Friday, February 28, 2014

Death in Confucian China

Death is an idea which exists in the cultural construct of all peoples. As civilizations grow in size, wisdom, and wealth the question of death becomes apparent: Some societies, such as the Greeks, fear death, while others, like the Egyptians, embrace death. The Chinese, however, fail to fall into either of these extremes. For the Chinese, death exists and that is all. There is no inherent good or bad about the mortality of humanity for death just is so. Following, I will show that this is consistent with the Confucian view of death and why this is the viewpoint that Confucius takes.The Confucian view of life is that of a predetermined destiny. There is no way to change one’s lot in life:
It is the way of the Confucians to regard that there is a destiny (ming) that determines either long life or premature death, poverty or wealth, order or disorder, security or danger; and what is thus determined cannot be changed, cannot be taken from nor added to. (Mozi from T’ang Chun-i)
By this I do not mean that all of life is determinant, only that of life and death. This is where Mozi has taken the idea of ming and made it his own separate from that of Confucius. Otherwise Confucius would be working in trivialities when he seeks the Dao. “Confucius’ “understanding ming” means understanding the fact that the uncontrollable external circumstances we encounter cannot be an obstacle to our devotion to the Tao [Dao] or self-realization. (T’ang Chun-I 29-31) Therefore Confucius would say that there is nothing to be done to stop death: if death wishes for you, than death will have you. While visiting an ill friend Confucius acknowledges the futility of fighting against the determinism, “That we are going to lose him must be due to ming, fate! How else could such a man be afflicted with such an illness?” (Analects 6.10) The fact that everyone will someday die and that all of life is predetermined does not mean Confucius sees no meaning or purpose to living the life of The Way. It is actually quite the contrary, for his belief is that a man should strive to be so great that he will be known to the future generations. “The Master said, ‘Do not be concerned that you lack an official position, but rather concern yourself with the means by which you might take your stand. Do not be concerned that no one has heard of you, but rather strive to become a person worthy of being known.’” (The Analects 4.14)

Confucius teaches that it is the duty of man to accept whatever may happen as the Heavenly ming, without, at the same time, blaming Heaven for the misfortune that it has placed upon him. “I am not resentful toward Heaven, nor do I cast aspersions upon other people. I study what is below in order to comprehend what is above. If there is anyone who could understand me, perhaps it is Heaven.” (The Analects 14.35)

Confucius has a great reverence for the ancestors. To him, it is a loss to the world that those greats who are now deceased may no longer bless the world with their presence, but at the same time he recognizes that the memory of them and their deeds continues to exist and flourish and this is good. “His direct concern was for beauty, harmony, integrity, and happiness in the world, but all these were grounded ‘in something that is not made meaningless by failure and death.’” (Smith 190) According to Confucius it is because of the actions and virtue of the dead that we must continue to praise them. We must take that which they have given us and build upon it. “A true teacher is one who, keeping the past alive, is also able to understand the present.” (The Analects 2.11)

The ancestors watch over us all from Heaven. They are the determiners of our lives and they are those who give and who take away. “The Master said, ‘It is Heaven itself that has endowed me with Virtue,’” (The Analects 7.23) for “Heaven loves the people and metes out rewards to the virtuous.” (Smith 190) When Confucius is distraught he attributes the cause of his torment to the Heavens. Upon a dear friends passing he cried out, “Oh! Heaven has abandoned me! Heaven has abandoned me!” (The Analects 11.9)

The practice of ancestor worship is alive in some sense throughout Confucius’ work. His belief is that it is our duty to make sacrifices to our ancestors, for after all they are our ‘fathers’ and control our destiny. Though for the learned it does not seem as if there was a true belief that people lived on after their deaths. “When the Emperor offered the annual sacrifices to Heaven and magistrates gathered villagers around mounds to sacrifice to earth, peasants may have visualised gods being fed and buttered up generally to ensure their continuing benefactions. Most scholars would have had no such anthropomorphic imaginings, but they would not for this reason have deemed the sacrifices less important nor valued them solely for their effects on the masses.” (Smith 191)

When making a sacrifice Confucius believed that one must give his all and be fully dedicated for “if I am not fully present at the sacrifice, it is as if I did not sacrifice at all.” (The Analects 3.12) Further, it seems that Confucius did not believe there was any way to know the proper technique for a sacrifice, after all they varied with each ruler (Keightley 31-32), but he who did know had mastered The Dao and held the world in the palm of his hand. (The Analects 3.11)

Confucius views on death itself are limited in number, compared to how he believes that we should act in the light of death. Perhaps more can be learned from these instructed acts than merely perfunctory ideals. Perhaps it is possible to draw further an idea of what death means to the people who survive it.

The process of mourning appears many times throughout the writings of Confucius and his followers in The Analects. It is a part of the rites which he holds so dear and believes had become lost in his time. Of special importance is the three year mourning period which was required of every son after the passing of his parents. During this time he was not to partake in any of the joys of life:
When the gentleman is in mourning, he finds no savor in sweet foods, finds no joy in listening to music, and finds no comfort in his place of dwelling. This is why he gives these things up. But if you would feel fine doing such things, then you should do them! (The Analects 17.21)
When asked of the importance of the three years he replied that “a child is completely dependent upon the care of his parents for three years – this is why the three-year mourning period is a universal custom.” (17.21) All of this is part of Confucius’s ideal of the filial son. Any change, be it in the physical world or in the mind, must wait until the three years after the passing of one’s father and elder brothers. (The Analects 11.22)

If the ancestors are to be held in such high regard, then it is of no surprise that fathers too should be respected as much. For the ways of one’s father were taken from the ways of his own father and so on going back generations to the greatest of ancestors.

Though, through our mourning we should not forget our duties to the great ancestors. “Be meticulous in observing the passing of those close to you and do not fail to continue the sacrifices to your distant ancestors. This will be enough to cause the Virtue of the people to return to fullness.” (The Analects 1.9)

Our duties in mourning those closest to us are simple enough: refrain from life experience, in essence, the job is solely to remember those who are now gone from this world. As Ziyou said of the Confucian belief, “Mourning should fully express grief and then stop at that.” (The Analects 19.14) But what of how to treat others who have experienced death and are currently in mourning? His actions and the words of his disciples show that those who are in mourning are to be treated with respect. There is not the appearance of praise for those in the mourning process, for it is considered their duty to do so. What does seem quite apparent is a cautious avoidance of those in mourning, though done so in a respectful manner.
When he saw someone dressed in mourning clothes, even if they were an intimate acquaintance, he invariably assumed a changed expression. When he saw someone wearing a ritual cap or a blind person, even if they were well-known to him he would invariably display a respectful countenance. When passing someone dressed in funeral garb, he would bow down and grasp the crossbar of his carriage. (The Analects 10.25)
These were the social norms of the Chinese people and they were believed to have been sent down from the Heavens. Most did not question them, and those who did, did so out of curiosity more than out of animosity.

Had the Chinese suspected that these norms were no more than conventions or, worse, had been perpetrated by a segment of society to shore up its privileged position, they could have regarded them more lightly. As it was, they saw them as sanctioned by the cosmos: they were natural law. (Smith 192)

Confucius recognizes the futility of fearing death as it cannot be avoided by mortal means and the ignorance of awaiting death as it is merely an end because there is no afterlife in the Chinese view. Even when he seems to be on deaths doorstep he does not fear its coming, merely praying to heavens:
The Master was seriously ill, and Zilu asked permission to offer a prayer.
The Master said, “Is such a thing done?”
Zilu said, “It is. The Eulogy reads, ‘We pray for you above and below, to the spirits of Heaven and of Earth.”
The Master said, “In that case, I have already been offering up my prayers for some time now.” (The Analects 7.35)
He appears to contradict the Chinese view of life after death when he cries out, “If I have done anything contrary to the Way, may Heaven reject me! May heaven reject me!” (The Analects 6.28) however it is more likely that by this he means banishment from the memories of his descendants rather than a literal locking of the gates in the realm of Heaven.

For Confucius there is no remedy for death itself. People die and that is that. Death is a matter of fact. There is no evil being placed behind the guise of death. Death cannot be defeated and, at the same time, death is not a triumph of sorts. Therefore death should be treated in a manner the same as being or the sun or the moon: acknowledgement of the fact but not worry. Where Confucius does see a problem with death is in the practices which are requisite with it: the required mourning time period, how one treats those who are in mourning, and especially the praising and sacrificing to of the ancestors. His feelings about these things are that the practices of his fellow people, and sometimes even of himself, have become lax. His solution is a simple one: follow his instructions which have come down from Heaven through him.


Confucius, et al., “The Analects.” Readings in Classical Chinese Philosophy. Phillip J. Ivanhoe & Bryan W. Van Norden. Indianapolis: Hackett Publishing Company, Inc., 2003. Print.
"Early Civilization in China: Reflections on How It Became Chinese." In Paul S. Ropp, ed., Heritage of China: Contemporary Perspectives on Chinese Civilization (University of California Press, 1990):15-54.
Smith, Huston. “Transcendence in Traditional China.” Religious Studies Vol. 2 No. 2(Apr., 1967): 185-196. Print.
Chun-I, T’ang. “The T’ien Ming [Heavenly Ordinance] In Pre-Ch’in China – II.” Philosophy East and West 12(Apr., 1962): 29-49. Print.

This article originally written April 30th, 2009 as the final paper for OU PHIL 3343 - Chinese Philosophy.

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