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Women In History, The 20th Century

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China is a land of deep tradition. Nearly all aspects of Chinese life are dictated by long-held rituals. However, even in death, the Chinese have firmly set rites that have to be followed in order for the proper transcendence of the deceased's soul. These rituals are based on many things, religion, superstition, and other traditions in Chinese life.

The Chinese rituals dealing with death are based as much on tradition and superstitions as they are on any one religious practice. Death is merely the end of the yang and the beginning of the yin life. How good, well and kind a person was when living in the yang world will determine how well or how cruelly one is treated in the yin world. The Yin and Yang being described as the theory of positive to negative, feminine to masculine, or light to dark. "An ancient theory held that personality is a result of the interaction of the two forces - yin (passive, weak, and destructive) and yang (active, strong, and constructive)" (2002, p. 140, Gardiner).

The soul is said to travel thought the Courts of Hell where it is judged. Therefore, a person who has died must be mourned in the "presence of religious leaders and family members with prayers and offerings made to the yin world rulers for leniency and mercy to afford him a less tortuous journey through the gates of Hell" (2000, p 17, Lip). This is why a death ceremony has become an important and elaborate event marking the end of one life, and possible beginning of a better life within Chinese culture.

The burial place for the Chinese is selected with care. The services of a geomancer are acquired to insure the correct feng shui. If a person died a sudden, unexpected death, then the body is held until the correct selection is made. Special burial clothes are made for a person after they turned 60. This is because it is believed that whenever a person's spirit returned from the dead they will always appear in the clothes they are buried in.

Many of the death rituals of the Chinese are still practiced by people who long ago left China. The body is washed and made up by a specialist with water brought to them by the oldest son. The body is then laid into the coffin in the presence of the family. All mirrors in the hall where the dead is placed are covered, so that no reflection will adversely affect the dead. The body lies facing the main door from which hangs a white banner symbolizing the dead person's willingness to enter the yin world. A family alter is set up beside the coffin where offerings are made to the dead and other deities until the priest decides it is time for the funeral to start.

There is a special dress code for the family members. The closest relatives, usually children and spouses, wear black and sackcloth. The brother's family wears black, while a sister's family wears blue, all grandchildren will wear white. If there is a widow, and she has young children, she will wear black; however, if she is older she will join the grandchildren in wearing white.

The rituals will last from seven to forty-nine days depending on how wealthy a family is. Friends and relatives pay their respects by spending time with the bereaved family members. However, meals and snacks are serviced to the guest only in the late evening. Funeral processions even in present day China are colorful, and known to stop traffic. Pairs of white lanterns are carried at the beginning of the procession announcing the surname of the deceased; sometimes a large photograph of the deceased is carried as well. A procession may include musicians and people carrying banners. If the deceased was female, the banner is a decorated phoenix. If the deceased was male, the banner signifies his spirit in the form of a lion. In olden times, the family would walk behind this procession. Today, they follow for approximately a mile and then board cars for the remainder of the way.

Upon arriving at the temple, everyone rests while the family makes an offering to the deities, and then specially prepares roasted meat, food, and drinks are served to all present; however, since this is considered a stressful time pregnant women are not allowed to attend. Some relatives and friend may have brought gifts, condolences or tributes to the deceased, and they are presented at this time. After everyone has eaten, they then go to the cemetery. There, different practices are performed depending upon the superstitions and beliefs of the individual's family. One custom is to have the priest throw a live rooster across the top of the coffin to the eldest son. If the eldest son catches the rooster, then this is a sign that things will go well for the deceased in the next life. If the eldest son does not catch the rooster this is seen as a bad sign for things to come. Another superstition sometimes followed is by having fake yin money dropped along the procession way to the temple, giving formation in the next life. At the cemetery, the priest chants a prayer and the coffin is lowered into the ground. Then, each member of the family dropped a handful of soil onto the coffin before it is covered.

After the funeral, when the family arrives back home, they find that the house has undergone a complete "spring cleaning" and a "special altar for the deceased is then set up permanently" (2000, pg29, LIP).

On the third day after a person dies, the soul of the deceased is supposed to return to see the family member for the last time. A table is laden with different kinds of sweet meats, fruit and wine is set out to welcome the spirit. The pair of joss sticks and candles is burnt to welcome the spirit. The spirit is assumed to arrive when the dogs bark and the candles flicker turning blue. Strange things are supposedly happening and a vision of the soul may be seen. The soul is believed to be assisted into the yin world, and consoled by all the offerings and prayers that have been given to it.

Another aspect of Chinese culture is Confucianism. Confucianism is often characterized as a system of social and ethical philosophy rather than a religion. In fact, Confucianism was built on an ancient religious foundation to establish the social values, institutions, and transcendent ideals of traditional Chinese society. It was what sociologist Robert Bellah called a "civil religion,"1 the sense of religious identity and common moral understanding at the foundation of a society's central institutions. It is also what a Chinese sociologist called a "diffused religion;"3 its institutions were not a separate church, but those of society, family, school, and state; its priests were not separate liturgical specialists, but parents, teachers, and officials. Confucianism was part of the Chinese



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