Burial customs in China
The V&A possesses one of the most comprehensive and important collections of Chinese art dating from 3000 BC to the present time. The China (T T Tsui) gallery at the V&A is organised according to six main themes; living, eating & drinking, temple & worship, burial, ruling and collecting. Here we present some background history on the subject of burial customs, using objects from the collections and quotes from original sources.
The custom of burying grave goods with dead bodies lasted a long time, so the artefacts that remain range from Neolithic times (about 5000 BC) to the end of the Ming dynasty (1644). Inevitably, most of them come from the graves of the few with wealth and power; the lives of most people passed into history unrecorded. Elements of this ancient custom live on today in the practice of burning paper representation of luxury goods at Chinese funerals.
Choosing a burial site, about 1170
Master Cheng (1033-1107) said, 'Divining a tomb site is aimed at discovering the excellence of the land….When the land is excellent, the spirits will be comfortable and the descendants will flourish; the principle is the same as the branches and leaves of a plant flourishing when earth is banked around the roots. When the land is bad the contrary occurs. But what is meant by excellence of land? It is land that is bright and moist; a flourishing growth of plants and trees is the evidence….
'Nevertheless there are five problems one must give attention in picking a burial site. One must see that the spot will never be made into a road, a city wall, or a ditch; that it will not be seized by the high-ranking or powerful; and that it will never be cultivated. Another text says that the five problems to be avoided are ditches, roads, villages, wells and pits.'
From Chu His's Family Rituals, translated by Patricia Buckley Ebrey, Princeton University Press, 1991, p105
Preparing the grave goods, about 1170
Carve wood to make carts and horses, male and female servants, and all the things needed to care of the deceased. The objects should resemble those used in real life but be smaller. According to the law, those with rank five or six offices can have thirty objects; those with rank seven or eight offices, twenty objects; and those who have not reached court posts, fifteen objects.
Prepare the lower-world furnishings. This refers to the bed curtains, cushions, armrests, tables and the like. These should also resemble those used in life but be smaller.
Prepare the container. There should be one with a bamboo cover, to hold the offerings of wine and meat.
Prepare baskets. There should be one with a bamboo cover, to hold the five grains.
Prepare earthenware jars. There should be three made of pottery to hold the wine and dried meat.
From Chu His's Family Rituals, translated by Patricia Buckley Ebrey, Princeton University Press, 1991, p109
The proper conduct of the burial ceremony has always been a matter of great importance to the Chinese. The soul of a person was believed to leave the body at death, in order to take its place in the spirit world. An elaborate funeral gave the spirits in the next world, as well as the mourners left behind, a clear idea of the rank of the dead person. The separation of body and soul was felt to cause some fear and confusion to the new spirit, so the surviving members of the family tried to provide it with all the support it needed. If they were able to ease its passage into the next world, they reasoned, the dead person would not turn into an evil spirit that would return to make trouble for the living. Containers filled with food and drink provided sustenance on the journey to the spirit world. Other objects found in graves show that life in the hereafter was thought to be much the same as on earth.
Actual items, such as ceramic pillows were considered appropriate grave goods as they made the deceased more comfortable. Sometimes models were used instead of the real thing: the Han dynasty (206 BC-AD 220) burial goods include models of a stove and a sheep pen; a small green Ming dynasty (1368-1644) pottery table is a replica of the sort of table that, full-size, would have been made out of wood. Statues of fierce looking tomb guardians were buried with the corpse to drive away evil spirits.
The things that have survived in Chinese tombs may not represent the total range of grave goods used at the time of the burial. Tomb robbers may have looted some of the more precious items, and fabrics may have rotten away.
Continuity in burial customs
Chinese burial practices were not bound to any particular religion, and most people were very fluid with their allegiances. A rich family might employ both a Daoist and a Buddhist priest to officiate at a funeral, or invite an expert in the Confucian classics to read out texts expressing the value of family ties beyond the grave. In fact, Chinese beliefs about death go back much further than the organized religions discussed here.
Funeral feasts and the offering of food and drink to the spirits have played a part in death rites from the very beginning of China's civilization, and they continue to do so today. Earthenware burial jars painted with bold swirling patterns survive from the Neolithic period, some even containing the remains of food.
Royalty and the aristocracy were buried with vast numbers of vessels for food and drink, often made of metal. Bronze was one of the most important of the many materials used for grave goods. Good burials showed gratitude to the spirits of the universe and established the reputation of the dead ones in the afterworld. For almost every period of the Chinese past it is possible to pick out grave goods connected with eating and drinking.
Changes in burial customs
There is another change to be inferred from the objects. There are not many statues of people and animals among the grave goods of the Neolithic period and Bronze Age as human and animal sacrifices were frequent at these times. The Shang rulers, for instance, took their servants with them into the afterlife and big tombs contained as many as 350 bodies.
By the Han dynasty (206 BC - AD 220) human sacrifice had stopped. Instead, pottery figures representing the attendants, servants and entertainers of the deceased were buried with the corpse. Many examples of these can be seen at the V&A. There is a tiny statuette together with the mould from which it was made, indicating that by the Song Dynasty (960-1279) fairly cheap figures could be mass-produced for the less well-off.
The famous army of 6000 life-size pottery warriors, discovered in 1974 near the ancient capital of Xi'an in the tomb of the first emperor of China (died 210 BC), marks a transitional stage between the use of human bodies and smaller figurines.
Poem calling back the soul of the dead, 3rd century BC
O Soul, go not to the West
Where level wastes of sand stretch on and on;
And demons rage, swine-headed, hairy-skinned,
With bulging eyes;
Who in wild laughter gnash projecting fangs.
O Soul, go not to the West
Where many perils wait!
O Soul, come back to idleness and peace.
In quietude enjoy
The lands of Jing and Chu.
There work your will and follow your desire
Till sorrow is forgot,
And carelessness shall bring you length of days.
O Soul, come back to joys beyond all telling!
From The Great Summons translated by Arthur Waley in Morris, I. (ed.), Madly Singing in the Mountains: An Appreciation and Anthology of Arthur Waley, Harper Torchbooks, New York, 1970, p166
Funeral lament planned by Chan Shek-Ying for her great-aunt, 1970s
My great-aunt, I, your grandchild, have come today to call you.
My great-aunt acted as my mother, but now she has died.
When I was small, I lost my mother and my older sister.
At festivals and special occasions I would come to visit my great-aunt.
She would be hospitable to me, like a mother.
When my children were three days old and one month old.
My great-aunt acted as my mother.
Today she is old; her eyes are blind.
She thought of coming, but could not come.
I thought of going , but was unable to visit her.
I, dead-fate person, was married into a poor household by my mother.
Now my younger brother is rich.
Today I have no great-aunt; I have no place to talk if mistreated.
Your eyes were blind for eight or ten years, but your health was good.
You could have come to visit me.
How could I know your eyes had become blind?
When this dead-fate person has pain and sickness
No one will come to visit me.
My great-aunt was thoughtful, but did not have enough strength.
My great- aunt was thoughtful, but was unable to walk.
I am poor; who would look after me?
If my father were still alive, I would not be in such a miserable situation.
My father has good descendants.
My father has good geomancy.
He produced one intelligent white flower [a son].
He produced me, a stupid person.
In the past my great-aunt treated me like a daughter.
But now, people treat me like a stepchild.
I am your genuine descendant
But why am I treated as though I were not a relative?
My younger brother is intelligent and is in a good situation.
Although I am a relative, I am treated like a stranger.
Even if I were a stepchild, there would be a relationship.
I am a blood relative,
But there seems to be no relationship.
From Johnson, EL 'Grieving for the Dead, Grieving for the Living' in Watson, JL and Rawski, ES(eds), Death Ritual in Late Imperial and Modern China, University of California Press, 1988, pp161-2