Cemeteries are monuments to the past — to history, to our ancestors, and to our cultural traditions. In short: They are not a place traditionally associated with breaking news.
It is odd, then, that cemeteries have found themselves central in a number of trending China stories this year. First, a local campaign in the southeastern province of Jiangxi to promote cremations came under fire because of officials’ heavy-handed enforcement tactics. Then, last month, Sino-Swedish relations took a sudden nosedive when a Chinese family that booked a hotel for the wrong night was forced from the lobby after trying to stage what amounted to a sleep-in. The family — and later, the netizens who rallied to their cause — weren’t just angry that the Swedish police had left them on the street, but that the officers had dropped them off right outside of a cemetery.
While it is unlikely the Swedish police officers on duty that night had a full grasp of all the taboos and religious connotations that surround cemeteries in Chinese culture, one might assume that local Jiangxi officials would be more sensitive. That isn’t necessarily the case, however. I’ve noticed that it is common — not just abroad, but even among the Chinese elite —to underestimate the importance of folk religion and rituals to those at the grassroots level of Chinese society. To understand why cemeteries can be such hot-button issues in China, it’s important to first understand the powerful, sometimes contradictory role they play in the Chinese religious tradition.
Many non-Chinese have an unfortunate tendency to try and explain native Chinese religious traditions, such as Taoism, by equating them to their own faiths — even though these beliefs are sometimes far more institutionalized and systematic than China’s. Chinese elites are often little better, sometimes dismissing popular religious sentiment altogether, believing it nothing more than a collection of superficially held feudal superstitions. Neither view is accurate. Chinese folk religion may have come into being organically and somewhat haphazardly out of a wide-spread, varied array of traditional rituals, but this doesn’t mean their adherents are any less fervent — or their beliefs any less embraced — than a comparably devout Christian or Muslim.
Foundational to almost all Chinese rituals — and Chinese religious belief more broadly — is the ancient practice of ancestor worship. Li Tiangang, a professor of religious studies at Shanghai’s Fudan University, writes that, “China’s folk religion evolved out of the Confucian system of ancestral sacrifices, which are the true origins of modern Chinese religious belief.” Cemeteries, where these ancestors are believed to “live,” are thus endowed with great religious significance.
In a sense, cemeteries are a gateway to another realm — the world of the dead, or yinjian. This world is a mirror image of our own — which is known as yangjian, or the world of the living — and has its own ruling caste of gods and petty officials, as well as its own complex systems of family and social ties.
Cemeteries reflect this, and so have traditionally played a key role in the maintenance of Chinese family and clan networks. In 1959, Chinese archaeologists excavated a burial complex in northwestern China dated from the Eastern Han Dynasty (A.D. 25-220). Based on their excavations and historical records, they determined that the complex had been built by Yang Zhen, a powerful minister during that period. After Yang’s death, his descendants had continued to bury their dead in the area, ensuring the family would remain united in the afterlife.
And the clan that’s buried together, stays together. According to C.K. Yang, a sociologist who taught at the University of Pittsburgh in the mid-20th century, it was — and is — common for Chinese extended families to visit cemeteries to make communal offerings to their shared ancestors. In addition to placating the resident spirits — who, if displeased with the quality of the offerings or the upkeep of their graves, might decide to teach their descendants a lesson by giving them a good haunting — such rituals also served to strengthen and reinforce blood ties among living members of the same clan, ties that have long formed the bedrock of Chinese society.
The need to placate one’s ancestors and provide for one’s own afterlife — and the afterlife of one’s family — results in great attention being paid to a person’s quality of life after death. Chinese do not see cemeteries as repositories of the dead, but as living communities inhabited by spirits capable of both communicating with and giving assistance to their descendants. It is therefore vital that these spirits be taken care of, lest they refuse to provide aid or even choose to exact vengeance on their no-good heirs. And when it comes to finding the right place to establish a cemetery, the dead focus on the same things as the living: location, location, location.
According to legend, the basic principles and methods for choosing suitable burial grounds were first introduced by Guo Pu, a well-known scholar during the Eastern Jin Dynasty (A.D. 317-420). His core belief was that if one buries one’s ancestors in the right place — defined as a place imbued with certain mystical energies — their spirits will be better able to support and protect their descendants.
Although scholars at the time criticized his advice as spurious — and later generations of geomancers as corrupt — Guo’s rules nonetheless gained traction among the public at large. Even today, his ideas remain influential, and the physical location and state of family tombs and cemeteries are treated with such reverence that digging up someone’s ancestral tombs is still regarded as one of the gravest offenses a person can commit against another. Doing so shatters the person’s link to their ancestral spirits and the support these spirits can provide. It is also why Qingming Festival — also known as Tomb-Sweeping Day, when Chinese families go and clean the area around their ancestral tombs — remains one of the country’s most important holidays.
Yet Qingming only comes around once a year, and outside of that day — and the occasional important anniversary or festival — Chinese do their best to keep a safe distance from the dead. Even in the countryside, cemeteries are generally located apart from inhabited areas, and it’s extremely rare to find one in a downtown urban district. This is partly to show reverence and respect for one’s ancestors, but it is also related to deeply held beliefs about the kinds of energies that collect and concentrate in graveyards — and what this energy can do to the living.
The very terms yinjian and yangjian are derived from the traditional Chinese concept of yin and yang. Cemeteries, connected as they are to the yinjian underworld, are sites of highly concentrated yin energy. This force is what allows ancestors to manifest and protect their descendants in the realm of the living, but it can also do serious harm to anyone careless enough to wander through it. The sick, for example, are believed to suffer from a lack of yang energy, making it dangerous for them to enter or even come too close to a cemetery, where yin is so dominant. Children should also be kept away from burial grounds, as their keen eyesight means they are more likely to see spirits — and be seen by them in turn. In other words, Chinese generally agree that yinjian and yangjian are best kept separate, for everyone’s sake.
Instead of running the risk of going to a cemetery in person, Chinese families typically opt to perform most ancestral sacrifices in their homes, in front of ancestral tablets — though some more modern-minded Chinese have upgraded to large photos of the deceased.
China is hardly the only country in which people prefer to avoid cemeteries. Westerners, for example, may be familiar with the saying that it’s bad luck to visit a cemetery at night. Yet the temptation for them to equate Chinese beliefs about graveyards with their own — and thus dismiss such tenets as mere hokey superstition — must be resisted.
While it may feel silly for a family to get so worked up about being dropped off outside a cemetery — especially when the alternative could have been jail — I doubt many would laugh at the plight of the farmers who were denied the chance to be buried with their families, despite the fact that both reactions were informed by the same set of convictions. Only by reaching out and trying to understand where these beliefs come from, and by showing them the respect they deserve, can similar conflicts be avoided in the future.
Translator: Matt Turner; editors: Zhang Bo and Kilian O’Donnell.
(Header image: A man walks between graves during the Qing Ming festival, also known as Tomb Sweeping Day, at a cemetery in Shanghai, April 6, 2018. Johannes Eisele/AFP/VCG)