in a joss urn. With the priest leading the family, the urn is carried and placed in a columbarium. Significance of ritual variations The above description was of a single funeral. There are, however, many variations in the enactment of the rituals, as well as in the meanings ascribed to the various rituals. For example, the rules regarding the wearing of the mourning garments are not strictly adhered to, although the correct mourning codes are laid out in the Book of Rites. In some cases only two grades, instead of the standard five, are observed, with all the deceased’s sons and their children wearing white and all the deceased’s daughters and their children wearing black. In other funerals, even this is collapsed into a single category, with all family members wearing black as a sign of mourning. There are also differences in the required period for wearing the mourning garments. Some families dispose of the garments immediately after the final night rituals; others do so only after the burial, when a special ritual is conducted to burn the clothes. Similarly, there are differences regarding the length of mourning. In some instances, first order mourners wear the xiao bu for forty-nine days, in others, one hundred days. Some wear them for three years. Some families nail the coffin shut on the first day of the funeral; others do so on the last day. Some informants suggest that only three years should be added to the actual age of death of the deceased; others insist that the correct number is really five. A variety of priests are found; Buddhists, Taoists, and lay specialists. Variations can also be found in the layout of graveyards. Some graves are covered with earth and grass; others are completely cemented over. In some cases, only the names of the deceased and his spouse are written on the gravestone; in others, the names of all family members are included. On some gravestones, the characters are painted green and red; on others, they are painted gold. More significantly, some rituals that are deemed to be extremely important at one funeral are not seen at others. For example, the nai he qiao or wang xi fang rituals are not always carried out at every funeral. Even when the rituals are the same, different meanings are often ascribed to them. For example, some informants describe the bu yao urn under the coffin as the receptacle for the soul of the deceased. Others retort that this cannot be possible because the soul is actually present in the joss urn on the altar and the bu yao ritual in fact represents the healing of the sick ancestor. There are also disagreements over the number of souls a person has, ranging from only one soul to the suggestion that a person has a multitude of souls. To some, the final abode of the soul is xi tian; to others, it is in Hell; still others say that the soul is
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reincarnated into a new person. Finally, there are those who suggest that, after a few years, the soul will melt into nothingness. Variations in the enactment of death rituals are not unique to Singaporean Chinese. In a conference on Chinese religion, Robert J.Smith notes that each participant seemed to be dealing with all the others as though they were informants. Those who have conducted their research in Hong Kong expressed great interest—and sometimes polite incredulity—when informed of practices and beliefs found in Taiwan, whilst those who had worked on the northern part of the island interviewed those who knew the southern part, and often registered their surprise at what they learned. And there were others who found all these informants’ accounts at such variance with orthodox practice and belief (as they understood them to be from documents and interviews with members of the vanished elite) as to be offensive and perhaps not Chinese.15 There are several reasons for the confusing variations in the rituals. One may be that the Chinese in Singapore originally came from different regions in China and, more specifically, from different dialect groups. There are obvious dialect and regional variations and this contributes to these differences as some rituals are specific to certain dialect groups. For example, I was told that the offering of the cong cai is performed only by the Cantonese, and gong de are carried out only by Hokkiens. Many scholars of Chinese religion agree that differences are attributable to regional variations with Donald DeGlopper, for example, suggesting that variance in ritual performance is an expression of the local culture.16 Similarly, Arthur Wolf suggests that variations are due to the many meanings attached to Chinese religion because there are many vantage points on the social landscape of the adherents.17 However, although regional differences can partly account for the variations, that rationale skirts the real issue. It is not simply that there are variations, but that each group perceives that it is performing the rituals correctly, yet is aware that other groups of Chinese conduct the rituals differently. How do we account for the perception of unity and continuity in rituals despite the existence of considerable variations? Barbara Ward argues that this paradox can be accounted for by the different models of social arrangements in the Chinese consciousness. First, there is an “immediate model,” which refers to the group’s own perception of its social and cultural system. It is within this framework that the variations in rituals are found. Second, there is the “ideological model,” which acts as a measure of what is truly Chinese and, wherever relevant, is used as a corrective for their immediate model. Finally, there is the “internal observer model,” which is the model that the group has constructed regarding the socio-cultural arrangements of other Chinese groups. This model allows the group to identify with members of the same wider society it is observing. These three models, according to Ward, allow the Chinese to see the continuity and uniformity of Chinese life and yet reconcile the variations they observe.18
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Freedman, however, believes Ward’s view that there is a division between popular and elite religions, with popular religion being very diverse whilst elite religion is uniform, is mistaken. He writes: Is it really true that there was as great a variety in popular cults as is envisaged in this formulation? I think not. And it seems to me a mistake to imagine that there was not also variation between the elite and the common people in the sphere of the ancestor cult. But surface variation is in any case one thing, underlying similarity another.19 Freedman goes on to argue that the variations in Chinese religion are only superficial and therefore unimportant. The religious ideas and practices of the Chinese are not a congeries of randomly assembled elements; there must be an order of sorts. Indeed, Freedman suggests that a society like the Chinese, differentiated by social status and power, will allow differences in beliefs and practices to complement one another, permitting religious similarities to be expressed as though they were differences. According to this argument, Chinese religion must be seen as a polymorphous system that permits variations within the religious life of the individual worshiper and within social class as well.20 Freedman’s suggestion that there is an underlying order in Chinese religion is particularly useful for present purposes. This order is expressed both at the level of ideas, seen in the beliefs, representations, and classifying principles, and at the level of practice and organization, as invoked in the ritual, grouping and hierarchy.21 But I do not believe the variations can be dismissed as lightly as Freedman’s argument suggests. Instead, an analysis of their significance will provide a better understanding of Chinese ritual behavior. First, I suggest that a limited number of variations exist in Chinese ritual enactment. Within the framework of ritual convention, there is a notion of what is acceptable ritual behavior. In this sense there is a uniform structure of death rites for the Chinese. James L.Watson, for example, lists nine standardized features of Chinese funeral rites: 1 public notification of death; 2 donning of mourning clothes; 3 ritualized bathing of the corpse; 4 transfer of food, money, and goods from the living to the dead; 5 preparation and installation of a soul tablet for the dead; 6 employment of professionals to organize and perform the rites; 7 use of music to accompany the corpse; 8 sealing of the corpse in an airtight coffin; 9 expulsion of the coffin from the community.22 This idea of accepted ritual behavior is couched in traditions; indeed, conformity to tradition is often the reason given by informants for the performance of
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rituals. Many informants expressed surprise when I inquired why the rituals are carried out in a particular way. To them, the answer is simply “it has always been done this way,” or “I am just following tradition.” This desire for conformity is linked to the strong social pressure placed on them by the community to ensure that the necessary rituals are conducted properly because failure to do so would subject the family to social sanctions. Mian zi, literally “face,” is extremely important, and social pressure is an extremely powerful mechanism for enforcing the enactment of rituals. In the same vein, Marcel Granet suggests that: almost all of them observe the sum total of customary practices out of a spirit of tradition and a taste for conformity; it is a general fidelity that constitutes the national religion.23 Chinese religion, however, is an oral tradition. It does not have a fixed set of dogma or doctrines or a powerful priesthood. Moreover, it is a syncretic religious system, drawing in part from many religious traditions, including Buddhism, Taoism, Confucianism and folk beliefs.24 As such, there are wide limits of ritual performances and interpretations. The rules are ambiguous and adjustments are bound to occur. For example, during the funeral, many people, especially older women, claim to be experts and will give their opinions on how the various rituals are supposed to be done, resulting in many different interpretations of correct ritual enactment. These different interpretations and variations however, fall within an overarching framework of acceptable conventions that can be represented diagrammatically as: This model explains the observation that, although the informants are aware of the differences in ritual performance by other groups, they do not view these as incorrect, but instead rationalize them as different ways of enacting the same rituals. Variations do not constitute a serious problem unless they fall outside the acceptable overarching framework. This flexibility in the rules of ritual performance is extremely important. If, as I will argue later, the very enactment of the death rituals represents an attempt by
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the ritual sponsors to control the rituals in order to derive benefits from the dead, then the rituals themselves are, by necessity, ambiguous or arbitrary; a theory is supported by the presence of conflicts between family members regarding what the correct rituals are or where the deceased should be placed. Interestingly, invoking traditions often legitimizes the differences in opinions; that is, each adherent argues that conventions dictate that his is the correct way. As I will demonstrate, each is trying to appropriate part of the rituals, and in the process, the dead, for himself. Personal preferences account for many of the variations in ritual performance. For example, in one case, the reason the entire family wore black mourning garments instead of the five grades of mourning was that the eldest son of the deceased decided that everyone should wear black as a sign of mourning. In another case, cremation was chosen over burial in order to conform to the wishes of the mother. Neither of these variations are incorrect in the Chinese religion, an individual is free, within limits, to construct the system of beliefs and practices he deems to be correct.
3 TEMPLES AND GRAVEYARDS Ancestral rituals
The end of the funeral is significant because the deceased is now considered to be an object of worship for the family; an ancestor, instead of merely a dead corpse or a dangerous ghost. This chapter describes the ritual worship of the ancestor conducted at home and in the ancestral hall and finally the annual rituals performed at the graveyard during the Qing Ming celebrations. Because of the immigrant status of the Chinese in Singapore, the family and kinship organizations that existed in traditional China are not completely duplicated. This chapter will examine the effects of socio-economic transformations on ritual performance1 and the extent to which the changing occupational and residential patterns have affected religious ideas and rituals. Home-based ancestor worship Most homes display a family altar on which the family ritual activities are focused. It usually stands in the central hall, facing the main door, to protect the family against evil spirits and influences that may try to enter the house. The altar normally consists of a long narrow table placed against the wall. This is the shen zuo or “god altar.” The altar is divided into two zones. The left-hand side is devoted to worship of the cult of the ancestor, and the family gods, such as Guan Yin and Da-bo-gong are placed on the right-hand side. There are many different types of ancestral tablets, the most common being a piece of red paper with gold lettering, framed with red wood, about one foot by six inches in size (see Plate 3.1). A variation is a block of wood painted red with a broad base and gold inscriptions. Another is a picture of the deceased placed on the altar. In some homes, a combination of or even all of these can be found. Despite the variations in design, however, the inscriptions on the ancestral tablets are similar. The word at the top of the ancestral tablet is xian meaning illustrious. For males, the words are xian kao or “illustrious father”; for females, they are xian bi or “illustrious mother.” Sometimes the words xian zu or “illustrious ancestors” are used. The name or names of the ancestors follow. More than one name can be inscribed on a single tablet, and frequently the name of the father is placed in the center of the tablet and those of his wives on either side. Below the name is inscribed the death date of the deceased, written in
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Plate 3.1 A “framed paper” ancestral tablet.
Chinese calendrical form, and based on the beginning of dynasties or emperors. For example, min guo er shi er nian would mean twenty-two years after the founding of the republic, or 1933. Another variation uses the Chinese sexagenary cycle calendar, usually called the gang zhi. For the date of death, the lunar calendar is used the most often. The death date is very important because the main sacrifices for the ancestors are performed on that day. It is therefore not uncommon to find persons, especially older people, who can reel off a long list of their ancestors’ death dates. For ancestors whose dates of death are unknown, the words liang shi ji ri are inscribed, literally meaning that “the deceased died at an opportune moment.” In some homes, a tablet with the words li dai zu xian, which means “all the ancestors of the family through the generations,” can also be found on the altar. This is, I suggest, a form of worship to the generalized ancestors, many of whom are not known to the descendants by name. An alternative is to place the family’s book of genealogy beside the ancestral tablets.2 In front of the ancestral tablet is a joss urn, which is the same vessal that was used in the funeral rituals. It is noted that the urn for the ancestors are usually made of fired clay, always red in color, while those for the gods tend to be made of brass or silver. The ancestral urns also tend to be simple in design while those for the gods are emblazoned with designs of dragons and phoenix. Next to it are two candlesticks; nowadays, it is more common to find electric lamps instead of the more traditional oil wick types. The candles or lamps must be lighted at all times to let the ancestors know that they are constantly in the minds of the
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descendants. It is important here to note again that the informants do not regard the ancestral tablet as merely a symbolic representation of the ancestor. Instead, the ancestor is said to be physically present in the tablet. In one case, a woman kept the lights in the hall on all the time because, she said, “My father did not like the dark when he was alive, and this environment will be what he feels most comfortable with.” Traditionally, only one ancestral tablet is made for each deceased person and it is kept in the home of the eldest son, who has the responsibility of ensuring that the necessary daily rituals are conducted. On important ritual days, such as the death anniversary of the ancestor, all sons, with their families, congregate at the home where the ancestral tablet of the father is located to perform the rituals. In Singapore, however, it is not uncommon to have more than one ancestral tablet made for a single ancestor. Tablets are often erected on the altars of every one of his sons. I term these “substitution ancestral tablets.” In order to set up substitution ancestral tablets, a ritual, known as feng xiang huo, or “the division of ancestral worship” is performed. A priest is engaged to chant sutras and the old ancestral tablet is burnt. In its place, new ancestral tablets, the number dependent on the number of sons, are set up. The priest will then read a document to confirm the division of the tablets and each son will take the allocated ancestral tablet to be set up on the family ancestral altar at home. It is important to note that the different ancestral tablets enjoy equal status in ancestral worship. At one level, the practice of substitution tablets can be seen as a pragmatic way of dealing with the social environment, an adaptation to the new settlement patterns caused by urban renewal and housing relocation which means that families are uprooted and now live in multiethnic housing estates. At another level, it can be argued that the use of substitution tablets is the result of greater equality among brothers and the desire of each to appropriate the soul of the deceased father.3 On the seventh day after the burial of the deceased, an important ritual is held at home. A priest is commissioned to chant prayers for the ancestor, and an elaborate offering of food and other sacrifices is made. Some informants conduct these rituals every seventh day until the forty-ninth day following the burial whilst other families celebrate only the first and last ritual days. The enactment of these rituals is related to the idea that the soul of the deceased returns home on these days and rituals must be held to appease the spirits. On the forty-ninth day, a special ritual known as gong de is performed. In this ritual, a large triangular canopy, like the one used for the funeral ritual, is again constructed. In the particular case described here, the family engaged Taoist priests to conduct the rituals. As such, on the left side of the canopy was a large altar with pictures of Taoist deities. Three main deities, known as the sanqing, regarded as the most important deities in the Chinese pantheon, were depicted. Placed on the altar are offerings of joss sticks, candles, and plates of fruits. In addition, there is an octagonal shaped plate filled with rice and thirty-six coins. The plate is known as the ba gua deng, or “lamp of the octagram,” while the coins represent the thirty-six heavenly horoscope stars.
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At the other end of the canopy is the altar to the ancestors. Placed before the altar is a joss urn as well as paper effigies and there are also various food offerings, including a whole chicken, cooked meats, cakes, and bowls of rice. A significant feature that strikes any observer attending the gong de ritual is the large amount of paper offerings that will be sacrificed to the deceased. The centerpiece is an intricately designed large paper mansion, complete with miniature furniture and gardens. According to one informant, “This will be the home that the deceased will be living in and it must be very impressive so that the deceased will have a high status and will be very comfortable in the Otherworld.” In addition, anything else that the deceased could conceivably need in the Otherworld—cars, television sets, radio, and in line with modern living, credit cards, computers, and hand phones—will later be burnt for the deceased (see Plate 5.1). Ritual proceedings begin with the qi tan, or initiation ritual. The chief priest gathers all the family members and they kneel before the altar to the deities. Family members, each with three joss sticks in hand, are as in the funeral rituals, staggered in order of seniority, with sons at the head of the line and grandchildren at the rear. The chief priest then invites the deities to descend from heaven to participate in the rituals. After this is completed, the whole procession turns to face the ancestral altar. Here, the chief priest invites the deceased to partake of the food offered by the filial descendants. The priest, with three pieces of yellow joss paper in his hand, chants scriptures for a short while and then burns the joss papers. This signifies the sending of messages to the deceased ancestor. After another half an hour, family members are summoned again for the kai wu fang, literally, the “opening of the five directions,” ritual. Again, the chief priest chants before a new altar set up in the center of the canopy. Placed on this altar is the ancestral tablet of the deceased for whom the gong de ritual is being enacted. In this particular case, only one ancestor was present; however, given the huge expense of conducting the rituals, it is not uncommon for a whole group of ancestors of the family to be present for this ritual. In these cases, ancestral tablets for all the ancestors for whom the ritual is performed, including those who died years ago, will be placed on the altar. Chairs are also placed on each side of the altar, on top of which is placed a joss urn with three lighted joss sticks, a cup of tea, and an offering of fruits. In this ritual, the chief priest dips a sprig of leaves into an urn filled with pomegranate scented water and sprinkles it over the ancestral tablet and the assembled family members. This is meant to cleanse the tablet and to ward off evil influences. Then, following behind the chief priest, the family members walk around the altar, with the eldest son carrying the ancestral tablet in his hand. Having completed the kai wu fang ritual, a charcoal stove with a clay medicinal pot is placed on the altar. Known as the yi bing, or “healing ritual,” the chief priest lights a joss stick and places it before the ancestral altar. He then burns pieces of joss paper over the medicinal pot, then pours the liquid around
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the ancestral tablet which signifies the spirit taking the medicine. After the spirit is deemed to have been cleansed and healed, the jie jie ritual, literally the “untying of bonds,” or “resolution of unresolved matters,” is next. In this ritual, the chief priest, standing before the altar to the ancestors, chants from three Taoist scriptures in order to resolve the forty-eight “bonds” that plague the mind of the ancestral spirit. In one hand, he holds a piece of long yellow cloth which has a thumb knot tied on at one end. As the chief priest chants from the scripture, he flings the cloth to the family members kneeling before the altar. The chief mourner, meaning the eldest son, catches it, unties the knot, and hands it back to the chief priest. The priest ties another thumb knot, and again, chanting scriptures, flings it back. This process is repeated forty-eight times, signifying the resolution of the forty-eight woes that afflict the ancestral spirit. The final part of the Taoist gong de ritual is the dian zhu, or “establishment of the ancestral tablet.” Again, family members gather before the ancestral altar. This time, however, they are not dressed in somber clothes as they have been instructed to change to ones in bright colors. After a period of chanting scriptures, the chief priest takes the paper ancestral tablet and proceeds to burn it. In its place, a new ancestral tablet, made of wood, is set on the altar. With a brush, he dots the ancestral tablet with red ink, representing the imbuing of the ancestral spirit in the tablet. This is then handed over to the eldest son, who will subsequently put the ancestral tablet on the family ancestral altar at home. With the rituals completed, the chief priest leads the family members to an open area near the canopy. After chanting more scriptures, the family members kneel in a wide circle around the paper offerings. As the priest sets the pile of paper offerings alight, the family, with sticks in their hands, beats the ground, and implores the ancestor to accept the offerings sacrificed to him. Having completed this, the family and visitors to the rituals then gather for a meal prepared for them. The performance of the gong de ritual is important as it represents the final conversion of the deceased into an ancestral spirit. Like the funeral rituals, the gong de draws on symbols of cleansing, healing and binding the ancestral spirit. The offering of vast quantities of gifts and money seeks to transform the deceased into a wealthy ancestor who is obligated to reciprocate with return gifts. Kuah notes that the gong de ritual has to do with installing the deceased as a bona fide ancestor in the genealogy. It is related to Buddhist ideas that the transfer of merit can make up for the bad karma of the deceased and provide the dead with the energy to move up in the underworld to other planes of existence: gong de is thus also a rite of redemption whereby the wrongdoing of the dead can be redeemed through the efforts of the living, so that the dead eventually become ancestors.4 What is also interesting is that, while the gong de is a set of rituals derived from Buddhist ideology, it has been appropriated by Taoist priests for their own purposes. In the end, the goal of installing the deceased as an ancestor, creating
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benefits for both the dead and the living, may be similar, and Taoist rituals have been invented to fulfill the same function.5 After the completion of this ritual, the performance of ancestral rituals takes on a routine character. Each day, an offering of food, usually four oranges and some sweetcakes, is placed on the ancestral altar along with the ritual bai containing joss sticks and requests for blessings and protection from the ancestors. This simple ritual is carried out every morning and evening and is almost always performed by the women of the household. Women usually carry out most of the routine worship of the ancestors, with the head of the household only involved when there are public rituals and in the performance of the death anniversary rituals. The significance of this gender differentiation will be examined later. The routine rituals carried out at home do not require the services of religious specialists. On the first and fifteenth days of each month, a slightly more elaborate ritual is performed. Informants mention that these two days are more propitious and that rituals carried out on these dates are more efficacious. On these days, there are offerings of meat items, sweetcakes, and fruits, accompanied by the burning of a small quantity of paper money to the ancestor. Even on these days, however, women are responsible for the ritual. On a few occasions each year, very elaborate rituals are conducted at home. At these times, the head of the household takes charge and the women are relegated to the task of preparing the food for the sacrifices. The most important of these is the commemoration of the death anniversary of the ancestor. A special table is set up before the ancestral altar and elaborate food offerings are placed on it. All members of the family are expected to come to the home of the eldest son. In this ritual, the eldest son kneels before the altar and asks the ancestor to return and partake of the offering set up for him. All family members, including infants, perform the ritual bai to the ancestor. On this occasion, the eldest son intercedes with the ancestor. The most common requests are for wealth, prosperity, good health and for the children to do well in school. It is also common to ask for shi er zhi and ma piao which are forms of gambling in Singapore. The prayers to the ancestors often sound more like a bribe or blackmail, with promises to rebuild the gravestones and offerings of more elaborate sacrifices if the ancestor blesses the family with good fortune. After the bai, the family sits around and waits for the ancestor to finish the food. No one is allowed to touch the food until the eldest son determines that the ancestor is satisfied. Finally, a large amount of gold and silver joss paper is burned. After this, the family settles down for dinner, consuming the food the ancestors had just eaten. Similar elaborate rituals are conducted on important ritual days in the Chinese calendar, such as during tuan yuan, or “reunion dinner,” the fifteenth day of the first lunar month, and during Qing Ming which falls on the third day of the third lunar month. Elaborate sacrifices are also made to the ancestors during major life events in the family. For example, when a new son is born, the father will make
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an offering to the ancestors to thank them for blessing the family with a son to carry on the family line. Major offerings are also made the first month after the birth of a son and when a son marries. The marriage takes place in the home of the groom, and the most important part of the ritual consists of the couple, especially the bride, worshiping the groom’s ancestors. The bridal pair are brought before the ancestral altar and, with a cup of tea in their hands, they prostrate themselves three times before the ancestral altar. The ritual symbolizes that the bride is now a member of the ancestral line of the groom and that her role is to perpetuate the family line through the provision of sons. In bowing before the ancestors, the bride is acknowledging that henceforth they are also her ancestors. Special rituals are also conducted when someone in the family is sick, as illness is often attributed to some form of evil influence. When a member of the family is about to go overseas, when a new business is to be started, or when an important decision is to be made, ancestors are invoked to bless the endeavor. The idea is that the ancestors are perceived as being present among the family, and they are therefore often invited to participate in the various activities of the living. Hall-based ancestor worship Ancestral rituals are conducted not only at home but also in the zu xian tang, the “ancestral hall.” Whereas home-based ancestral rituals are more private and generally involve only family members, hall-based rituals often involve a wider network of people and are carried out on a lineage-or clanwide basis. Freedman notes that, in China, the lineage ancestral altar is the final resting place of the soul of the ancestor who resides in the ancestral tablet. The domestic ancestral tablets may be neglected or burned after a few generations but the ancestral tablets in the ancestral hall are kept in perpetuity.6 The presence of lineage ancestral halls in China and Taiwan is welldocumented.7 Emily Ahern, for example, found that all the lineage groups in Chi’nan have lineage ancestral halls, though the arrangement of the ancestral tablets differs in the different halls. She suggests that the arrangement of the ancestral tablets in the lineage ancestral hall may correspond with the variation in the lineage, with lineages that had close and solidarity groupings choosing the variant with the least divisions, whilst groups that were highly differentiated tended to arrange their tablets with more variations. Similarly, Francis Hsu and David Jordan also observed a large number of lineage ancestral halls in West Town and Bo-an respectively. Hsu, for example, found twelve lineage ancestral halls in West Town and notes that the family altar and the hall altar serve the same functions, except that, in principle, the former houses the spirits of past ancestors within the wu dai, that is, descendants of a common great-greatgrandfather, and the latter houses all the spirits of the wider lineage which are not found in the family altar.8
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Although there are many records of lineage ancestral halls in the literature, my attempts to locate one in Singapore were in vain. There were many leads, but checks revealed that they were clan ancestral halls instead of lineage ancestral halls.9 Freedman mentions the case of a lineage group consisting of more than two hundred members occupying a village in the northern part of Singapore. This agricultural community bought a plot of lineage land, built a school, and had a fund for welfare and religious purposes. It divided itself into four fangs, which are supposed to replicate the primary segment of the lineage in China. The solidarity of the group was based on the birthday of the founding member, said to be a member of the lineage in China, which was celebrated in the lineage hall. Freedman, however, discounts this as a proper lineage because the group did not have a genealogical point of reference to define themselves as a unit within a larger kin unit. He considers them a group of émigrés who formed themselves into a replica of the home lineage.10 One reason for the failure to develop lineage organizations in Singapore may be due, in part, to the heterogeneous nature of the Chinese immigrants there. A variety of push-pull forces, such as natural disasters, famines, and rebellions in Southeastern China, coupled with the perception of economic opportunities in Southeast Asia encouraged the process of migration. The migrants came as individuals, and, except for organized labor importation, did not bring their families with them. They were also predominantly male because, until the 1930s, female migration from China was restricted. Another significant feature of the migrant Chinese in Singapore is their intended transitory nature. The majority of them did not intend to stay forever and cherished the hope of returning to China; driven to Singapore by economic necessity, the migrants envisioned saving enough money to buy land in China and die on the native soil among their ancestors. Although many never realized this dream, they always did their best to fulfill it.11 This transitoriness and impermanence, coupled with a high degree of social and occupational mobility and the migrants’ varied backgrounds, prevented them from developing a pattern of social organization with the same characteristics as the society they came from. Because the society consisted of bits and pieces of various localized lineages in China, no immigrant was able to move into an environment with an integrated lineage ready-made for him. In its place, kinship structures outside the households were organized into a system of clan associations, or gong hui, based on surname, dialect, or locality principles.12 These clan organizations are patterned after their counterparts in traditional China but with modifications. For example, the majority of Chinese in Singapore organize and maintain ties with consanguinal and affinal relatives with whom they are not domestically involved. The Chinese in Singapore therefore developed a wider definition of kin or qin ren, which can be gradated on a scale of varying intensity of relationships, from a person bearing the same surname, to one bearing the same surname and speaking the same dialect, to a person from one’s localized lineage, and finally to one’s immediate agnates. The wider definition of kin is accompanied by a more vague system of kinship
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terminologies compared to the highly particularized system in pre-Revolutionary China. These associations not only provide the Chinese in Singapore with a system of maintaining law and order within the community, but they also contribute to the migrants’ strong identity with the homeland and, in a way, became a substitute for the traditional social system.13 The first Chinese surname association, Cho Kah Koon (“House of Cho”), appeared around 1819. The first locality association, Ning Yeung Wai Kun, dates back to 1815, and the first dialect association, Yin Foh Fui Kun, was founded in 1823.14 There is a plethora of clan organizations in Singapore today. Some, such as the Lin clan, and the Khoo clan, are very large, with extensive memberships whilst others, like the Nanyang Tang Clan Association and the Wang clan, are smaller. A description of the ancestral hall of the Lin clan follows. Because the Lin clan is one of the largest in Singapore, its ancestral hall is large compared to others. It is thus not typical of all clan ancestral halls but it can, however, be taken as a model which others aspire to imitate if given sufficient resources and suitable conditions. The Lin clan ancestral hall is a large imposing structure. The central hall is about forty by thirty feet, with the altars and the ancestral tablets at the rear, facing the main entrance (see Plate 3.2). In this hall, the deities are relegated to a room on the first floor, and the ancestral tablets occupy a central place in the main hall. There are three altars for the placement of ancestral tablets, one in the center and two at the sides. The altar itself is made of wood, carved with elaborate designs and looks very imposing and magnificent. There is a long table in front on which are placed a joss urn and two candle holders. At the top of the altar are the words zhong xiao, meaning “loyalty and filiality” (see Plate 3.2). There are also many pairs of Chinese couplets, dui lian, carved on the pillars of the hall, focusing on various themes. First, filiality and loyalty to the family and the state is a family tradition, virtues of generations past. Second, these virtues have brought rewards, including gifts and honors from the Emperor, and have put the clan in high standing, continually praised by others. Third, these virtues are inherited and continued by the descendants. The placing of fourteen wooden boards in the clan hall reflects the conviction that the virtues of the ancestors can bring glory to the descendants. These boards, according to the clan representative who pointed them out with obvious pride in his voice, were brought from China. Inscribed on them are the names of ancestors who had attained the high honors of zhuang yuan in the Imperial examinations. They include eight scholars with first-class honors, and six with second- and third-class honors respectively. Because their presence in the hall adds prestige to the members of the clan, they occupy a central place in the hall. This practice is similar to Hsu’s observation in West Town, where the names of illustrious ancestors are carved on the doorway of the lineage ancestral hall.15 The ancestral tablets in the clan hall, unlike those found on the family altar, come in a standard size, about eighteen inches by four inches. They are made of
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Plate 3.2 The ancestral altar in the Lin clan ancestral hall. Note the zhuang yuan boards hanging from the ceiling.
red-varnished wood with gold inscriptions and contain the names and death dates of the ancestors. Like the tablets on the family altar, more than one name may appear on each tablet, sometimes as many as four. A piece of red paper is stuck on some of the ancestral tablets; on this is written the name of the surviving spouse of the deceased. This paper will be removed when the spouse dies. There are also many chang sheng lu wei tablets in the ancestral hall. There are about three thousand ancestral tablets in the Lin clan ancestral hall. The most significant difference between the clan ancestral halls in Singapore and the lineage ancestral halls is the criteria for the admission of ancestral tablets. Traditionally, entrance into the lineage hall is based on the strict criterion of patrilineage.16 In the clan hall, however, admission is based on the more flexible principles of surname, dialect, or locality. In this sense, there is a degree of concurrence between the social organization of the Chinese in Singapore and the rules of admission into the clan ancestral hall. The wider definition of qin ren prevalent in Singapore is reflected in the fact that ancestors in the ancestral hall are no longer related agnatically, but trace their relationships to some putative kin. In earlier times, the ancestral tablets were arranged in order of seniority based on the generation-age-sex hierarchy, but now ancestral tablets are usually placed on an individual or spouse basis. The location of the tablet depends on the amount of money the descendants are willing to pay. A place near the central altar costs a thousand dollars for each tablet whilst one on the side costs between
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three and five hundred dollars. This may suggest that the rules of kinship are only one factor in deciding the placement of tablets; personal achievement as well as economic affluence are also emphasized because allocation of the most auspicious locations on the altar is based on the family’s ability to pay. There are, however, some important exceptions. The ancestral tablets of the founding ancestor and his family occupy a central place on the altar. Some families reserved an entire section of the altar for their tablets whilst another group of ancestral tablets consisted of a single family spanning four generations, and were arranged on the basis of seniority. Although ability to pay is a factor in deciding the placement of ancestral tablets, it is claimed that non-Lin are not allowed to keep their tablets in the hall regardless of how much they are willing to pay, and indeed, not a single non-Lin tablet was found. This principle extends to Lin women who have married out because they are no longer regarded as members of the clan. Ancestral tablets of ascendants that died in China are also found in this ancestral hall, brought over to Singapore by their descendants. Many Singaporean Chinese are of the view that ancestor worship is no longer practiced in Communist China and it is therefore considered vital that the descendants in Singapore continue to worship these ancestors to prevent them from becoming hungry ghosts. Many descendants, normally female members of the household, come to perform ancestral rituals in the clan hall on the first and fifteenth days of each lunar month. The ancestral death anniversary rituals are also performed at the clan ancestral hall. In some cases, families employ priests to carry out the rituals. The corporate worship of the ancestors of the clan is carried out twice a year: Qing Ming, which is designated by the clan to be celebrated on the twenty-third day of the third lunar month, and Dong zhi. A description of the corporate rituals celebrated at the Lin clan hall follows. A few weeks before the date of the ritual, invitations are sent out to all the clan members. On the ritual day itself, the clan hall is packed to capacity, with people overflowing into the courtyard and the rituals begin at one o’clock in the afternoon. First, an elaborate offering of a few whole pigs, chickens, ducks, fish, fruits, sweetcakes, and so on, are placed on the altar. This is the offering of the corporate group, funded by the money of the clan and meant for every ancestor of the Lin clan. Individual families also bring food to supplement this offering. The worship ceremony is very formal. Members of the clan who are important public figures, such as political and business leaders, regularly attend these rituals. Here, another significant differentiation between the traditional lineage group and clan organizations in Singapore is apparent. Traditionally, the eldest member of the most senior generation holds lineage leadership.17 Even with the split between nominal authority based on purely genealogical assumption and real authority in the lineage based on wealth and official position, the most senior person in the genealogical reckoning usually heads the lineage. In Singapore, however, the leadership of the clan is elected and not ascribed. Clan leaders are almost always persons of prestige and wealth and therefore high social standing. For example,
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the honorary chairman of the Lin clan is a former cabinet minister and the chairman for life is one of the wealthiest men in Singapore. The present chairman also serves in a high capacity in the government. The rituals begin with the chairman leading the board members of the clan to the front of the altar and the rest of the congregation assembles behind them. The chairman lights three joss sticks and pays obeisance to all the ancestors. The ancestors are then invited to eat the food, after which the deputy chairman offers the joss paper, again on behalf of the entire clan. When this is completed, the master of ceremonies, normally a priest, asks the congregation to kneel before the altar and prostrate three times. Two groups of spirits are actually worshiped. The first is zu gu tian hou sheng mu or the “Queen of Heaven,” and the second is the li dai zu xian or “ancestors from previous generations.” The zhu wen, a record of all the achievements of the clan from historical times to the present, is then read. This reading demonstrates to the public the status of the clan as a result of the achievements of the ancestors. Similarly, the successes of the present generation of descendants bring glory to the ancestors. The ji wen, a list of names of all the ancestors and descendants of the Lin clan, is then read. The reading of this document shows that the worship of the ancestors in the clan hall has two parts: a corporate worship to all the ancestors of the clan and a personal worship, signified by the reading of the names of each ancestor and by the individual offerings presented by the families. After this, an enormous amount of joss paper is carried out into the courtyard and burned. The ceremony ends with a dinner attended by all members of the clan. Although most families attend in their entirety, only the men, in particular the heads of households play any part in the rituals. Temple halls In Singapore, it is also popular to store the ancestral tablets in Mahayana Buddhist temples as an alternative to clan halls.18 There are two types of Buddhist temple halls. In one, the cremated remains of the dead are kept in ceramic urns. Popular temples in this category are the Guan Ming Sun, or “Bright Hill” Temple and the Dharmasuka Memorial Hall in Jalan Senyut. The second type houses the ancestral tablets of the ancestors. For many temples a corner is set aside for the storage of ancestral tablets; some have only a few tablets and others a few thousand. In the temple hall, the tablets are often found in an obscure spot whilst an image of the Buddha is usually found in the central hall. Most temple halls are not used exclusively for ancestor worship. They also serve other religious functions such as the worship of Buddhist deities or as monasteries and nunneries. This means that, unlike clan halls, where ancestors are the central figures of worship and the deities are relegated to another room, the primary function of most temple halls is the worship of the gods, and ancestral tablets are a means of bringing in money for the temple. The arrangement of the ancestral
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tablets is similar to that found in the clan hall, with standard-sized tablets placed on red terraced steps. The rules governing the admission of tablets to the temple halls are significantly different from those in the lineage or clan halls with the only criterion being the person’s willingness to pay the necessary contributions. The price for a place in the temple hall ranges from a few hundred dollars to thousands of dollars. Again, the choice spots in the temple hall, especially one with a reputation for its efficacy, command the highest prices. Thus, ancestral tablets belonging to persons with different surnames and dialect groups and from different localities in China are all kept in the same temple. There is not even discrimination between religions, for bone remains of Christians are found in the Buddhist temples as are the tablets of people who died overseas. The most common reason given by informants for placing the tablets in the temple hall is that the tablets will always be cared for by the monks who supposedly pray for the ancestors daily. Rituals conducted at the temple halls are similar to those done on the domestic ancestral altar, with one major difference— no meat sacrifices or cakes are allowed (eggs are considered to be unborn chickens) and usually fruits and flowers are preferred. Graveyards Graveyards in Singapore are often situated on the outskirts of the city. Like the clan ancestral halls, they are normally organized by surname, dialect or locality. There are no lineage graveyards in Singapore. On entering the graveyard, one is confronted by the vast number of graveplots, spread over a large area on the hillsides in a seemingly haphazard manner. There are gravestones of various sizes, ranging from a small slab of stone to some that seem as large as a mansion. Graveyards are often under the jurisdiction of clan councils and entry depends on membership and financial contributions. It is rare to find large family plots, with most people being buried apart from their immediate kin. With urban redevelopment and the shortage of prime land, burial in traditional graveyards is now discouraged in preference to cremation. However, to appease those who insist on a proper burial, the government has set aside a large plot of land in Cai cuo kang, in the outskirts of the city, for burials. There are several differences between this graveyard and the clan graveyard. The first noticeable difference is that the graveyard is on a relatively flat piece of land, contrary to the traditional graveyard, which is set on a hillside. The graveplots come in standard sizes and are arranged in neat rows. All the gravestones face one direction with similar shapes and a limited number of variations in the motifs (see Plate 3.3). The dead are buried in individual plots, with no other criteria for admission except willingness to pay the very large sums of money necessary. Each plot costs several thousand dollars, and this high cost has meant that only the more well-todo can afford to be buried. Thus, burial of the dead has itself become a measure of status.
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Plate 3.3 The graveyard at Cai cuo kang.
Generally, gravestones have an omega ( ) shape. They are inscribed with the word zu, meaning “ancestor,” at the top and at the bottom with the word mu, literally, “home of the deceased.” Males will have the prefix kao, meaning father, and females bi, which refers to their status as mother. The name of the deceased is inscribed with green paint to signify death, but the family name is always painted red, which signifies life, because the family name never passes away but will be carried on by the descendants. Beside the grave is placed a small headstone with the inscription shen, or tu di gong. This headstone represents the earth-god in charge of the graveyard. The first major ritual conducted at the graveyard is on the one-hundredth day after burial. On this day, all members of the family gather at the gravesite, and an elaborate offering is placed on the altar. A religious expert is engaged to conduct the removing of the xiao bu ritual: the xiao bu, which has been worn on the shoulder since the burial, is finally removed and burned. This ritual is important because, according to informants, it signifies the beginning of the worship of the ancestor’s soul at the graveyard. After this ritual, the graveyard is generally visited once a year during the Qing Ming festival, which falls on the third day of the third month of the lunar calendar.19 On that morning, the whole family gathers at the home of the eldest son and, after an offering is made at the familial ancestral altar, they proceed to the graveyard. The women of the household prepare the food offering and each family unit is
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expected to prepare its own offerings. Upon arrival, the grave is swept clean, the grass that has overgrown the gravesite is cut, and the inscriptions on the gravestone are repainted. There are many grasscutters, gravediggers, and painters around, offering to do the job for a small fee. Two sets of offerings are placed. One, on the upper level, is for the ancestor whilst the other, on the ground, is for the tu di gong. Children carrying cymbals, trumpets, and other musical instruments will dart from one graveplot to another and play their instruments for a few minutes. They are normally rewarded with small change. The music is meant to frighten away evil spirits that might be lurking around; there are many of them because this is a graveyard. In addition, it adds a sense of festivity to the ritual, letting the ancestor know that many of his descendants have come to worship him. Many colored streamers are stuck on the grave mound to signify to the public that the family has visited the ancestor. While waiting for the ancestor to eat the food, family members busy themselves with various tasks, such as sticking streamers on the grave mound and burning joss paper. Finally, the eldest son states that the ancestor has finished his meal and a cup of wine is poured over the gravestone. This is called the xian jiu, or a “toast to the ancestor.” It ensures that the deceased has received the offering meant for him and also serves to clean the grave. The food is then gathered and will be consumed later by the family, although the offering given to the tu di gong must be left behind. It is said that food offered to this god can no longer be eaten by the family, although others suggest that some food must always be left behind to appease the wandering spirits and beggars so that they will not try to steal the food meant for the ancestor. Similar rituals will be conducted at the graves of all the ancestors of the family. The visit to the grave must end before twilight because it is thought that ghosts come out at that time. Because there are more wandering ghosts at the graveyard than any other place, it is a dangerous place to remain after dark. Singapore has been the scene of mass exhumations of graves in traditional graveyards to make way for housing and urban development. Professional gravediggers are employed by the government to carry out the exhumations and the government also sees the need to employ the services of priests to perform rituals to placate the dead before exhuming them. Nevertheless, most people prefer to exhume their ancestors’ bodies privately, even though they will incur huge expenses, for fear that incorrect exhumation may defile the ancestral remains. A priest is engaged to say prayers for the ancestor “as he might be angry because of the disturbance of his home,” and an offering of food must be made before the exhumation can begin. A canvas canopy is constructed over the grave to prevent the defilement of the bones from exposure to tian, or “heaven”; these are then cleaned, washed with wine, cremated, stored in urns and kept at a columbarium. Qing Ming rituals conducted at the columbarium are similar to those at the graveyard, with one major difference; there are no individual altars for the ancestors. On arrival at the columbarium, the head of the household proceeds to
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the sanctuary where the urns are kept to invite the ancestor to partake of the offerings, which are set on a general altar used by all worshipers. Many families perform the rituals on the altar at the same time, making the situation seem very chaotic. Moreover, joss paper cannot be burned on the altar, but only in special pagodas used by all worshipers. Nevertheless, the rituals perform the same function as the ones in the graveyard, although some feel that it is impersonal because, unlike the graveyard, there are no boundaries dividing cubicles. As one informant laments, “One cannot see the ancestor while conducting the rituals.” Memorialism and ancestor worship The observation of a smaller range of ancestors on the family altar, together with the lack of a larger lineage shrine, has led Freedman to suggest that the cult of ancestor worship, in the true sense of the word, is not practiced in Singapore. What is practiced, he claims, is a kind of memorialism, a commemoration of forebears for their own sake. Ancestor worship or, more specifically, the cult of agnatic descent groups refers to a set of rites linking together all the agnatic descendants of a given forebear,20 which are rites of kinship solidarity. In memorialism, the dead are cared for as forebears, independent of their status as ancestors of the agnates of the worshipers. One’s duty is discharged if the memory of those who have recently passed on is maintained. Freedman therefore sees Singapore as a “field par excellence for the flourishing of memorialism.”21 Contrary to Freedman’s assertions, my informants insist that they bai or worship their ancestors, and not merely ji nian or commemorate them. Moreover, the term most commonly used for the ancestral tablets is shen zu pai or literally “tablet of the ancestral spirit,” and not gong po pai as Freedman suggests. Freedman states that the Chinese in Singapore sometimes keep a plaque of some non-kin members on the ancestral altar22 but my fieldwork does not confirm this observation. Rather, the informants maintained that it is wrong to worship nonkin members. A significant feature about family ancestral altars in Singapore homes is that they contain relatively few ancestral tablets, with most households having between three and five ancestral tablets at most. In addition, most homes have ancestral tablets going back only two or three generations; at most, they will go back four generations. This is drastically different from the situation in China and Taiwan where domestic ancestral altars are often cluttered with a large number of ancestral tablets. For example, Jordan notes that, in Bo-an, a village in Taiwan, ancestral tablets are continually added to the domestic altar; as time goes on, it becomes very crowded, and it is only after a few generations that the oldest tablets are removed and stored in the lineage ancestral hall.23 That there are fewer ancestral tablets, however, cannot be taken to mean that the importance of ancestral rituals among the Chinese in Singapore has declined. Instead, the lack of tablets may be partly the result of the migrant nature of the Chinese, uprooted from their familial and communal ties in China. Migration is like
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starting a new genealogical line. Genealogical records that had been laboriously kept for generations were left behind in China, and especially after 1949, with the Communist takeover, ties were severed. Many informants had only vague ideas about their ancestors in China, and others could only remember those in Singapore. Many households therefore have ancestral tablets starting from the first generation of immigrants in Singapore. Nevertheless, most Chinese households in Singapore do have family ancestral altars. The few that do not claim they return to the home of the eldest son to perform the ancestral rituals. The fact that there are fewer ancestral tablets therefore does not confirm Freedman’s thesis that the dead are worshiped only as forebears and not as agnatic ancestors of the group. In many households in Singapore, placed behind the ancestral tablets of an individual ancestor is often found a board with the words li dai zhu xian which can be translated as “all the ancestors of the family through the generations.” A variation is the family’s book of genealogy placed behind the altar. This suggests that it is not only immediate ancestors who are worshiped, but also all the ancestors of the family. Moreover, informants maintain that rituals conducted at the family ancestral altar benefit not only the individual ancestors but also all the ancestors of the family. Thus, bai to invoke the ancestors to eat the food always includes an invitation to the li dai zhu xian. When a table is set before the family altar, the number of seats does not correspond with the number of ancestral tablets as there are always additional seats to accommodate other ancestors who might want to eat the food. This phenomenon indicates that, in Singapore, the demarcation between the domestic altar, at which the immediate ancestors are worshiped, and the lineage ancestral altar, where worship is based on the cult of descent group, is not obvious. In fact, the placement of the li dai zhu xian tablet and the statement that all ancestors benefit from the sacrifices suggest that, in Singapore, the domestic ancestral altar performs many of the functions of the lineage ancestral altar in China. Because of the lack of an extended agnatic kin network and the distance from the home lineage, the domestic altar is transformed to represent the lineage ancestral altar, an attempt to duplicate, however incompletely, lineage worship in China. Interestingly, Freedman suggests that such a variation is possible: One such altar may continue over many generations—well beyond the standard four—to house tablets serving as a focus for a large group of agnates scattered over numerous houses. Such an altar is physically domestic for the people in whose house it stands, but acting as a vital center for a long line of agnates, it becomes akin to the altar constructed in the ancestral hall.24 In Lineage Organizations in China, Freedman makes a rigid distinction between the domestic cult and the lineage cult. The domestic cult revolves around tablets for the recently dead, which are worshiped in order to preserve the memory of the dead, to serve their needs and to satisfy the demand of their slight authority.
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Worship of each tablet continues in this way for three or four generations then the tablet is destroyed and its place in the domestic cult comes to an end. In cases when there is no worship of the ancestors outside the domestic cult, the ancestor whose tablet has been destroyed is never worshiped again. In other cases, where there are ancestral halls, another tablet is made and placed in the hall. This is a lineage cult. In the hall, where the most remote ancestors are enshrined, men conduct all worship activities, with the tablets coming to represent descendants in an abstract sense, not well-remembered fathers and grandfathers.25 However, the distinction between the domestic and the hall cults is not so clear in Singapore. Unlike traditional Chinese society, in Singapore two ancestral tablets are commonly made upon the death of a person, one of which will be placed on the family ancestral altar and the other in the clan ancestral hall. If a spot has already been reserved in the hall, the red cloth over the chang sheng lu wei is simply removed. Thus, a person does not have to wait for three to four generations before his tablet is allowed in the ancestral hall. The nature of the worship also shows that the family and clan ancestral altars are not clearly demarcated ritually. The family, on a regular basis, conducts rituals in the clan hall. Some informants insisted that this is done on the first and fifteenth days of each month whilst others suggested that rituals are necessary only on important ritual days, such as the death anniversary and during Qing Ming. It is common for families to conduct the rituals at home first and then proceed to the ancestral hall to worship there. In light of these practices, the domestic/hall distinction as proposed by Freedman warrants modification. The placement of the li dai zhu xian tablet on the family altar suggests that it can be considered as a lineage altar, even though it is physically domestic, because the family worships agnatic ancestors and not simply individual tablets on the altar. Furthermore, though the clan ancestral hall is physically corporate and corporate rituals are enacted, it can be, and often is, used as a family altar for the regular worship of individual ancestors by the family. It therefore functions both as a family and a corporate altar. Furthermore, even during corporate worship, food for individual ancestors is placed beside the corporate food sacrifices. Ahern observes a similar variation for the Chinese in Chi’nan: It is clear that the Chi’nan hall is not physically domestic, nor is it ritually domestic for one family more than any other. It is physically distinct from domestic areas, but it is the locus for what Freedman calls the domestic cult for all the domestic units in the lineage.26 It is more relevant in Singapore to speak of ancestors as being divided into two categories. I suggest the term personalized ancestors to refer to ancestors who are worshiped as individuals, and known by name to the living descendants. Generalized ancestors, on the other hand, are not worshiped as individuals but as belonging to a body of ancestral spirits. Because of their membership in this body, there is a guarantee that they will never be forgotten or go unfed because
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they can and will partake of sacrifices made by any descendants. They are not remembered by name by the descendants but must be worshiped nonetheless. The category of generalized ancestors is not unique to the Chinese in Singapore as, traditionally, the worship of ancestors in the lineage ancestral altar is also of this nature. What is unique is that, in Singapore, both personalized and generalized ancestors are worshiped on the family altar as well as on the clan ancestral altar. In Singapore today, the agnatic principle is diminishing, and though kinship is still held to be extremely important, it tends to work within a “highly knit circle of relatives, mostly parents, married offspring, siblings and inlaws.”27 There is a parallel in ritual behavior, which tends to be based on family rather than on extended kin, as is shown by the popularity of storing the ancestral tablets and bone remains in the temple halls, where rituals are always conducted on a family basis. Similarly, visits to the graveyards during Qing Ming are conducted as individual family groups rather than as a large corporate group. Such an observation suggests a relationship between the changing structure of Chinese social organization in Singapore and religion. A word of caution is in order for fear of overgeneralization. Many people still place the ancestral tablets in a clan ancestral hall and, furthermore, I have observed large groups of people going to the graveyards to worship the ancestors together. On the whole, however, the lack of a large agnatic kinship network has resulted in family centered rituals being the norm.
4 KIN AND KINDRED Death and social relations
Most literature on Chinese death rituals has emphasized their importance in maintaining solidarity in the family and cohesion of the larger kinship grouping. Yang, for example, asserts that mourning rites: have the effect of helping to reaffirm the ties of the family organization and demonstrate group solidarity, at a time when the death of a member, particularly the head of household, tended to disintegrate family relations.1 In the same vein, Thompson suggests that ancestor worship plays an indispensable role in reinforcing the cohesion of the family and lineage; it is, in essence, the “symbolic cement” holding together a structure of family and lineage.2 I extend this analysis by suggesting that the demonstration of unity is actually a presentation of the family to the public for its scrutiny, which necessitates a show of cohesion. A closer examination of death ritual enactment in fact brings to light many instances of conflicts, tensions and compromises, a feature of the ritual process not often seen by outsiders. Family members quarreling among themselves are thought to be an embarrassment to the whole family as well as a mark of unfiliality to the ancestors. The overemphasis on unity may be due in part to the theoretical limitations of many of these studies, which were basically functionalist in perspective. Clearly, conflicts exist and are very real. An analysis of the arena in which conflicts arise and are resolved will therefore significantly increase our understanding of the purpose of death ritual enactment. Death rituals must be viewed on at least two levels; the public or formal face of the ritual and the private or informal sphere. Taking into account both spheres, it can be seen that death unites, and at the same time, divides the family group. Death and the unity of kin It is clear that Chinese death rituals work to demonstrate the unity of the family. The rituals are performed by the family as a group; especially those carried out in the evening when there are many visitors present. Failure to participate is not only a mark of unfiliality, but also reflects badly on the family and the deceased
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in the eyes of the community. It is significant that the very first time the public sees family members after a death has occurred is when sons leave the house together to “buy water” to wash the dead. This assembling of the social group, particularly sons, can be viewed as a consolidation of the unity of the kin group, at least in the public sphere. The celebration of rituals here performs the function of “the renewal of common values, a firming up of communal conceptions, and a strengthening of social bonds.”3 Throughout the funeral, for example, loud wailing and crying erupt at various points in the ritual process. The loudest cries are heard at the moment the person draws his last breath; at the placement of the deceased in a coffin; when the coffin is moved into the hearse, and, finally, at the actual burial of the deceased. Ritualized weeping is more than an emotional response to the death of a loved one. Indeed, the fact that the weeping is carried out at specified moments suggests that it is not merely a spontaneous reaction to death. Moreover, the crying is, almost always, orchestrated by the family as a group4 and only certain categories of people are expected to show their grief in this manner. For example, although there are many visitors and friends at the funeral, they are not expected to cry. In fact, many visitors can be seen to be laughing and chatting at the funeral. Such behavior is not seen as abnormal. Relatives of the deceased, however, are expected to cry, the louder the better. In one incident, an old woman, kneeling before the death altar, suddenly broke into loud and spontaneous wailing for a few minutes, then got up, and as if nothing had happened, sat down and started chatting with people. I found out that she was actually a distant relative who was not particularly close to the deceased. Her behavior therefore suggests that it is obligatory for a kin to show grief, and having fulfilled her obligatory role, may rejoin the rest. Crying is mandatory, not voluntary. DeGroot, writing of the Chinese in nineteenth-century Amoy, observed: …that loud and clamorous bewailing of the dead is by no means an expression of a deep emotion of the soul of bitter sorrow and painful grief. It is, on the contrary, mainly a ceremonial observance prescribed by customary laws, part of the conceived duties of nearest relatives towards a departed one, in a word, a mere rite.5 Clearly, it is more than a mere rite. As Yang suggests: all the highly conventionalized weeping speeches reaffirm the social sentiments and ties between the dead and the living. The stimulation of such social sentiments and ties at the time of a family crisis had the effect of strengthening the cohesive values for the family group as a whole.6 The sight of the whole family weeping together at the death of the father is a ritual affirmation of family solidarity. A person who is expected to show grief,
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that is, kin, and does not do so is not only unfilial to the deceased, but also perceived to be disloyal to the group. Ritualized weeping thus acts as a boundary between kin and outsiders by defining who is and who is not allowed to cry. It is interesting to note that, at certain points in the funeral, crying is absolutely prohibited. For example, at the end of the funeral, when the soul of the deceased is invited back into the home, family members are explicitly told not to cry, but to show happiness. In this sense, ritualized weeping is related to the status of the soul of the deceased. Grief is necessary when the father is an “unrefined ghost.” Crying stops when he is transformed into an ancestor; that is, when his status within the family is reestablished. An important feature of ritualized weeping is that it is always carried out at “points of departure” when the soul of the deceased is thought to be leaving the family. As filial descendants, they implore the soul not to leave them. Thus, interspersed with the wailings can be heard the words, “Father, don’t go, don’t leave us.” Another point of co-operation between family members comes in respect to financial contributions toward funeral expenses. Funerals, as already pointed out, are often highly elaborate and expensive affairs, with costs running into tens of thousands of dollars. All sons are expected to contribute a share of the cost. Death necessitates the combining of the economic resources of the family to ensure the enactment of the rituals. The funeral is a presentation of the family to the public, and a grand ritual enhances the social status of the family in the community. Yang notes that funeral rituals function to reinforce the organizational foundation of a family weakened by death by reasserting the status of the family in the eyes of the community through the demonstration of its wealth and influence.7 The reassertation of status is perceived by the community as being the responsibility of the entire family. However, it is important to note that the amount of money contributed by each son is never made known to the public. In this sense, the inequalities in contributions are hidden. Filial piety and family continuity Death rituals reinforce the values of filial piety and loyalty, which are important for the maintenance of family and kinship unity. In fact, filial piety is one of the most common reasons cited for ritual performance. The idea that the worship of ancestors centers on the family and is expressed through filial piety is, of course, not unique to the Chinese in Singapore. Granet, writing on traditional Chinese society, notes that: this piety was not only addressed to the dead; it was composed of all homage that a person should receive during his life on earth, at the moment of his death and in the course of his ancestral life.8 This view is later echoed by Freedman when he writes:
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A man’s loyalty to the interests and wishes of his father is supposed to outweigh all other loyalties and attachments…. The supreme act of filial piety is the performance of the mortuary and funeral ceremonies for the parents.9 Filial piety is a principle that Chinese parents consistently inculcate their children with, parents often telling them stories of acts of filial piety found in the Chinese classics. During the enactment of the ancestral rituals children are always present, and they are constantly reminded of their duty to the parents to enact the rituals. One mother explained to her young son, “Look at the way that I am carrying out the rituals. Remember that you must do the same for me when I pass away.” Thus, the ritual care of the dead serves to reinforce to the young their duty to the ancestors and their living parents. Throughout the funeral, the symbol of xiao is manifest. Large Chinese characters, such as zhong xiao chuan jia, which translates as “loyalty, filiality, and the provisions of sons for continuing the family name,” are placed before the coffin. Pictures depicting the twenty-four acts of supreme filial piety are also prominently displayed. Similarly, in the ancestral hall, the words zhong xiao, literally meaning “loyalty and filiality,” are affixed on the main entrance. These symbols serve two purposes. First, they act as a message to the public that the value of xiao is a family tradition, a virtue held in high regard by the family. Second, they serve as a constant reminder to descendants of their duty to the parents. Filial piety is not only a highly regarded value, but because it is constantly invoked in the performance of ancestral rituals, its existence actually defines a set of obligatory behavior that is required of the individual and family. In fact, it is noted that the mourning pins worn by the descendants are actually known as xiao bu, the same term used to denote filial piety. Many informants expressed surprise when asked why funerals are necessary. To them the answer is simply, “Duty requires that it must be done.” This is true even if the relationship between parents and sons are estranged. At one funeral, a son, who had not returned home for years after quarreling with his father, took part in the funeral. Ancestral rituals are a reciprocal response of sons in repayment of a debt, an extension of the duty that a son owes his parents through life. There is a close connection between the ethical values which are thought to maintain social order and the enactment of death rituals. Because of this, ethics provide a moral sanction for social and religious behavior. They take on a transcendental quality and become a powerful motivator of social behavior. In fact, they assume an obligatory nature where failure to perform prescribed rituals open the descendants to strong moral sanctions, both from society as well as from the transcendental beings—the ancestors. As Weber suggests, “…the system of inviolable norms is considered sacred, and infraction of them would result in magical or religious evils.”10
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Informants maintain that the perpetuation of the family name is of utmost importance, and even today, most Chinese parents in Singapore claim that they prefer male children in order to continue the family name. Citing classical injunctions, one informant said, “Of the three unfilial acts, the greatest is the lack of posterity.” The idea is that the failure to provide sons would mean an end to the family name. In extreme circumstances, parents of a dead unmarried son would conduct a “ghost marriage” on the son’s behalf in order to gain sons to continue the family line.11 More commonly, a son is adopted for the same reason. During the funeral, the importance of family continuity is exemplified by raising the status of the eldest grandson to that of son of the deceased. In the graveyard, the personal name of the deceased on the gravestone is painted green, to signify death. The family name, however, is always inscribed in red, symbolizing that it never dies but is perpetuated by the descendants. Death rituals and social differentiation Death rituals distinguish the kin group from outsiders, and informants have clear ideas about who can and cannot participate in the funeral rituals. Only relatives of the deceased, that is, those within the wu dai or five generations, are allowed to take part in the rituals. They have the privilege and obligation to wear the mourning garments. For non-kin to don a mourning garment would not only be construed as silly but foolhardy, as it would place the person in danger of attacks by the deceased. Funeral rituals therefore have the effect of consolidating the family unit and affirming the social relations within the group by juxtaposing the “us” against the “them.” This social boundary is often articulated in terms of the cosmology of ancestors versus ghosts. Ancestors are considered as zi ji ren, or literally “one’s own people.” Other people’s ancestors, however, are regarded as dangerous ghosts. The differentiation between family members and outsiders is also manifested in the strict rules regarding the placement of ancestral tablets on the family ancestral altar. Only family members in the patrilineal line of descent have a right to have their ancestral tablets erected there. Freedman suggests that tablets of non-kin can be found on the domestic ancestral altar12 but informants met this suggestion with skepticism. Death rituals highlight the exclusiveness of the kin group by clearly displaying their membership and setting them against outsiders, separating the family from the community. This point is most clearly exemplified by the placement of a screen before the coffin (see Plate 4.1). At the funeral, the coffin is surrounded on three sides by canvas sheets, effectively blocking it from public view.13 The screen acts as a symbolic as well as a physical barrier between family members and outsiders, between those who can come into direct contact with the dead and those who cannot. Similarly, ritual precautions, such as the giving of red threads and candles to ward off the evil influences of death, are only necessary for visitors, and not required for the kin of the deceased.
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Plate 4.1 The ritual screen and the altar to the deceased.
Death rituals demarcate the kin group against outsiders, and illuminate formal kinship relations by highlighting segmentations and hierarchies within the group. The assumption is that every social relationship in Chinese society is, by definition, unequal. Anderson notes, for example: The fundamental conceptions about social groups (among the Chinese) are centripetal and hierarchical, rather than boundary oriented and horizontal.14 The social relationships between every person in Chinese society, at least on the public level, are clearly ordered and characterized by strategic stratifications. According to Confucius, there are five universal principles: those of the relationship between ruler and minister, father and son, husband and wife, elder and younger brother, and between friends. It is important to note that, except for the last one, they are all asymmetrical. Properly observed, in an ideal world there can therefore be no conflict within Chinese society since these principles bind everyone to one another by a set of duty and obligations. Furthermore, this hierarchy is not only reflected in the society’s idea of reality; it is also cosmologically oriented, as status differentiations are embedded in the rituals. In fact, grades of mourning in traditional Chinese society are institutionalized and written into the law of the state, which imposes a duty of mourning upon the people, sanctioned by punishment by the courts.15 The wearing of mourning
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garments clearly demonstrates the hierarchical nature of Chinese society. It is not only a symbol that the family is in mourning; it also highlights the social divisions within the group. As described earlier, the mourning garments are differentiated by the type, coarseness, and color of the garments. Thus, by looking at the mourning garments, any observer can immediately deduce the relationship between a particular mourner and the deceased, since mourning grades are based on the formal consanguinal and affinal ties to the deceased. The coarser the clothes, the closer the person is to the dead and to death. Moreover, there is an array of proper behaviors expected of each group of mourners, ranging from the amount of grief a person must show to the number of hours he must spend in the presence of the dead at the funeral vigil. Behavior that does not fulfill the expectations of the mourning grade opens the person to criticism and gossip. In one case, for example, one of the sons spent his nights sleeping instead of keeping watch over the coffin. This was considered to be extremely irresponsible and he was accused by other siblings of being an unfilial son. Fourth and fifth order mourners, however, are not required to observe the overnight vigil although, if they do so, they are often singled out for praise. The hierarchical nature of Chinese society is reinforced by the conventions of social distance between the living and the dead. At every point in the ritual performance, there are strict rules regarding the physical distance required between an individual and the deceased. Sons always stand nearest to the deceased, the eldest son before his siblings. They are followed by daughters-inlaw, daughters, etcetera, staggered according to the degree of consanguinal and affinal relations to the deceased.16 The generation-agesex principle which operates in the organization of family and social relations in Chinese society is thereby made manifest in the death rituals. Formal kinship distinctions become apparent, since the position of any person in the ritual hierarchy is a reflection of his status in the family hierarchy. Again, there is much obligatory behavior accompanying the right to be close to the dead. This hierarchical contrast is also concretized by the placement of ancestral tablets on the family altar. At one level, through the rules of admissions, the altar acts as a boundary between family and non-family members. At another, by the rules of placement, it also differentiates the family. The ancestral tablets of the elder generation are placed before the younger generation, the older having precedence over the younger if they are from the same generation, and males are placed on the right side, females on the left. The private world—conflicts and resolutions This analysis, until now, has centered on the public feature of the death rituals, which emphasizes the unity of the family group by setting it against outsiders, and kinship relationships that are formal and clearly specified. However, Bourdieu correctly notes that the implication of defining a group by genealogical
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Plate 4.2 The various grades of mourning. Note the elaborate funeral hearse in the background.
relationships linking its members has the effect of treating kinship as the necessary and sufficient condition of group unity. But as soon as we ask explicitly about the functions of kinship relationships, we cannot fail to notice that those uses of kinship, which may be called genealogical, are reserved for official situations in which they serve the function of ordering the social world and of legitimizing that order.17 For a more complete analysis, a distinction must be made between what Bourdieu terms as “representational kinship,” which refers to the group’s selfpresentation and the almost theatrical representation it gives itself, and the “effectively mobilized” function of kinship, where people use kinship relations for practical purposes.18 The effects of death on the private informal level must be examined but this does not negate the importance of the prior analysis. Mian zi, or “face,” and the public presentation of the family are extremely important. As such, the formal attributes of death rituals are significant. What is therefore suggested is that an analysis of the informal level will add depth and color to the total picture. Conflicts over ritual enactment The ambience of the ritual process at the private level away from the scrutiny of the public, can be characterized as one punctuated by incidences of conflict, argument, tension, backbiting, and unhappiness. The first sign of dissension often occurs as soon as the father draws his last breath when disagreements immediately surface regarding the types and ways the rituals are to be enacted. In
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one case, for example, an argument broke out over the kind of religious specialists required. One group, consisting of a few younger siblings, wanted Taoist priests to conduct the funeral. The eldest son, however, insisted that Buddhist priests are necessary, emphasizing the fact that his father had been a Buddhist all his life and would feel more comfortable with Buddhist rituals. This argument, in fact, delayed the enactment of the rituals for some time until it was decided that the mother should be consulted. When she sided with the eldest son, the younger siblings were visibly upset and one person muttered, “Mother always sided with Eldest Brother anyway.” In another dispute, there were disagreements on whether the deceased should be cremated or buried. Some family members insisted that a burial was the proper way to dispose of the dead, arguing, “This is the way it has always been done in the past.” However, this was met with opposition by others, who noted that with the government’s policy of reclamation of land for redevelopment, it was only a matter of time before the father’s grave would have to be exhumed and the remains cremated anyway. It is interesting that the relatively cheaper cost of cremation over burial was not a reason given by those preferring cremation. Conflicts also commonly arise with regard to the type of coffin needed, the site of the burial, the location of the ancestral tablets, the types of mourning garments to be worn, etcetera. These arguments between different factions within the family are often compounded by the presence of many seeming “religious experts,” typically older female relatives of the deceased. With each person claiming knowledge of the rituals, they quarrel among themselves, often invoking tradition as a legitimization of what they consider to be the correct ritual sequence, using such statements as “This is the way it has always been done,” or, “This was how it was carried out in China.” How do we account for the confusion and conflicts in the process of ritual enactment? One explanation may lie in the fact that ancestor worship is a folk religion, in which the beliefs and rituals are transmitted orally from generation to generation, with no set canon or a defined clergy that is normally found in more institutionalized religions. To a degree, Chinese death rituals negate the necessity of total knowledge of the rituals. Their function and degree of efficacy is instead often a subjective matter, based on the meanings imposed on the rituals by the ritual sponsors. Even though many of the tenets of ritual practice are written in classical injunctions, such as the Li Chi and Xiao Jing, in the enactment of the rituals themselves, there are often variations and the rules often undergo modification and adaptation.19 Thus the very ambiguity of Chinese death rituals allows the participants to define their meaning and significance. In fact, many of the variations observed in the ritual process may be attributed to the personal choices of the main ritual sponsors. The resolution of many conflicts often comes down to who holds the most influence within the family.20 For example, in one case when only two mourning grades were found, it was revealed that this had been the wish of the eldest son, and finally acceded to by all the other family members. But the eldest son does not always get the final say. In one case, the
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eldest son was old and unemployed, and it was the third son, a successful businessman, who made most of the decisions regarding the funeral. The formal kinship hierarchy in the public arena gives way to a dynamic process of strategic manipulation of power, in which status, wealth and economic achievements are just as important as formal kinship ordering. In the death rituals, it can be argued that conflicts and disagreements arise out of a desire of individuals or groups of individuals to control the rituals, both in their performance and intended meanings. Control of the rituals, as will become increasingly apparent as the analysis proceeds, is extremely important. If death rituals are to be seen in terms of calculated self-interest, then the ability to regulate the rituals implies both a control of the deceased and the dominance of one individual or faction in the family over other siblings and kin. By influencing the deceased and manipulating his corpse, these descendants can derive the benefits accrued through the ritual enactment for themselves, most clearly exemplified in fengshui practice and the attempts to appropriate the soul of the deceased.21 Another source of conflict centers around the issue of money, both in terms of the amount that each son is expected to contribute as well as during the process of fen jia, the division of the property of the deceased. The cost of a funeral, it may be recalled, runs into thousands of dollars, and all family members, in particular sons, contribute toward the expenses. Disagreements often erupt as to the amount that each person is expected to contribute. One case typifies the nature of the conflicts. In this family, the eldest son insisted that each of the sons should pay an equal share on the premise that, “since we are all his sons, all of us should bear the same burden.” This, however, was met with adamant opposition from three younger siblings, who felt that the two elder brothers should pay a greater share. One of them reasoned, “Eldest Brother, being the eldest, should pay the most, since father left the house to him. Second Brother, a doctor, is the richest and thus should also contribute a greater share since it was Father who provided money for him to go to college.” The two elder brothers joined forces and started accusing the younger siblings of being stingy. As the second brother retorted, “Youngest Brother had always been father’s favorite. Now he turns around and acts in such an unfilial manner.” The fight was not limited to the sons, with the rest of the family, daughters and daughters-in-law, taking sides with one of the two factions. Although a compromise was finally reached, the dispute was not amicably resolved, and the conflict over money spilled into other areas to the extent that, whenever one group suggested something, the other faction disagreed with them. The disagreements were also brought to the attention of the deceased, with the eldest son heard praying to the father in a loud voice, within hearing of the other family members, complaining about the unfilial behavior of his younger siblings. It is important to note that, even though the conflicts are often heated and highly emotional, they are seldom made known to the public. As far as the formal enactment of the rituals is concerned, the idea is that all sons contributed equally to make the funeral an elaborate affair. Thus, funerals are seen, at least publicly,
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as the joint effort of filial descendants. There is, however, an underlying current of conflict running beneath the surface of formal unity. Turner observes that, although rituals are aimed at the reanimation of norms, conflicts are an inherent part of many rituals, with portrayals of conflicts underscoring the segregation of social groups, the verbalization of which is often inappropriate.22 In the case of the Chinese, overt verbalizations are sanctioned. Conflicts arise and are resolved, even if only partially, within the private domain of the family group. An important consequence of examining conflict is that it illuminates the allegiances and factions within the family group. It also makes obvious the fact that social relationships are dynamic, not static, with death allowing for the working out of problematic relationships within the family. Despite the Confucian prescription that younger siblings must respect and obey the elder, in reality, the relationship is a tenuous one, marked by a high degree of sibling rivalry.23 Therefore, kinship relationships which are ritually formalized at the public level are not so rigidly realized in the private sphere. Bourdieu points out the fact that, because people are genealogically closely related and in close proximity, does not guarantee unificatory efficacy. In fact, the closest genealogical relationship, that between brothers, is also the point of greatest tension. In short, the genealogical relationship is not strong enough on its own to provide a complete determination of the relationship between the individuals it unites, and it has such predictive value only when it is combined with shared interests, produced by the common possession of a material and symbolic patrimony.24 Among the Chinese, men—brothers—compete with one another for the accumulation of “symbolic capital.” Women—wives—exercise informal power, fighting on behalf of their husbands, or by proxy through their sons, to achieve the same ends. The fact that much of the discord arises over money suggests that to a degree, the conflicts are economically motivated. In the division of an estate, for example, there are often arguments regarding the share each person is entitled to. There are also differing views among informants as to whether each son is entitled to an equal share of the estate, or if the rules of primogeniture apply. Moreover, it is not uncommon for well-to-do Chinese men to have more than one wife. The resolution of shares in the estate by sons, half-brothers, and illegitimately-born children is therefore often the basis of family struggles. In fact, some of these cases are finally resolved by the courts, many of which are accompanied by publicity in the mass-media. This is, however, looked upon with disdain by many informants. Disagreements also relate to who can be allowed to participate in the funeral. Ideally, this should not be a problem as mourning rules are defined by the wu fu. In reality, however, complications often arise. In one case, the deceased had an adopted son. Some family members insisted that, because he was a foster son, he had no right to wear the mourning garments of a first order mourner. Others felt that he was like a “real” son, and should therefore be treated as such. The person in question insisted that, either he was allowed to be a first order mourner, or he
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would not participate at all. He was finally allowed to stand in the ritual hierarchy as a son, but had to wear a blue mourning pin instead of the hemp ones normally worn by first grade mourners. The right to participate in the funeral has more to do than merely social rights or status. If, as I will argue later, the participation in the rituals relates to the right to inherit from the deceased, then it is not surprising that so many conflicts arise. In a sense, the mourning garments not only define the membership of the group; they also delineate who has a right to inherit from the dead. Siblings compete with one another for the affections of the dead; each trying to “out-filialize” one another. For example, the food offerings made to the deceased during the funeral and at all important ancestral rituals are provided on an individual basis by each of the sons. Siblings often try to outdo one another through the presentation of larger and more elaborate sacrifices. Moreover, when performing the bai, they make sure that the dead father knows that they are making a special offering. Competition for the affections of the deceased was also observed in ritualized weeping. Weeping is often taken as a measure of filiality to the deceased. Not to show grief or not showing enough grief is perceived as being unfilial and opens the person to gossip and backbiting from others. There is a degree of “competitive weeping,” as mourners, particularly daughters-in-law, try to outcry one another. Momentum increases and the crying get louder and louder, rising to a final crescendo. Each person is demonstrating to the deceased that he or she is the one most grief-stricken and distressed by the death. Family members are observed to be engaged in constant activity, from the burning of joss paper to the nightly vigil. Busyness is viewed as a good thing as it is a way of demonstrating to the deceased one’s devotion. A person who is not busy is often accused of being unfilial. The desire to outdo others gives a clue to one feature of Chinese death rituals; that is, by demonstrating to the deceased one’s filiality and loyalty, a person hopes to further self-interest, expecting the deceased to reciprocate with material rewards. There is a sense that the dead do not bless their descendants equally. Just as a person had favorites in life, so too they also have them in death. An activity that is frequently observed at funerals clearly illustrates this. Family members are observed to go near the side of the coffin and peer intently at it. According to one member of the family, these people are looking for “lucky numbers” from the deceased, with the numbers supposedly materializing on the surface of the coffin. This action is normally carried out on an individual basis. Clearly, the set of numbers that each person obtains will be different from the rest. Because of this, one member of the family may win the lottery while another may not. The descendant who wins the lottery is thought to be singled out for blessings by the deceased. The dead are also said to be capable of playing tricks on the descendants and it is said that an ancestor can give numbers which are slightly wrong.25 This is often taken as a sign from the ancestor that he is unhappy with that particular descendant.
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Tensions between the individual and the social group Many studies on the Chinese have emphasized the dominance of the collectivity over the individual. Baker, for instance, stressed the ascendancy of the family: The individual alive is a personification of all his forebears and all his descendants yet unborn. His existence as an individual is necessary but insignificant besides his representative of the whole.26 The ethnographic evidence, however, suggests that ritual sponsors have vested interests in performing the rituals, resulting in conflict and competition between siblings. This is not, however, to say that an individual is only interested in a rational, premeditated selfish evaluation of his personal interests above all else, regardless of the interests of others in the family and community. Instead, what is suggested is that there is a constant tension between the desires of an individual and the needs of the social group. In other words, among the egoistical wishes of individuals, an important part comprises their quest for and conception of the symbolic order, of the good society. This quest constitutes a basic, although differentiated, component of the whole panorama of social and cultural activities, orientations and goals.27 Consensus and conflicts coexist in the ritual process, just as in social life in general. Conflict and competition, however, are generally kept from the public view. For instance, the reason given for storing the father’s ancestral tablet in a Mahayana Buddhist temple rather than in the home of the eldest son was that the ancestor would be happier in the temple since the priests would chant prayers for him daily. Similarly, the rationale for having many bands at the funeral is to create a festive atmosphere for the deceased. Being hidden, however, does not mean that these representations are not known. Obviously, any person who has had a death in his family is aware of the conflicts that often arise during the ritual process. This known yet misrepresented, seen yet hidden, attribute of death rituals is an important feature of Chinese social life, most clearly illustrated in the idea of gift-giving. When a person gives a gift, for example at a wedding, the gift of money must be placed inside a hong bao or red packet; that is, it is hidden from view. Moreover, the gift is given unobtrusively, pressed into the palm of the hand during the handshake or quickly slipped into the groom’s pockets. By hiding the gift, the amount of money given is supposedly unknown. However, it is clear that there are unwritten rules regarding how much money is expected.28 To give an insufficient amount opens that particular person to gossip and ridicule. Giving too large a gift is disruptive as it obliges the recipient to reciprocate on other occasions with an even larger gift. In sum, there is an internal message to death ritual enactment. Everyone is aware that conflict and competition exist in the private sphere, but there is a mutual hiding of these conflicts under the cover of ethical imperatives.
5 BONES AND SOULS Death and inheritance
The previous chapter has shown that descent is one of the factors for death ritual performance. This, however, cannot fully explain why the rituals have to be so elaborate, even among people who cannot afford them, or why so many instances of conflict and competition among family members occur during the process of ritual performance. In his classic work, The Gift, Mauss suggests that the giving of a gift institutes an obligation to receive and to reciprocate the initial gift: Prestations which are in theory voluntary, disinterested and spontaneous, are in fact obligated and interested. The form often taken is that of a gift generously offered, but the accompanying behavior is formal pretence and social deception while the transaction itself is based on obligation and economic self-interest.1 Bourdieu advances the idea of “symbolic capital,” in which the giving of a gift and the projected countergift has the: effect of transforming into mechanical sequences of obligatory acts the at once risky and necessary improvisation of the everyday strategies which owe their infinite complexity to the fact that the giver’s undeclared calculation must reckon with the receiver’s undeclared calculation, and hence satisfy his expectations without appearing to know what they are.2 Similarly, death also provides an arena for the acceleration of exchange, both between the living and the dead, and between the family and the community. Gifts, in the form of property, wealth, authority, status and power are transacted. Through an analysis of the symbols invoked during the ritual enactment, particularly with respect to the treatment of the soul and bones, these exchange processes will be illuminated. Before proceeding to do this, however, it is useful to examine the nature of Chinese ancestors.
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Pervasive influence of ancestors Informants do not view death as the termination of a person’s existence, but merely as a phase of transition to another world from which he continues to participate in the activities of his family. Ancestors play important roles in every aspect of social life. They are present at the three most important life events of a person; their birth, marriage and death. Daily sacrifices at the family altar remind the descendants of the omnipresent status of the ancestors. At all important familial events, such as embarking on a long journey, starting a new business, or choosing a marriage partner, the ancestors are consulted and their blessings requested. But the influence of ancestors is not just limited to major life events. In fact, they are consulted even in the mundane affairs of life, from buying lottery tickets to the right time for spring-cleaning the home. Ancestors are perceived to have the same needs and desires as their living descendants. This is illustrated by the variety of items sacrificed to the dead, including combs, cigarettes, and cars, as the ancestors will supposedly continue to use them in the Otherworld. Ancestors are conceived of as real, and their comfort is therefore equated with the comfort of the living descendants. For example, in one home, a small potted plant was placed over the ancestral tablets. According to the mother, The ancestral tablets are in a position where they are exposed to the afternoon sun. The plant gives shade and will make the ancestors feel more comfortable. The Chinese conceive of a close interdependence existing between the dead and the living. The worlds of living and the dead can be said to form a homologous whole, with the ancestors dependent on their descendants for their daily needs, while the living, in turn, look to the dead for assistance in solving daily problems. The dead also need the living to enact proper funeral rituals to ensure that they will not become hungry ghosts, while the living require aid to ensure success in human enterprises. There is, therefore, a constant process of exchange. Gifts, in the form of food, money, houses, cars, and even airplanes are regularly sacrificed to the ancestors, with such gifts being reciprocated with countergifts of luck, wealth, good health, and long life. There is a sense that physical transactions of commodities can be conducted between the two worlds. To draw on a concrete example, informants suggested that the dead actually consume the food offered to them. The food, obviously, does not disappear, but most ritual participants will say that food which has been offered to the dead tastes different as, they insist, the ancestor has consumed the essence of the food. Life is also treated as a commodity, as is demonstrated in the case of a man who lived to the age of ninety-three. Because the informants so value longevity, three years are generally added to the actual age at death, so in this instance, the
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death banner should have read that the man died at the age of ninety-six. After prayers to the deceased, however, it was decided that, because the man had lived such a long life, the three years should not be added, but instead saved for the benefit of his sons. The sense here is that life itself is a commodity that can be transacted, a gift from fathers to sons. An examination of what is sought from the ancestors during the rituals demonstrates this element of calculated self-interest. The items most commonly requested from the ancestors are for wealth and prosperity. For example, during the worship of the dead, a typical prayer would go, Dear ancestor, we are offering elaborate sacrifices of food and money as a gift to you. In return, bless us with good fortune and good health. or We are filial descendants who come yearly to clean your grave and offer sacrifices. Give us a lucky lottery number so that when we strike it rich, we will return next year to completely rebuild your grave. In fact, one of the most common sights at a graveyard is a woman kneeling before the gravestone, a small red can in her hand. Inside are ten slips of paper, numbered zero to nine. She shakes the can vigorously while pleading for a lucky number, until a slip drops out. Quickly she opens the slip, memorizes the number, puts it back in the can, and repeats the action four times. The four-digit lucky number, viewed as a gift from the ancestor, is used for gambling. The implication is that the assistance of the ancestors can be sequestered to ensure success in social life. Another popular request has to do with the education of children. It is hoped that, with the ancestors’ help, the children will do well in school. In one case, for example, a woman explained that her son was getting good grades in school because her grandfather, who was a magistrate in China, was taking care of his descendants. The interests of the ancestor are also served; she claimed that her son’s achievements brought pride and honor to the ancestor. She attributed her son’s success to the fact that she has been faithful in making offerings to the ancestor. The third category of bai centers on the attainment of good health and long life. The bai given by the descendants to the ancestors often sounds like a business transaction. It is also important to point out that the bai are often done in a quiet whisper that can be likened to a private conversation between the person and the ancestor. The proper treatment of the dead, through the expenditure of great amounts of money for elaborate rituals, is tied to the idea that the correct treatment will ensure a reciprocal response from the ancestors, and guarantee benefits for the ritual sponsors.
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Death and the inheritance of property Johnston, working in the Shantung Province, notes that the possession of property, particularly landed property, is a critical motivation for the continuation of the ancestral rites; often expressed in the saying, “mei yu ch’anyeh, mei yu shen chu,” or literally, “without ancestral property, there will be no ancestral tablets.” Thus, persons who are responsible for the loss of family property are no longer worshiped.3 Similarly, Ahern suggests, that for the people of Chi’nan, one factor in the obligation to worship the dead is property inheritance. The living are expected to care for the dead in repayment of debts: The cult is a bundle of distinct and separable acts that depend on various relations between the living and the dead. When the dead leaves property, whoever inherits it must reciprocate with worship.4 Yet, while inheritance creates an obligation to worship the deceased, failure to hand down property may result in the negation of the duty of making tablets for the deceased, causing the ancestor to be denied worship: It may be that one aspect of the cult of ancestor worship, the duty of making tablets for the deceased, is a reciprocal of the obligation of fathers to hand on ancestral property to their sons.5 Data from Singapore suggests that the inheritance of property is still very much a part of death ritual effectuation.6 In one case, for example, a man who was to enter the hospital for a major operation gathered all his sons to tell them that, if he was to die, how he was to be buried and how the property was to be divided. Generally, property is only divided among the sons after the death of the father; in fact, it is interesting to note that after the death of the deceased, one of the first things prepared and distributed to sons is a set of bowls and chopsticks. According to informants, this signifies the passing of the home to the sons and the maintenance of the continuity of the family line. There is a sense among the informants that to fen jia, meaning to “divide the household,” before the father’s death is not only an unfilial act, but also opens the family to ridicule from the community. Thus, property and wealth can only be divided after the completion of all the required rituals.7 It is the very execution of the funeral rituals that give sons the right to appropriate the property of the deceased. Only after all the rituals are performed and the soul is safely transferred to the Otherworld does the deceased relinquish his rights to the property. The end of the funeral signifies that the now benevolent spirit gladly gives his property to his descendants in repayment for their help in his difficult journey through Hell and his elevation to the status of ancestor. Obversely, failure to enact the proper rituals negates the right of descendants to inherit from the dead.
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In this world, a person without a home, money, or food is considered to be a beggar and the same holds true for the world of spirits; a homeless and hungry spirit is considered to be a “hungry ghost” or beggar-spirit. This is the reason why elaborate sacrifices are necessary. The giving of these gifts allows the deceased to convert from an unrefined hungry ghost into a property-owning spirit, as a person without property cannot conceivably become an ancestor. Thus, throughout the funeral, great care is taken to ensure that the deceased is adequately fed and that he always has some money in his hands. The giving of property to the deceased can be viewed as “threshold gifts,” marking the passage from one state to the next. Gifts of food, money and houses are not merely to appease the ancestor; they are agents of transformation. In exchange, the descendants inherit the property of the deceased. Threshold gifts do not only occur at death; they are given at all important points of social transition. For example, in the man yue, or full month ritual, the family of the child is expected to distribute gifts of red eggs and sweetcakes to relatives and friends. Similarly, in marriage rituals, the groom, accompanied by his parents, must distribute cakes and other gifts. These gifts must be reciprocated with return gifts of red packets filled with money. It is important to note, however, that even the poor and those who do not leave any inheritance are given the benefit of a funeral and an ancestral tablet, thus guaranteeing their worship. Even for these people, there is a desire to enact an elaborate funeral, and it is therefore suggested that what is important, and what motivates the descendant to spend so much money, is not simply the inheritance of the property of the deceased, but also the potential for greater benefits. By converting the deceased into a rich ancestor, the now well-off ancestor will see fit, and is in fact expected, to return the favor and reward the descendants with even more wealth. Thus, in one funeral that I attended, a relative said, If we give more to the deceased by burning lots of money to him, then he will know that we are filial descendants who ensured that he has a luxurious life in the Otherworld. If he is living well, how can he bear to see his descendants, who are responsible for his comfort, living poorly? This is why so much effort is put into dressing-up the dead to be more impressive than he actually was in this life. The clothes are lavish and elaborate, “to give the impression that the deceased was an important person, thus ensuring good treatment in his passage through Hell.”8 The potential for reciprocal gains may explain why descendants compete with one another for the affections of the deceased during the funeral. By impressing the dead father with one’s filiality and generosity, one hopes to increase the father’s obligation to reciprocate. Are sons expected to enact funeral rituals and continue with ancestral worship even if the father did not leave any property? In contrast to Johnston and Ahern,9 the answer seems to be an unequivocal yes, “How can we not worship him as he is our father?” is a common response to the question. One son noted adamantly,
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“My father brought me up, fed and clothed me; I have to pray to him now that he has passed away.” These responses suggest that transfer and inheritance of property must be seen within the context of total transactions between the deceased and his descendants. Thus, even if there is very little left to hand down by the time of death, the fact is that the sons are indebted to their father for raising them. In other words, we must consider the exchanges that took place between the deceased and his children during the father’s lifetime as well as after his death. The enactment of the funeral and the wearing of mourning garments can be viewed as a means of repaying a debt to the deceased. For example, a younger brother of the deceased said that he was participating in the funeral because his parents had died when he was still very young and his elder brother had taken care of him. Similarly, the words spoken at the bu yao ritual reinforce the idea of the funeral as a means of repaying debts owed to the deceased. It has been pointed out earlier that descent entails a necessary obligation to worship the dead. But this is not simply because of the consanguinal or affinal ties to the deceased; rather it is due to the fact that descent implies a certain debt owed to the deceased by the descendants. The inheritance of the deceased’s property increases the debt and obligation to propitiate the ancestor. This, however, does not only work in one direction. Because rituals are enacted on his behalf, the ancestor becomes indebted to the ritual sponsors and is obligated to repay the debt. But does property inheritance, in the absence of descent, require worship? I was unable to find a general consensus on this. Most informants suggest that it is descent that creates an obligation to worship the dead, and it is foolish to worship outsiders. There was, however, one exception. In this case, an outsider was placed on the family altar. This person, according to the mother of the household, had helped out the family during difficult times, and in fact, during the Japanese Occupation (1941–45), had saved her husband’s life. After his death, he returned to her in a dream and asked to be worshiped. In this case, a clay figurine, not an ancestral tablet, was made, and placed in a central location on the family altar. It must be stressed that this person was not regarded as an ancestor, but as a shen; that is, a personal god worshiped by the family. There is a preponderance of money symbols in the course of death ritual enactment. For example, family members continually burn joss money to the deceased. The inside of the coffin is stuffed full of joss paper and joss money is strewn all over the funeral site as well. The largest offering of money is carried out just prior to the burial, when a huge pile of joss paper, sometimes several feet high, is burned. Indeed, at every important juncture in the death rituals, money is burned for the dead. There are several types of spirit money. The most common is jin zi, literally gold paper. It is made from sheets of joss paper with a small piece of gold-colored paper pasted in the middle. The second type is called yin zi, or silver paper. It looks like the jin zi except that it has a silver-colored piece of paper in the center. Although spirit-money is made of paper, it is thought to replicate real gold and silver which is demonstrated by the common practice of
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folding the joss paper into intricate shapes resembling gold and silver ingots. Folding the paper, according to informants, increases the value of the money. The third type of spirit money are called “Hell Bank Notes.” These look like real dollar bills except that they come in very large denominations of ten thousand dollars. Money burnt for the dead is perceived by informants to be real and are not simply symbolic representations. The spirit money is said to be actually used as legal tender in the Otherworld, a view shared by the Chinese in nineteenthcentury Amoy, It would be a great mistake to suppose that sending mock articles of paper to the next world through the agency of flames was ever considered in China as only an expression of the goodwill of the survivors to enrich the dead on yonder side of the grave. Numerous exhortations, addressed to the people in sundry books, never to neglect such sacrifices because they really do enrich the dead, point unmistakably to the contrary.10 Thus the dead, informants claim, actually benefit from the sacrifices. For instance, another common type of joss paper, yellow “chant paper,” is often burned. Informants contend that, as priests had chanted prayers over the paper, ancestors will hear the prayers when the paper is burned. According to them, the burning of spirit money is important because it ensures the comfort and wealth of the ancestors. Fire acts as the agent of transformation, with burning transforming the money into something useful. It is therefore its very destruction that makes the money into something valuable. Partially-burned money cannot be utilized. Rituals are conducted to ensure that the ancestors receive the sacrifices, and that the money has not been stolen by other spirits (see Plate 5.1). Spirit money acts as a medium of exchange between the living and the dead. It creates a reciprocal relationship, enhancing the social interaction between the two parties. By burning lots of money, the living place the dead in their debt. The debt must be repaid in kind, with accumulated interest. Money is also important because it paves the way of the deceased into the Otherworld. It can be used to bribe the “judges of Hell” to ensure a smooth journey. Similarly, in the nai he qiao ritual, coins are tossed into a bowl of water placed under the bridge to appease any malicious spirits who may be blocking the way. Finally, paper money, known as mai lu qian, literally “money for opening the way,” is strewn along the route to the graveyard to ensure an uninterrupted journey. Wolf suggests that the various forms of mock money reflect the division of the spirits in the supernatural world. According to him, gods are offered gold joss paper while ancestors and ghosts get silver joss paper.11 This is not the case in Singapore where it is noted that gods, ghosts and ancestors are offered both gold and silver joss paper. Instead, the burning of joss money demarcates the family unit. It was observed that married daughters use gold joss paper when sacrificing to the ancestor while sons and daughters-in-law burn silver joss paper.
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Plate 5.1 The burning of goods and money to the deceased.
Transfer of authority The analysis of inheritance cannot be limited to material property, but must take immaterial property into account as well. Many things exchanged during the death rituals have no fixed value. Authority and status clearly fall within this purview and are items that are exchanged at the death rituals. It can be suggested that the very act of burying the father signifies the transfer of authority from the father to the son. Death rituals also allow for the displacement of the dead. The son is henceforth called the jia-zhang, the head of the family, a position that has power as well as responsibilities. Through the disposal of the father’s corpse, the son assumes the role of social as well as ritual leader. Before death the father led all family rituals. Now the son is the main ritual sponsor. This is symbolized during the funeral by the son carrying a mourning staff, a wooden stick with a piece of white cloth tied at the end. The staff signifies the transfer of authority from father to son. As DeGroot notes, “The staff being not only a badge of mourning, but also a symbol of authority.”12 Authority, however, does not work only in one direction, as the deceased continues to exert control even after death. In fact, the legitimacy of the authority of the new jia zhang must draw on the influence of the deceased father. Shuzo Shiga, for example, suggests that, for the Chinese, the concept of personhood is one by which, during the father’s lifetime, the son’s personality is absorbed into the father’s, while, after the latter’s death, his personality is then absorbed into
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that of his son.13 It is therefore suggested that a funeral has the effect of transforming the deceased into a spirit with charismatic authority.14 It is this charismatic authority of the deceased that legitimizes the authority of the sons, as is evidenced in the nature of social control within the Chinese family. For instance, whenever a child does something wrong, he is told that he is being unfilial to the ancestors and will have to be punished. In one case, a boy aged ten was punished by his parents for smoking a cigarette. He had to kneel before the family ancestral altar for three days. In this sense, punishment is not seen as being meted out by the father, but by a supernatural personality, the ancestor. Imbuing the ancestor with charisma has the effect of making the requirement of obedience a compelling duty. The obligation to obey the father becomes a moral imperative, seen as part of a moral order that is sacred and fundamental. As Talcott Parsons suggests, the authority of the leader does not express the “will” of his followers, but rather their duty and obligations.15 Moreover, by elevating the deceased into a transcendent and eternal force, the social group is not just anchored by political power, but also by emotions, beliefs and fears. As Maurice Bloch suggests, “Society is made emotionally and intellectually unassailable by means of transforming the dead.”16 Two separate processes are involved in the transfer of authority. By burying the father, hereditary charisma, or Erbcharisma, is passed on to the son. By enjoining the father to the body of ancestral spirits, charisma is routinized as Amtcharisma,17 or the charisma of the office. The process of transferring the unique personality of a person into an orderly structure ensures the succession of the jia zhang and the continuity of the family organization. Freedman suggests that, in modern China, no son is able to wrest property and authority from his father at the moment of his death, and thereafter exert that authority in his own right. Although sons usually inherit most of their share of the family property at the death of their father, a man who falters because of illness or old age may readily hand over domestic authority and even his property to his sons in advance of his death. Furthermore, sons usually marry before the death of their fathers, attaining full status as mature men. Thus, according to Freedman, they “do not look upon him as a serious barrier to the attainment of their economic and ritual maturity.”18 Two separate issues are involved here, however. One is the transfer of real authority; the other is the transfer of ritual authority. Clearly the former can be done before the father’s death, as in the case of a weak father and a strong son who usurps the authority of his unwilling father. Even so, most informants suggest that authority can only be transferred after the father’s death. More importantly, this usurping of authority is only possible within the domestic family unit. In the public arena, authority is never transferred until the father’s death. For example, it is noted that sons do not join clan associations before the demise of the father, even if the sons are
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economically independent. The norm is that the father, as long as he is alive, represents the whole family in the eyes of the community. In regard to ritual authority, while it is true that sons may become economically independent before their father’s death, they can never assume the mantle of leading the ritual worship, however strong-willed or rich they may be. Similarly, Ahern notes that in Chi’nan, as long as one parent or the other is alive, a son is denied full participation in the ancestral rites.19 As already pointed out, the position of being the main ritual sponsor is extremely important in terms of control of the rituals and access to the ancestors. Thus, the father always has access to ritual control, even if he, as sometimes happens, is denied physical control over his sons. The relationship between economic independence and ritual worship is especially relevant in the case of Singapore where it is not uncommon for sons to set up neolocal household units as soon as they are married. However, it is noted that there are no ancestral tablets in these homes. Before the father’s death, sons have to return to the main house for ritual worship to the ancestors. It is only after the father’s death that they can set up their own altars. Any discussion on the inheritance of property and authority among the Chinese must also grapple with the problem of primogeniture. There are different views regarding whether rules of primogeniture actually exist in Chinese society. Part of the problem stems from different notions of the ideal family structure and the actual family network. Ideally, the family is seen as a corporate group, with the eldest son succeeding the father in the senior line of descent. He has the largest share of the inheritance, takes charge of the ancestral trust and has a special position as the continuer of the main line of descent. It is important to note, however, that, although this is an ideal and not always followed in actual practice, it is an ideal that is held and aspired to by many informants. This is clearly evident in the preeminent role of the eldest son in the funeral and ancestral rituals. The eldest is first in line in all rituals and the one responsible for washing and feeding the dead. Moreover, the importance of the eldest son can be seen in the elevation of the eldest grandson to the status of a son during the rituals. But does the eldest son exercise effective control over his siblings? In light of earlier discussions, a distinction must be made between the public, formal level, and the private, familial level. In public, the rules of primogeniture clearly apply. Younger siblings cannot stand before the elder brother in the ritual hierarchy, regardless of how rich or successful they may be. The eldest son always gains control of the main ancestral tablet which never becomes the property of the younger siblings; at best, they have to make do with “substitution ancestral tablets.” However, this does not negate their ability to present elaborate sacrifices in their own home, compared to those made at the home of the eldest son, and, in the process, ensure the gratitude of the father. In private, or on the level of practical strategies, effective control of ritual enactment may rest with the younger sons.
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All sons inherit property from the deceased. But most informants agree that the eldest son always get a bigger share since he is responsible for carrying out routine ancestral rituals for the father. Moreover, even though no son can effectively replace his dead father, especially in the case of Singapore where there is a high degree of economic independence and occupational differentiation, there is a sense that the eldest son exerts control over his younger brothers in the ritual context. Younger siblings are expected to return to the home of the eldest to conduct rituals on important ritual days, such as the death anniversary of the father. Thus, even though a strong-willed or successful younger brother may exercise control over a weak or poor eldest son, the latter always has recourse to exert his dominant position in formal ritual enactment. Acquisition of status The performance of death rituals can be viewed as a measure of the social status of the deceased and his descendants. On observing an elaborate funeral, one often hears comments such as, “He died a good death; just look at the large number of people mourning for him,” or “He is a lucky man. He has so many sons to worship him and offer him sacrifices.” Elaborate funerals are an impressive sight. Many people, attracted by the loud music and activity, gather to view the passing of the funeral hearse. Funerals portray the public face of the family. An ostentatious display increases the status of the sponsor and sponsored, while a lackluster funeral will invite comments about the “stinginess” and unfiliality of the descendants. As Yang also suggests: the cult (affirms) relations with the wider social circle beyond the immediate family and (reasserts) the status of the family in the community.20 Status, or mian zi, is extremely important, and in the form of prestige and renown attached to a family, it is readily convertible back into economic capital. Bourdieu suggests that this is, in fact, probably the most important form of accumulation.21 Several key features of the funeral are used as indicators of social status. One of the most important is the coffin in which the deceased is buried. The first thing that visitors to the funeral often comment about is the quality of the coffin. A cheap coffin is a sign that the person and the descendants are so poor, “that they cannot even afford a comfortable home for the father.” Moreover, a coffin made of inexpensive wood is said to rot very fast, thus exposing the body to the elements. There is an inordinate fear that worms will infest the body of the deceased; an unfortunate event to be avoided at all cost. Obversely, an expensive and well-constructed coffin not only ensures comfort, but also indicates the prosperity of the deceased and his family. Many save money just to ensure that a good coffin is purchased.22
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Plate 5.2 The paper mansion.
The type of ritual specialists employed at the funeral is also a mark of status. Buddhist priests rank higher than Taoist priests who, in turn, rank higher than lay religious specialists. Buddhist priests are considered to be more knowledgeable about the rituals and more efficacious. Unsurprisingly, the cost of engaging Buddhist priests is substantially higher. Furthermore, it is not only the type of priests, but the number as well. At least three priests are required; the ability to hire seven priests further enhances the status of the family. The priests are supported by a large staff of musicians, helpers, and novices, who all add to the activity and elaborateness of the funeral. As previously noted, a large number of objects are burned as sacrifices to the deceased. As it is thought they are used in the Otherworld, the items are made to look as genuine as possible. The paper mansion sacrificed during the gong de for example, is over ten feet tall and elaborately decorated with trimmings and a full complement of miniature furniture (see Plate 5.2). This house costs thousands of dollars. Similarly, the paper-cars offered do not just resemble real cars, but are designed to look like “Mercedes-Benz” (see Plate 5.3). The “Mercedes-Benz,” a German-made car, is a symbol of wealth and affluence in Singapore; the type of car that a successful businessman or professional would own. By offering these obvious symbols of wealth, the deceased will be able to attain a high social standing in the Otherworld. These items are put on display and burned in open places in full view of the public, demonstrating the virtue of the family in offering elaborate sacrifices, and thereby enhancing their own social status.
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Plate 5.3 Various items sacrificed to the deceased. Note the chauffeur-driven MercedesBenz car.
In Singapore, the demise of a prominent person or rich businessman is conveyed by large announcements in the obituary sections of the newspapers. These advertisements can cost thousands of dollars. Often, they are placed by employees, friends or people with social or economic connections with the bereaved family. The death of a wealthy or important person is often accompanied by public notices that are several pages in length. Thus, the extent to which a death is publicized is a further indication of the social status of the person. Many people send wreaths, flowers and banners to a funeral. These banners—large pieces of multi-colored cloth with laudatory words, and the names of the contributors written on the side—are prominently displayed at the site of the funeral. The number of banners displayed indicates the importance and influence of the family. “An important person,” I was told, “will have many banners sent to him.” Other than being a measure of status, an elaborate funeral is also an indication of the ability of the family to mobilize social connections. There must be large crowds at the funeral as it demonstrates that many people are, in one way or another, obligated to take part in the funeral rituals. A long funeral procession immediately attracts the attention of the public. Obversely, a quiet funeral suggests that the dead was an insignificant person. Many people attend funerals to reciprocate an obligation or repay a debt, with employees of the deceased or his descendants expected to attend the funeral. It is
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also important to ensure the attendance of important persons as this enhances the prestige and status of the family. For instance, at one funeral, the presence of a Member of Parliament attracted the attention of many visitors. The notion is that the family must be important to be honored with such a visitation from a prominent political leader. Likewise, the attendance of the Prime Minister at the funeral of a prominent civic leader was given front-page coverage in all the newspapers, further raising the prestige of the family. Funerals are noisy affairs with large numbers of people coming and going, priests chanting prayers, discordant sounds made by musicians, people chatting, and the loud cracking of mahjong tiles; a scene that is occasionally punctuated by the loud cries of family members. There is a sense of constant activity, seen in the continual burning of joss paper, replacement and lighting of candles, daily feeding of the deceased, overnight vigils, friends performing bai at the altar, and constant cycle of rituals. When asked why funerals must be noisy, the answers seem to indicate that activity is a means of getting rid of the negative influences of death. Similarly, loud noises, in the form of music and fire-crackers, are meant to frighten away malicious spirits that might be lingering around the funeral. But activity is also clearly related to social status and prestige; the more movement or activity, the higher the status of the family. In the past, it was not unusual to find families hiring professional mourners to ensure that the funeral will be well-attended,23 but, nowadays it is more common to join mutual aid associations. These associations send representations to the funeral, thereby ensuring a large crowd. In short, a good funeral must be re nao, or activity-filled. Re nao connotes the idea of celebration and is seen as a good and desirable thing. It is not confined to the context of death rituals alone, but is a desirable attribute in all ritual performance, from weddings to the Chinese New Year. In sum, death provides an opportunity to elevate the status of the deceased in the Otherworld as well as demonstrate the status of the family in the community. To a degree, the actual financial resources or social status of the family is not an important consideration. An elaborate funeral enhances status, even if it means incurring debts in the process. In Amoy, DeGroot notes that, Even though the departed has never been invested with an official rank or dignity, a Mandarin’s retinue may likewise be seen in this part of the procession. The long-legged boards are then borrowed, either gratuitously or for money…. This manner of decking one’s deceased parent in borrowed plumes does not in the least shock anybody. On the contrary, everyone highly approves of this sort of thing, as the doctrines of filial devotion teach that it is a sacred duty on the part of the children and grandchildren to exalt and magnify their seniors as much as it is in their power.24 More than a mere sense of filial piety is involved here. A funeral is also an investment. Status is seen as an attribute that can be transferred between the dead
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and the living, a fact clearly exemplified by the practice of placing plaques of illustrious ancestors in the clan ancestral hall. Wooden boards of ascendants who had achieved high honors in the Imperial Examinations are honored in a central location because they add prestige to the present members in the clan. By the same token, the achievements of the present descendants bring pride to the ancestors. By elevating the status of the deceased in the Otherworld, descendants expect the return of a countergift to further enhance the status of the living. The fact that the deceased was a poor person in this world does not negate the possibility of him being transformed into a wealthy person in the Otherworld through the provision of expensive houses, clothes, cars and money by his descendants. Transactions at death rituals do not take place only between the dead ancestor and the living descendants; they also take place between the family and outsiders. Friends and visitors who come to the funeral must contribute some money towards meeting the expenses of the funeral. However, the very act of attending the funeral opens them to the dangers of death and, therefore, the bereaved family is obligated to make some form of reparation. The most basic is the provision of red threads and candles to ward off pollution. The family is also required to provide a meal to feed people who attend the funeral as well as an elaborate meal upon the completion of the burial. There is also an obligation for the bereaved family to send representatives when death rituals are enacted in the visitor’s family. Thus, death rituals also strengthen reciprocal obligations between members of the community. This reciprocal relationship is demonstrated in the ritual of transporting the coffin into the hearse. This cannot be done by family members but must be carried out by friends who volunteer to do it. For their efforts, they must be given red packets containing money. Asked why these people are willing to come into contact with death, the common reply is that they are close friends of the family. However, they must be rewarded for their help. In fact, the money in the red packet is often spent in the purchase of lottery tickets. Tapping the powers of the dead The transactions of property, authority and status are all the same in that they are all attempts by the living to tap the powers of the dead to derive material benefits. Weber defines power as the chance of a man or a number of men to realize their own will in a social action against the resistance of others who are participating in the action. Power allocates the right to command and the duty to obey. In this sense, power is an aspect of most, if not all, social relationships: The manifested will of the ruler or rulers is meant to influence the conduct of one or more others (the ruled) and actually does influence it in such a way that their conduct to a socially relevant degree occurs as if the ruled
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had made the content of the command the maxim of their conduct for its very own sake.25 The closest word to power in Chinese is li or neng li, which is more correctly translated as strength or the ability to effect change. Another term that is associated with the concept of power is ling, or efficaciousness. Given the homology between the worlds of the living and the dead, this power transcends the boundaries of man and spirits. In the interviews with informants, it is clear that power is conceived as an invisible force that can be imbued in objects. The physical images of deities and ancestral tablets are regarded as sources of power. Power is transferable, and objects are imbued with these qualities by dotting the eyes of the deities with blood or red ink which signify the entry of the deities into the images. Sacrifices are made before these images as they are said to be the centers of power. Similarly, spirit mediums are consulted because it is thought that, when they are possessed, the power of the shen is actually in the person. There is a sense that the powers of spirits can be tapped to further the interests of men. Many Chinese I interviewed said that they will not make a decision on important matters such as the right location to set up a new business or timing the relocation of a home until after the deities and ancestors are consulted. The perception is that the protection and blessings of the spirits will greatly enhance the chances of success. Ritual performance can be seen as attempts to obtain power to improve a person’s luck. By presenting elaborate sacrifices, men hope to inspire the spirits to improve their lot in life. In fact, informants often engage the services of spirit-mediums to perform huan yun, or literally “luck-changing,” rituals if they feel that things are not going well for them. In one case, after his ba-zi was read by a religious specialist, a man was told that he was fated to have a short life, and would die at the age of forty-nine.26 To alleviate this condition, he paid a large sum of money for special rituals to be enacted. By doing this, he thought his life would be extended an additional thirty years. Adoption by a deity is another way to obtain power. In one case, the mother of a boy who was in illhealth was told by a spirit medium to dedicate the child to the deity Guan Yin as the boy had a bad fate. After this ritual was performed, the boy supposedly regained his health. Both divine and ancestral power have been alluded to above. There is a notion that gods are more powerful than ancestors; for this reason they must be worshiped first. However, though conceived to be less powerful than gods, by virtue of being part of the family, ancestors are said to have the special interests of the descendants in mind. Thus, appeals are made to both gods and ancestors in order to ensure that every conceivable avenue of power to effect the changes desired are covered. It is not unusual, for instance, for informants to visit different temples to pray to different deities; indeed, this power is not limited to Chinese gods. Many see no contradiction in praying to Guan Yin, or the Goddess of Mercy one day, visiting a Malay kramat the next, and on another, praying to Virgin Mary at the Novena Roman Catholic Church. In short, a sundry of
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spiritual beings, Jesus Christ, Mohammed, Buddha, and Virgin Mary, can be appropriated in order to serve the needs of the worshipers, as they are all conceived to be sources of power. Freedman claims that Chinese ancestors are essentially benevolent: …their general air of benevolence and doubtless too the lack of strong feelings of hatred or guilt towards them on the part of their descendants.27 Ancestors are essentially benign and considerate. Before taking action against their descendants they need to be provoked; capricious behavior is certainly alien to their benevolent and protective nature. Freedman attributes the benevolence of Chinese ancestors to the absence of inheritance of property and status at death. As already discussed in earlier sections, this view is mistaken as Chinese descendants clearly have much to gain, both materially and socially, from the death of the father. The ethnographic data also does not support Freedman’s claims. It is not uncommon to hear of misfortunes in the family being attributed to the punitive actions of ancestors, as the following case clearly illustrates. A woman said that her son who had always done well in school suddenly began failing his examinations. She started having recurring dreams of the ancestor chastising her for not performing daily sacrifices to him. Her neglect had resulted in the son’s bad grades in school. Ancestors have “negative” powers and are capable of initiating harm on wayward descendants. As one person explains, “An ancestor who is hungry and cold will certainly punish his unfilial descendants.” Ancestors have the powers to bless or punish, depending on how they are treated. Appropriating the soul of the dead The idea that death ritual provides for the acceleration of exchange can be seen in the way the ritual participants manage the soul of the dead. It can be suggested that the very enactment of the death rituals allow the descendants to appropriate the soul of the deceased. The Chinese word for the soul is linghun. The soul is equated with the essence of a person, his personality or character. It is also the source of the effectual power of a person. It is said that the soul contains the qing or literally, the “life-breath.” Thus, death is defined not as the termination of a life but as the separation of the soul from the body. As one person puts it, “The body will rot, but the soul is eternal and must be cared for.” There is some confusion and disagreement among informants as to how many souls a person actually possesses. Some informants suggest that a person has three souls and, upon death, each goes to a different place. One soul will make its way to the ancestral tablet at home, another will reside in the graveyard and the third will go to the Underworld to be judged and finally reincarnated. Others suggest that a Chinese has only two souls: one on earth, imbued in the object of worship, and one in Western Heaven. For some, each person has only one soul
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that is worshiped by the descendants. Still others claim that a person can have a multitude of souls. One possible explanation for these differences is that Chinese religion is syncretic, drawing from various traditions including Taoism, Buddhism, Confucianism, and folk traditions. This has resulted in a merging of different belief systems. Moreover, being a folk tradition without an established clergy or canon, Chinese religion is given to more varied interpretations. However, the concept of the dual soul that I use in this analysis is the most common one cited by informants and religious specialists concerning the actual constitution of the soul. Most informants suggest that the linghun consists of two parts, the hun and the po. The hun is the positive element and is equated with the yang breath, which symbolizes light, life, warmth and productivity. The hun emanates from heaven, and forms a person’s intellect and character. The po corresponds with the yin, the negative pole, and is therefore associated with darkness, death, cold and the earth. The po is supposed to emanate from the terrestrial part of the universe and represents the unrefined parts of a person.28 The Chinese conception of a duality of the soul is also noted by DeGroot: The khi breath is the full manifestation of the shen, and the p’oh is the full manifestation of the kwei; the union of the kwei with the shen is the highest among all tenets…. The shen or immaterial soul emanates from the ethereal celestial part of the cosmos, and consists of Yang substance. When operating actively in the living human body, it is called khi or “breath” and hwun when separated from it after death, it lives forth as a refulgent spirit, styled ming; and the Kwei, the material, substantial soul; emanates from the terrestrial part of the Universe, and is formed of yin substance. In living man, it operates under the name p’oh, and on his death it returns to the Earth.29 According to religious specialists, the po (yin element) enters the body at the moment of birth. The hun comes later, and is actually acquired over time, slowly gaining strength and becoming more complete through the process of living. It is thought that the hun only enters the body after the “full-month” celebrations and is only complete when the person becomes an adult. Again, DeGroot notes a similar belief in traditional China: When a person is born, the first thing that develops in him is what we called the p’oh…after the p’oh is produced, we denote the Yang substance by the name hwun. Things of all sorts and kinds being subsequently used and handled by him, his tsing increases, his hwun and p’oh being thereby strengthened; and as a consequence he obtains his tsing perfectly sound and vigorous, and in the end, a shen or ming.30
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The hun and po are fused into one when the person becomes an adult. Upon death, however, the two souls bifurcate, and go their separate ways.31 The hun goes through Hell to be judged, after which it returns to the home to become an ancestral spirit. The po, however, is reborn, and comes back into the world in the form of another person.32 For this reason, it is necessary to dispose of the negative po soul so that it will not return to haunt the family.33 The hun, however, must be reincorporated back into the family to become an object of worship. This is the reason why informants maintain that the correct treatment of the hun soul is of paramount importance. Immediately upon death, the soul must be bounded to ensure that it will not get lost and to ensure its final transformation. A lost soul negates the possibility of its reincorporation. In one case, the fact that the canopy for the funeral was not allowed to be located at a site desired by the family, a place with which the deceased was familiar, but was instead set four blocks away, made the whole family very anxious. One of the sons said, “My father had never walked there in his life, how is his soul going to find that place?” In this case, the family finally obtained permission to set up the canopy at the site they desired. Informants are also preoccupied with the idea that a person should die at home. In one example, when told by the doctor that there was little hope for recovery, a patient’s family insisted on transporting the patient back from the hospital so that he could die at home. Similarly, the wang xi fang and nai he qiao rituals signify the accompaniment of the deceased to the Gates of Hell. The funeral rituals are, in a sense, to ensure that the soul of the deceased will not get trapped in Hell as there is no worse fate than to have the soul of one’s father unrecoverably stuck there. The hun element of the soul, imbued in the joss urn used throughout the funeral is carried by the eldest son back to the home. At the entrance of the home, the descendants invite the soul to return into his house. Finally, the “dotting of the ancestral tablet” ritual is performed. A priest, using a red brush, dots the ancestral tablet, which signifies the embedding of the hun soul into the tablet, imbuing the tablet with power. The ancestral tablet now becomes the focal point for worshipping the ancestor. The hun retains the character of the person, and it is for this reason, that informants claim that the ancestor continues to have the same likes and dislikes as when he was alive. He is thus offered his favorite food, and even his favorite brand of cigarettes. This dichotomization of the soul is significant. When asked why they perform death rituals, many informants tell you that they are necessary in order to ensure that the deceased will not become a “hungry ghost” who will return to harm the descendants, but is instead transformed into an ancestor who will look after his descendants and bless them with wealth, happiness and prosperity. This statement hides the dual purpose of Chinese death rituals. The enactment of death rituals is necessary in order to ensure that the po element of the soul undergoes reincarnation; that is, it is disposed of and separated from the family of the deceased in order to ensure the family’s safety. At the same time, death rituals are for the purpose of making the hun soul manageable and reincorporating it
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into the family. Thus, the completion of the death rituals ensures that the refined soul is now under control and can be appropriated by the descendants for the purposes of obtaining the benefits that death promises. The existence of conflict and competition within the family during the funeral has been alluded to earlier. Given the view that the soul contains the effectual powers of the ancestor, it is not surprising to find that heated debates often center on the placement of the soul remains of the deceased as their control signifies the control of power. In most cases, the eldest son is the soul-receiver, as he inherits the joss urn and the main ancestral tablet of the deceased and is responsible for their care and worship. This allows him to appeal directly to the ancestor. The eldest son is, in fact, known as the chief inheritor.34 The eldest son, however, does not always have his way. In one case, for instance, the younger siblings joined together to insist that the father’s ancestral tablet should not be kept in the home of the eldest son, but instead that all sons should have equal access. After some arguments, it was decided that the ancestral tablet should by kept in a Mahayana Buddhist temple. This, however, did not alleviate the problem altogether as they could not agree which temple was to be used. The temple-site suggested by the eldest son was opposed by some of the younger siblings as it was located very near the home of the eldest. Finally, a temple more or less equidistant from all the sons’ homes was agreed upon. In this sense, the movements of the ancestral tablet highlight the selfinterests of various family members, as well as defining allegiances within the family. Similarly, attempts to control the disembodied soul can explain the practice of making “substitution ancestral tablets” in Singapore. Although convenience in conducting rituals is the most often given reason for their existence, it can also be seen as an attempt by the younger siblings to appropriate at least a portion of their father’s soul for themselves. Placement of the bones The Chinese conceive of a natural extension between the world of humans and the natural environment. Man and nature are part of a closed ecological system in which disruption or change in one world has repercussions in the other realm. Nature is thought to have both creative and destructive forces but, by properly harnessing nature, man can use the natural environment to his advantage. This is the belief system underlying the practice of fengshui, literally “wind and water,” which is based on the premise that nature can affect the human fortunes, but man can adapt nature in order to ensure his well-being. Feuchtwang, writing perhaps the most comprehensive analysis on Chinese fengshui, notes, Fengshui stands for the power of the natural environment, the wind and the air of the mountains and hills, the streams and the rain; the composite influences of the natural processes. Behind it is a whole cosmology of
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metaphysical concepts and symbols. By placing oneself well in the environment, fengshui will bring good fortunes.35 Although the exact calculations of the orientations of the grave do require the expertise of a fengshui expert, who has the benefit of special knowledge because of years of training, it is important to note that the principles of fengshui are not confined to the fengshui expert only. Indeed, the idea that fengshui influences social behavior pervades the consciousness of the informants. It is not uncommon, for instance, to hear a person comment, “My fengshui is not good,” when he is trying to explain why he is not feeling well. Similarly, many people attribute illnesses in the family or a failed business venture to the effects of bad fengshui. Though most people are not schooled in the elaborate principles of the “azure dragon and the white tiger,” many clearly know enough, through informal socialization, whether a certain location has good orientation. Freedman, in a provocative essay, distinguishes between two facets of the Chinese ancestral cult: fengshui and ancestor worship: As a set of bones an ancestor is no longer in command of his descendants; he is at their disposal. They no longer worship him; he serves their purpose…. By geomancy then, men use their ancestors as media for the attainment of worldly desires. And in doing so, they have ceased to worship them and begun to use them as things…. The authority implied in descent is ritualized in the worship of ancestors. In geomancy the tables are turned: descendants strive to force their ancestors to convey good fortune, making puppets of forebears and dominating the dominators. In ancestor worship, the ancestors are revered; in fengshui, they are subordinated.36 The data I have presented clearly suggest that informants use their ancestors as media for the attainment of worldly desires. However, this is not specific to fengshui alone, but a feature of all death rituals, although it is true that fengshui rituals do provide the most visible demonstration of this process. Like the soul, the informants claim that bone remains are imbued with power and their proper management allows descendants to tap their resources. Most ritual participants agree that, in cases of burials, a fengshui expert should be hired to align the grave: “This is going to be the home of our father for many years. We have to make sure that it is as comfortable as possible.” Furthermore, there is a sense that, if the comfort of the bones is ensured, the descendants will be rewarded with good fortune and success. Some, for example, suggest that lucky lottery numbers obtained at the graveyard are often more accurate than those received at home. The explanation given is that the grave not only contains the soul of the ancestor; it additionally houses the bone remains, an extra source of power. The desire to spend money in order to obtain a graveplot with good fengshui is based on the hope that the proper treatment of the bones will ensure a reciprocal response from the ancestor, benefiting the ritual sponsors. This explains why sibling
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conflicts often arise with regard to the burial, as each is trying to align the bones, that is, control them, in such a way that tries to ensure he derives the full benefits of the fengshui.37 Again, it is observed that the lucky numbers are only requested after the grave has been cleaned, swept, patched-up and the offerings given; that is, the numbers are a required reciprocation from the ancestor to the descendants for their taking care of his needs. But are the dead, as Freedman claims, passive objects, puppets being manipulated by their descendants? The evidence suggests otherwise. In Singapore, ancestors are clearly active participants in their relationship with the descendants. Failure to ensure the comfort of the dead will not only bring bad luck, but also incur the displeasure of the ancestors who are capable of malevolent behavior, initiating punishment against the descendants for failing to enact the requisite rituals. It is thus a reciprocal relationship instead of a dominantsubordinate one. In one example, a woman claimed that she had recurring dreams of the ancestor complaining that his home was broken and rainwater was leaking in. At the same time, many family members fell ill. After consulting a spirit medium, they were instructed to visit the graveyard, whereupon they discovered a gaping hole in the gravemound. After repairs were effected, the dreams and illnesses supposedly went away. Freedman’s analysis was primarily concerned with fengshui as the manipulation of abstract forces available in the natural environment: The dead were passive agents, pawns in a kind of ritual game played by their descendants with the help of geomancers. The accumulation of Breaths followed automatically from the correct siting of the grave. The dead themselves could choose neither to confer nor to withhold the blessings that flowed through their bones.38 Many informants interviewed are aware of the existence of these geomantic forces. However, they also perceive the placement of the bone-remains in real terms, and not simply in relation to some abstract forces. Thus, a good coffin is said to ensure the comfort of the deceased and the alignment of the grave is conceived as ensuring the ancestor’s physical comfort. To illustrate, in one case, the descendants were delighted that the grave was sited right next to a tree. As one family member explains, “This will give shade to our father so that it will not be too hot for him in the afternoons.” The grave is viewed as the home of the deceased, and like their own homes, it must be made as comfortable as possible. Based on data gathered in Taiwan, Ahern suggests that, when fengshui is seen in terms of mechanistic techniques, fierce competition is likely to arise, but when the crucial consideration is the comfort of the ancestor, competition exists to a substantially lesser degree.39 Although logically sound, this idea cannot be systematically tested in Singapore, as in most cases, conflict and competition that occur in the ritual process take place within the domain of the family away from public view. Furthermore, in cases where the services of a fengshui expert
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are not required, such as when the bone remains are kept in a Mahayana Buddhist temple, family members still squabble over the placement of the ancestral tablet. In fact, the obligation to demonstrate the unity of the family necessitates public statements to the effect that all descendants benefit equally from the proper siting of the grave. Within the family, however, the incidences of conflict are greater. However, this does not mean that the public statements are untrue; I do not privilege the private over the public, but rather suggest that it is important to examine the total picture. This allows us to see the constant tension that exists between the desires of an individual to achieve one’s own self-interest and one’s attempts to fulfill one’s social obligations to the family group. In sum, the management of the soul and bone remains demonstrates the dual nature of Chinese death rituals. It is, on the one hand, an attempt to dispose of the negative effects of death, something I will analyze in greater detail in the next chapter. On the other hand, it is the appropriation of the positive influences of death. It is important to remember, however, that this calculated self-interest or egocentric motivation for ritual performance is seldom revealed and almost never made public. There is “guaranteed misrecognition” of the gift exchange, most clearly seen in the discontinuity between the expressed reasons for performing the rituals and what is actually requested from the dead. When asked why funerals are necessary, most will say that it is the duty of filial descendants to care for the dead and ethical and moral values, such as filial piety and duty, are invoked as reasons for enacting the rituals. When we look at the items requested from the dead, however, it is clear that the enactment of elaborate ancestral rituals also has to do with giving gifts to the dead and the expectation of larger countergifts. It must be emphasized that I do not privilege egocentric motivations over ethical imperatives, but instead suggest that it is the interaction of these two factors that can best account for the behavioral patterns observed during the enactment of Chinese death rituals.
6 FLESH AND BLOOD1 Putrescence and the pollution of death
A dead Chinese is always treated with ambivalence. On the one hand, the deceased is treated with fear, and extreme caution is taken when handling the corpse. Moreover, people take precautions to avoid coming into contact with death. If contact cannot be avoided, they walk by quickly and quietly, careful not even to glance at the coffin.2 Similar observations of the fear of the dead have been documented elsewhere.3 On the other hand, there is a feeling of emotional attachment and sadness at the loss of a family member, and a firm conviction that the proper funeral rituals must be performed. How do we account for this ambivalence when dealing with the remains of the deceased? Certainly the idea that there is a fear of the dead is not new, nor is it particular to the Chinese. James Frazer, in the voluminous work, The Fear of the Dead in Primitive Society, suggests that the dead are perceived to be hostile to humanity and as posing a threat to the descendants. Thus precautions are necessary to prevent the return of the dead to this world.4 Bronislaw Malinowski, like Frazer, maintains that the fear of the dead is instinctive, and related to the fear of annihilation, “against which man has erected funeral customs and belief in life after death.”5 Robert Hertz notes that the fear of the dead has to do with the fear of pollution. The corpse is feared because, until its final reconstruction in the beyond is complete, part of its spiritual essence remains behind, where it menaces the living with the threat of further deaths.6 The belief that death is polluting is found in most societies: Death is the greatest pollution of all—so much so that it commonly puts an end for a time to all activity over a social circle of varying extent. Not only the corpse, but also the possession of the deceased, are regarded as infected with danger, which must be averted with ceremonial treatment.7 Watson suggests that, in the case of the Chinese, the fear of the dead is related to the fear of pollution that must be taken on and managed in some way by the descendants of the deceased.8 In fact, as early as 1892, DeGroot observes that the Chinese in Amoy thought of death as polluting and dangerous.
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It is a general conviction that anyone who calls at a mortuary house incurs a kind of pollution, especially so if death has been untimely or caused by disease. Some condolers therefore wisely hide a few garlic roots under their garments, convinced that the strong smell will prevent the influences of death from clutching to their bodies; on leaving the house they throw the roots in the street. Others, on reentering their dwellings, purify themselves by stepping over a fire, or over some burning incense powder of a kind suitable for this and similar ends and therefore styled “tsing hiung.”9 An important question is why certain categories of people must necessarily take on a portion of the pollution of death while others take measures to avoid it. To arrive at an answer, we have to look at who are the people that are polluted by death and why they are polluted. What is it that is actually polluting about death? What is the conception of death pollution? Who can and cannot participate in the death rituals? Why do some people go out of their way to take on additional pollution? Who handles the corpse? Pollution and the family group It is suggested that those who participate in Chinese death rituals can be divided into two groups—the family of the deceased, that is, those within the wu dai or five generations, and outsiders, visitors and friends of the deceased. The effects of death pollution are different for the two groups. Family members, it can be argued, must necessarily take on a portion of the pollution of death as they are very close to the dead, both in a physical and social sense. For instance, only family members are allowed near the deathbed of the deceased. Moreover, they are the only people who are allowed to touch the corpse. It is the duty of sons to move the deceased into the coffin. By their very proximity to the dead and their act of touching and handling the corpse, family members are therefore affected by death pollution. Death pollution, however, is not merely physical, but social as well. Death is a family affair which means that the whole family must take on death pollution. All the children of the deceased are polluted by death, even if, for some reason, they are not physically present at the site of death. They are polluted because they are related to the dead. This is somewhat similar to the Indian case, where: death affects the relations collectively and it is a social rather than a physical matter, since impurity essentially affects not the people in whose home someone dies, but the relations of the deceased wherever they may be. Moreover, the effects vary according to the degree of kinship.10 Visitors and friends of the deceased who are present at the death rituals are not necessarily polluted, but are in constant danger of pollution by their very proximity to the dead. It is noted that friends are never present at the death rituals
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until the deceased is properly coffined, as in the initial stages the deceased is thought to be too dangerous and unpredictable to risk contact. It is only when the deceased is properly managed—washed, dressed and fed—that he is available for view by the public; even then, an appropriate distance must be maintained. In addition, rituals are necessary for visitors and friends to ensure that they will not be polluted by death. As indicated earlier, all visitors are given two red threads and two red candles that are said to have the power to ward off the evil influences of death. On reaching home, they are required to take a bath, preferably with pomegranate-scented water, to make sure that they have not carried the dirt of death away with them and to cleanse themselves of the risk of pollution. Death rituals demarcate the family group and outsiders through the idea of pollution. Family members are necessarily polluted; outsiders seek ways to avoid it. The ritual screen placed in front of the coffin symbolizes this separation (see Plate 4.1). Family members are allowed behind the screen; outsiders are generally not. Visitors conduct their rituals in front of the screen with the coffin partially hidden from view, whilst family members accompany visitors in the bai from behind the screen, kneeling beside the coffin. Family members stay close to the dead, but outsiders maintain a safe distance. It is also significant, and this will be elaborated in greater detail in the discussion on the refinement of death, that the screen is finally removed just prior to the burial of the deceased. Upon the completion of the funeral rituals, the dead is safer and outsiders are allowed near the deceased. However, unlike family members, friends are forbidden to touch the coffin as this is considered too dangerous. Thus, when carrying the coffin to the hearse, they do so with wedges of joss papers in their hands. The family of the deceased are not only polluted by death: they in turn become polluting, as it is thought that they carry the aura of death around with them. They become a death contamination group, considered to be unclean and dangerous, and certain restrictions are therefore placed on them. During this period of pollution, family members are isolated from the community and are not permitted to make social visits, especially to attend a marriage or enter a house where there has been a recent birth. Friends are also not encouraged to visit the mourning family. No marriages are permitted in the family until the mourning period is over: Death is considered to harbor a danger which leads to temporary seclusion of the affected persons to prohibition against contact…he not only is a danger to himself, but may transmit the danger to others, and may affect the whole community. Hence, certain restrictions are imposed on him: he is isolated, his actions are regulated that he may not affect the well-being of the whole community.11 Ritual isolation is related to pollution. This becomes clear when comparisons are made with other instances in which ritual isolation is necessary. Menstruating
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women, for example, are considered to be unclean and polluting, and are therefore barred from attending the death vigil. A woman who has just given birth is also said to be polluted, and is isolated from the community for a month. There is a hierarchy of pollution for the family. The closer, both physically and socially, one gets to the deceased, the more polluted one becomes. The different types of mourning garments that are worn, and the required period of mourning, symbolize this. The end of ritual and social isolation corresponds with the cessation of mourning. This suggests that the funeral rituals can be viewed as a gradual process of reducing the effects of the pollution of death, with a longer mourning period suggesting that a greater degree of pollution has been absorbed. The inheritance of pollution is related to the inheritance of the property of the deceased.12 The person who takes on the most pollution, the chief mourner, is the eldest son, as he handles the corpse most often. He is the one who benefits most from the estate of the deceased, inheriting a bigger share of their property. The lower order mourners have less direct contact with the deceased, both physically and socially, have a shorter period of mourning, and reap fewer benefits from the estate. Thus, taking on pollution by family members can be seen as a process of reciprocal exchange between the descendants and the deceased. This may also explain why some participants go out of their way to take on more pollution, as this would entail an obligation on the deceased to repay the debt. It is observed that many family members would touch the corpse of the dead on purpose. Just before coffining, some of them would also bend over the coffin to whisper some words into the ears of the deceased. What is polluting about death? Many kinds of pollution emanate from death. The corpse and anyone, or anything, that comes into contact with it is polluted. This applies not only to animate objects but to inanimate ones as well. Before the impending death, for instance, all the furniture in the house is removed to prevent the pollution of death clinging to them. Personal objects of the deceased are considered to be so polluted that they can never be used again. Thus the bed which the deceased regularly sleeps on, which is often the same bed he dies in, is often disposed of by burning. The same applies to the deceased’s other possessions, such as pillows, clothes, and shoes. All are either burnt or placed in the coffin as the ancestor will supposedly continue to use them in the Otherworld. Even the water in the home is polluted by death and water required for washing the dead cannot be obtained from the taps at home, but must instead be purchased elsewhere. After its use, the water is considered to be extremely polluted and must be disposed of with great care. Even gods in the spirit-world are not immune to death pollution. Prior to a death in the home, a piece of red linen is used to cover the deities and ancestors on the family altar. The idea that ancestors of the family must be protected from the deceased tells us that, at this stage, the deceased is not
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yet an ancestor, but still a wandering ghost. He is thus a source of danger to the very ancestors he will join upon completion of the death rituals. Watson notes that, among the Cantonese in Hong Kong, it is believed that death releases a “sat hei,” a “killing air” that emanates from the corpse at the moment of death and permeates the house of the deceased, clinging to the mourners like an invisible cloud.13 This qi that is released, according to informants in Singapore, is actually the release of the soul of the deceased. It is the release of this wandering, unbounded soul that poses a danger to the living. The way one informant describes it, At the moment of death, the soul of the dead comes out of the body. It is lost and confused and has nowhere to go. Instinctively, it looks for a new body to possess. Therefore, anyone near the vicinity of death is in danger of having his body stolen by this wandering ghost. This is in fact one of the most common reasons given for the taboo against pregnant women and young children attending the funeral. Unborn and young children are regarded to have incomplete souls, making them more vulnerable to attack or possession by the wandering soul. Finally, the death of a person attracts many other unclean spirits to the vicinity of the death. There is a sense that death is unclean and it attracts other unclean spirits, adding to the danger of the situation. Rituals must therefore be conducted to protect the family of the deceased and friends. Even the deceased himself is not immune to their influence. Therefore, when the coffin is closed, red strips of papers are stuck at the seams to protect the deceased from attack. Similarly, when joss paper offerings are made to the deceased, family members form a circle around the offerings. With bamboo sticks in their hands, they beat the ground making a loud noise. In this way, they frighten off the malicious spirits which are trying to steal the offerings. Chinese concept of pollution There is no direct translation in Chinese for the anthropological concept of pollution. The word most commonly used to describe pollution is ang zang. In different contexts, it can be translated as “dirty,” “unclean” or “impure.” Death is polluting because the corpse is both physically unclean and ritually impure. In order to understand death pollution, however, we must examine the Chinese concept of pollution in general. Many things are considered to be ang zang. Dirt or mud is said to be ang zang and bodily excrements, such as feces, urine and perspiration, are similarly classified as unclean. Menstrual blood and fluids released during birth are also considered to be ang zang. Similarly, babies are supposed to be polluted by birth because of their contact with the birth fluids, meaning that babies must be given
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ritual baths as soon as they are born. Their heads are shaved, due to the perception that the pollution will readily cling to the hair of the baby. Sexual intercourse is considered to be unclean, and prior to performing rituals, ritual specialists must abstain from sexual intercourse for three days. In fact, part of the reason why Buddhist monks are considered to be more efficacious in the enactment of death rituals is that they, informants claim, are purer due to their celibacy. Pollution is conceived of both in a physical and symbolic sense. The unclean and impure must be avoided as contact causes the person to be affected by the pollution. As noted earlier, pollution is conceived of as dirt, which can be physically transferred. Thus, just as a living person can wash dirt off his body with water, so death pollution can also be reduced by ritual baths. Similar ideas of ritual pollution are found among the Chinese in Taiwan. For instance, Ahern notes that, The effect of contact with most dirty substances is the same as the effect of contact with menstrual blood: women who are menstruating or within a month of child-birth, anyone who enters a room in which a woman has given birth within the previous month, anyone who is in mourning, and anyone who has recently had sexual intercourse cannot worship the gods.14 Another word used to describe pollution is luan, which can be translated as “chaos.” Thus pollution is also linked to the idea of boundary. Things that are out of place are considered dangerous. It is noted that ghosts are called ang zang dong xi or “unclean things.” They are dangerous precisely because they are freefloating or wandering spirits; no longer inhabiting a body but not yet settled anywhere. Death causes a person to be in a marginal state, neither here nor there, neither human nor ancestor. The dead are indefinable and unbounded; they are therefore dangerous and polluting. Similarly, there is also a fear of reanimated corpses. Known as jiang shi, they are unnatural since they are neither dead nor alive, and must be avoided at all cost. If a corpse is reanimated, it will grab the nearest living person; a final embrace for the person will surely die. For this reason, informants note that the feet of the corpse are pointed toward the door so that, if by some unfortunate circumstance the corpse is reanimated, it will walk right out of the house. Death is seen as a disjunction. It disrupts order. As Douglas suggests, dirt is matter out of place…. It implies two conditions: a set of ordered relations and a contravention of that order. Dirt, then, is never a unique isolated event. Where there is dirt, there is a system…. In short, our pollution behavior is the reaction which condemns any object or idea likely to confuse or contradict cherished classifications.15 The informants mentioned that harmony and order must be maintained at all times, and in every aspect of social life. They conceive of a duality of
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cosmological forces, yin and yang. Yin and yang forces are thought to be in perfect equilibrium. Death is seen as an intrusion of yin elements, thus disrupting the balance and death rituals can therefore be seen as a process to restore this equilibrium. In order to achieve this, both features of pollution, uncleanliness and unboundedness, must be eliminated. Refinement of the dead The dead person not only pollutes others, he himself is polluted by his own death. Thus, immediately after death, the deceased is given a ritual bath to cleanse him of some of the pollution of death as a “dirty person would be treated with abhorrence in Hell.” He is also in danger of further pollution. For example, in one incident, a daughter of the deceased was crying because she was not allowed near her dying father due to the fact that she was menstruating. When she forcibly tried to approach him, she was scolded by her siblings and told to leave the room as it was felt that her menstrual blood would pollute the dying father. In this case, it is observed that there is a system of relative priorities, where blood pollution overrides the father-daughter relationship. With these premises in mind, it is suggested that the performance of death rituals are for the purpose of the refinement of the dead; that is, making the deceased into a purer form, finally transforming him into an icon of family worship. By dying, the person becomes an impure ghost, posing a danger to the living. Serving as mechanisms of transformation, death rituals are necessary to convert the deceased into a settled ancestor; from a malicious spirit to a benevolent one. A code to understanding this process can be seen in the way the ritual sponsors manipulate food symbols. Ahern suggests that the differences in types of food offerings are an index of the differences between the spiritual being and the living person making the offering. The scale along which offerings differ is one of transformation from potential food in its natural state to edible food. At the end of the scale, farthest from edible food, is the live animal. After the animal is killed, it may be further transformed by being skinned and cleaned. Moving closer still to edible food, the meat might be dried to preserve it for later use. Alternatively, the full transition to edible food is made, with the meat being cooked, seasoned and cut into small pieces. Supernatural beings are offered food that has undergone less transformation and is therefore less like human food, in accordance with their difference from the humans making the offerings. For example, of all the supernatural beings, ancestors are probably most like those who offer them food. As ancestors in halls or domestic shrines, they are wellknown kinsmen with distinctive individual identities who are generally accessible and familiar beings. Consequently, they are offered food that is precisely like the food consumed by those who offer it. The gods on a more distant level receive different offerings according to their rank.16
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It is suggested here that we must not only look at the type of food that is offered, but just as importantly, the times when they are offered. In the death rituals, there is a gradual transformation of the food offerings with reference to the points when the rituals are being performed. The first offering is made immediately upon a person’s death. At this juncture, the food offered to the dead is in its most natural state; generally uncut and uncooked, it signifies that the relationship between the sponsors and the dead is distant, an offering from a human to a wandering soul. Compared with food offerings made at other rituals, it quickly becomes obvious that these foods are meant for ghosts. For example, many informants often conduct roadside rituals to appease wandering spirits, offering the same kinds of food. Also, during the performance of the hungry ghost rituals, we find the offering of the same uncut and uncooked food. After the deceased is properly sealed in the coffin and less dangerous to all concerned, there is a transformation in the food offering. Now the food is generally cooked but uncut, signifying that the dead is now more like the living descendants.17 Finally, after the final burial and in the sacrifices made at the family ancestral altar, the food offering undergoes further refinement: the food is cut and cooked, suggesting that the deceased has undergone a full transformation and is now an ancestor of the family. Thus raw food relates to death, whilst cooked food relates to living. Moreover, food offered to wandering spirits is not fit for human consumption. Children are therefore often reminded by their parents not to touch or even go near food offerings left by the roadside. They are cautioned that any contact with these foods will make them very sick. Similarly, initial food offering to the dead are never consumed but are left at the roadside where dogs and beggars will eat them. Offerings made after the final rituals are completed are, however, consumed by the entire family. Another code that illustrates the function of death rituals as a process of refinement of the dead can be observed in the transformation of the ritual condition of the mourners. At the beginning of the death rituals, the mood is characterized by sadness, loud wailing and the beating of chests. After the burial of the dead, however, there is a marked contrast, clearly shown in the ritual to invite the soul of the dead back home. At this time, all the family members strip off their mourning garments, and with a collective sigh of relief, throw their dirty mourning garments into the burning flames. They then don the most colorful clothes they can find; the more colorful, the better. Then, with cups of rice wine in their hands, they collectively present a toast to the deceased welcoming the soul back into his home. Family members must rejoice and no sadness is tolerated, “Our father is now an ancestor; we cannot be unhappy.” This symbolic gesture, I contend, signifies the final absolution of the pollution of death. The very act of inviting the deceased back into the home suggests that the deceased is no longer an unmanageable ghost. This idea is reinforced by the observation that rituals meant for ghosts must be conducted outside the house, while sacrifices meant for gods and ancestors are performed within the home. After the soul is invited into the home, the “dotting of the ancestral tablet” ritual,
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described earlier in Chapter 5, takes place. This ritual symbolizes the binding and transference of the soul into the ancestral tablet, a proof of the final transformation of the dead into an ancestor. By now it is clear why informants are extremely concerned that the proper rituals must be performed. Death rituals that are not carried out to prescription are not only ineffective; they fail to eliminate the pollution of death, causing the deceased to become a hungry ghost. This poses a danger to the living descendants as the deceased may return to punish them. Death rituals work on two levels. First, they allow for the refinement of the dead. Second, they function to ameliorate the death pollution of the living descendants. The wearing of mourning garments identifies the family as a death contamination group. Stripping the mourning garments and putting on bright colored clothing therefore both symbolizes the end of mourning and the end of ritual isolation. The separation and reincorporation of the dead The ambivalence toward the dead is coupled with another seeming paradox. On the one hand, many of the rituals emphasize the separation of the living from the dead; for example, ties with the dead person are severed, and the deceased is said to be “sent away.” At the end of the nai he qiao ritual, a parting takes place and the family bids farewell to the deceased. In the same vein, Ahern documents the performance of the kua-tng, or “cutting,” ritual.18 All kinsmen of the dead stand in a long line stretching away from the corpse, each holding on to a length of string tied to the corpse’s hand. A priest moves down the line, stopping at each person, cuts the string, and leaves everyone holding a separate piece. This stringcutting ritual signifies the separation of the living from the dead, eradicating as completely as possible the connection between the descendants and the corpse. At the same time, however, many rituals are performed that symbolize the reintegration of the deceased with the community of the living. For example, after the funeral, the soul of the deceased is brought back home, imbuing the ancestral tablet with their soul and becoming bound to it. After cremation, the bone-remains are collected and become an object of worship. Some ritual participants, in fact, go so far as to take on a portion of the effects of death upon themselves. During the coffining, for instance, sons will purposefully touch the corpse. Of course, Robert Hertz has already dealt with the idea that there is a process of separation and reincorporation of the dead.19 According to Hertz, there are two phases in the mortuary rituals. There is a phase of disaggregation (seen in the temporal disposal of the corpse), followed by a phase of reinstallation (represented by the secondary burial), from which the collectivity emerges triumphant over death. This dual process is mirrored in conceptions about the fate of the soul and the ritual condition of the mourners. It takes time for the collectivity to readjust to the death of one of its members, and this finds expression in the idea of a dangerous period when the departed soul is potentially
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malevolent and socially uncontrolled, and in the separation of the mourners from everyday life. The final ceremony involves a reassertion of society, demonstrated by the end of mourning as the soul has been reincorporated into the society of the dead and has settled down, as in the same way, the funerary rituals have resettled the collective consciousness of the living. Although Hertz overemphasizes the power and importance of the collectivity, his analysis is fascinating and provides an interesting comparison for the Chinese case. The data collected on death rituals in Singapore suggest that death involves a process of separation and reincorporation of the deceased. However, since informants conceive of a person as possessing a dual soul, with a hun and a po component, separation and reincorporation entail two distinct processes. It has been noted that the hun and the po are fused together in life but bifurcate upon death. Death rituals are therefore an attempt to appropriate the hun portion of the deceased’s soul by refining and bounding it. This hun is a source of power and becomes the object of worship for the family. In this sense, the emphasis on rituals of reintegration is to appropriate the beneficial attributes of death. At the same time, however, death rituals also exist for the purpose of ridding the family of the negative influences of death. This is achieved by ensuring that the po, the yin element of the soul, is given a rebirth. It is reincarnated and comes back into this world in the form of another person.20 This explains why informants are not particularly interested in the form or person that the po soul becomes. In the reincarnation ritual, a circular lantern with pictures of animals and humans pasted on it, is twirled, and the point at which the lantern comes to a stop is thought to be the person or animal which the po soul has been reincarnated into (see Plate 6.1). However, since it is a circular object, exactly what point the lantern stops is uncertain, and I would even suggest, unimportant. What is important is that the po has been reincarnated; that is, it has been disposed of. It must be separated from the family as failure to do so would subject the family to the menace of a wandering soul. It has been argued that religious ideology uses the promise of rebirth to negate the finality of death.21 This is the reason why rituals surrounding death should be so thoroughly permeated by symbols of rebirth proclaiming a new beginning and denying the irreversible nature of death. Conception and birth are the most striking and obvious symbols available for such a dogma. Death is thus seen as a source of life, and every death makes available a new potentiality for life; one creature’s loss is another’s gain. In the Chinese case, however, the dogma of rebirth is given a unique twist. Reincarnation is not the reincorporation of the new person back into the community, but instead assures the expiation of the harmful influences of death by reincarnating the soul.22 Rebirth thus rids the family of the unwanted. It is a way of making sure that the dead do not do any harm to the living. Thus, reincarnation is not simply an affirmation of regeneration, but also represents something to be overcome. This reinforces the earlier argument concerning why property, wealth and authority can only be appropriated after all the funeral
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Plate 6.1 The zhuan lun or reincarnation ritual.
rituals are conducted. Prior to reincarnation, the deceased still retain the po soul and to inherit from such a person would mean that the descendants were inheriting the negative aspects of death as well; a dangerous undertaking. The completion of the rituals signify complete refinement; the hun is now safe to be appropriated. This dual nature of the soul helps explain another apparent anomaly. Informants suggest that the purpose of the funeral is to ensure the rebirth of the deceased. However, even after the deceased has obviously been reincarnated, the family still continues to conduct ancestral rituals, offering food and money to the dead. When I raised this contradiction, most informants either could not explain the contradiction or attributed it to the fact that Chinese religion is syncretic, absorbing both Buddhist and Taoist ideas about the soul. It is suggested that
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continued worship of the dead is linked to the continued existence of the hun element, as reincarnation simply effects the disposal of the po element. Continuous and discontinuous time Leach suggests that the inherent ambiguity of the concept of time, which covers two different kinds of experiences, repetitive and irreversible, means that both kinds of experience can be merged into one category; man can conceptually avoid the irreversibility of death by assimilating its repetition.23 The Chinese conceive of complete and incomplete time. Complete time is equated with an end, a discontinuity, while incomplete time is tied to the idea of continuity. This can be seen in the Chinese conception of number symbology. It is noted that the funeral must run for an odd number of days, three, five or seven, and never for an even number of days. An odd number of days signifies incompleteness and continuity and therefore serves to symbolize that the dead are not really gone, but still continue to live amongst us. Obversely, even numbers signify an end. The importance of this view was brought home in one funeral in which the family wanted to hold the funeral on a Sunday to ensure maximum participation by relatives and friends. However, this would mean that the funeral would only last for six days, an unacceptable proposition. In this case, a ritual was conducted where the coffin was turned around once, signifying the passing of a day, thus fulfilling the ritual requirements; at the same time, more pragmatic considerations could also be met. This idea is also observed in Chinese social life in general. For example, many families will not take a family portrait when there is an even number of family members present, as this suggests an end to the family line. Often, a friend or relative is added to the picture to ensure an odd number of persons. Because of the conception of a dual soul, the denial of duration, I suggest, works two ways. First, the reincarnation of the po, as already pointed out, gives birth to a new person, though this person is unknown to the family. The giving up of one life in death, ensures the coming into existence of another life through birth. The Chinese world is in a process of continuous cyclic reproduction; death giving way to life, and life surrendering to death.24 In this sense, Harris’ suggestion that, for the Bolivian Laymi, the discontinuous is ultimately merged with the cyclic and death is consequently transformed into a process that is essential for the continuation of life, is in a unique way, also relevant to the Chinese.25 Second, the denial of time has to do with the denial of the irreversibility of an individual death. The hun is also given a rebirth and reincorporated back into the family. Now living in the spirit world, the ancestor continues to actively interact with his living descendants. The concepts of time and regeneration are thus linked. It is noted that one of the most important ancestral rituals is conducted during the Chinese New Year, a time of renewal. Similarly, visits to the graveyard for the Qing Ming festival are carried out in the months of MarchApril, coinciding with the coming of spring.
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Flesh and bones Differences in the management of the flesh and bones of the deceased further illustrate the process of separation and appropriation of the dead. Death rituals, it can be suggested, are for the purpose of getting rid of the flesh, which is regarded to be polluting, and appropriating the bones, which are thought to contain the powers of the deceased. Some rituals are aimed specifically at the expulsion of the flesh, with the burial, for example, seen as a means of allowing the flesh to rot away. When the corpse is disinterred for the second burial, it is vital that any remaining flesh be removed and the bones washed with rice wine before they are reburied.26 The putrescence of flesh contributes to the notion that it is polluted and must be gotten rid of expediently. In fact, lime is placed in the coffin, as lime is considered to be able to absorb the essence of decay so that it will not stick to the bones. The analogy often used to describe the rotting corpse is that of a rotten piece of meat, infested with worms and maggots. The Cantonese in Hong Kong have a similar fear of the flesh as an object of terror, and putrescence as a source of severe pollution.27 The flesh of the dead must rot away. When this does not happen, it is seen as unnatural and a source of even greater pollution. An informant reports that, when the corpse of his father was exhumed, the body was not totally decomposed. A corpse that has not decomposed is considered to be a dangerous ghost that will inflict harm on anyone who comes into contact with it so the family immediately hired a priest to perform rituals to appease the deceased. After this, the body was cremated and the bones placed in a columbarium. The next day, word got around that a “money-tree” had sprouted on top of the grave. Many people flocked to the graveyard to obtain lucky lottery numbers. Supposedly, the numbers given were very efficacious and many people became rich as a result. A corpse with unrotted flesh is unnatural and extremely polluting. But as this example clearly demonstrates, if the unnatural is managed properly, it becomes a source of great power. When the polluting flesh has been eliminated, the bones, with their attendant powers, can be used. In cases of cremation, for example, the family of the deceased will return to the crematorium the following day to shi ku or literally, “pick up the bones.” In this ritual, a priest spreads the boneremains on a tray. Family members, each holding a pair of chopsticks and under the direction of the Buddhist priest, then pick up the bones, and place them in a ceramic urn.28 The bones must be placed in a correct sequence, starting from the feet and ending with the skull of the deceased. Finally, when all the pieces are accounted for, the ceramic urn is sealed with a piece of red paper, bounding its essence. It becomes an object of worship for the family. The bones must not be exposed to tian, literally “sky” or “heaven,” as this will cause the bones to lose their power. Moreover, as they are regarded as being extremely powerful, they are never touched with bare hands. Watson notes that the Cantonese in Hong Kong believe that females provide for the flesh while the
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Plate 6.2 Preparations for the “bloody pond” ritual.
males provide for the bones of a person. In this sense, funerals get rid of the flesh, the female aspect of the dead, while retaining the bones, the male element. Thus, one might expect that men excuse themselves from handling the flesh. Women, however, rub their hair on the coffin, absorbing the pollution of decaying flesh.29 But in Singapore, it is found that both males (sons) and females (daughters-in-law) handle the corpse. The eldest son and daughter-in-law are responsible for washing the dead, then together, the sons place the corpse into the coffin. Both male and female members of the family also participate in picking up the bones. Pollution of the dead mother Among the Chinese in Singapore, if the deceased is female, a separate ritual is enacted in which sons must symbolically drink the blood of the dead mother. Informants state that women who have given birth are consigned to the xue hu yu, literally, the “court of the bloody pond.” Thus, a special ritual, the “breaking of the bloody bowl” must be enacted. The central object in this ritual is a chair surrounded by a straw mat, which is thought to represent the birthing room. A circular bamboo tray covering a basin filled with a red liquid is placed in front of the chair. On the tray are cups filled with red wine, symbolizing blood (see
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Plate 6.2). Sons of the deceased kneel before this structure; significantly, daughters and daughters-in-law are excluded. A priest stands before the mourning sons, chanting the xue yu jing, or the “Court of the bloody pond sutra.” This is meant to rescue the spirit that is supposedly trapped in the bloody pond. At a given moment, on the instruction of the priest, the sons quickly drink the red wine, signifying the taking of the blood of the dead mother. While the red liquid is not real blood, but red-colored water, in observing this ritual, I was struck by the degree of fear and anxiety among the sons when they drank the “blood.” The blood is a pollutant, and in its consumption, the sons become polluted. Seaman, observing a somewhat similar ritual in Taiwan, suggests that this ritual demonstrates gratitude and pity for women’s fate, and dramatizes women’s pollution.30 According to him, women are portrayed as impure, and due to their polluting nature, they cannot approach deities who could help them overcome the ties of karmic retribution caused by their sexuality. Therefore, women need men to act on their behalf. Sons, by drinking the blood, help free their mother from the bonds of her existence as a woman, and thereby allow her to be reincarnated. I propose, however, that this ritual has multiple meanings. On one level, it deals with the management of the pollution of women, which I contend, must be understood as a transaction between the mother and her sons, an exchange of her fertility for their acceptance of her pollution. On another level, it has to do with the ambiguous role and status of women within the patrilineal Chinese social structure. By drinking the blood of a dead woman, sons take on the most extreme form of pollution. This same blood, however, is conceived to be the blood of birth. According to informants, during this ritual the priest chants about the birth process. Thus, sons are actually drinking the blood that was released at the giving of life, a metaphor of the fertility of the mother. It is noted that, during this ritual a plate of red sweetcake, known as hong gui gao or literally, “red tortoise cake,” is placed before the sons. This item is a symbol of female sexuality and fertility. Moreover, informants insist that the father and mother contribute different substances towards the creation of offspring. Women are said to contribute blood while the men contribute the bones of the infant. Women are regarded as symbols of fertility. They are valued for their procreative ability and are required to fulfill their duty to produce descendants. Indeed, a woman who has many sons is highly esteemed in Chinese society. During visits to the graveyard, for example, one of the dishes offered to the female ancestors is a plate of cockles.31 After the rituals, the descendants pry open the cockles, which drip blood, and they eat them. The shells are strewn all over the grave to signify the existence of many descendants. Furthermore, women are supposed to be capable of transferring their fertility. Thus, when a son moves into a new home, the mother, or a close female relative who has many children, will enter the house first and proceed to cook a pot of rice, a symbol of plentifulness and productivity. Next, she goes into the bedroom, turns the mattress and proceeds to lie on the bed, signifying the passing of her fertility so that the couple that sleeps on the bed will, like her, have many children.
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Sons drink the blood of their mother, relieving the mother of her pollution, and releasing her from the fate of eternal entrapment in the “bloody pond.” By taking her pollution, sons are now obligated to worship her and perform rituals on her behalf. The deceased mother has to give a countergift, however. This gift, I contend, is her fertility. It must be remembered, that except for her si fang qian, she has no property of her own. Furthermore, the giving of her fertility qualifies her to be finally assimilated into the body of her husband’s ancestral spirits. Previously she was an outsider; now she is an ancestor of the family, assured of worship and sacrifices by virtue of her fertility gift to the descendants of the patrilineage. The timing of the bloody pond ritual is significant. Carried out just prior to the reincarnation process, it reinforces the idea that the ritual functions are carried out to ameliorate pollution before the women can be reincorporated into the family. It has been noted that there is an apparent contradiction regarding the role of a woman in Chinese society. She is an outsider, but she is charged with the responsibility of producing sons to continue the family line. This, I suggest, is resolved by her incorporation into the body of ancestors. In the process, her fertility is no longer seen as simply derived from her, but rather as coming from the patrilineal ancestors. Only sons can drink her blood since they are the ones who will continue the family line. To allow daughters to do so would simply mean giving the fertility to another family whilst allowing daughters-in-law to partake of it would only reinforce the role of outsiders as procreators. Contrary to Watson’s suggestion that daughters-in-law absorb the pollution of death to take on the fertility of the deceased embodied in the flesh,32 it is suggested, that for the Chinese in Singapore, the corpse’s flesh is always seen as putrescent, but blood is both fertile and polluting. Death rituals activate social distinctions. They reinforce the basically hierarchical nature of Chinese society, the most fundamental principle of which is gender differentiation. Bloch and Parry, in a comparative review, suggest that gender symbolism is often used to concretize hierarchical contrast within society.33 In this sense, the imposition of ritual pollution on Chinese women has to do with their relative position and social role in Chinese society, seen in both social life and ritual behavior. The inferior position of Chinese women is well-documented. Freedman, for example, notes that women are situated at the base of the pyramid in the social group. Women are always outsiders as: all married women in the house were, by the rules of agnatic exogamy and patrilocality, necessarily some sort of stranger.34 Moreover, a woman is never fully incorporated into her husband’s lineage; she bears her own surname for life. Her ties with her own people are by no means severed when she goes out to marry; her dual status is perhaps best symbolized by her obligation to mourn for her husband’s parents and her own. Men and
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unmarried women only have one set of parents to mourn.35 Finally, women are considered to be the ultimate source of trouble, intent on causing dissension and sibling rivalry and responsible for the break-up of the family.36 Watson, writing on Hong Kong, notes the ritual subordination of women. They do not even survive as individual entities beyond the first three or four generations. Women do not become ancestors, at least in the context of larger lineages, nor are they commemorated by individual ancestral tablets in ancestral halls: The nameless and hence, ancestorless qualities of the Cantonese women are highlighted by the fact that she only appears in these formal contexts under the name of her father—an outsider.37 One way to resolve the contradiction of an outsider being responsible for the reproduction of the family line is to charge her with taking on the pollution of death by having her deal with the putrescent flesh. According to Seaman, women are also portrayed as impure, imperfect, and even immature because of the “worms” that attack their innermost means. Thus, the sexuality of women, menstruation, and birth-giving, are equated with uncleanliness, making them a source of pollution, and perpetuating the negative beliefs surrounding women’s sexuality and rationalizing their socially inferior position.38 This reinforces the political power of men and their control over the women. Women, I suggest, have an ambiguous status. They are both subordinate and powerful. In the public arena, they always stand in the shadow of their husbands. At the funeral, for example, women always stand behind the men whilst, at important ancestral rituals, women are relegated to the menial task of preparing the food while men lead the ritual sacrifices. It is also the men who represent the family in clan associations. When the husband dies, the son takes over that position, not the mother. Within the home, however, a woman can wield immense power, especially if she is a matriarch with many sons. Though she has no direct property, she manipulates her husband and sons and displays her power through them. Even though women have to remain subordinate in public rituals, they are the ones who continually carry out the routine ritual sacrifices to the ancestors, constantly appeasing and appealing to them on her family’s behalf. In addition to their lack of power, women are marginal people. They represent a threat to the social group, yet they are necessary in order to ensure the continuity of the family line. They are instrumental intruders. Ahern notes that: the power women have is their capacity to alter a family’s form by adding members to it, dividing it, and disturbing male authority; the danger they pose is their capacity to break-up what men consider the ideal family.39 The performance of the “bloody pond” ritual, I argue, reinforces this idea of the dual nature of women. Simply to emphasize the negative and polluting aspects of
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women and their dependence on men to alleviate their fate is inadequate, as it fails to address the positive and powerful position of women. Rather there is a dual message in the “bloody pond.” It is a dramatic juxtaposition of a woman’s procreative and polluting powers. It signifies the amelioration of the negative pollution of women, but at the same time, it demonstrates her procreative powers, her fertility, as can be seen in the sons drinking the very blood of their existence. I have only observed this ritual in cases where the deceased was a mother; that is, where her fertility has been demonstrated.40 Pollution and vitality of blood We have already alluded to one of the dominant symbols in Chinese society — blood.41 During birth, blood is released and sons drink the blood of the dead mother. Violent deaths, such as murders and suicides, are termed as “blood deaths.” Women who die during childbirth are said to be trapped in the “bloody pool.” Close friends cement their ties through an exchange of blood and are called “blood brothers.” The blood of chicken and pigs are commonly used in Chinese cooking. Blood is not only polluting, it is a source of danger and anyone who comes into contact with it risks pollution. Ahern notes that anyone who comes into contact with menstrual blood is barred from worshiping the gods.42 In all these cases, the pollution of blood requires that the people affected undergo a period of isolation. Ritual baths are also necessary. At the same time, however, blood is also a symbol of power and vitality of life. The blood that is discharged signifies the giving of life, and the blood drunk by the sons is actually the blood of birth. Blood is often associated with power. Charms distributed by spirit-mediums as protective devices against evil spirits are written with blood and Graham observes, that in Southwest China, the blood of chickens, ducks and humans are used for exorcising demons.43 DeGroot notes that blood released by decapitated criminals is collected and used for life-strengthening medicine.44 Ahern notes that the lifeforce in the power of blood can be harnessed to produce a child, to please the gods with a potent offering, or to protect a person threatened by evil spirits.45 In Singapore, a cockerel, with its throat slit and dripping with blood, is used to rescue a person trapped in the “bloody pond.” In this sense, the positive powers of blood is used to counteract its negative aspects. We can surmise, that for the Chinese, blood has dual symbolism, signifying both pollution and power, life and death. It is both beneficial and destructive. Most of the time, however, it lies between these polarities. Another key symbol in Chinese society is the color red. It is found in most aspects of Chinese social and ritual life. Red eggs are distributed at the birth of a child and newborn babies are wrapped in a red swaddling cloth. Hong bao, or “red packets,” are given out at birth and marriage rituals. Brides are dressed in red and children have their backs stamped with a red seal to protect them against evil influences. A red cloth drapes the god-altar and the entrance to a home is
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often draped with a red cloth to ward-off evil spirits, as well as bring in blessings and good luck. Color symbolism is significant in the ritual process. Turner suggests that there is an almost universal color triad of red, white and black. In many societies, white relates to such things as purity and fertility, red to both good and evil aspects of power and life, and black to decomposition and death. The wide distribution of the symbolic color triad, according to Turner, may be related to the association of these colors with bodily fluids; especially white with milk and semen, and red with blood.46 The Chinese in Singapore reverse Turner’s formulation. Red is generally associated with marriage or “happy affairs” and black and white with death or “sad affairs.” Thus red and white affairs (weddings and funerals) cannot be held together. This color division, however, is not so clear-cut. The color red is used in many aspects of the death rituals. Upon death, the corpse is immediately covered with a red blanket, and the shen zuo and ancestral altars are covered with red cloths. The coffin is sealed with red strips of paper to prevent the entrance of malicious spirits, and visitors are given red strings and candles to ward off the pollution of death. Red pieces of paper are pasted all around the funeral site and along the route leading to the home to protect outsiders who might inadvertently come into contact with death. Chang sheng lu wei, or “long life tablets,” are covered with a red cloth, signifying that the person is still alive. The ancestral tablet, which is itself red in color, must be dotted with red ink. The family name on the gravestone is always written in red, symbolizing its continued existence. Red, like blood, therefore has dual symbolism for the Chinese. It is not only associated with life, but is thought to have prophylactic powers and can be used to neutralize the effects of death and its pollution. Red not only wards off evil; it also brings blessings. Birth and death Death must be seen in the light of life. There are many common symbols in Chinese birth and death rituals. The mother and the newborn, like the mourners, must be ritually isolated for a period of time. The placenta, like the corpse, must be hermetically sealed and buried. Moreover, the newborn, like the deceased, must be given a ritual bath. In death rituals, sons must journey out of the home to buy water to wash the dead, while, traditionally, in birth rituals, the father must obtain water to wash the newborn child. Framed within the theoretical model of Van Gennep, the similarity in birth and death symbols is understandable as they are both “rites of passage.” There is thus a rite of separation, in which the principal ritual persons are isolated from the rest of community, and a rite of reincorporation, in which the family is reintegrated back into society without the lost member. In the same functionalist framework, birth has to do with the reformulation of society after the incorporation of a new member into the group.
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It can be argued, however, that birth and death are not only transitional phases, or rites of passage; they both also deal with pollution and the need for purificatory rituals to eliminate the pollution. As already suggested, pollution is related to “matters out of place” with anything that pierces boundaries considered unclean. Birth and death both entail the crossing of boundaries, from death to life; life to death. It must be emphasized, however, that these ritual pollutions should not be collapsed into a single category. There are clear rules to keep the dead and the newborn apart. Pregnant women or women who have recently given birth are not allowed to attend funerals whilst a family in mourning is not allowed to enter a home where there has been a recent birth. As one informant puts it, “Births are happy affairs, a yang element; death are sad affairs, a yin element. They cannot confront each other.” Not only are the newly-born and the newly-dead polluted; they are pollutants, and therefore pose a danger to one another. Pollution not only unites these rituals, it also separates them.
7 UNNATURAL DEATHS
…she was a spite suicide, drowning herself in the drinking water. The Chinese are always very frightened of the drowned ones, whose weeping ghosts, wet hair hanging and skin bloated, wait silently by the water to pull down a substitute. No Name Woman Maxine Hong Kingston The rituals discussed so far are only applicable to Chinese who are perceived to have died a “normal” death. What therefore happens when an abnormal or unnatural death occurs? An analysis of cases of exclusion will shed more light on the importance of death rituals, as well as illuminate the concepts of normality and abnormality for the Chinese in Singapore. A person who dies prematurely is said to have died an “inauspicious death.” His soul is trapped and cannot make its way into the Otherworld, and it is therefore considered extremely dangerous. He is therefore not given the benefit of a “normal” funeral, but instead, special rituals must be conducted on his behalf. DeGroot documents similar beliefs for the Chinese in Amoy in which a person who dies when he is still young or because of an illness is thought to be extremely dangerous.1 Prefacing his description on Chinese funerals in Foochow in 1868, Justus Doolittle writes, It deserves to be particularly mentioned that when children or unmarried persons die, many of the customs which are described are not observed. Generally it is only when the deceased is an adult and married, and the head of a family, his own parents or grandparents having already deceased, that these customs are observed.2 Informants conceive of two kinds of unnatural deaths. Violent deaths, which include deaths by drowning as well as “blood deaths,” such as murders, suicides and hangings, and “immature deaths” which refer to the deaths of young children and unmarried women.
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Violent deaths Watery graves—death by drowning A Chinese who drowns, especially if his body is never recovered, poses a problem for his family as the failure to recover the body means that he cannot be properly coffined and buried.3 The soul is trapped in the sea and rituals are therefore required to release him from his watery grave. On a given date a pavilion is erected near the place of death; rituals to release trapped souls should be performed as near to the place of death as possible. In the case of drowning, the rituals are often conducted near the seaside or the port area.4 The rationale is that the soul of the deceased in the case of a violent death is released suddenly into an unfamiliar surrounding and is lost. Rituals conducted at the last known location of the soul are said to have the best chance of recapturing the lost soul. Two altars are situated under the pavilion. These are always less elaborate than those set up for a normal funeral. At one end of the pavilion is the shen zuo, with pictures of various Chinese deities. A number of food offerings are placed before the pictures. At the other end of the pavilion is the altar to the deceased. There is no coffin present as the body of the deceased was never recovered. Instead he is represented by a ritual chair, with the character ling, or “soul,” written on it. The chair is covered with the clothes and shoes of the deceased. Placed before the chair is an altar, on which are placed sacrifices of food, joss sticks and candles. Other ritual paraphernalia found at a normal funeral, such as the zhi deng long, and nai he qiao, are also placed near the altar. The central focus of the ritual is a structure to be used for rescuing the soul, which is placed in the center of the pavilion. It is a bamboo pen, covered with a strip of white paper. In the pen is a basin of water representing the water in which the soul is occluded. Protruding from the bamboo pen is an elaborately decorated papier mâché lantern. This represents the means for the soul to climb out of the watery grave. A priest is engaged to carry out the rituals. Unlike a “normal” funeral, however, the presence of the larger kin group is optional, and only the presence of immediate family members is obligatory. Furthermore, the attendance of visitors and friends is not encouraged. These rituals are family affairs, not public spectacles. No elaborate mourning garments, such as the five grades of mourning or coarse hemp clothes are worn. Instead, the family members wear simple black and white clothes. The priest begins the ritual by chanting prayers before the shen zuo. A key ritual that is performed in all unnatural deaths is the jie yuan wang fu xiu zai gong de, that is, the “redemption of the unjust.” The purpose is to request an investigation by the deities in Hell for the cause and explanation for the unnatural death. After a period of time, family members are instructed to kneel before the altar to the deceased. They proceed to offer three ritual bai and implore the deceased to return to partake of the food offerings laid on the table. After this, they are told to kneel before the bamboo pen. The priest reads aloud vital information regarding
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the deceased: his time and date of birth, name, age, and time of death. This is to inform and invoke the soul of the drowned person to return to the site where rituals are being enacted on his behalf. Since there are many other drowned spirits in the sea, the family have to make sure that the deceased is aware that the rituals are meant specifically for him. The names of the ritual sponsors are also read, ensuring that the deceased knows the persons who are responsible for rescuing him from his painful dilemma. The priest, holding the zhi deng long in his hand, walks seven times around the bamboo pen. The family members follow him in procession. After each round, the procession halts momentarily and family members are instructed to shout in unison, “Father, come out.” Some coins are thrown into a bowl of water placed beside the pen which are meant to appease the water-spirits. As one informant vividly described, The water-spirits will be so occupied in trying to pick up the money that they cannot grab the legs of the deceased as he is making his way up from the watery depths. At the same time, a small amount of food is offered in order to give the deceased strength to complete this long and arduous journey. This is repeated seven times, symbolizing the seven levels of blockades that the soul has to overcome. The soul is now on the verge of breaking the surface of the water, ready to climb out of the trap. The ritual reaches a climax. At this juncture, the main ritual sponsor, the eldest son, is told to stand at one side of the bamboo pen. The priest, standing on the other side, throws a white cockerel across the structure into the waiting hands of the son. According to a religious specialist, the soul of the deceased will enter the cockerel, freeing it from its trapped state. The cockerel is actually called a gui sheng or “substitute body.”5 The eldest son receives the cockerel, taking possession of the soul of the deceased. The cockerel is killed, releasing the soul and allowing the ancestral tablet to become imbued with it. The white cockerel is an important symbol for the Chinese. Cockerels are thought to be especially susceptible to possession by spirit essence, meaning that they are often used in exorcism rituals and as a medium for the transfer of disembodied souls. A white cockerel is also a symbol of purity, with powers to counter the negative influences of death. DeGroot notes, that in traditional China, the white cock is an emblem of the sun and the accumulated forces of yang. Thus the use of the white cockerel at funerals keeps spirits of darkness away.6 Death belongs to the yin world. The cockerel, imbued with yang forces, has a neutralizing effect on death; yang over yin, light over darkness, life over death. The soul having been rescued, the focus of the ritual turns away from the bamboo structure and now centers on the altar to the deceased. An elaborate food offering is placed on the altar and the deceased is invited to eat. After the rituals, the soul of the deceased is brought home and becomes the object of worship.
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Bloody deaths Deaths by car accidents, suicides, hangings, or murders, are classified as “blood deaths” by the Chinese. This is true even if blood is not released, such as suicide by ingestion of poison. Similar to death by drowning, the soul of a person who dies a bloody death is thought to be trapped, this time in a “bloody pool.” The rituals to rescue “bloodied souls” are similar to those conducted for drowned souls except for two major differences. Unlike many drowning, the bodies of persons who die bloody deaths are retrievable. In this sense, it is less dangerous than when the body is lost. Unlike drowning, the main color symbol used in the ritual is not white, but red, symbolizing the release of blood. Thus a red strip of paper is used to cover the bamboo pen. The water is also dyed red to represent the bloody pool. The structure protruding above the bamboo pen is also made of red papier mâché. Rituals for bloody deaths are often held at the spot where death occurred. In cases where the person has jumped off a tall building, for example, they are often held at the base of the building. Similarly, following automobile fatalities, rituals should be held near the spot where the accident occurs. However, informants do note that it is acceptable to conduct the rituals in a temple. Powers and dangers of violent deaths A violent death is a source of great anxiety for the family. One of the functions of death rituals is to ensure the elimination of pollution through a refinement of the soul. At the same time, the soul is bound up and brought under control so that it can be appropriated by the descendants. This process is achieved by assuring the reincarnation of the po soul into this world and the incorporation of the hun soul into the ancestral tablet. In cases of violent deaths, however, the trapped state of the soul negates the ability to complete this dual process. It has no way to make its journey through Hell and consequently cannot undergo rebirth. The failure to be reincarnated means that the deceased is doomed to a fate of eternal wandering in the marginal world of the hungry ghosts, unable to undergo regeneration or appropriation. If, as suggested, Chinese death rituals represent an attempt to complete a cyclical repetitive process, then violent deaths represent a threat to this order. They are considered something unnatural; events that happened before their “appointed time.” The souls are in a permanent marginal, unbounded state; they are lost souls wandering in search of relief. It is this very marginalization that is a source of danger. Violent deaths pose a source of constant danger to the descendants as the deceased will return to punish his descendants, angry at their failure to relieve him of his suffering and misery. In fact, persons who die a horrible death are actually known as a li gui or literally, a “malevolent ghost.” The dead person is also a source of danger to the public as he is constantly trying to free himself from his occluded state. The only way to achieve relief is to trap the soul of an
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unsuspecting person who will provide a “substitute body” to take his place. For this reason, informants say that the site of a violent death is dangerous and haunted, not simply by the soul of the deceased but also by other malicious spirits attracted by its unclean nature. Many informants remark that the spot where a fatal car accident has occurred is likely to be the site of more accidents, as, apparently, the soul of the victim will attempt to catch another soul to replace him. This is the rationale often given for why certain stretches of roads in Singapore supposedly have recurring accidents. Rituals to rescue trapped souls are quiet, sedate affairs. Unlike normal funerals, they are not occasions for the gathering of large groups of visitors and friends. They are private affairs, not only because of the extreme danger that the death produces, but also because the ritual produces a certain degree of embarrassment as it signifies that the family is unfortunate enough to be struck by evil influences. The spirit of a person who dies a violent death is often termed as a yuan wan gui, that is, an “unjustified death.” There are three main causes of violent deaths. First, a person may take his own life, as in the case of suicides. Second, death can be caused by another human being, such as in a murder or an automobile accident. A person who causes another’s death places himself in grave danger, as the “wronged spirit” is likely to seek vengeance. He either has to attend the rituals conducted for the deceased or make a special gift offering to appease the spirit. Third, death could also be caused by a malicious spirit.7 This is illustrated by the circumstances surrounding a young woman’s death. The story was that while she was walking home late one night, she felt a gust of wind and a shadow brushing across her body. On reaching home, she recounted the incident to her family but was told not to worry about it. The next day, however, she was found drowned in the well. As her death was attributed to the influence of a malicious ghost, a priest was engaged to enact rituals to rescue her soul. At the same time, offerings meant for this spirit was placed at the side of the road, so that it would not harm the family again. Informants describe these encounters with spirits as zhuang dao, literally a “confrontation of opposite forces.” Confrontations are not specific to encounters with spiritual beings only, but are used to refer to all aspects of Chinese social life. In cases of marriages, for example, the ba zi of the prospective bride is compared to those of the groom and his parents to ensure that there are no confrontations. Similarly, visitors are not allowed to attend the funeral of a person if their ba zi conflicts with the time of death of the deceased. Children are told not to eat “hot” and “cold” foods at the same time as this will cause physical harm. Things out of the ordinary are considered to be more potent than ordinary things. Douglas notes that: ritual play on articulate and inarticulate forms is crucial to understanding pollution. In ritual form it is treated as if it was quick with power to
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maintain itself in being, yet always liable to attack. Formlessness is always credited with powers, sometimes dangerous, sometimes good.8 Thus, violent deaths are not only dangerous; they are also a source of power, which can be tapped for personal use. Many people, for example, will visit the site of a fatal automobile accident in order to copy down the license plate numbers. These numbers are thought to be especially efficacious, and are bound to bring wealth to anyone who buys a lottery ticket with them.9 The example earlier alluded to of an undecomposed corpse also highlights this view of the power of pollution. A decomposed corpse, with its putrid flesh, is said to be extremely polluted and will cause harm to anyone who comes into contact with it. Yet this potentially dangerous situation can be reversed to bring benefits and good fortune to the living. After appropriate rituals are enacted, the corpse becomes a source of power. People will congregate at the spot where an undecomposed corpse is found to request for lucky lottery numbers. The danger and power of gui is also exemplified by a popular ghost story in Singapore which many swear to be true. Around the seventh milestone marker in Serangoon Road resides a nu gui, a “lady ghost,” who would often hail a cab to bring her home to a graveyard further down the road. Many adventurous cab drivers have picked her up on purpose to ask for lucky lottery numbers, which have proven to be especially efficacious. The danger of this venture is demonstrated by the case of one cab driver. When the ghost asked what she will get in return for giving him a lucky number, the unsuspecting cab driver said that he would marry her. He won a large amount of money in the lottery. He supposedly died two weeks later. Immature deaths Child deaths Children who die before reaching adulthood are not given the benefit of a full funeral. Deaths at a young age are known as yao shou, literally, “deprived of longevity.” There are three categories of yao shou. Deaths below the age of 10 are known as xia shang, or “lower category of the deceased.” Those who die between the ages of 10 to 12 are known as zhong shang, or middle category, and those who die after the age of 12 are known as shang shang, upper category of deceased. Generally, ghost marriages are arranged for the shang shang group in order that they may become ancestors of the family. Zhong shang deaths may be accorded a ghost marriage if the family desires it, but is not allowed for those in the xia shang group. They are often buried with minimal rites, normally performed by professional undertakers. The parents pay very little attention and generally do not participate in the rituals. Children are not buried in coffins, but are often cremated in small wooden boxes. Moreover, no ancestral tablets are
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made for them and consequently they have no place on the family ancestral altar nor are they admitted into the clan ancestral halls. In confirmation of this, I was unable to locate a single child ancestral tablet in any home or in an ancestral hall. This scant regard for the interment of the corpse of infants and small children is supported by other studies. Freedman, for instance, reports that: The death of an infant is passed over with a minimum of disturbance to the world outside the household. The corpse is disposed of quietly and with little ceremony. I have seen an infant being put in a tiny wooden box which was strapped to the luggage rack at the back of a taxi and carted off to the graveyard.10 It is also consistent with observations made in Taiwan and China. Cormack, for example, claims, that in Peking, a child whose death seems imminent is: stripped and placed on the floor just outside the outer door of the house. The parents leave it there and watch what takes place. If the child survives this treatment, it is recognized as a true child of their own flesh and blood; but if it dies, then it was never their child, but an evil spirit seeking to gain entrance to their family in order to bring trouble to them.11 For this reason, small children are never buried in the family graveyard. Coltman notes, that on the Shangtung peninsula, children were buried without a coffin, just covered with sufficient dirt to hide the body from sight. The result was, that at night, the bodies were dug up and eaten by dogs.12 Although the measures taken by the Singapore Chinese to dispose of dead children were never as drastic as these reports, there is general agreement that no elaborate rituals are necessary. Coltman suggests that these steps were taken because a child who dies is regarded as being possessed by an evil spirit: An evil spirit inhabited the child’s body, otherwise it would not have died so young. If the dogs eat it, the bad spirit enters the dog and cannot enter another child who may be born to the same parents.13 Similarly Bryson, working in Nuchang, notes that the fact of a baby’s death convinces the parents that the little one was not a gift to be treasured, but possessed by some evil spirit. It is thus a source of anxiety and misfortune for the family and the sooner they forget about it the better.14 Among my informants, possession by evil spirits is rarely given as an etiology for child deaths. Instead, the lack of a need for an elaborate funeral is often ascribed to the fact that dead children are not really members of the family but outsiders. Earlier, it has been suggested that the po soul enters a baby at birth. The hun soul is acquired gradually over time and is only complete when the person reaches adulthood. In this sense, a dead child is thought to have an
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incomplete soul; he possesses a po soul, but his hun soul is undeveloped.15 It is the hun soul of the deceased that is appropriated as an object of worship for the family, and therefore, the lack of a hun soul in a dead child negates the necessity of a full funeral and the need to worship the child. He only has a po soul, a negative element that must be gotten rid of anyway. It is because of the notion that young children have incomplete souls that there is a taboo on children and pregnant mothers attending funeral rituals. They are deemed more susceptible to attacks and possessions by spirits; it would therefore be foolish for them to go near a funeral where hungry ghosts and malicious spirits abound. Dead children are not regarded as potential ancestors. A complete and fulfilled person is one who gets married, has lots of sons and lives a long life. Children cannot get married and are not capable of having children. They are without descendants, and therefore cannot become ancestors. The inability to have descendants means that the dead child does not have anyone who can be held responsible for taking care of and worshiping him. Dead children are ritually and socially immature; they are thought of as not fully-developed human beings. It is important to note though that it is not the physical attribute of having children but rather the potential to have children that is at issue here. An adult male who dies before he has offspring, though seen as a sad and unfortunate affair, still requires a full funeral and has the right to have his ancestral tablets placed on the family ancestral altar. In such cases, it is often younger siblings who are responsible for the rituals. Child deaths disrupt order, for sons are not supposed to die before their father. In fact, the very act of dying young is considered to be an unfilial act. Wolf notes, that in Taiwan, a father will beat the coffin of the son for being so unfilial as to die before the father.16 Sons bury their fathers; fathers are not supposed to bury their sons. It is due to this breaking of order that dead children pose a problem. The only way to circumvent this dilemma is to adopt a son for the dead infant. In one case, a ten-year-old boy was playing on Fort Canning Hill when he tripped and broke his neck. After engaging an undertaker to carry out the rituals, the family thought they had finished with the matter. However, a few months later, the wife of the eldest brother claimed that she had recurring dreams where the boy returned to complain that he had no one to take care of him and thus was cold and hungry. After consultation with a spirit-medium, it was decided that the eldest son of the father’s younger brother should be given to the deceased as a gan er zi or “godson.” The graveplot of the boy, which was a simple slab of stone, was taken out. In its place, a more elaborate gravestone was created. A priest was hired to perform the rituals, the focus being on a presentation of an elaborate food and joss paper offering by the adopted son. An ancestral tablet was also made and placed in the home of the younger brother of the father of the deceased. The adopted son now has the responsibility of performing the rituals for his gan die, or “adopted father,” at home, as well as making annual visits to the graveyard during the Qing Ming.
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By adopting a son, the dead infant guarantees that he will have descendants to worship him. At the same time, orderliness is restored to an unhappy situation, as the adoption results in the completion of the child’s social personage. It does not matter that this was done posthumously. Unmarried daughters and ghost marriages Dead unmarried daughters, like dead infants, pose a problem. Daughters are perceived as not belonging to the family for they are supposed to get married and leave them. The Chinese, in fact, have two separate words for marriage. Qu qi zi means “to bring a woman into the home” when a man marries. A daughter, however, is said to jia chu qu, which means to “leave the family home after marriage.” An unmarried daughter dying in the home of her father is unnatural. Her death is not made known to the public and she does not enjoy the benefits of a full funeral. Moreover, because she is not seen as a member of the family, she has no ancestral tablet on the familial ancestral altar for that would insult the ancestors of the family. Similarly, Fabre reports, that in Kwangtung, a woman of marriageable age is not allowed to die in her father’s house but must breathe her last breath in a tent set outside the house.17 A dead daughter, however, cannot simply be neglected, as an unattended female ghost is considered to be an extremely dangerous being. Precautions are therefore taken to ensure that the soul of an unmarried daughter will not return to haunt the family. In San-Hsia, for example, Wolf found that the soul of a woman who dies before she is married is not represented by a tablet, but by a small red satchel of incense ash placed in some dark corner in the house.18 In Hong Kong, Potter notes that the Chinese are afraid of placing the tablets of an unmarried woman in the house. Instead, a spirit medium is paid to care for the soul, or the tablet is kept in a “ko-niu-biou” (maiden) temple.19 This enigma posed by having a daughter sentenced to eternal wandering in the world of margins, who is unable to be worshiped because of the fact that she is an outsider, can be resolved through the arrangement of a “ghost marriage” on the daughter’s behalf.20 The preparation for a ghost marriage begins by laying bait, usually in the form of a “red packet” filled with money, beside a path.21 The passer-by that picks up the package is confronted by the family members of the deceased and told that he is fated to be the bridegroom of the deceased. If he refuses, he faces the vengeance of the deceased but if he accepts, he takes on the task of performing rituals on her behalf. In compensation, he is given a large dowry. Taoist ghost marriage rituals involves the reading of the zhao qin he bei jing, or “the sutra for marriage.” According to a religious specialist, Taoist deities and Buddha are invited as witnesses, and the matchmaker would be yue lao xian weng, literally the “Elder in the Moon.” Jordan notes that ghost marriage rituals are designed to resemble an ordinary wedding, except that the bride is represented by an ancestral tablet. Ghost marriages do not entail affinity
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between two groups. The man, in repayment for the dowry, is simply given the responsibility of conducting rituals for the woman.22 Most informants said, that while ghost marriages were carried out in the past, they are no longer practiced in Singapore today.23 Even so, the notion that unmarried daughters are not members of the family is still widely-held, and they are therefore not permitted to have ancestral tablets on the family altar. Interestingly, they are not systematically excluded from the clan ancestral halls, where the ancestral tablets of unmarried women are allowed to be placed. This contradicts the observations made by Freedman and Ahern, respectively. Ahern, for example, notes that “a woman who dies before marriage…cannot under any conditions have her tablet placed in the hall.”24 A possible explanation for this departure in ritual proscription may be that clan organizations in Singapore are not strictly based on the principle of patrilineal descent. Criterion for entrance into the ancestral halls is based on surname, dialect or locality groupings. As a member in the Lin clan hall suggests, “the unmarried woman retains the surname of Lin, and every person with that surname has a right to be given a place in the hall. For this reason, they are allowed here.” Consistent with this view, married-out daughters are excluded because they no longer bear the same surname. A popular practice in Singapore is to place the ancestral tablet of an unmarried woman in a Mahayana Buddhist temple, preferably in a Buddhist nunnery. For a fee, her ancestral tablet is consigned to the care of the priests. It is thought that her soul will be content, as the Buddhist monks or nuns will chant mass for her daily. Good and bad deaths Informants make a distinction between good and bad deaths. Put simply, there is a right time, a right place and a right way to die. One of the first things that many informants do when a baby is born is to have the ba zi read by an astrologer. The suan ming literally, “reading of fate,” is to ascertain his fate, how long he will live, as well as the dangerous moments in his life. If a person is thought to have a short life, certain rituals may be performed to extend his life. Special care must also be taken during the “dangerous” years when a person has a greater chance of being attacked by evil influences. A person is said to have lived a full and prosperous life if he lives for sixty years. Anything beyond that is considered to be an added bonus. A person who dies before reaching sixty is said to have a bad fate. On the whole it can be said that, generally, the Chinese are not very interested in the celebration of individual birthdays. One reason given is that age is not defined by the birthdate, but by a passing of a year; thus, every Chinese is a year older on Chinese New Year’s day. There are two important exceptions. The first is the celebration of the man yue ritual. Red eggs and sweetcakes are distributed to relatives and friends. Sacrificial offerings are also made to the deities and ancestors. The end of one month of life is also significant because it is thought that the first month is
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the most dangerous period. Another important birthday celebration is on the sixty-first year. The celebration requires the presentation of an elaborate feast to friends and relatives. A key symbol in the dinner is the eating of the chang shou mian or “long life” noodles, signifying that the person will have many more happy years of life. This event is accompanied by the giving of gifts and the offering of a large sacrifice at the ancestral altar. Informants also make a distinction between peaceful and violent deaths. Even if a person does not live to a ripe old age, but dies peacefully, the fate of the soul is not in jeopardy and he will be able to undergo rebirth. Violent deaths, however, creates a li gui, a malevolent ghost which requires the enactment of special rituals to appease it lest it pose a danger to the living. A person should die at home. Home means two things. First, it refers to the physical abode of the person. A person is supposed to breathe his last breath in the house where he lives. If, due to some unfortunate circumstance, he dies outside the home, his body must be brought home immediately and his lost soul invited back. A person who drowns and whose body cannot be recovered is therefore especially dangerous. Home also refers to the jia siang or ancestral village. A person should die at the place where he was born, near all his ancestors. The migrant nature of the Chinese in Singapore means that this is not always possible. Even so, there is a strong feeling among older Chinese that they desire to be buried on ancestral soil and therefore many older Singaporeans prefer to travel back to China to die there. Finally, a person should only die if he is socially mature. An unsuccessful social life precludes the creation of an ancestor. A socially mature person is one who is married, has sons to continue the family line and to worship him. A normal person must fulfill his social duties. Failure to do so may deny him his worship. The qualification for ancestor worship is simple. It requires a burial and the building of a tomb, an ancestral tablet at home, and sons to perform the rituals. A person who dies an unnatural death negates this process, and revokes his right and status as an ancestor. The transactions that are supposed to take place between the living descendants and the deceased are repudiated. Such disorder, however, cannot be tolerated and therefore rituals are carried out to reestablish the exchange. The hungry ghosts festival During the seventh month of the Chinese lunar calendar, it is said that the “Gates of Hell” are opened and “hungry ghosts” are allowed to roam the earth freely for a month. This period is considered to be extremely dangerous and precautions are therefore taken to avoid offending the spirits. For example, children are told by parents not to go swimming or venture out late at night as there are many malicious spirits attempting to trap their souls. The fact that this is a particularly inauspicious period is demonstrated by the fact that weddings and other “happy”
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events, such as starting a new business, are generally not undertaken at this time as they are likely to be unsuccessful. Zhong yuan rituals to appease the hungry ghosts are performed in this seventh month on both a familial and community basis. Within the family, rituals are conducted on the first, fifteenth and the final day of the seventh lunar month. These are carried out just outside the front door of the home at night, except for the last day when they are carried out in the evening, marking the time when the hungry ghosts are said to return to Hell. The ritual consists of an elaborate offering of food accompanied by bai performed by the entire family, and the burning of joss paper. The food, which is cooked, but uncut, is later consumed by the family. These contradictory food symbols point to the ambiguous feelings on the part of the family regarding the status of the recipients of the sacrifices. Rituals conducted outside the home are generally meant for gui or ghosts. However, the fact that the food is cooked and later eaten indicates that the spirits must be gods or ancestors, as food offered to ghosts becomes impure and cannot be eaten. Yet, because the food is cooked but uncut, it signifies that the recipients are not immediate ancestors of the family.25 Under Buddhist influence, public ceremonies of propitiation have been held annually with the function of clearing the world of these hungry ghosts and consigning them to the authority of the guardian of Hell in order to aid them in their eventual salvation through reincarnation. 26 Chao du rituals of universal salvation are carried out on behalf of hungry ghosts to aid them in this process.27 In Singapore, chao du are elaborate celebrations made possible through monetary contributions from members of a group or residents of a given locality. Each year, with the arrival of the seventh lunar month, an auspicious date is chosen for the rituals. The celebration lasts from one to five days, depending on the financial resources of the group. The day before the ritual, a large canopy is erected, often on a large field or parking lot within the housing estate. Large, brightly colored banners deck the canopy, with the characters da xie sheng en or, “To thank the gods for their blessings.” In front of the canopy are placed a number of giant joss sticks, some up to ten feet tall, with the names of the contributors written on them. There are three main altars under the canopy. The first is known as hao xiong di altar.28 On it are placed two brass joss urns. The first urn is known as the fa chai urn, or literally “urn that brings luck and wealth.” The other is the lu chu urn, which will be appropriated by the ritual leader at the end of the celebrations. A large variety of food is placed on the altar. Visitors pray at this altar upon arrival, making supplications for blessings of wealth, business success, health, and protection for the family. On the west side is located the da si ye altar, with a large blue papier mâché figure of the god. With its painted face, and a sword in one hand and a record book in the other, da si ye is the god of the Underworld responsible for opening and closing the “Gates of Hell” and overseeing the activities of the hungry ghosts
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during their sojourn on earth.29 Behind the canopy is found a huge picture of three gods: the gods of wealth, longevity, and happiness. Set in front of this picture are seats for the hungry ghosts. The focus of the zhong yuan celebration is on the articles placed on a table at the center of the canopy. Laid on a table are literally hundreds of consumer products; bicycles, televisions, rice-cookers, electric fans, et cetera. These will be sold to the highest bidder on the final night of the zhong yuan celebration. The first ritual conducted at the zhong yuan celebration is the selection of the lu chu, or “lord of the urn.” Being the ritual leader of the group, his tenure lasts for one year. The names of all persons wishing to be considered for the post are placed on the altar, and with a large number of people watching, the former lu chu picks up a name and reads it out aloud. The person steps forward and kneels before the altar before taking a pair of mu bei and throwing them up in the air.30 He continues this action until he gets a negative response from the spirits. The number of positive answers is then recorded. The crowd really gets involved in this ritual, especially in cases when a person starts getting a long sequence of positive answers. Suddenly there is a “buzz” in the air as the crowd joins in by shouting out the count. When all persons have been accounted for, the person with the most positive answers is declared the new lu chu. The significance of this ritual is that the spirits have singled out one person to lead the group. Informants opined that he is therefore destined to receive extra blessings during the year, although for this privilege, he is required to make a large monetary contribution toward the cost of the celebration.31 The first task of the new lu chu is to direct the cutting and dividing of the pigs. A large number of pigs that had been previously purchased and slaughtered, are cut into equal portions and distributed to the members. The lu-chu receives the pig’s head. Food hampers, supposedly blessed by the spirits, are also distributed. At night, the ritual takes on a festive air. Wayang32 and variety shows paid for by the group are staged. These are complemented by hawker-stalls, magic shows, and gambling stands, making it a very re nao affair. The intention is to entertain the hungry ghosts so that they are distracted from causing harm to people, although, they also serve to entertain the residents of the community. This was particularly true in the past, before the advent of television and radio, when it was probably the only form of entertainment for villagers and a means of bringing the community together. A dinner is held on the last night of the zhong yuan ritual. Members gather together for a communal meal, each family being represented by the head of household. Leaders of the community, such as Members of Parliament and important business leaders, are invited to attend and the cost of the dinner is financed by members’ contributions. The highlight of the dinner is a public auction of goods. A wide range of items, from images of deities to electrical appliances, as well as lottery tickets, are put up for auction. The most significant feature of the auction is that the goods are purchased at prices far beyond their actual cost. For example, a schoolbag, which normally costs less than ten dollars,
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may be sold for two to three hundred dollars. A rice-cooker, sold in the stores for less than fifty dollars, can fetch up to five hundred dollars. Lottery tickets, which cost a dollar each, can command prices of up to one hundred dollars. The reason for these inflated prices is related to the idea that the goods have been blessed by the spirits and are thus more efficacious in fulfilling their functions as they will apparently bring luck and good fortune to the buyers. Moreover, it is thought that the higher prices paid for the goods will indicate to the spirits the person’s generosity and thus bring greater returns. This view is elucidated in the types of goods that receive the most competitive bids and fetch the highest prices. Images of deities, such as Guan Yin, are extremely popular as deities purchased at zhong yuan celebrations are thought to be especially efficacious. Another popular item is a schoolbag. The successful bidder is hoping that his son will do well in school as he will be carrying a bag that has been blessed by the spirits. The kwai ma, or “galloping horse,” is particularly popular with horse-racing addicts. Items like rice-cookers and woks are also highly sought after as they will ensure that the family will always have plenty to eat. The climax is the auction of the hei jin, or “black gold.” It is an elaborately decorated piece of charcoal, supposedly capable of bringing wealth and good fortune to its owner as it is thought to be imbued with spirits. By owning it, a person hopes to increase his chances of becoming wealthy and successful. Not surprisingly, therefore, the hei jin is highly sought after by businessmen who place it in a central location in their business establishment. It is kept for a year and brought back to be burned the following year. The price of the hei jin may go up to an amazing $15,000 to $20,000.33 The zhong yuan celebration concludes with the burning of a huge amount of joss paper to appease the ghosts. As discussed earlier, death rituals are necessary to ensure a smooth transition from ghost to ancestor. Continued worship keeps the ancestor contented. Thus, ancestors who are not adequately cared for, or whose descendants have, for some reason, stopped enacting rituals, are “forgotten ancestors.” They become hungry ghosts. Seen in this light, zhong yuan celebrations are important, as every family could have ancestors that may be “hungry ghosts.” Sacrifices are therefore necessary and prudent in helping these ghosts relieve their pain and suffering as this means they will not return to harm them. People who die in unfortunate circumstances, those who have drowned, killed themselves, been murdered, dead infants, unmarried daughters, beggars, and persons without families, are all classified as hungry ghosts. They are people who fall outside of the “normal” life of a human being, and their spirits are dangerous to the community unless rituals of appeasement are enacted for them. The enactment of zhong yuan rituals draws on Buddhist ideology. Drawing on the concepts of karma and multiple rebirths, human existence, and a person’s social behavior in life, brings with it merits and demerits that contribute to social rank and “happiness” in each life. Those who have lived virtuously are reborn as men and women, whilst transgressions lead to rebirth as animals or to be eternally trapped in hell.34 For the Chinese, this idea of karma has been
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transformed into the concepts of merit or merit-making. In addition, this notion of merit-making is made transferable. Thus, through the efforts of the living in performing the rituals, it is possible to assist the dead in overcoming their bad karma.35 In performing the rituals, the living are also rewarded with merit for their own redemption in the afterlife. This idea of the transferability of merit and reciprocity of exchange, as I have argued, is a central feature of Chinese ritual life. The communal zhong yuan celebration also serves to protect the community from evil influences by eradicating the community of “hungry ghosts.” To this end, the community gathers and pools its resources. The enactment of the ritual provides a collective symbol that transcends divergent economic interests, class status, and social backgrounds, so as to make it possible to coalesce a large multitude of individuals into a community. This integrating function of zhong yuan has been noted in other studies on Chinese society. Baity, for instance, notes the cohesive nature of the community rituals, allowing the community to have regular and formal interaction,36 whilst Yang suggests that: …religion came to serve as a symbol of common devotion in bringing people out of their divergent routines and orienting them towards community activities.37 To an extent, zhong yuan celebrations in Singapore do unite the community; this can be observed in the pooling of resources to enact rituals, the gathering of members for a communal meal, the provision of community recreation and finally, the joint worship of the spirits. However, the celebrations also often create dissension amongst members of the community. In Singapore, for instance, communities are often not represented by a single zhong yuan group, but by many competing groups. In fact, in one community on the eastern part of Singapore, I observed seven separate zhong yuan celebrations, each claiming to represent the same locality. Zhong yuan groups in Singapore must be registered with the Registrar of Societies, a government agency. The organization must have an elected chairman, treasurer, and a stipulated membership. There are a few different types of zhong yuan organizations. The most common is the “locality-based” group, where members are drawn from the same community. Another common type is the occupation-based group, in which membership is based on occupational affiliation, such as taxi drivers, market stall owners, and office workers. These groups often share the same geographical orientation as the locality-based groups. The various groups compete with one another for members and resources of the community,38 and they also compete for status. The larger and richer the group, the more elaborate their zhong yuan celebrations will be, in terms of the number of days the celebrations last, the quality of the drama troupe that is hired, and the number of members. Groups compete with one another for the most
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auspicious dates as well as central locations to hold their rituals. These conflicts sometimes get very heated and come close to fistfights. It is not uncommon to hear the leaders of one group gossiping that other group leaders are squandering their members’ money. Zhong yuan celebrations allow for the demarcation of interest groups within the community, and this extends to political affiliations as well. Thus, zhong yuan celebrations reveal how groups in the community are differentiated economically and politically. The very enactment of the rituals accentuates these distinctions. Ritual behaviors at the zhong yuan celebrations again elucidate the process of exchange that takes place between human beings and spirits. By appeasing and making sacrifices to the spirits, men hope to solicit the spirits’ goodwill so that they return the favor through blessings of wealth, health and long life.
8 CONCLUSIONS Dangerous blood, refined souls
The book began by posing the question of why the Chinese in Singapore, a purportedly pragmatic people, spend great amounts of money in order to ensure the enactment of elaborate death rituals. Furthermore, for a people who are said to value longevity, the Chinese in Singapore seem to be particularly preoccupied with preparing for death. I have shown that death rituals have multiple foci. They reveal many things at the same time and the same thing many times. Through analysis of how the key symbols involved in death rituals, including souls, bones, flesh, blood, food, numbers, money, and time, are viewed and used by the ritual participants, the rationale for enactment of elaborate death rituals becomes apparent. It is not based on any one single principle, but on a range of factors that create an obligation to worship the dead. Various factors, such as the rules of descent, ethical imperatives, debt repayments, duty and obligation, status elevation, social conformity, personal self-interest, and management of death pollution combine to act upon the Chinese individual to ensure that death rituals are performed. Descent, duty, and status elevation Descent creates an obligation to conduct funeral rituals and to worship the ancestors. Death revolves around the family and the performance of rituals is carried out by the family as a group. I suggest that descent creates an obligation to worship the dead not simply because of the descendants’ consanguinal and affinal ties to the deceased, but also because descent implies a certain debt owed to the dead by their descendants. Death rituals must therefore be seen within the context of the total transactions between the deceased and his descendants, with the rituals themselves providing a means of repaying these debts. In this sense, death rituals have little to do with personal feelings toward the deceased, but rather with a sense of duty and obligation. Sons are expected to conduct rituals for their father, even if their relationship is estranged, and being absent from the funeral, opens the son up to criticism from the community. The individual is governed by a set of social obligations to behave in a culturally prescribed way. Thus, ethical values which are highly regarded are reflected in death ritual performance. Filial piety is a common reason cited by informants for
the conduct of death rituals, and this is evident in the observance of the death rituals, which are an extension of the filial piety expected in all aspects of the relationship between a son and his parents. A son is bound by the duty to obey and support his parents when they are alive, and to perform death rituals on their behalf when they die. In the same way, the perpetuation of the family name and tradition is of the highest priority cited by many informants. The worst disaster imaginable is to see the family line disappear because of a failure to provide male descendants. Failure to produce male heirs also means a cessation of ancestor worship and the creation of many hungry ghosts, as there are no descendants to attend to the ancestors’ needs. Symbols which relate to the perpetuation of the family line are prevalent in death ritual performance. For example, the clothes worn by the deceased are known as “generational clothes.” Similarly, the nail placed in the center of the coffin is known as the “posterity nail.” Finally, the family name inscribed on the gravestone is always painted red, symbolizing that the family name never dies but is perpetuated by the descendants. As ethical values are embedded in “religious ethics,” their existence actually defines a set of behavior that is required of an individual or family. In this sense, the values of xiao and family continuity take on a transcendental quality and become powerful motivators of social behavior. The failure to perform rituals is no longer simply viewed as an unfilial act, but as a transgression against the transcendental beings, the ancestors. Because of the close linkage between ethical values and death rituals, the very enactment of rituals revitalizes resources such as filial piety, posterity, and family continuity. The Chinese informants I interviewed were extremely concerned about mian zi or “face.” There are strong social pressures to ensure that the rituals are conducted properly; that is, in conformity with socially prescribed rules. Failure to do so subjects the individual to social sanctions and brings disgrace to the whole family. Social pressure and the fear of sanctions are therefore also strong mechanisms for enforcing the performance of death rituals. Death provides an opportunity to demonstrate and enhance the social status of the deceased and his descendants. Funerals are a public portrayal of the family. An elaborate funeral enhances status while a lackluster one invites criticism. The quality of the coffin, the type and number of religious specialists engaged, the quantity of objects sacrificed to the deceased, and the extent to which a death is publicized, are used as measures of social status. A funeral must be elaborate, even if it means borrowing money to make it so. Funerals have to be noisy and elaborate affairs, with a sense of constant activity. A good funeral is one that is characterized by re nao, that is, it is activity-filled. Movement and activity are related to social status. The presence of a big crowd at a funeral is an indication of the family’s ability to mobilize social connections as it demonstrates that many people are, in one way or another, obliged to take part in the rituals. Obversely, a quiet funeral suggests that the deceased was an insignificant person.
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Insofar as filial piety is a moral act, the observance of death rituals must be understood as the performance of morality. From a theoretical standpoint, this book emphasizes two related, yet seemingly contradictory, impetuses that ensure the continuation of sometimes elaborate death rituals among some Chinese in Singapore: morality and performance. Both are necessary conditions in the production of the rituals that have been captured in these pages. The morality that insists that blood ties are acknowledged and celebrated in death as in life provides the important “structure of feeling” that underlies death rituals. But the elaborateness is a function of the value placed on public performance of morality, and not a function of morality per se. Inheritance, exchange, and calculated self-interest It is, however, more than descent and obligation that motivate informants to carry out elaborate rituals. Death rituals, I argue, are also related to the calculated self-interest of the ritual participants. In performing rituals, the individual hopes to acquire personal benefits through ancestral intervention. The view is that the proper treatment of the dead will result in a reciprocal response from the ancestor, guaranteeing material and social benefits for the ritual sponsors. There is a transactional quality to Chinese ritual behavior; in some respects, death rituals can be seen as an investment. Ancestors are said to be capable of improving a person’s lot and luck in this life, and high on the list of things requested from the ancestors are wealth, prosperity, happiness, luck, good health, long life, and success in the children’s education. In this respect, the Chinese notion of the ritual and its efficacy is not dissimilar to Weber’s suggestion that “men act in obedience to religious and magical beliefs so that they may prosper and have a long life on earth.”1 I argue that the enactment of death rituals reflects the ritual participants’ material interests. The obligation to worship the dead is related to the inheritance of property. Thus, the property of the deceased can only be divided after all the required rituals have been executed. In sum, it is the very enactment of the rituals that accord descendants the right to inherit from the dead. Conversely, a failure to enact the rituals negates the exchange. In the same sense, the act of burying the dead ensures the transfer of authority from the deceased to his sons. In the funeral, this is symbolized by sons carrying the mourning staff, a symbol of authority. Sons assume social and ritual responsibilities as jia zhang by disposing of their father’s corpse. I also argue, however, that it is not simply the inheritance of property that motivates descendants to spend so much money. Instead, the idea is that the conversion of the deceased to an ancestor will enhance the potential for even greater material rewards. For this reason, the deceased is set up to be better-off than he actually was in this life. Death provides an opportunity to raise the socioeconomic status of the deceased. The fact that he was a poor person in this world does not negate the possibility of his transformation into a wealthy person in the
Otherworld through the provision of expensive houses and cars, and other gifts, by his descendants. Death, therefore, provides an arena for the acceleration of exchange between the dead and the living. A variety of gifts, such as food, money, houses, and cars, are given to the dead. In return, the ancestors are expected to reciprocate with countergifts of luck and wealth, and to ensure the general well-being of the descendants. The exchanges are a two-way process. Property must be given to the dead if the living hope to acquire property from the ancestor. The authority of the new jia zhang must draw on the charismatic influence of the dead father. Similarly, the elevation of the status of the deceased enhances the status of the descendants. Gifts to the dead are significant because they act as agents of transformation. Informants noted that a person without property is a beggar. In the same way, a spiritual being without possessions is regarded as a hungry ghost. The giving of elaborate gifts does not simply ensure the physical comfort of the deceased; the gifts play an integral part in his conversion from a beggarspirit to a property-owning one, an ancestor. Gift exchanges do not merely occur at death, but are a general feature of social life. Thus, at all important points of social transition, gifts are exchanged. During the man yue ritual for example, the parents must distribute red eggs and sweetcakes to friends and relatives. In turn, the child is given hong bao filled with money. Likewise, Chinese weddings entail the exchange of goods and money. A large number of gifts, consisting of at least a whole pig, five kinds of gold items, various types of sweetcakes, and a pre-negotiated pin li or bride price are delivered by the groom’s family to the home of the bride. The bridegroom must also give a dinner to friends and relatives, including a specified number of places for the bride’s family. The giving of these gifts represents a process of exchange, money and gold in return for a woman’s labor and procreative abilities. Gifts are not only given at important rituals, but as part of almost all formal or informal social events. Visits to a friend’s house, for example, require bringing a small gift, often oranges.2 Returning to the issue of the persistence of death rituals in modern Singapore as observed in preceding chapters, the evidence suggests that, in addition to morality and performance, property, or economic rationale, also constitutes an important impetus for the descendants. This confirms arguments about the pragmatic nature of “Chinese religion,” reinforcing the view that ancestors, like deities, are “worshiped” because of the protection they can afford and rewards they can mete out. Bones, souls, and death pollution Within Chinese cosmology, there is no gulf between the spiritual and human worlds. Instead, the worlds are integrally linked, and actions and activities in one world have repercussions in the other. Death is not seen as the termination of a life, but as a transition from one realm to another. Ancestors are thought to have
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important roles in every aspect of Chinese social life, from major events such as birth, marriage, and death, to mundane, everyday affairs. Chinese ancestors are viewed as powerful anthropomorphic beings whose power can be tapped to further the interests of descendants. Given the world view that spirits can directly influence the activities of the living, the elevation of the deceased into the Otherworld becomes extremely critical because it guarantees that there will be a supernatural relative who will enhance the descendants’ chances for success in social life, whether this be starting a new business or ensuring the birth of a son to continue the family line. Contrary to Freedman’s claim that Chinese ancestors are essentially benevolent, I argue that the ancestors possess a dual nature. They are capable of blessing or punishing, depending on how they are treated. One of the key features of death ritual enactment is the appropriation of the positive and the expiation of the negative aspects of death. This is most clearly illustrated in the treatment of the soul of the deceased. The conception of a dual soul, I argue, reveals an important aspect of death rituals. Informants claim that death rituals are necessary to ensure that the deceased will not become a hungry ghost who will return to punish his unfilial descendants, but rather is transformed into an ancestor who will bless them. This transformation is achieved ritually by disposing of the po (yin) soul. The reincarnation of the po soul rids the family of the menace of a wandering ghost. At the same time, the hun (yang) soul is reincorporated back into the family by imbuing it into the ancestral tablet. The completion of the funeral means that the hun soul is now refined and under control, ready to be used by the descendants. This process of the separation and reincorporation of the dead is further illustrated by the way ritual participants manage the bones and flesh of the deceased. Death rituals are a means to get rid of the putrescent flesh and to appropriate the powerful bones. Informants are extremely concerned about decaying flesh. It must be disposed of. For this reason, they are very fearful of undecomposed corpses. Burials are a means of allowing the flesh to rot away. The corpse, after a few years, is disinterred and any remaining flesh abscinded. The bones are then washed with wine and reburied. In cases of cremation, the bones are rearranged in an urn, and become an object of worship for the descendants. Death rituals are also related to the management of pollution. Death is polluting because the corpse is physically unclean and the soul is ritually unbounded. Rituals are required to eliminate both aspects of death pollution: uncleanliness and unboundedness. Thus it is noted that there is a preponderance of “washing” symbols throughout the funeral. Death releases a free-floating unsettled marginal being, neither human nor ancestor. Death rituals are meant to bind this soul. Thus, during the funeral, the family of the deceased keeps careful watch over the soul and accompanies it throughout all stages of the ritual. After the funeral, the soul is invited back into the home and imbued the ancestral tablet with its hun.
In this sense, death rituals serve as a mechanism of transformation. They refine the dead, making him into a purer form and finally transforming him into an icon of worship for his descendants. The changing ritual condition of the mourners illustrates the refining power of death rituals. It is noted that the mood of the mourners during the funeral is characterized by sadness and loud wailing. After the funeral, however, family members collectively strip off their mourning garments, and don colorful clothes. At this juncture, no crying is tolerated and family members are told to look happy and rejoice. This gesture represents the absolution of the pollution of death and the transformation of the deceased into a refined ancestor. Death rituals not only function to refine the dead, they are also a means of ameliorating the death pollution acquired by the descendants of the deceased. They are polluted because of their physical proximity to the dead. They are the only people allowed near the dead prior to the coffining, or to touch the corpse. They are also polluted because of their social relationship with the deceased. Yet family members are not only polluted; because they carry the aura of death about them, they in turn become polluting. They become a death contamination group. For this reason, various restrictions are placed on them and they undergo a period of isolation from the community. After ritual purification, they remove the badge of mourning, the xiao. This marks the end of mourning, and the end of death pollution. Effects of death on the social group The social implications of death can be seen at three levels. First, death works to unite the social group. Second, death accentuates material and social distinctions within the group. Third, death divides the social group. Many features of death rituals demonstrate their integrating functions. For example, the requirement for all family members to be present and to participate in the rituals consolidates the unity of the family group. Moreover, the pooling of resources, both economic and social, reaffirms the ties of family members at a time of crisis. Thus, death highlights the exclusiveness of the family by demarcating its membership and setting it against outsiders. The ritual screen placed before the coffin acts as a symbolic and physical barrier between the family and outsiders. Death rituals also provide the frame of reference for the ordering of social relationships among the Chinese. Rules regarding the different grades of mourning, the required social distance from the dead, and the order of placement of ancestral tablets on the ancestral altar, manifest the generation-age-sex principle that operates in the organization of Chinese family structure. Death rituals are, in a sense, replications of the ideal social order in Chinese society. Formal kinship distinctions are made apparent because of death, and more importantly, the formal kinship structure is accompanied by a set of obligatory social behaviors that an individual must fulfill.
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However, death rituals must be viewed at two levels: the formal, public level, and the private, familial level. At the public level, death rituals are marked by a ritualistic and formalized presentation of the family, and kinship relations are clearly specified. Within the family, however, formalized kinship structures do not completely determine social relationships. Instead, the material interests of individuals and groups are revealed. There is a strategic manipulation in which wealth, economic achievements, and education are just as important as kinship ordering in practical social interactions. In the public arena, death rituals therefore emphasize the unity of the kin group. Within the private world, however, ritual enactment is punctuated by many incidences of conflict and competition. Many conflicts center around what is deemed to be the correct ritual procedure; disagreements were observed over the methods for disposing the dead, the types of mourning garments to be worn, the type of priest to engage, and even the kind of coffin to be used. These conflicts bring the factions within the family to the surface. Social relationships are dynamic, not static, and death allows for the articulation of allegiances, divisions, and feuds within the family. Thus, kinship relations in themselves are not sufficient to guarantee family unity. It is important to examine the rivalries, shared interests, and competition of siblings, with relations within the family often characterized by conflicts and rivalries, with wives, mistresses, daughtersin-law, sons, half-brothers, and illegitimate children competing for resources and power. The very ambiguity of the belief system underlying Chinese death rituals, a “folk” religion with no set canon or a defined clergy, means that ritual participants are given wide latitude to define meaning of various rituals. This is seen in the important part played by personal preferences in deciding what rituals are enacted. It must be stressed that these variations fall within an overarching framework of acceptable ritual conventions. Furthermore, personal choices are legitimized by invoking tradition. Conformity to a cultural ideal is therefore used to legitimize personal social actions. I argue that conflicts in ritual enactment are related to personal self-interests. The ability to regulate the rituals implies both control over the dead as well as an individual or faction’s dominance over other family members. One central point of the book is to map out the various strategies adopted by ritual participants to control the performance of rituals. A key feature of Chinese death rituals is the tension between the interests of the individual and the need of the collectivity or group. I suggest that rituals must be seen as attempts by the ritual participants to ascribe and impose meanings on the rituals. At the same time, the ritual actor is constrained and bounded by the collective mandate which often limits his actions. The dynamics of working out this tension between individual motivation and collective mandate, that is, between individual meaning systems and formal structures, is important as it demonstrates the material and ideal interests of different individuals and groups in the enactment of death rituals.
As such, siblings compete with one another for the affections of the dead. They try to outdo one another through the presentation of larger offerings, competitive weeping, and the sponsorship of musicians at the funeral. The desire to “out-filialize” one another provides a clue to the self-interested nature of death ritual enactment. The view is that ancestors are capable of favoritism in the treatment of his descendants, and each person therefore tries to demonstrate his own devotion to further his own interest as this will hopefully result in material rewards from the ancestors. It is important to stress, that although conflict and competition can become heated and emotionally charged, it is generally kept away from the public view. Siblings quarreling among themselves in the enactment of funeral rituals are thought to be an embarrassment to the family. Conflicts are resolved, if only partially, within the confines of the family. Death concretizes the most important hierarchical distinction in Chinese society, that between men and women and I also suggest that death rituals illuminate the dual nature of women in Chinese society. Women are viewed as extremely polluting and special rituals, such as the “bloody pond,” must be enacted on their behalf to rescue their souls from eternal entrapment. The ritual, however, also exemplifies the power of women, by showing women’s ability to ensure the continuity of the family line through the procreation of sons. The “bloody pond” ritual must be understood as a transaction between a mother and her sons, an exchange of her fertility for their acceptance of her pollution. It is a dramatic juxtaposition of a woman’s procreative and polluting powers. The gift of fertility qualifies the mother to be finally enjoined into the body of the ancestral spirit of her husband. In the process, her fertility is no longer seen as simply coming from her, but derived from the patrilineal ancestors. Overcoming death, reaffirming life The Chinese cosmology is an organismic one. All parts of the entire cosmos belong to one organic whole and they interact as participants in one spontaneously self-generating life process.3 Joseph Needham describes it as “an ordered harmony of wills without an ordainer.”4 Harmony and order must be maintained at all times, in one individual’s psyche, in every aspect of social life, and in the entire cosmos. Everything that exists, including man, has a correct place in the order of things. When there is an imbalance, a disharmony, order and equilibrium must be reestablished. The Chinese conceive of a bipolarity within the cosmos. This is demonstrated in the conception of dual forces in the universe, yin and yang. These forces are opposites; yang is equated with warmth, masculinity, productivity, sunlight, and life, whilst yin is related to the cold, femininity, the moon, darkness, and death. Though they are conceived of as opposite forces, yin and yang are not in absolute opposition to one another, but are necessarily complementary. Yin and yang are in a process of dynamic interaction, with Thompson describing the relationship between the two forces as “definable phases in a ceaseless flow of change.”5
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It must be emphasized that the informants do not simply conceive of the yin/ yang principle in the cosmological sense of impersonal abstract forces, but as a principle that operates in every aspect of daily life. Abstract cosmology is therefore dealt with as a series of pragmatic principles. For example, many informants say that a person should not eat hot (yang) and cold (yin) food at the same time. The yin/yang principle is a common thread that runs through the performance of death rituals. For example, the dichotomy of light (yang) versus darkness (ying) is an important theme throughout the death rituals. Death is represented as dark and cold, and for this reason, the eldest son carries the zhi deng long to throw light into the darkness. At the funeral, it is important to ensure that the candles on the altar are kept continually lit. The presence of light represents an attempt to overcome the negative features of death through the counteraction of yin symbols by yang symbols. Similarly, we see the preponderance of the color red, a yang symbol, during ritual performance. The color red is not only associated with life, but is thought to have prophylactic powers and can be used to overcome death. Yang is equated with life, yin with death. The preponderance of yang symbols at death rituals represents an attempt at overcoming death through the reassertation of life symbols. Bloch and Parry, in a comparative paper, argue that individuality and unrepeatable time are problems that must be overcome if the social order is to be represented as eternal. Thus, mortuary rituals characteristically deny individuality and unrepeatable time by representing death as part of a cyclical process of renewal. Here I argue that individuality need not be negated so that the eternal order can be reestablished, but instead, the relationship between time, individuality and the social order is a complex one. The notion about rebirth demonstrates this complexity. At one level, the individual personality is in fact accentuated by the transformation of the deceased into an individual ancestor, who continues to retain the same needs, likes and dislikes, as when he was still alive. The deceased is worshiped as an individual entity. At another level, however, the individual ancestor is also a member of a body of generalized ancestral spirits. This is exemplified by the common practice of placing a tablet for the ancestor in the clan ancestral hall immediately after the funeral. This ideology reinforces the idea of the importance of maintaining family continuity because descent then becomes part of a continuous chain, with innumerable ancestors at one end and innumerable descendants on the other end. The notion of time is also consistent with the idea of rebirth. Time, for the informants, can be complete, or incomplete. Complete time is equated with an ending. Incomplete time is tied to the idea of continuity. Extending Leach’s idea of the relationship between time and death, I suggest that the denial of time works at two levels. First, it has to do with the denial of an individual’s extinction. For this reason, a person’s funeral always lasts an odd number of days, a symbol of incomplete time, and never for an even number of days, as this would symbolize the end of the person. In this sense, death rituals are a means of dealing with
Plate 8.1 The elaborately decorated funeral hearse on its way to the graveyard.
man’s mortality by guaranteeing his continued existence in the Otherworld through reincarnation. At another level, duration is denied by making an individual’s death part of a repetitive cycle. The reincarnation of the po soul of the deceased gives birth to a new person. In this sense, the giving up of one life, death, ensures the coming into existence of another life, birth, meaning that there is a process of continuous cyclical reproduction, death giving way to life, and life surrendering to death. Good and bad deaths Informants make a distinction between good and bad deaths. Put succinctly, there is a right time, a right place and a right way to die. A death that does not conform to these norms is considered an unnatural death. Unnatural deaths are problematic because they represent an inability to complete the ritual cycle. This is because the soul of the deceased is thought to be trapped and unable to make its way through Hell in order to be reincarnated. My analysis of unnatural deaths shows that death rituals can be viewed as a way of transforming an unpredictable event into part of a predictable ritual sequence. Death releases an uncontrolled, impure ghost. The execution of the death rituals bind and refine this soul, creating an ancestral spirit. By completing this cyclical process, order is reestablished within society as well as in the cosmos.
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Dead children and unmarried women are not given the benefits of a full funeral. This is because they are thought to be incomplete human beings, both in the ritual and social sense. Ritually, children are thought to possess only a half-soul. They are regarded as socially immature since they are incapable of having descendants. Thus they are not regarded as potential ancestors. Similarly, daughters are supposed to marry out of and not die in the home of their father. Women who die before marriage are not represented by an ancestral tablet on the family ancestral altar. Both dead children and unmarried women disrupt the social order so special rituals, such as posthumous adoptions and ghost marriages, are conceived to reassert it. The funeral hearse and Chinese cultural values Death rituals highlight the cultural values, both material and social, that are most important to the Chinese in Singapore. The funeral hearse, an elaborately decorated truck used to ferry the deceased to the graveyard, is an object rich in symbolism, a microcosm illuminating cultural values (see Plate 8.1). If the deceased is a man, a stylized lion is placed atop the truck as lions symbolize power and authority. If the deceased is a woman, the animal is a crane as these are symbols of happiness and longevity. The hearse is surrounded by numerous tigers as these animals are said to have the power to ward off evil influences and bring good luck. The hearse is also covered with stylized drawings of rain-clouds and waves. These symbolize fertility and wealth. There are also pictures of tortoises, symbols of longevity, and the word for longevity, shou, is written on the hearse. The hearse is also predominantly dark blue, a color usually equated with spring, a time of regeneration. In conclusion, it is argued that various factors combine to explain why the Chinese behave as they do when performing death rituals. Although obedience to ethical imperatives is perhaps the most common reason cited, it cannot fully explain anomalies such as the existence of conflict and competition during the enactment of death rituals. In reality, there is tension between the self-interests of an individual and the desire to conform to the needs of the social group. During the enactment of death rituals and, one may even generalize to include all social action, a Chinese in Singapore has to constantly balance between his pragmatic strategies for ritual performance, a necessity to conform to what he views as acceptable public social behavior, and the requirement to obey ethical imperatives, such as the conventions of filial piety and loyalty in which he has been socialized since childhood. I do not privilege one discourse over the others. Instead, I am suggesting that material interests or idealism are, in themselves, insufficient explanations for behaviors observed during the death rituals. Rather, it is a combination of both, a fine balance between the desire for material rewards and personal benefits as well as a quest for what is seen as the “good society” that can best explain the ritual and social behavior of the Chinese in Singapore.
Whither Chinese death rituals? As a book’s focus clarifies, it also limits. The questions set in a book precludes it from fully attending to other questions that emerge in the course of research but whose character leave them outside the book’s scope. One of these questions must be the effect of rapid modernization and social change that has characterized Singapore society. The question of whether traditional religious complexes have been immune or susceptible to developments in other areas of society is warranted. For example, there has been a notable shift in the configuration of religious affiliation in Singapore. In the 1931 Census, over 97 percent of the Chinese in Singapore claimed to practice Chinese religion. In the 1980 Census, however, only 72.5 percent said they were “Chinese religionists” (38.2 percent Taoists and 34.3 percent Buddhists). Meanwhile, 10.6 percent claim they were Christians and 16.7 percent denied believing in any religion. The 2000 Census showed other significant changes. The number of adherents to Buddhism had increased dramatically to 42.5 percent, an increase that happened at the expense of Taoism, which declined to 8.5 percent. There was a moderate increase in the number of Christians (14.6 percent), while those who claimed to have no religion remained relatively stable (14.8 percent). Do these changes in the patterns of religious affiliations have an impact on the practice of traditional Chinese religion, including death rituals? Since Chinese religion relies heavily on oral transmission for the handing down of ritual practices from one generation to another, will this result in a marked decrease in ritual enactment? Those who claimed not to practice Chinese religion were, by and large, English-educated with tertiary qualifications. What is the correlation between socio-economic status and belief in traditional religion? In 1990, I conducted a national survey to study the practice of traditional Chinese religion in Singapore, with the aims of analyzing the trends and variations in Chinese ritual practices as well as examining the impact of rapid social change and modernization. Based on a rigorous multi-staged random sampling design to ensure a statistical representation of the Chinese population in Singapore, a total of 1,025 respondents were interviewed to find out about their religious practices at home, at public places of worship, Chinese festivals, and birth, marriage and death rituals. The study was the first to attempt a quantitative survey of Chinese religious practices in Singapore. Several key findings there are relevant to this book. Firstly, it is noted that the adherence to Chinese religious practices, despite the rapid modernization of Singapore society, remains very high. For example, in terms of home-based rituals, the survey indicates that the majority of respondents still carry out worship activities such as using joss sticks and offering food and fruits to the ancestors. The ritual of praying to ancestors with joss sticks is performed by over 90 percent of the respondents. Similarly, 98.9 percent of respondents celebrate the Chinese New Year, as well as activities associated with it, such as the giving of red packets, having a reunion dinner, and visiting relatives.6 Interestingly, and
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of special relevance to this book, the survey also found that the degree of adherence to Chinese funerary rituals is quite high. Rituals such as the giving of baijin, watching over the dead, wearing of mourning garments, and washing and dressing the dead, register very high adherence rates of between 84–94 percent of all Chinese Singaporeans. Other rituals, such as the buying of water to clean the deceased, and feeding the dead, register about 78 percent adherence. Thus, death rituals continue to be widely practiced among the Chinese, especially rituals that have to do with the treatment of the dead corpse (washing and dressing, coffining, feeding the dead, buying water), and those with an element of public demonstration (mourning garments, wreaths, and giving of baijin). Morality, performance and property clearly continue to be significant motivational factors. This high rate of adherence indicates that death rituals continue to hold a very significant place in the lives of Chinese Singaporeans, despite the advent of modernization. However, a deeper analysis of the data suggests some interesting trends. Younger Singaporeans are generally less likely to observe traditional Chinese customs and rites. In the celebration of the Qing Ming festival, for instance, a much higher percentage of those in the older age groups (87.6 percent for those from 50–59 years old, and 86.6 percent for those 40–49 years old) celebrate Qing Ming, in comparison to younger Singaporeans (72.7 percent). While this may imply that there may be a drop in the number of Chinese performing the rituals associated with death, it should be emphasized that, even for the young, the rate of adherence is still relatively high, in the 70–75 percent range. This is still a substantial proportion of the Chinese population in Singapore and indicates that death rituals are, and will continue to be, carried out by a sizeable proportion of the Chinese population in modern Singapore. One reason for the lower rate of adherence among younger Singaporeans is that this age group has a relatively higher number of Christians. For example, in 1990, 16.2 percent of the Chinese population aged 20–29 profess to be Christians, compared to 11.8 percent for those aged 60 and above.7 Many Christians do not observe traditional Chinese rituals because they feel that these practices are contrary to their beliefs. However, I found that most Christians do participate in the funerary rituals of their parents although some do not carry out all the rituals. For example, some will wear the mourning garments and take part in the nai he qiao ritual, but will not carry joss sticks. Others will perform the Qing Ming rituals, but offer flowers instead of food. While there was a period of substantial increase in the number of Chinese Christians in Singapore in the 1960s and 70s, the rate of growth has declined. Instead, over the last 20 years, we have witnessed a dramatic increase in the number of Chinese professing to be Buddhists. In 1980, 27 percent of the population claim to be Buddhists. In 2000, over 42 percent profess Buddhism. This growth has been at the expense of Taoism, which declined from 30 percent in 1980 to just 8.5 percent in 2000. These statistical figures, however, must be viewed with caution. Firstly, given the high degree of syncretism in Chinese
religion, it is difficult to make a distinction between the two religions. There were many cases of discrepancies between the self-proclaimed religious identity and the type of shrines/temples and gods/ spirits one worships. For many Chinese, the formal religious labels do not matter, and their practices represent a mixture of several religious traditions. In the survey, for example, I asked the respondent, what is his/her religion? A follow-up question asks about the deities that are worshiped at home. While 38 percent of the respondents claimed the religious label “Budhism”, only 22 percent of all respondents said that they prayed to Buddha. The most commonly worshiped deities are Guan Yin (50.2 percent) and Da Bo Gong (47.8 percent), followed by Guang Gong (18.1 percent).8 Moreover, the majority (81.5 percent) worship more than one deity at home. Thus, while many Chinese ascribe to the label “Buddhism,” their religious practices are syncretic and complex, drawing from the religious traditions of Buddhism, Taoism, Confucianism, and Chinese folk beliefs. Regardless of the labels used, the survey found that the practice of Chinese rituals essentially remains high in Singapore. For example, only 8.6 percent of the respondents revealed that they did not have a family altar at home, reflecting the persistence of Chinese religious worship. The importance of the family and ancestors for the Chinese is manifested by the high rate of observance for the Qing Ming Jie (81.3 percent), with the majority (82.3 percent) of the practitioners visiting the graveyard on this occasion. It would therefore be difficult to argue that there has been a serious erosion of traditional religious practices among the Chinese in Singapore. This is not to say that there have been no changes in the performance of traditional Chinese death rituals. All religions are dynamic, constantly being interpreted and mediated by their followers. The structural and social transformations in Singapore society have resulted in many adaptations in ritual practices, such as the use of “substitution ancestral tablets,” the li dai zhu xian ancestral tablets, and the trend towards more familycentered rituals. Many rituals have also undergone a degree of modification to make them more applicable to life in a modern society. For example, in traditional China, the mourning period for the death of a father can extend up to three years. In Singapore, it is more common for the mourning period to be for 49 or 100 days. Similarly, the interval between coffining and burial can traditionally be prolonged for a period of time lasting anything from three months to a year. In modern Singapore, however, given the exigencies of modern living, they usually last from three to seven days. While the forms may have changed, the rationales behind the performance of these rituals have not. There have also been changes in attitudes toward religious matters. For example, the construction of high-rise housing units in Singapore has sometimes required the mass exhumation of traditional graveyards. Initially, there was a reluctance to live in these dwellings as they were associated with death. But the scarcity of urban dwelling, has in many instances, led the Chinese to accept such housing. However, many informants rationalize that religious specialists have been engaged to ameliorate the pollution of the site.9
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Part of the explanation for these changes may be due to the immigrant nature of the Chinese population in Singapore. Being away from China, they set about adapting, modifying and creating rituals to deal with living in a new and alien environment. Moreover, because of the rapidly modernizing nature of Singapore society, particularly in the last fifty years, the performance of death rituals have undergone modification and adaptation. In a sense, these modifications and adaptations reflect the evolving structure of Singapore society. Modernity requires that religious practices undergo modification in order that the traditional symbolic meanings are still up held. However, the conditions of modernity have not simply led to the demise of traditional religious practices. Rather, through the invention and (re)invention of rituals, death rituals continue to provide a meaning system for the Chinese religionists in Singapore. Part of the reason for this ease of change is the nature of Chinese death rituals. The malleability of practices is possible because the rituals are not text-based, nor anchored in canonical rules and teachings. In its reliance on an oral tradition, changes are more easily introduced, accommodated, and explained. As I have highlighted earlier, this is a religion that is highly pragmatic, problem-oriented, result-oriented, and of this world rather than an abstract philosophy. As a result, when conditions of modernity suggest it is impractical to perform rituals in a certain way, these rituals are modified and reconceptualized. Death rituals, in other words, avail themselves to manipulation with no major dissonance. Nevertheless, it is important to emphasize that the (re)invented rituals must be sanctioned and legitimized, despite the general mutability of practice. In other words, one does not observe a “free for all” (re)invention. Validation comes in various forms. The views of religious specialists are still sought. Particularly with rituals which are not regularly and frequently practiced, such as death rituals, validation may also come from family elders. As different practitioners call on different validators and (re)invent rituals in particular ways, in practice, divergences emerge. This however, does not create major dissonance for the ritual participants. In part, as suggested earlier, the lack of a fixed canon in syncretic Chinese religion makes possible wider limits of acceptable forms of ritual performance and interpretation. I think it is fallacious to assume a unilineal causal relationship between modernization and religion. Contrary to classical western secularization theory, modernization has not resulted in the displacement of traditional belief systems among the Chinese in Singapore. In fact, amidst the widespread changes in society and religious practices, there are strong indications of persistence. To most Chinese, death rituals still occupy a central place. Furthermore, most of the structural features of Chinese death rituals remain quite intact. How can we account for this? Part of the answer may lie in the fact, that unlike western religion in which there is a separation between the sacred and the profane, Chinese religious beliefs are closely integrated into Chinese social life and the supernatural realm is intertwined with the human world. Furthermore, while objective knowledge is crucial to the maintenance of the religious system in a
western tradition, Chinese religion, it can be argued, negates the necessity of total knowledge of the rituals. Instead, the sense of duty and obligation, desire for social conformity and the achievement of calculated self-interests are more important considerations.
APPENDIX List of Chinese characters
A mi tuo jing: ang zang: ang zhang dong xi: ba gua deng: ba zi: bai: bai jin: bang yuan: bi: bu yao: Cai cuo gang: chang ming deng: chang sheng lu wei: chang shou mian: chao du: Chu xiao qing guan ci liang jin ke: cong cai: Da Bo Gong: Da Shi Ye: da xie shen en: Di Cang: di yu: Di zang jing: dian you: dian zhu: Dong zhi: dui lian: e gui: fa chai: fang: fen bu: fen jia: fen xiang huo:
feng huang: feng shui: gan die: gan er zi: gang zhi: gong de: gong hui: gong po pai: Guan Yin: Guang Ming Shan: Guan Gong: gui: gui sheng: hao hua: hao xiong di: hei jin: hong bao: hong gui gao: huan yun: hun: ji nian: ji wen: jia: jia chu qu: jia siang: jia zhang: jiang shi: jie jie: Jie yuan wang fu xiu zai gong de: jin xiao da li: jin zi: kai wu fang: kao: kuai ma: li: Li Chi: li dai zhu xian: li gui: liang shi ji ri: Lin: ling: ling che: ling hun: lu zhu:
luan: ma piao: mai lu qian: man yue: mei mian zi: mian zi: min guo er shi er nian: ming jing: mu: mu bei: Mu Lian: nai he qiao: neng li: nu gui: pin li: po: qi: qi tan: qin ren: qing: qing guan: Qing Ming: Qing ming jie: qu qi zi: rao guan: re nao: ru mu: San Qing: shang shang: shen: shen zu pai: shen zuo: shi er zhi: shi gu: shou yi: si fang qian: suan ming: tan hua: Tang: tian: Tian Gong: Tian Hou Sheng Mu: Tian huang hao ling: tian shui:
Tong jie: tong zi: Tu Di Gong: tuan yuan: Wang: wang chang le jie: wang xi fang: wu dai: wu fu: wu lun: xi tian: xia shang: xian: xian bi: xian jiu: xian kao: xian zu: xiang lu: xiao: Xiao jing: xiao bu: xiao zi: xiong si: xue hu yu: xue yu jing: Yan Luo Wang: yan wan gui: yang: yang qi: yao hu: yao shou: yi bing: yin: yin jian: yin qi: yin yang: yin zi: yin rong wan zai: yuan wang gui: Yue Lao Xian Wang: Zhao qin he bei jing: zhi deng long: zhong shang: zhong xiao:
zhong xiao chuan jia: Zhong Yuan Jie: zhu wen: zhuan lun: zhuang dao: zhuang yuan: zi sun deng: zi sun ding: zi ji ren: zu: zu gu: zu xian tang:
1 THE PROBLEM OF DEATH 1 US $1=Singapore $1.80. The figures cited above are based on estimates given by informants as well as my own approximate itemized calculations. 2 Clifford Geertz, “Thick description: Towards an interpretative theory of culture,” in Clifford Geertz, The Interpretation of Culture. New York: Basic Books, 1973, pp. 3–30. 3 Clifford Geertz, “Thick description,” p. 9. 4 Richard Huntington and Peter Metcalf, Celebrations of Death: The Anthropology of Mortuary Ritual. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1979, p. 2. 5 See Max Weber, The Methodology of the Social Sciences. New York: Glencoe Press, 1949, p. 81. 6 See, for example, Hugh Baker, Chinese Family and Kinship. London: Macmillan, 1979. 7 See Pierre Bourdieu, Outline of a Theory of Practice. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1977, pp. 33–6. 8 Victor Turner, The Forest of Symbols: Aspects of Ndembu Ritual. Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1967, p. 38. 9 See, for example, C.K. Yang, Religion in Chinese Society: A Study of Contemporary Social Functions of Religion and Some of Their Historical Factors. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1961, and David Jordan, Gods, Ghosts and Ancestors: The Folk Religion of a Taiwanese Village. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1972. 10 Hugh Baker, Chinese Family and Kinship, p. 26. 11 Max Weber, Methodology of the Social Sciences, p. 57. 12 Vivienne Wee, “Religion and ritual among the Chinese in Singapore: An ethnographic study.” Unpublished M.A. Thesis, University of Singapore, 1977, p. 18. 13 Bai is a term used by the Chinese for worship. It refers to the physical ritual behavior of “praying” to the spirits as well as worship in general.
14 Marcel Mauss, The Gift: Forms and Functions of Exchange in Archaic Societies. Translated by Ian Cunnison with an introduction by E.E.Evans-Pritchard. New York: W.W. Norton, 1967. 15 Maurice Freedman, “Ancestor worship: Two facets of the Chinese case,” in The Study of Chinese Society: Essays by Maurice Freedman. Selected and introduced by G.William Skinner. Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1979, pp. 298–9. 16 Pierre Bourdieu, Outline of a Theory of Practice, p. 171. 17 See Vivienne Wee, “Religion and ritual among the Chinese,” 1977. 18 See Maurice Bloch and Jonathan Parry (eds), Death and the Regeneration of Life. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1982, pp. 7–15. 19 See Mary Douglas, Purity and Danger: An Analysis of the Concepts of Pollution and Taboo. London: Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1979, p. 35. 20 Edmund Leach, Political Systems of Highland Burma, A Study of Kachin Social Structure. Boston: Beacon Press, 1965, p. 14. 21 C.K.Yang, Religion in Chinese Society, pp. 294–340. 22 Richard Huntington and Peter Metcalf, Celebrations of Death, p. 6. 23 Edward B.Tylor, Primitive Cultures, 3rd Edition, Volume 2. London: John Murray, 1891, p. 113. 24 James Frazer, The Belief in Immortality and the Worship of the Dead. London: Macmillan, 1913, pp. 23–4. 25 See Jack Goody, Death, Property and the Ancestors: A Study of the Mortuary Customs of the Lodagaa of West Africa. London: Tavistock, 1962, p. 14. 26 See, for example, E.E.Evans-Pritchard, Theories of Primitive Religion. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1965 and Jack Goody, Death, Property and the Ancestors, p. 14. 27 Robert Hertz, Death and the Right Hand. Translated by Rodney Needham with an introduction by E.E.Evans-Pritchard. New York: Free Press, 1960, p. 77. 28 See Maurice Bloch and Jonathan Parry (eds), Death and the Regeneration of Life, pp. 3–5, for a good summary of the Hertzian thesis. See also Jack Goody, Death, Property, and the Ancestors, pp. 25–7. 29 Robert Hertz, Death and the Right Hand, pp. 78–9. 30 E.E. Evans-Pritchard, “Introduction,” in Robert Hertz, Death and the Right Hand, p. 15. 31 Goody provides a good review of literature relating to mortuary rituals, particularly with respect to the fear of the dead hypothesis propounded by Malinowski, Frazer, Freud, and Hertz. See Jack Goody, Death, Property and the Ancestors, pp. 13–30. 32 Arnold Van Gennep, The Rites of Passage. Translated by M.Vizedom with an introduction by S. Kimball. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1960. 33 Richard Huntington and Peter Metcalf, Celebrations of Death, offers a brief review of the contributions of Durkheim, Hertz and Van Gennep. 34 Maurice Bloch and Jonathan Parry (eds), Death and the Regeneration of Life, pp. 5– 6. 35 Maurice Bloch and Jonathan Parry (eds), Death and the Regeneration of Life, pp. 10–11. 36 Maurice Bloch and Jonathan Parry (eds), Death and the Regeneration of Life, p. 27. 37 See J.J. M.DeGroot, The Religious System of China, 6 vols. Leiden: E.J. Brill, 1892–1910; Justus Doolittle, Social Life of the Chinese, 2 vols. London: Sampson
38 39 40 41 42 43 44 45 46 47 48 49 50 51 52 53 54
57 58 59 60 61 62 63 64 65
Low and Marston, 1868; Henri Dore, Researches into Chinese Superstitions. Shanghai: Tsuewei Press, 1914; Joseph Edkins, Religion in China. Boston: James Osgood, 1878. Edkins’ title, for example, contains the statement, “Observations on the prospect of Christian conversion amongst the people.” J.J. M.DeGroot, The Religious Systems of China, p. viii. J.J. M.DeGroot, The Religious Systems of China, p. xi. Marcel Granet, The Religion of the Chinese People. Translated, edited and introduced by Maurice Freedman. Oxford: Basil Blackwell, 1975. See Freedman’s Introduction, Marcel Granet, The Religion of the Chinese People, pp. 23–6. Marcel Granet, The Religion of the Chinese People, p. 148. Marcel Granet, The Religion of the Chinese People, p. 82. Maurice Freedman, The Study of Chinese Society, p. 361. Maurice Freedman, The Study of Chinese Society, p. 363. C.K.Yang, Religion in Chinese Society. C.K.Yang, Religion in Chinese Society, p. 28. C.K.Yang, Religion in Chinese Society, p. 1. C.K.Yang, Religion in Chinese Society, pp. 29–30. Hugh Baker, Chinese Family and Kinship. London: Macmillan, 1979. Laurence G.Thompson, Chinese Religion: An Introduction. Encino: Dickenson, 1975, pp. 34–5. See David Jordan, Gods, Ghosts and Ancestors. At this point, I will be laying out the general themes in Freedman’s work, which is characterized by its scope and eclecticism of ideas. He was interested, in varying degrees, in economics, law, politics, and ethnicity but I am primarily interested in his work on Chinese kinship and religion. The specific details of his thesis will be dealt with in the book. Maurice Freedman, Chinese Family and Marriage in Singapore. London: Her Majesty’s Stationery Office, 1957; Maurice Freedman, Lineage Organizations in Southeastern China. London: London School of Economics and Political Science Monographs on Social Anthropology 18, 1958, and Maurice Freedman, Chinese Lineage and Society. London: Athlone Press, 1966. Maurice Freedman, The Study of Chinese Society: Essays by Maurice Freedman. Selected and introduced by G.William Skinner. Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1970. Maurice Freedman, Chinese Lineage and Society, p. 118. Maurice Freedman, Lineage Organizations in Southeastern China, p. 148. Maurice Freedman, “Ritual aspects of kinship and marriage,” in The Study of Chinese Society, pp. 273–95. Maurice Freedman, Chinese Lineage and Society, p. 133. Maurice Freedman, Chinese Lineage and Society, p. 153. Maurice Freedman, The Study of Chinese Society, pp. 298–9. Maurice Freedman, The Study of Chinese Society, p. 303. Maurice Freedman, The Study of Chinese Society, p. xiii. See Skinner’s Introduction, in Maurice Freedman, The Study of Chinese Society, p. xiii. This introduction provides a brief account of Freedman’s sociological background and a favorable review of his writings.
66 Francis L.K.Hsu, Under the Ancestors’ Shadow: Chinese Culture and Personality. London: Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1949; Emily M.Ahern, The Cult of the Dead in a Chinese Village. Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1973. 67 Francis L.K.Hsu, Under the Ancestors’ Shadow, p. 237. 68 Francis L.K.Hsu, Under the Ancestors’ Shadow, p. 242. 69 Emily M.Ahern, The Cult of the Dead in a Chinese Village, pp. 152–3. 70 Emily M.Ahern, The Cult of the Dead in a Chinese Village, p. 91. 71 Emily M.Ahern, The Cult of the Dead in a Chinese Village, p. 105. 72 Arthur P.Wolf, “Aspects of ancestor worship in Northern Taiwan,” in William Newell (ed.), Ancestors. Hague: Mouton, 1976, p. 340.
2 THE PROCESS OF DEATH: FUNERAL RITUALS 1 See Leon Comber, Chinese Ancestor Worship in Malaya. Singapore: Donald Moore, 1954, p. 7. 2 The particular funeral I am describing is for a deceased male. The differences between male and female deaths will be discussed in Chapter 6. 3 The nature and significance of these taboos will be dealt with in detail in Chapter 6. 4 Leon Comber, Chinese Ancestor Worship in Malaya, p. 13. 5 Leon Comber, Chinese Ancestor Worship in Malaya, p. 11. 6 This bag of grain consists of millet, hemp, pulse, wheat, and rice. I was told that these were the basic food crops in China. Although some of these grains are not found in Singapore, it is said that the dead in Singapore continue to eat them. 7 The Chinese word for “nail” is a homonym for “descendants.” 8 These, however, are inadequate for explaining all the cases of exclusion. This will be discussed in detail in Chapter 6. 9 For easy reference, the kinship relationship is seen with the deceased as the point of reference. Thus, sons would mean the sons of the deceased, etcetera. 10 Both Buddhist and Taoist priests can be engaged to carry out the funeral rituals. In fact, it is not uncommon for the family to hire Taoist priests to conduct the final night rituals and then proceed the next day to a Buddhist temple to perform the cremation rituals. In Buddhist funerals, the main scriptures used are the a mi tuo jing, used to guide the spirit of the deceased to the “everlasting world of serenity,” and the di zang jing, to diminish any undesirable deeds that the deceased had committed in his life. 11 For a more detailed description of the various courts of Hell, see Henri Maspero, Taoism and Chinese Religion. Amherst: University of Massachusetts Press, 1981, pp. 176–82. Xu Ji Jun noted that the idea behind the concept of Hell was established during the Tang dynasty and is integrally related to the notion of filial piety. See Xu Ji Jun, A History of Funeral and Burial Rituals in China. Nanchang: Jiangxi Gao Xiao Publishers, 1998. 12 There is an apparent contradiction between the idea of the continued existence of the soul of the deceased as an ancestor and his reincarnation. Most people are either unable to explain this contradiction or claim that they see no contradiction at all. This anomaly will be discussed in Chapter 6.
13 According to Zhang Jiefu, the burning of paper offerings to the dead became popular during the Song Dynasty. See Zhang Jiefu, A History of Funeral and Burial Rituals in China. Taipei: Wen Jin Publishers, 1995. 14 It should be noted that the idea of cremation is not alien to Chinese burial practices. In fact, as the influence of Buddhism became more pronounced in China, the cremation of the dead became popular during the Song and Yuan Dynasties. However, at that time, cremation was not officially allowed as it contradicts Confucian ideas of valuing one’s body. See Zhang Jiefu, A History of Funeral and Burial Practices in China. 15 Robert J.Smith, “Afterword,” in Arthur P.Wolf (ed.), Religion and Ritual in Chinese Society. Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1974, p. 337. 16 Donald R.DeGlopper, “Religion and ritual in Lukang,” in Arthur P.Wolf (ed.), Religion and Ritual in Chinese Society, pp. 43–69. 17 Arthur P.Wolf, “Gods, ghosts and ancestors,” in Arthur P.Wolf (ed.), Religion and Ritual in Chinese Society, p. 131. 18 See Barbara Ward, “Variations of the conscious model,” in Michael Banton (ed.), The Relevance of Models for Social Anthropology. New York: ASA Monograph, 1965, pp. 113–37. 19 See Maurice Freedman, “On the sociological study of Chinese religion,” in Maurice Freedman, The Study of Chinese Society, p. 355. 20 See Robert J.Smith, “Afterwords,” p. 340. 21 Maurice Freedman, The Study of Chinese Society, p. 352. 22 James L.Watson, “The structure of Chinese funerary rites: Elementary forms, ritual sequence, and the primacy of performance,” in James Watson and Evelyn Rawski (eds), Death Rituals in Late Imperial and Modern China. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1988. However, to merely state that there is a uniform structure and then to locate the units is insufficient, as this often results in overgeneralized statements that can be applied to any culture, not specifically to the Chinese. 23 Marcel Granet, The Religion of the Chinese People, p. 147. 24 For an elaboration of the syncretic nature of Chinese religion, see Marjorie Topley, “Chinese religion and religious institutions in Singapore,” Journal of the Malayan Branch of the Royal Asiatic Society, vol. 29, Part 1, 1956, pp. 70 –118. Also, Alan Elliot, Chinese Spirit Medium Cults in Singapore. Singapore: Donald Moore, 1964, and C.Steven Harrell, “When a ghost becomes a god,” in Arthur Wolf (ed.), Religion and Ritual in Chinese Society, pp. 193 –206.
3 TEMPLES AND GRAVEYARDS: ANCESTRAL RITUALS 1 This is itself a problematic term. It connotes the idea of a unity and uniformity in the social structure of the Chinese in China which probably never existed. For example, there is a notion that Chinese society is characterized by strong lineage organizations when, in fact, these are only prevalent in the southeastern part of China and do not apply to all parts of China. Moreover, in different historical epochs, the strength and influence of lineage organizations waxed and waned. See Maurice Freedman, Lineage Organizations in Southeastern China. For a more thorough discussion of the nature of Chinese lineage, see also Fei Hsiao Tung,
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Peasant Life in China: A Field Study of Country Life in the Yangtze Valley. London: Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1939. This is based on the idea that the soul of the person will reside where his name is written; the above action would indicate that these ancestors are being worshiped. This will be further elaborated upon in Chapter 6. Kuah Khun Eng, Rebuilding the Ancestral Village: Singaporeans in China. Aldershot: Ashgate, 2000, p. 150. When I enquired why they would conduct what are fundamentally Buddhist rituals, the Taoist priests claimed they saw no contradictions, and argued that it was meant to do good as it was a way of helping the living descendants and the deceased. See Maurice Freedman, The Study of Chinese Society, pp. 174–6. For a discussion of the form and functions of lineages in China, see Maurice Freedman, Lineage Organizations in Southeastern China, pp. 1–40. Also Hugh Baker, Chinese Kinship and Marriage. For a description of lineage ancestral halls, see Francis L.K.Hsu, Under the Ancestors’ Shadow and Emily M.Ahern, The Cult of the Dead in a Chinese Village. Francis L.K.Hsu, Under the Ancestors’ Shadow, pp. 52–5. I maintain a distinction between lineage and clan halls. Lineage halls are locales where all agnatic descendants can trace kin relations to a common ancestor, and the rules regarding the placement of the ancestral tablets are based on this principle. Clan halls are those where ascendancy is traced to a fictive or putative ancestor and the criteria for admissions are flexible, often based on a single criterion, such as a surname, dialect or locality. The reasons for the failure to develop lineage organizations will be discussed later. It must be noted, however, that Freedman did not actually observe this group, but obtained his data from an extract of an academic exercise by Chang Soo, Department of Social Studies, University of Singapore, 1960. See Maurice Freedman, Chinese Lineage and Society, p. 166. For a detailed discussion of the process of migration to Southeast Asia, see Maurice Freedman, Chinese Family and Marriage in Singapore. London: Her Majesty’s Stationery Office, 1957; Chen Ta, Emigrant Communities in South China. Shanghai: Institute of Pacific Relations, 1939; Joyce Ee, “Chinese migration to Singapore 1896–1941: Factors inducing migration,” Journal of Southeast Asian History, vol. 2, 1961. The book deals with associations based on surname, dialect and locality principles. Of course, these are not the only types of voluntary organizations in Singapore. Crissman, for example, developed a seven-level classification, ranging from benevolent societies to secret societies. See L.W.Crissman, “The segmentary structure of urban overseas communities,” Man, vol. 2, no. 2, 1967, pp. 185 –204. Carsten details thirteen separate categories, including organizations such as athletic, alumni and occupational groups. Sharon Carsten, Chinese Associations in Singapore Society, Occasional Paper No. 37. Singapore: Institute of Southeast Asian Studies, 1975. See Hsieh Jann, “The Chinese community in Singapore—The internal structure and its basic constituents,” in Peter Chen (ed.), Studies in ASEAN Sociology, Singapore: Chopmen, 1978, p. 186. For a discussion of the development of voluntary associations in Singapore, see Hsieh Jann, “The Chinese community in Singapore.”
15 See Francis L.K.Hsu, Under the Ancestors’ Shadow, p. 105. 16 See, for example, Maurice Freedman, Lineage Organizations in Southeastern China, pp. 81–91. 17 Francis L.K.Hsu, Under the Ancestors’ Shadow, pp. 188–9. 18 Theoretically, there are certain inconsistencies between Chinese ancestor worship and canonical Buddhism. The Chinese concept of offering food, especially meat, and the burning of joss paper to the dead does not agree with the precepts of Buddhism. But, Buddhism, as it is known to the Chinese, is significantly different from canonical Buddhism. It is not within the boundaries of this book to look into the historical development of Buddhism in China and its interaction and modifications through time; for an excellent discussion of this topic, see Holmes Welch, The Practice of Chinese Buddhism, 1900–1950. Boston: Harvard University Press, 1967, and Henri Maspero, Taoism and Chinese Religion. Amherst: University of Massachusetts Press, 1981. 19 Qing Ming can be literally translated as “clear and bright.” It is on a specific day in the ritual calendar but it is acceptable to perform the rituals ten days prior to or after that date. Some informants mention that the whole of the third lunar month is acceptable. 20 Maurice Freedman, Chinese Lineage and Society, pp. 153–4. 21 Maurice Freedman, Chinese Family and Marriage in Singapore, p. 220. 22 Maurice Freedman, Chinese Family and Marriage in Singapore, p. 154. 23 David Jordan, Gods, Ghost and Ancestors, pp. 96–7. 24 Maurice Freedman, The Study of Chinese Society, p. 276. 25 See Emily M.Ahern, The Cult of the Dead in a Chinese Village, pp. 92–3. 26 Emily M.Ahern, The Cult of the Dead in a Chinese Village, p. 97. 27 See Eddie Kuo and Aline Wong (eds), The Contemporary Family in Singapore: Structure and Change. Singapore: Singapore University Press, 1976, p. 37. Also Tan Jin Lee, “Chinese kinship under change in Singapore,” Academic Exercise, University of Singapore, 1976.
4 KIN AND KINDRED: DEATH AND SOCIAL RELATIONS 1 C.K.Yang, Religion in Chinese Society, p. 36. 2 Laurence Thompson, Chinese Religion: An Introduction, p. 117. 3 Emile Durkheim, The Elementary Forms of Religious Life. New York: Free Press, 1965, pp. 385–92. 4 There are some instances of emotional grief. These are, however, of a personal nature and, to a degree, idiosyncratic. The focus of the book is on the public and private nature of ritualized weeping. 5 J.J. M.DeGroot, The Religious System of China, pp. 10–11. 6 C.K.Yang, Religion in Chinese Society, p. 88. 7 C.K.Yang, Religion in Chinese Society, p. 37. 8 Marcel Granet, The Religion of the Chinese People, p. 82. 9 Maurice Freedman, Chinese Lineage and Society, p. 118.
10 Max Weber, “The social psychology of world religions,” From Max Weber: Essays in Sociology. Edited by C.W.Mills and translated by H.H.Gerth, New York: Oxford University Press, 1958, p. 296. 11 A description of “ghost marriages” can be found in Chapter 7. 12 Maurice Freedman, Chinese Lineage and Society, pp. 153–4. 13 Chapter 5 will show that this has also to do with the management of death pollution and blocking off the negative effects of death. 14 Benedict Anderson, Imagined Communities: Reflections on the Origins and Spread of Nationalism. London: Verso Press, 1983, p. 22. The basically hierarchical nature of Chinese society has also been noted by Maurice Freedman, The Study of Chinese Society, p. 353, and Hugh Baker, Chinese Family and Kinship, p. 11. 15 Hugh Baker, Chinese Family and Kinship, p. 108. 16 The only person to break this convention is the eldest grandson, who in his mourning grade and physical distance to the dead, takes on the status of a son. This elevation in status is linked to the emphasis on family continuity. 17 Pierre Bourdieu, Outline of a Theory of Practice, pp. 33–4. 18 Pierre Bourdieu, Outline of a Theory of Practice, p. 36. 19 For example, see the previously cited example regarding variations in the grades of mourning garments and the length of mourning required. 20 This is not to imply that they have a free hand to do as they please. As already outlined in Chapter 2, the variety permitted falls within a limited framework of acceptable conventions. 21 These will be discussed in greater detail in Chapters 5 and 6. 22 Victor Turner, The Forest of Symbols: Aspects of Ndembu Rituals. Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1967, p. 38. 23 Freedman, for example, notes the essential impermanence of relationships in the household, and a marked tendency for splits to occur after the death of the parents. See Maurice Freedman, Chinese Family and Marriage in Singapore, p. 60. 24 See Pierre Bourdieu, Outline of a Theory of Practice, p. 39. 25 For example, sometimes only three of the digits in the four-digit number may be correct, or all the digits may be accurate, but are in reverse order. 26 Hugh Baker, Chinese Family and Kinship, pp. 26–30. 27 See S.N.Eisenstadt’s “Introduction” in Max Weber, On Charisma and Institution Building, Selected Papers. Edited and with an Introduction by S.N. Eisenstadt, Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1968, p. xii. 28 At the time of writing, the amount is about S$80 for friends attending a wedding; S $ 120–200 if they are close friends. Relatives and close relatives give larger amounts. Weddings are expensive affairs and the money given is needed to defray the costs. Interestingly, even at very large weddings, informants can often recall later how much money each person gave.
5 BONES AND SOULS: DEATH AND INHERITANCE 1 Marcel Mauss, The Gift: Forms and Functions of Exchange in Archaic Societies, p. 1. 2 Pierre Bourdieu, Outline of a Theory of Practice, p. 171.
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R.Johnston, Lion and Dragon in Northern China. New York: Dutton, 1910, p. 255. Emily M.Ahern, The Cult of the Dead in a Chinese Village, p. 161. Emily M.Ahern, The Cult of the Dead in a Chinese Village, p. 143. The Taiwanese community of Chi’nan, where Ahern did her fieldwork, is basically an agricultural community. Land is thus the most important item for inheritance. This is clearly not the case in Singapore, where there are diverse occupations and little agricultural land. Here, property therefore refers to houses and money. It must be noted that fen jia does not refer to only a physical division of property; for example, it does not mean that the family must be living under the same roof. Particularly in Singapore, it is not uncommon for sons to set up their own separate households upon marriage but this does not mean that the jia has broken up. It has been suggested elsewhere that fen jia involves the physical division of the stove. See, for example, Sung Lung-Sheng, “Property and family division,” in Emily Ahern and Hill Gates (eds), The Anthropology of Taiwanese Society. Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1981. In Singapore, this does not hold true, because by setting up separate homes, the stove is already physically divided. A clearer understanding of fen jia, I feel, relates to the idea that the jia is integrally tied to the idea of religious worship, signifying the joint worship of the ancestors led by the head of the household, the father. One informant said, “As long as our father is alive, there is no division of the property.” It is interesting to note that the Chinese word for jia is actually composed of two ideograms. The top half is a roof, signifying a house. The bottom half is the character for a pig. It is noted that in the Chinese family, the pig is the main object used in ritual sacrifices. See Paul Chao, Chinese Kinship. London: Kegan Paul, 1983, p. 8. This is probably the same reason why the Chinese in West Town purchase faked posthumous titles for the dead. See Francis Hsu, Under the Ancestors’ Shadow, pp. 47–8. Similarly, Ahern notes that for the Chinese in Chi’nan: “the living hope to inspire a further reciprocal response from the ancestors, to obtain through them the good life as they perceive it: wealth, rich harvests and offsprings who will ensure undying memory and sustenance in the afterlife” (Cult of the Dead in a Chinese Village, p. 91). Ahern did suggest that a son is expected to perform minimal duties if he is the only descendant. However, if a man has more than one son, and fails to leave the son any property, the son need not worship his father in the afterlife. See Emily Ahern, The Cult of the Dead in a Chinese Village, p. 154. This view is not shared by my informants. Indeed, in an example cited earlier, even estranged sons are expected to return home to take part in the rituals. J.J. M.DeGroot, The Religious System of China, vol. 2, p. 719. Arthur P.Wolf, “Gods, ghosts and ancestors” in Arthur P.Wolf (ed.), Religion and Ritual in Chinese Society, pp. 179–80. J.J. M.DeGroot, The Religious System of China, vol. 2, p. 168. Shuzo Shiga, “Family, property and the law of inheritance in traditional China,” in David Buxbaum (ed.), Chinese Family Law and Social Change in Historical and Comparative Perspective. Seattle: University of Washington Press, 1978. Weber defines charisma as “a certain quality of an individual personality by virtue of which he is set apart from ordinary men and treated as endowed with supernatural, superhuman, or at least, specifically exceptional qualities.” In Max Weber, Theory of Social and Economic Organizations. Translated by A.Henderson
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and Talcott Parsons, and edited with an introduction by Talcott Parsons. New York: Oxford University Press, 1947, p. 329. Max Weber, Theory of Social and Economic Organizations, p. 165. Maurice Bloch and Jonathan Parry, Death and the Regeneration of Life, p. 41. See Max Weber, Theory of Social and Economic Organizations., pp. 334–42. Maurice Freedman, The Study of Chinese Society, pp. 305–6. See Emily M.Ahern, The Cult of the Dead in a Chinese Village, p. 199. C.K.Yang, Religion in Chinese Society, p. 37. Pierre Bourdieu, Outline of a Theory of Practice, p. 179. Comber notes a similar preoccupation with good coffins. See Leon Comber, Chinese Ancestor Worship in Malaya, pp. 7–9. It should be noted, however, with the increasing popularity of cremation rather than burials, the quality of the coffin has become of less importance. cf. Maurice Freedman, Chinese Family and Marriage in Singapore, p. 90. See J.J.M.DeGroot, The Religious System of China, vol. 2, pp. 165–6. Reinhard Bendix, Max Weber: An Intellectual Portrait. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1977, p. 291. Informants say that the time of birth predestines a person’s fate. One of the ways to divine this is to use the ba-zi. Maurice Freedman, Chinese Lineage and Society, p. 151. This will be discussed in greater detail in Chapter 7 when dealing with the concept of rebirth. J.J.M.DeGroot, The Religious System of China, vol. 4, p. 34. J.J.M.DeGroot, The Religious System of China, vol. 4, p. 5. DeGroot echoes this view, “As long as the hwun and the p’oh keep together, life exists; but death ensues when they are separated from each other.” The Religious System of China, vol. 4, p. 6. This idea draws in part from Wee’s suggestion that the Chinese soul consists of two portions; a personal soul and a regenerate soul. According to her, when a person dies, his soul leaves his body and goes to the Underworld to be judged. During rebirth, the personal soul component returns to the ancestral tablet to become a permanent ghost while the regenerate soul component is reborn. See Vivienne Wee, “Religion and ritual among the Chinese in Singapore,” pp. 223–4. This chapter deals primarily with the treatment of the positive hun soul. A more detailed discussion of the management of the po soul will be carried out in Chapter 6 when the pollution of death is dealt with. cf. Watson, “Of flesh and bones: the management of death pollution in Cantonese society,” in M.Bloch and J.Parry (eds), Death and the Regeneration of Life. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1982, p. 170. It is not within the scope of this book to deal with the details of the actual techniques and technology of fengshui. For a clear discussion, see Stephan Feuchtwang, An Anthropological Analysis of Chinese Geomancy. Vientiane: Vithagna, 1974. See also Jean-Michel de Kermadec, The Way to Chinese Astrology, The Four Pillars of Destiny. London: Unwin, 1983. Maurice Freedman, The Study of Chinese Society, pp. 298–9. Ethnographic evidence of sibling conflicts arising out of the placement of the bones is documented in many studies. See for example, Hu Hsien-Chin, The Common Descent Group in China and its Functions. New York: Viking, 1948, p. 38, and Li
Yih-Yuan, “Chinese geomancy and ancestor worship,” in William Newell (ed.), Ancestors, pp. 329–37. 38 Maurice Freedman, Chinese Lineage and Society, p. 126. 39 See Emily M.Ahern, The Cult of the Dead in a Chinese Village, p. 185.
6 FLESH AND BLOOD: PUTRESCENCE AND THE POLLUTION OF DEATH 1 A brief and earlier version of this chapter was published in Contributions to Southeast Asian Ethnology, vol. 9, 1990, pp. 91–112. 2 A byproduct of modernized living in Singapore is that a large proportion of the population (85 percent) lives in high-rise apartments. These are often too small for the enactment of funerals meaning that “void-decks” or the grounds in front of the apartments are used instead. In the past, funerals were held in the home or the lineage ancestral hall. Now, however, they are often held in public places where contact with outsiders is inevitable. This structural change has ramifications in ritual enactment, especially with regard to the treatment of the corpse. Special rituals are also required to protect the public who may inadvertently come into contact with death. 3 Watson, for example, notes that few who have witnessed a Chinese funeral cannot fail to be impressed by the fear and apprehension that pervade the ritual. See Watson, “Of flesh and bones,” p. 155. See also J.J.M.DeGroot, The Religious System of China. 4 James G.Frazer, The Fear of the Dead in Primitive Society, 3 Vols. London: Macmillan, 1933–6. 5 Bronislaw Malinowski, Magic, Science and Religion. New York: Doubleday, 1954, pp. 47–53. 6 Robert Hertz, Death and the Right Hand. New York: Free Press, 1960, p. 46. 7 Encyclopedia of Religion and Ethics. Edited by James Hastings. New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1908. See especially the sections on Death, the Disposal of the Dead and Death Pollution. 8 James L.Watson, “Of flesh and bones,” p. 156. 9 J.J.M.DeGroot, The Religious System of China, vol. 1, p. 33. 10 Louis Dumont, Homo Hierarchicus: An Essay on the Caste System. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1970. 11 Encyclopedia of Religion and Ethics, vol. 10, p. 456. 12 The idea that there is a relationship between property inheritance and pollution has also been put forward by Jack Goody, in Death, Property and the Ancestors. 13 James L.Watson, “Of flesh and bones,” p. 180. 14 Emily M.Ahern, “The power and pollution of Chinese women,” in Margery Wolf and Roxane Witke (eds), Women in Chinese Society. Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1975, pp. 195–6. 15 Mary Douglas, Purity and Danger: An Analysis of the Concepts of Pollution and Taboo. London: Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1979, pp. 35–6. 16 See Emily M.Ahern, The Cult of the Dead in a Chinese Village, pp. 166–8.
17 It is noted, that at some funerals, both cooked and uncooked foods are offered to the deceased. This may suggest that there is some ambiguity among participants regarding the status of the deceased at this juncture. However, it is observed that cooked and cut foods are always offered after the deceased has been properly buried. 18 Emily M.Ahern, The Cult of the Dead in a Chinese Village, p. 172. 19 R.Hertz, Death and the Right Hand. 20 Wee classifies this as the regenerate soul-portion that is reborn an infinite number of times. See Vivienne Wee, “Religion and ritual among the Chinese of Singapore,” p. 221. 21 See Maurice Bloch and Jonathan Parry (eds), Death and the Regeneration of Life, pp. 7–10. 22 The Chinese idea of rebirth is an integration of Buddhist, Taoist and syncretic beliefs. According to Welch, prior to the introduction of Buddhism into China, the Chinese believed that death was permanent and there was no such thing as rebirth. The Buddhists brought with them into China the concepts of punishment in Hell and the possibility of reincarnation. Buddhist ideas, however, did not replace indigenous ideas about death but complemented and fused with them. For example, the Buddhist idea of “preta,” literally “departed one,” became, for the Chinese, e gui or “hungry ghosts.” The integration of Buddhist and indigenous Chinese beliefs, however, did not always offer a complete fit. For instance, although the Chinese accepted the Buddhist idea of rebirth, it did not stop them from continuing to offer food to the ancestors. See Holmes Welch, The Practice of Chinese Buddhism, 1900–1950, pp. 181–205. 23 Edmund Leach, “Two essays concerning the symbolic representation of time,” in Rethinking Anthropology. London: Athlone Press, 1961, p. 135. 24 Vivienne Wee, “Religion and ritual among the Chinese of Singapore,” pp. 221–2. 25 Maurice Bloch and Jonathan Parry (eds), Death and the Regeneration of Life, p. 10. 26 In Singapore, the popularity of cremating instead of burying the dead has, in a sense, compressed the timeframe for this process. In the past, second burials were generally conducted 15–17 years after burial. Now, it takes only one day. There are some informants who even suggest that cremation is preferred because it gets rid of the rotting flesh more quickly and completely, resulting in purer bone-remains. 27 Maurice Bloch and Jonathan Parry (eds), Death and the Regeneration of Life, p. 23. 28 Cremation causes the bones to become very small and unrecognizable. The expertise of the priest is required to ensure that the bones are placed in a correct anatomical order. For his efforts, the priest is generously rewarded. 29 James L.Watson, “Of flesh and bones,” p. 174. 30 Gary Seaman, “The sexual politics of karmic retribution,” in Emily M.Ahern and Hill Gates (eds), The Anthropology of Taiwanese Society, pp. 382–3. 31 The Chinese word for cockles is in fact used as a pun for the vagina, although this is often used as a vulgar curse. 32 James L.Watson, “Of flesh and bones,” p. 176. 33 See Maurice Bloch and Jonathan Parry (eds), Death and the Regeneration of Life, pp. 18–21. 34 Maurice Freedman, Lineage Organizations in Southeastern China, p. 21.
35 Maurice Freedman, Lineage Organizations in Southeastern China, p. 32. This is not confirmed by my fieldwork. Husbands are second-order mourners during the funeral of the spouse’s parents. They are, however, generally not responsible for continued worship. 36 In fact, the Chinese word for ghost etymologically implies the entry of a young woman into the family of her husband. See Paul Chao, Chinese Kinship, p. 102. 37 James L.Watson, “Of flesh and bones,” p. 178. This is overextending the argument. The fact that women are buried next to their husbands and their names are carved on the ancestral tablets suggests that they are worshiped, albeit together with their husbands. 38 Gary Seaman, “Sexual politics of karmic retribution,” p. 381. 39 Emily M.Ahern, “The power and pollution of women,” p. 200. 40 The other time when this ritual is said to be enacted is when a women dies in the process of childbirth, as this causes her soul to be trapped in the “bloody pond.” 41 Drawing from Turner and Ortner, a dominant symbol is important because it not only occupies a prominent place in a particular ritual, but also constitutes a part of the ritual cycle. Moreover, it has a multiplicity of meanings which connects it to various aspects of social life. Ortner suggests that key symbols are important because they symbolize the world view of the people. They are also the principal source through which actors translate and transform their culture. Key symbols give meaning and connect ideas, and often act as the foci of rituals. See Victor Turner, The Forest of Symbols and Sherry Ortner, “On Key Symbols,” American Anthropologist, vol. 75, October 1975. 42 Emily M.Ahern, “The power and pollution of women,” p. 194. 43 David Crockett Graham, Folk Religion in Southwest China. Washington: Smithsonian Institution, 1961, p. 140. 44 J.J.M.DeGroot, The Religious System of China, vol. 4, p. 377. 45 Emily M.Ahern, “The power and pollution of women,” p. 198. 46 Victor Turner, The Forest of Symbols, p. 89.
7 UNNATURAL DEATHS 1 See J.J.M.DeGroot, The Religious System of China, vol. 1, p. 33. 2 Justus Doolittle, Social Life of the Chinese. London: Sampson Low and Marston, 1865, p. 168. 3 To have the body of a family member irretrievably lost is a thought that most informants cannot entertain. Many children are told not to swim in the sea as there are many wandering souls in it. This stricture is strongly enforced when a person is between fifteen and sixteen years old as this is the time that the person is about to reach maturity and a good opportunity for a trapped ghost to steal his soul. The sea, it is suggested, is expansive, unbounded and unknown, and therefore a source of danger. “The sea is so large,” said one informant, “you do not know how many people have drowned in it.” 4 Another alternative is to hold the rituals in a Buddhist temple. This often happens when permission to conduct the rituals at the desired site is not approved by the authorities. Temples are thought to be especially efficacious places for conducting
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rituals. For a good ethnographic description of a similar ritual performed in a Buddhist temple, see Vivienne Wee, “Religion and ritual among the Chinese in Singapore,” pp. 279–95. The idea of a substitute body is not limited to death rituals alone. In the tian gong ritual, for example, gui sheng, represented by little papier-mâché figures are also used, one for each family member. These are burnt after the ritual, representing the eradication of evil influences on the family. In fact, most rituals that require the ridding of evil influences would use the gui sheng. J.J.M.DeGroot, The Religious System of China, p. 200. This cause is not exclusive of the first two. For example, it is said that a person who takes his own life often does not do so of his own volition, but is driven to it by evil influences. Mary Douglas, Purity and Danger: An Analysis of the Concepts of Pollution and Taboo. London: Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1966, p. 95. This idea is not limited to the Chinese. For example, in the space shuttle explosion, the time of the accident was the most popular number in the four-digit lottery in New York Lottery history. Similar behaviors are also observed in the case of Malays and Indians in Singapore. Maurice Freedman, Chinese Family and Marriage in Singapore, p. 194. J.G.Cormack, Everyday Customs in China. Edinburgh: Moray Press, 1935, pp. 243– 4. For a good review of the treatment of child deaths, see Arthur P.Wolf, “Gods, ghosts and ancestors,” in Arthur P. Wolf (ed.), Religion and Ritual in Chinese Society, pp. 147–8. Robert Coltman, The Chinese, Their Present and Future: Medical, Political and Social. Philadelphia: F.A. Davis, 1891, p. 77. Robert Coltman, The Chinese, Their Present and Future, p. 77. See Mary Isabella Bryson, Child Life in China. London: The Religious Tract Society, 1900, p. 22. Vivienne Wee, “Religion and ritual among the Chinese of Singapore,” p. 220. It also interesting to note that Chinese spirit mediums are called dang ki, or “childdiviners.” Dang ki are said to have “half-souls,” making them more susceptible to possession by the deities. Arthur P.Wolf, Religion and Ritual in Chinese Society, p. 148. Arthur P.Wolf, Religion and Ritual in Chinese Society, p. 149. Arthur P.Wolf, Religion and Ritual in Chinese Society, p. 149. Jack Potter, “Cantonese Shamanism,” in Arthur P.Wolf (ed.), Religion and Ritual in Chinese Society, p. 216. According to informants, Hokkiens generally conduct ghost marriages seven days after the funeral. For other dialect groups, it can be conducted on the fortyninth day, hundredth day, or sometimes even a year after the funeral. Setting a trap is not the only means of getting a spouse. Comber, for example, notes that in Singapore, marriage brokers sometimes arrange marriages between the dead and the living, and will look for a suitable partner for the bereaved family for a fee. See Leon Comber, Chinese Magic and Superstitions in Malaya, p. 68. See David Jordan, Gods, Ghosts and Ancestors: The Folk Religion of a Taiwanese Village, pp. 140–55. Such statements, however, must be evaluated with caution. I was not able to locate a ghost marriage during the fieldwork period. Attempts to locate such rituals are
problematic because, unlike normal funerals, these are private affairs, a source of embarrassment for the family. Generally, people do not seem to want to talk about them. Emily M.Ahern, The Cult of the Dead in a Chinese Village, p. 127. These must not be confused with road-side rituals. The latter can be carried out at anytime of year and consist of a simple offering of a cup of rice, wine, oranges and two lighted candles. They are meant to appease malicious spirits, especially when misfortunes in the family such as illnesses are attributed to evil influences. The foods cannot be eaten and children are told to avoid them. The chao du ritual originally entered China from India through Buddhism. Due to the influence of Buddhist theology, souls can be trapped in Hell until they are rescued or until the time arrives for their rebirth. Buddhist rituals to deliver these souls have been part of Chinese ritual behavior since the eighth century. Chao du rituals involve the feeding of the hungry ghosts by monks as well as instructing and educating the ghosts to help them speed up the process of reincarnation. These rituals also benefit the whole community. Chao du rituals, obviously, have many dimensions. This study deals only with one of these; that one which relates to death rituals. For a more detailed examination of the other features of chao du, see Philip Baity, Religion in a Chinese Town, Asian Folklore and Social Life Monographs, Volume 64. Taipei: Orient Cultural Services, 1975. The myth behind the performance of chao du is rooted in Buddhism. According to legend, the monk Mu-lian (Maudgayayana in Sanskrit) saw that his mother was suffering in Hell for having broken a vow. Wishing to help her, he offered her food and water, but they turned to fire in her mouth. Seeing that he was unable to help her alone, he enlisted the help of other monks and together they were able to open the Gates of Hell to save her. Now, Mu lian is said to accompany the Bodhisattva Di Cang (Kshitigarbha in Sanskrit) in his unending journey to deliver souls trapped in Hell from torment by allowing them to be reborn. On Di Cang’s birthday, which falls on the 24th day of the seventh lunar month, all the infernal gods come to pay homage to him. On this day, he lavishly distributes favors to the hungry ghosts. See Henri Maspero, Taoism and Chinese Religion, pp. 187–90. Hao xiong di, literally “good brother,” is a respectful term for ghosts. Da si ye is said to actually be a reincarnation of the goddess Guan Yin, the Goddess of Mercy, evident by the figure of Guan Yin rising from the top of the god. Da si ye altars are only found at the celebrations of groups that have been in existence for more than three years. This is the most common way of communicating with the spirits. A pair of mu bei have a rounded and a flat side. If the pieces land on opposite sides, it indicates a positive answer; if they fall on the same side, it is considered a negative response. The lu-chu privileged position in the community is identified by a large red banner and two red lanterns strung across the main entrance to his home. This banner is placed there for one year. Wayang are traditional road-side dramas, often depicting stories from Chinese classics. They are gradually losing popularity to variety shows featuring popular singers. Payment for the goods bought at the auction will be made the following year. Social pressures to settle these debts are great as the names of errant debtors will be posted
34 35 36 37 38
on a large board in a public place. The money collected goes toward subsidizing the ritual celebrations the following year. See Henri Maspero, Taoism and Chinese Religion, pp. 176–94. See Khun Eng Kuah, Rebuilding the Ancestral Village. Philip Chesley Baity, Religion in a Chinese Town, p. 270. See also Wolfram Eberhard, Social Mobility in Traditional China. Leiden: E.J.Brill, 1962, p. 215. C.K.Yang, Religion in Chinese Society, p. 81. It must be noted, however, that it is not uncommon for a person to join a few different zhong yuan groups.
8 CONCLUSIONS: DANGEROUS BLOOD, REFINED SOULS 1 Reinhart Bendix, Max Weber: An Intellectual Portrait, p. 93. 2 Oranges are popular gift items. In Cantonese, “orange” is a homonym for “gold.” 3 See Frederick Mote, Intellectual Foundations of China. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1971, p. 20. 4 Joseph Needham and Wang Ling, Science and Civilization in China, Vol. 2. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1954, p. 287. 5 Laurence Thompson, Chinese Religion: An Introduction, p. 3. 6 Tong Chee Kiong, K.C.Ho and T.K.Lin, “Traditional Chinese customs in modern Singapore,” in Yong, Mun Cheong (ed.), Asian Traditions and Modernization. Singapore: Times Academic Press, 1992. 7 See Kuo, Eddie and Tong Chee Kiong, Religion in Singapore, Monograph Number 2. Singapore: Census of Population 1990, p. 16. 8 The placement of these diverse deities on the family altar exemplifies the syncretic nature of Chinese religion. Guan Yin, a Chinese female deity, is actually a Sinicized version of the Indian male god, Avalokitsvera. Da Bo Gong is a localized South-east Asian deity, while Guan Gong is a Taoist deity. 9 See Tong Chee Kiong and L.Kong, “Religion and modernity: Ritual transformation and the reconstruction of space and time,” Social and Cultural Geography, Volume 1, Number 1, September 2000, for a detailed analysis of the changing conception of religious space among the Chinese in Singapore.
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Where a page number is in italics, this refers to a plate. activity see busyness adoption 71, 78; by deity 97; son for dead infant 134 age of deceased 36, 42, 83 Ahern, Emily 21, 22–3; on ancestor worship 22, 54, 65; on death of unmarried woman 135; on fengshui 104; on pollution 110, 123; on property inheritance 84; on transformation 111–12; on women’s power 122 altars: ancestral halls 55–8; chao du rituals 138; daily rituals 33–4; deathbed ritual 31; funeral paraphernalia 32–3; “god altar” (shen zuo) 28, 36–7, 47; graveside 40–1; rituals after drowning 127 ancestor worship 12, 13; daily rituals 52; geomancy and 19–20; hall-based 53–60; home-based 47–53, 154; kinship organization and 17–23; lineage and 22–3; memorialism and 63–6; qualification for 137 ancestors: benefits from 97, 144–6; in family continuity 151;
gift offerings for wellbeing of 7–8; malicious behaviour 20, 23; pervasive influence 82–4; property needs 85; punitive action 98; roles of 146; transformation to 113 “ancestral hall” (zu xian tang) 2, 22, 53–9, 135, see also lineage ancestral halls ancestral spirit 51–2 ancestral tablets 47–9, 50; in ancestral halls 28, 55–7; control of 91; establishment of 49–51; hierarchy 74; household 19, 63; hun soul in 100, 101; in temples 59; unmarried daughter 134–5, see also “substitution ancestral tablets” ancestral village 136–7 ang zang pollution 110 appropriation, in death rituals 7–8 auction of goods 139–40 authority: in social behaviour 21; transfer of 88–91 automobile accidents 129, 130–1 bad deaths 136–7 Baker, Hugh 18, 20, 79 bamboo pen, to rescue soul after drowning 127–8
banners 33, 40, 94, 138 beggars, at funerals 23–4 benefits, in ritual 45 benevolence, of ancestors 20 birth, po element of soul 99 birthdays 136 “black gold” (hei jin) 140 blanket, fen bu (“the division”) blanket 28 blessings, from ancestors 82 Bloch, Maurice 15, 89, 121, 150 blood 10, 123–4 “blood deaths” 129 “bloody pond” (xue hu yu) ritual 10, 119– 23 bones: management of 25, 117–18, 146–7; placement 101–4; power of 8, 9 Bourdieu, Pierre 8, 74, 77, 81 “Bridge of No Return” (nai he qiao) ritual 38, 88 bu yao (“feeding the herbs”) ritual 33–4, 42 Buddhist temples, ancestral tablets in 59– 60 burial 39–41; of children 131–3; orientation in 8, 40, 102, 104, see also graveyards burial rituals: forty-ninth day (gong de) 49–51; seventh day 49 burial robes (shou i) 29–30, 35, 143 busyness in ritual 79, 94–5, 144 “buying the water” 29 canopy, for ritual 31, 49–50, 138 chang ming deng (longevity lamp) 32–3 chang sheng lu wei (“long life tablets”) 1, 57, 65, 124 chao du rituals 138–40 chaos (luan), in pollution 10, 110 charismatic authority 89–90 childbirth 108, 110, 123–5 children: deaths of 11, 131–4, 152; evil spirits and 34; filial piety 70
Chinese, immigrant status 1–2, 6, 54–5, 63 Chinese calendrical form 48 Chinese cosmology 150–1 Chinese religion 15–23, 44–5 Christianity, in Singapore 155 clan achievements 56, 58–9 clan ancestral halls 2, 55–9, 65; admission criteria 57; place reservation 28 clan associations (gong hui) 6, 55 clan graveyards 60–2 clan organizations, banners of 40 clans, leadership 58 “clearing the coffin” (qing guan) 37 clothing, for the deceased 29–30, 35, 143 cockerel, in ritual 41, 128 coffin 27; burial 40–1; danger of 107; funeral rituals 31, 37; nails 30; overnight vigil 34–5; placement of body 30; status and 92; transportation 40, 96, 152–3 color symbolism 10, 123–4, 150 columbaria 2, 41, 62 community ritual, Zhong Yuan 11, 137–41 competition in social behaviour 21 conflicts 25, 45; death rituals and 75–9, 148, 153; family relations 4–5, 67 consultation of ancestors 82 corporate worship 58–9 corpse, reanimated 110–11 cosmos, bipolarity in 150 costs see money cremation 2, 41, 59; collection of bones 118; conflict over 75 “crossing of the bridges” ritual 38 crying see weeping cultural logic, in death rituals 2–12 cultural values, in death rituals 152–3 “cutting” (kua-tng) ritual 114 cutural analysis, aims of in death rituals 3
daily rituals 33–6, 49, 52; women’s role 122 dangers of violent deaths 129–31 dead mother, pollution of 119–23 dead person: conversion to ancestral spirit 51–2; dangers of 22–3; powers of 96–8; refinement of 111–13; reincorporation 114–16; separation of 113–14 death 12–15; and inheritance 84–8; and kin unity 67–74; fear of 105–6; power of 9; preparations for 1, 27–8; as rite of passage 14 death anniversary 52–3 death date 48 death process 25 death rituals 12–15, 25, 28–30; adaptability of 156–7; adherence to 154–5, 156–7; conflict over 148–9; cultural logic 2–12; “forty-ninth day” (gong de) ritual 49– 51; importance of 1–2; regional variations 41–6; social differentiation 71–4; social relationships and 4–7; transactions at 95; views on 15–23 debt repayment in ancestor worship 52–3, 86, 87–8, 108 deceased: displacement of 89; refinement of 111–13 DeGroot, J.J.M.: on Chinese religion 15–16; on elaborate funerals 95; on fear of the dead 106; on mourning staff 89; on soul duality 99; on unnatural deaths 126; on weeping 68; on white cockerels 128
deities: altar to 36–7, 36; in ancestral halls 55; at chao du rituals 138; power of 97; risk of death-pollution 109; in temple halls 59, see also earth-god of the graveyard (tu di gong); “god altar” (shen zuo) descendants: family continuity 69–71; inheritance by 7–8 descent, importance of 10–11, 142–3 dian zhu (“establishment of the ancestral tablet”) 51 “division of ancestral worship” (feng xiang huo) ritual 49 “the division” blanket (fen bu) 28 domestic altars 63 domestic cult 19 donkey, pâpier mâché 37 Doolittle, Justus 15, 126 “dotting the ancestral tablet” ritual 51, 100, 113, 124 Douglas, Mary 10, 111, 131 “dressing and washing rituals” 29–30 drowning 11, 127–9 Durkheim, Emile 4, 13, 16 duty 11, 142, 143 earth-god of the graveyard (tu di gong) 60– 1 education, gift from ancestors 83 eldest son: ancestral tablets and 49; authority of 90–1; daily rituals 33; gong de ritual 51; graveside rituals 41; pollution in rituals 108; Qing Ming festival 61; soul-receiver 101 “encircling the coffin” (rao guan) 37 “entering the wood” (ru mu) ritual 30 “establishment of the ancestral tablet” (dian zhu) 51
ethical values, in ritual performance 143 Evans-Pritchard, Edward E. 14, 20 evil spirits 40; at funeral 34, 39; in child deaths 132–3; graveyard 61 exchange, in ritual participation 144–6 exhumations 62 “face” (mian zi) 11, 44, 75, 143 family: and pollution 106–11; continuity of 69–71, 151; death rituals and 4–7; effects of death 147–9; hierarchy in 6, 35–6, 50, 148; private conflicts 74–80; unity 67–74 family altar 47–53, 71 family-based rituals 64–6 father, relationship with son 21 fear of death 105–6 “feeding the herbs” (bu yao) ritual 33–4, 42 female sexuality, as pollution 15 fen bu (“the division”) blanket 28 feng huang (phoenix) 37 feng xiang huo (“division of ancestral worship”) ritual 49 fengshui 101–2; grave orientation 8, 40, 102, 104; graveyard plots 28, see also geomancy fertility: in death rituals 15; exchange for 120–3; as pollution 15; transfer of 10 Feuchtwang, Stephan 101–2 filial piety 19, 69–71; importance of 11; morality of 143, 144; in rituals 104 final night rituals 36–9 flesh 9, 117–18 food offerings 82; at death 29; daily 33;
for the deceased 30; transformation of 111–13 “forty-ninth day” (gong de) ritual 49–51 Frazer, James 12, 105 Freedman, Maurice: on admission to family altar 71; on ancestor worship 102, 103; on ancestral benevolence 97; on ancestral halls 53, 54; on Chinese religion 16, 17, 18–20; on fengshui 8, 102, 103; on filial piety 70; on memorialism 63–4; on transfer of authority 90; on variations in ritual 43–4; on women’s social position 121 front door, in death 28–9 funeral: ritual paraphernalia 31–3; status enhanced by 143–4 funeral costs see money funeral hearse 152–3 funeral procession 40; as measure of status 94 funeral rites: commencement (qi tan) 37, 50; number of days 116–17; regional variations 41–6; standardized features 44, see also death rituals funeral rituals, conflicts over 75–9 funeral vigil, prescribed behaviour 73 gambling 53, 79, 83; lottery numbers 79, 102–3, 131 Geertz, Clifford, on culture 2–3 gender, social differentiation 121–3 “generational clothes” (shou yi) 30, 143 geomancy: and ancestor worship 19–20, see also fengshui “ghost marriage” 71, 132, 135 ghosts: malevolent 136; wandering 62, 109, 110, 112, 115, see also “hungry ghosts” gift exchanges 81, 145;
in death 7–8, 25 gift packets (hong bao) 80, 85 “god altar” (shen zuo) 28, 36–7, 47, see also deities gong de (“forty-ninth day”) ritual 49–51 gong hui (clan associations) 6, 55 good deaths 136–7, 151–2 good fortune: control of bones and 102–3; requests for 53 “good words” (hao hua), to the deceased 30 Goody, Jack 14 grandson, eldest 91 Granet, Marcel 16–17, 44, 70 grave, alignment 8, 40, 102, 104 gravestones 60–2, 124 graveyard plots, purchase 1, 28 graveyards 60–2; food offerings 120; layout 42; mass exhumation 156; tu di gong (earth-god of the graveyard) 60–1, see also burial grief, prescribed behaviour 73–4 guests see visitors hall-based ancestor worship 53–60 halls see “ancestral hall”; clan ancestral halls; lineage ancestral halls hao hua (“good words"), to the deceased 30 “healing” ritual (yi bing) 51 health, gift from ancestors 83 “heavenly water” (tian shui) 29 hei jin (“black gold”) 140 Hell: hun in 99; journey through 38–9; return of “hungry ghosts” to 137–8; souls in 9 “Hell Bank Notes” 87 Hertz, Robert 13, 105 hierarchy: in Chinese society 6, 73–4;
in death rituals 148 home-based rituals 154, 155, 156 Hsu, Francis 21, 54 huan yun (“luck-changing”) rituals 97 hun element of soul 9, 99–100, 114, 116, 117, 133; reincorporation of 146, 147 “hungry ghosts” 85, 100, 129; festival 137–41; zhong yuan ritual 11 Huntington, Richard 3, 12, 14 immature deaths 126, 131–5 individual: in Chinese culture 5; family tensions and 79–80 inheritance 25, 116; conflict over 78; death and 84–8; obligation and 144–5 jie jie (“untying of bonds”) ritual 51 jie yuan wang fu xiu zai gong de ritual 127– 8 Johnston, R. 84 Jordan, David 18, 54, 63, 135 joss paper, daily burning 33 joss sticks, in funeral rites 29, 36 joss urn (xiang lu) 32, 48–9; bone receptacle 41; for chao du rituals 138; soul in 38, 42, 100, 101 kai wu fang (“opening of five directions”) ritual 50–1 karma, and merit 140 kinship: hierarchy 76; relationships in 74–5 kinship group: ancestor worship and 17–23; death rituals and 4–7; family unity 67–74 kua-tng (“cutting”) ritual 114 lamps, on family altar 49 lanterns:
in funeral rites 36–7; paper (zhi deng long) 31, 32, 150; for reincarnation ritual (zhuan lun) 115 Leach, Edmund R. 11, 15, 116 li dai zhu xian board 64, 65, 156 lineage ancestral halls 19, 53–4 lineage ancestral worship: domestic 63–4; hall-based 64–5 linghun see soul “long life tablets” (chang sheng lu wei) 1, 57, 65, 124 longevity 36–7, 42, 83; symbolised 153 longevity lamp (chang ming deng) 32–3 “longevity portrait” 31, 32 “lord of the urn” (lu chu) 138–9 lottery numbers 79, 102–3, 131 lu chu (“lord of the urn”) 138–9 luan (chaos), in pollution 10, 110 “luck-changing” (huan yun) rituals 97 Mahayana Buddhist temples: ancestral tablets in 59–60, 80, 135; place reservation 1, 28 malevolent ghosts 136 malicious spirits 130 Malinowski, Bronislaw 14, 105 Mauss, Marcel 7, 81 memorialism 63–6 menstruation in women 28 Metcalf, Peter 3, 12, 14 mian zi (“face”) 11, 44, 75, 143 ming xing banners 40 modernization in Singapore 2, 24, 26, 153– 7 money: clan hall place 57; conflict over 76–7, 78; funeral costs 1, 33, 34, 40, 69, 76; graveyard place 60; symbolic 87–8; temple hall cost 59 mother, “bloody pond” ritual for 10, 119– 23 mourners: ritual condition 13–14;
transformation of 113, 147 mourning garments 35–6, 41–2, 71; grades of 73, 74, 78 mourning period 42, 156 “mourning pins” (xiao bu) 36, 61, 70 mourning staff 89, 145 musicians 37, 40, 94; Qing Ming festival 61–2 mutual aid associations 1, 27, 95 nai he qiao (“The Bridge of No Return”) ritual 38, 88 newspaper notices, for funeral 94 number symbology 116–17 obedience 21, 89 obligation: death rituals 142–3; gifts and 7, 8, 81; in obedience 89; property inheritance and 23, 84–5; to outsiders at funeral 95–6 offerings: at the final night ritual 39; at gong de ritual 50; corporate 58–9; exchange in 145; Qing Ming festival 61–2; rituals after drowning 127 “opening of five directions” (kai wu fang) ritual 50–1 outsiders: children as 133; women as 121, 122 overnight vigil 34–5, 39 paper offerings 50, 51 Parry, Jonathan 15, 121, 150 pavilion, rituals after drowning 127 pearls 30 personal objects polluted by death 108–9 personal possessions, for the deceased 30, 31, 50 phoenix (feng huang) 37 photography, at death rituals 25 “pick up the bones” (shi ku) ritual 118
po element of soul 9, 99–100, 114–16, 117; reincarnation of 146, 151 pollution: blood as 119–23; Chinese concept of 110–11; of death 9–11, 26, 105–6, 146–7; family group and 106–11; in flesh 117–18; power of death and 9–11; transfer of 10 pomegranate-scented water 29, 34, 51, 107 portrait see “longevity portrait” “posterity nail” (zi-sun-ding) 30, 143 “pot for boiling herbs” (yao hu) 31, 34 power: of blood 123; of bones 102–3, 117–18; of the dead 96–8; of souls of ancestors 101; of violent deaths 129–31; of women 122 pregnant women 28, 34 priests: ancestral rituals in halls 58; burial rituals 39–41; conflict over 75; feng xiang huo ritual 49; gong de ritual 49–51; in “pick up the bones” (shi ku) ritual 118; rituals after drowning 127; roles 37–9; status and 92 private aspect, in death rituals 4–5, 6, 74– 80 property: division 76–7, 78; inheritance 23, 84–8 public aspect, in death rituals 4, 6 public notices, for funeral 94 putrescence 9 qi tan ritual 37, 50 qing guan (“clearing the coffin”) 37 Qing Ming festival 53, 61–2, 66; adherence to 155, 156;
as corporate worship 58; timing 117 Radcliffe-Brown, A.R. 14 rao guan (“encircling the coffin”) 37 rebirth 15, 39, 150; and karma 140; failure 129; po portion of soul 9, 99, 100, 115–16; reincarnation ritual (zhuan lun) 39, 115 reciprocity with ancestors 7–8, 82–4, 86, 103–4, 141 red color 10, 123–4, 150 “redemption of the unjust” ritual 127–8 reincarnation see rebirth reincarnation ritual (zhuan lun) 39, 115 religious affiliation in Singapore 153–4 requests, to ancestor 53 “reunion dinner” (tuan yuan) 53 rite of passage, death as 14 ritual authority 90–1 ritual isolation, family 107–8 ritual paraphernalia, funeral 31–3 ritual screen 33, 72, 107 ritual washing 29, 111, 124 rituals see death rituals; funeral rites ru mu (“entering the wood”) ritual 30 sacrifice: paper goods 39; personal objects 92–4 Seaman, Gary 120, 122 self-interest: in ancestor worship 83; in conflict 149; control of the soul 101; in graveyard offerings 52, 102–4; in rituals 45, 79–80, 144–6, 153 servants, for the deceased 31–2 sexual intercourse 110 shen zuo (“god altar”) 28, 36–7, 47 shi ku (“pick up the bones”) ritual 118 Shiga, Shuzo 89 shou i (burial robes) 29–30, 35, 143 shou yi (“generational clothes”) 30, 143 sibling rivalry 77, 78, 121, 149
Singapore, modernization in 2, 24, 26, 153– 7 social analysis, of death rituals 3–4 social conformity 44–5, 71 social distinctions: in Chinese society 6; in death rituals 71–4 social group: in death rituals 153; effects of death 147–9; tensions in 79–80 social life, number symbology in 117 socio-economic status 6, 91–4, 154 sons: birth of 53; in “bloody pond” ritual 120–1; relationship with father 21, see also eldest son soul 12; appropriation of 8, 76, 98–101; death rituals and 25, 26; duality 9, 98–100, 114–16, 117, 146; incomplete 133; joss urn for 38, 42, 100, 101; trapped 11, 127, 129–30, 151 spirit mediums 96–7, 123 spirit money 87–8 spirits: malicious 130; power of 97; unclean 109, see also evil spirits status: enhancement 143–4; exchange in 145; transfer of 88–9, 91–6 strangers, at funerals 23–4 “substitute body” 128, 130 “substitution ancestral tablets” 7, 49, 91, 101; modern use 156 “symbolic capital” 78, 81 tablet, tian huang hao ling 37 tablets, ancestral see ancestral tablets temple halls 59–60, 66 “Ten Courts of Hell” 38–9
Thompson, Laurence 18, 67 tian huang hao ling tablet 37 tian shui (“heavenly water”) 29 time, concept of 116–17 Tong Jie, as corporate worship 58 transactions, at death rituals 95, 96 transformation, in death rituals 111–13, 147 trapped souls 151 treasurer for funeral contributions 33, 34 tu ti gong (earth-god of the graveyard) 60– 1 tuan yuan (“reunion dinner”) 53 Turner, Victor 5, 124 Tylor, Edward B. 12, 13 unclean spirits 109 unifying power, in death rituals 4 unmarried women 11, 134–5, 152 unnatural deaths 11–12, 26, 126–41, 151–2, see also automobile accidents; drowning; violent deaths “untying of bonds” ritual (jie jie) 51 Van Gennep, Arnold 13, 14 violent deaths 126, 127–31, 136 virtues, of generations past 56 visitors 23–4, 34; carrying coffin 40; danger of pollution 107; obligations to 33, 72, 95–6; as outsiders 71–2 wailing see weeping “walking in a westerly direction” (wang xi fang) ritual 38 wandering ghosts 62, 109, 110, 112, 115 wang xi fang (“walking in a westerly direction”) ritual 38 Ward, Barbara 43 “washing and dressing rituals” 29–30 water, for washing rituals 29, 109 watery grave, release from 127–9 Watson, James L. 44, 105–6, 109, 122 Weber, Max 2–3, 6, 71 weddings 53, 145
weeping 28, 94; competitive 78–9, 149; ritualized 68–9 “wheel of reincarnation” (zhuan lun) 39, 115 Wolf, Arthur P. 23, 43, 134 women: ancestral rituals in halls 58; daily rituals 52; deceased 119–23; dual position of 10, 149; menstruating 108, 110, 123; mothers 10, 119–23; as outsider 121, 122; parent’s deathbed 28; power of 78; pregnant 109; unmarried 11, 134–5, 152 wreaths 33, 94 xiang lu see joss urn (xiang lu) xiao bu (“mourning pins”) 36, 61, 70 xue hu yu (“bloody pond”) ritual 10, 119– 23 Yang, C.K.: on Chinese religion 16, 17; on family unity 67; on value of ritual 11, 141; on weeping 68–9 yang element of soul 99–100 yao hu (“pot for boiling herbs”) 31, 34 yi bing (“healing”) ritual 51 yin and yang forces 150 yin element of soul 99–100 zhi deng long (paper lantern) 31, 32, 150 zhong xiao in the ancestral hall 56, 70 Zhong Yuan rituals 11, 137–40 zhuan lun (“wheel of reincarnation”) 39, 115 zi-sun-ding (“posterity nail”) 30, 143 zu xian tang (“ancestral hall”) 2, 22, 53–9, 135