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ART & LEISURE: Opening the Door to the "Other" World
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Opening the Door to the "Other" World

By Nadia N.

BT 201704 ART LEISURE 03With the impending Qingming Festival in China, which is traditionally a time for Chinese families to honour their ancestors and visit their tombs, looking deeper into Chinese traditions concerning death can be quite an interesting and, at the same time, frightening journey. But Chinese culture, which is rich in symbolism and traditions, is certainly interesting even from this side.

Death and the desire to explain and understand it is certainly something that all cultures have in common - it's truly tragic yet no one can break this law of nature. In some cultures, death is feared, in others it is celebrated, and in China death certainly has a very deep and fundamental meaning that definitely differs from other countries.

BT 201704 ART LEISURE 01In China, people believe that souls or spirits of the dead live in the other world: a soul travels to another world, however the grave becomes it's "earth home" of a certain kind and the soul can go back and forth between the two. In Chinese culture the common phrase for "to die" is "qushi", which means "left the world". The difference with the common Western way of thinking is that everything that was put into the grave of the dead person can be used by him/her afterwards in his/her next life. Therefore, since the time of Shang Dynasty (1556 BC), people started to organise funerals and settle tombs, which could be quite extravagant and contain quite a lot of treasures. Nowadays, it is quite common to hear news of finding ancient relics underground. The tradition of burying valuable things like money or jewellery goes back hundreds of years.

The renowned tomb of Emperor Qin that is visited by thousands of tourists every year is a great example of a 5-star residence for the dead spirit - only 2 kilometres away from the actual tomb (which was found to contain countless treasures that were lovingly put there by members of the family), a giant Terracotta Army was buried underground to guard and protect the Emperor in his next life. With every family trying to help its relatives to have a carefree and prosperous life in the other world by putting valuables in tombs and graves, it is hard to imagine the size of the tomb. Nowadays, of course (at least in majority of cities), this tradition is no longer followed and funerals are carried out in a much more budget-friendly way, however some symbolic rituals remain.

BT 201704 ART LEISURE 02With the influence of Buddhism on Chinese Culture, many people believe that the souls of ancestors can protect and influence their families - bring luck, send omens, bring wealth and so on. Therefore, giving them peace by burying them in the ground - inhumation- is one of the most common traditions in China. During the Qingming Festival, or Tomb-Sweeping Day, many Chinese people visit graves of their ancestors, clean around, bring ready-to-eat food, leave some presents and burn paper money. These rituals are meant to please souls, so that they somehow can help the living ones to deal with their earthly problems. However, as traditions and customs vary from area to area in such a big country like China, inhumation is not the only way of disposing the dead. Cremation and "water burial" are also common in some cities and towns.

The most interesting tradition is cliff coffin burial. In China (and also in Philippines and Indonesia) certain ethnic groups were practicing keeping of coffins carved from the whole piece of wood on the edgy cliffs of mountains. Historical sites of these hanging coffins are situated in Fujian (Wuyi Mountains), Hubei (Zigui County) and several others. How people in the past managed to put heavy coffins on the cliffs high in the mountains remains a mystery, however the meaning of this tradition is clear: in this way, neither animals nor birds could reach it and the soul of the person can be safe eternally.

BT 201704 ART LEISURE 04

Hanging Coffin in China

Just like many rituals in China, the burial spot plays a significant role in the ritual. Fengshui, the ancient Chinese study about different energies, their locations and inter-relations, is followed strictly when it comes to choosing the place for the tomb. The reason for doing this is believed to be fundamental. The energy of the dead spirit in interplay with its surroundings and other energies can create a certain energy field, powerful enough to influence the entire family and if it is a ruler (or an Emperor) - the country itself. Complicated and diverse study of Fengshui gives comprehensive instructions about how the spot for a tomb should be chosen. The overall influence of Fengshui on Chinese culture - from routine actions to architecture - is hard to overestimate. Beijing's Forbidden City was built strictly following the Fengshui Theory: every door, window, bridge and path was designed to exist in harmony with the flow of energies.

Symbols of death and everything connected to this grievous yet inevitable part of our lives is feared in many cultures. An old lady with a scythe, coffin, black flowers, certain kind of music - there are so many symbols around us and every one of them makes us quiver. In China, however, a coffin can be quite a pleasant symbol. In some areas, the evidence of older people preparing coffins while still in good health is believed to be a good luck ritual, and there is nothing wrong with doing that. And, in other areas, giving a coffin-shaped necklace to a good friend is welcomed: giving a coffin means "shengguanfacai" - get promoted and become rich!


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