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Chinese Grave Customs

[General Considerations]  [Historical Review]  [Chinese Grave Customs]  [Pottery Of The Chou, Han And Other Pre-T'ang Dynasties]  [Wares Of The Tang Dynasty]  [Ju Yao And Some Related Wares]  [Kuan Yao]  [Chun Yao]  [Ting Yao And Related Wares]  [Lung-Chuan Yao And Related Celadons]  [Tz'u Chou Yao]  [Chien Yao And Related Wares]  [More Articles Related To Chinese Ceramics] 

( Originally Published 1922 )



So many examples of the early Chinese wares are obtained from graves that it is necessary to explain shortly the ancient customs of China in regard to the disposal of the remains of the dead. Those who wish to study the early burial customs and rites should read Dr. J. J, M, de Groot's Religious System of China, especially the second volume, on which most of what is stated below is based.

During very early times, the body of the deceased was left in the dwelling of the family covered with a layer of brushwood and clay,while the living occupants of the house retired to a mourning shed hard by. Beside the corpse were placed utensils filled with food, in the hope that the spirit would return to reinhabit the body, which would then require immediate sustenance. The food consisted of scorched grain (which was thus deprived of its power of germinating), dried fish and dried meat, as these comestibles would last for a long period and be ready for instant consumption by the man or woman on reviving. The soul or spirit was also catered for in the event of its non-return to the body: special provisions were set aside in an adjoining part of the primitive dwelling, which was closed inso that animals should not be able to get at the food.

In ancient days the people no doubt lived in natural or artificial caves, especially during the winter, and from this mode of life may be traced the practice, followed subsequently, of burying the dead in caverns, where so many finds of bronze and pottery have been made.

Later, apparently, the dwellings of the people resembled potters' kilns of a beehive shape, being made of clay strengthened with rushes and reeds. Some of the oldest graves took a similar form, and family graveyards have been found which look like a cluster of clay beehives of large dimensions, the head ancestor reposing in the largest and most central one, surrounded by his descendants. The greater size of the oldest grave is accounted for by the fact that additions of clay were made year by year at the time of a great festival devoted to the repairing of tombs.

While in the most ancient times it seems to have been the custom to forsake the dwelling and leave it as the home of the dead for all time, in the early years of the pre-Christian era this practice was abandoned, and the final burial place was sought elsewhere, more or less elaborate graves being constructed according to the dignity of the deceased. In the ease of an Emperor the mausoleum was on a magnificent scale, and Dr. de Groot gives us the following translation from the Historical Records of the mausoleum and obsequies of the great Shih Huang Ti of the Ch'in dynasty.

" In the ninth month they buried Shih Huang in Mount Li. Not long after his accession to the throne this monarch had that mountain excavated and prepared, and when he had reduced the whole Empire to subjection, people were transferred from all parts of it to this spot, and to the number of over seven hundred thousand excavated the ground underneath three wells of ground water. Of copper they then made a crypt, and all the rare articles and precious curiosities of the palaces and the sundry offices were conveyed thither, and hoarded up inside, till the crypt was full.Mechanicians were then ordered to make ballistic machines which, whenever anyone ventured too near the spot, would suddenly discharge arrows. Of water, limpid like silver, they made numerous brooks converging into a river and a great lake, and machines revolved in them, throwing out the water from one to the other. Above they arranged the stars and asterisms, and below, the configurations of the earth; they made torches of the fat of the porpoise, which were calculated to burn for a long time. Erh Shih (Shih Huang's son and successor) commanded ' It shall not be allowed to such of the inmates of the late Emperor's seraglio as have no sons, to leave the gates of the mausoleum,' and they were all made to follow him in death. Those destroyed in this wise were very numerous.

" When the coffin had been deposed in the grave, some one suggested that, whereas the workman and mechanicians who had made the machines and concealed the valuables knew all about the same, the buried treasures might forthwith be scattered in all directions. So, when the great ceremony (i.e. the burial) was finished and the valuables had been stored away, the interior gate of the road leading to the tomb was closed, and the lower and exterior gates of the road were both shut too, so that none of the workmen, artisans or men who had been employed in storing away the treasures, ever came out again. Trees and shrubs were planted about the spot, to give it the appearance of a natural mountain."

The practice of burying wives with the deceased, or of immolating them at the time of interment, was strongly condemned by Confucius, but his views seem to have been ignored in the case of the burial of Shih Huang Ti, who lived and died about 250 years after Confucius. This Emperor was a law unto himself; and a man who was prepared to order the burning of all the classical books of China would not be likely to feel any compunction in ordering the destruction of a certain number of his wives, when he had no further use for them.

As a result of Confucius' precepts human sacrifice at the time of burial of the dead was discarded; and in the place of living victims, clay or wooden models of ladies and retainers were interred : Confucius did not wholly believe even in this practice, and suggested that straw images were quite sufficient, since more realistic representations might lead to a reversion to former customs.

According to the Chinese conception, the spirit of the departed was thought to pervade the spot where the body was buried, and the food placed beside the coffin was intended for the delectation of the ghost. An amusing anecdote is related of a drunkard, which bears out this idea: a winebibber of no mean order, when on his death-bed, besought his comrades to bury him in the immediate vicinity of a potters' kiln " in order that, when my person has been converted into earth after a hundred years, I may be lucky enough to be made into a wine pot; this would really steal my heart! "

In the Han dynasty the practice of elaborate grave ceremonial and furnishings was continued; and de Groot I gives a translation from the Books of the Later Han Dynasty which, after reciting the various ceremonies to be followed in the case of Imperial burials, sets out the following list of the implements for the use of the spirit :

8 hampers, of 3 pints each, containing millet, wheat, rice, hemp seed, pulse, and small pease. 3 earthen pots, of 3 pints, containing respectively pickled meat, preserved meat and sliced food. 2 earthen liquor jars, of 3 pints, filled with must and spirits.

All these were placed upon wooden trays and covered with linen.

1 candlestick of earthenware. 8 red arrows and 1 red bow. 8 goblets. 8 tureens. 8 pots. 8 square baskets. 8 wine jars. 1 wash-basin and ewer. 1 staff, 1 stool and 1 canopy. 16 bells, 4 large bells, and 16 sonorous stones, all without stands. 1 ocarina, 4 flutes, 1 reed organ, 1 flute with seven holes, 1 clapper to start the orchestra and 1 signal-giver to stop it, 6 lutes, 1 cithern, 1 mouth-organ, 1 harp, 1 lute with holes. 1 shield and 1 lance, 1 quiver, 1 coat of mail and 1 helmet. 9 carriages and 36 straw images of men and horses. 2 cooking-stoves, 2 kettles, 1 rice-steamer, and 12 caldrons of 5 pints-everything of earthenware. 1 ladle made of a gourd and holding 1 pint. 9 tables of earthenware, 16 large cups of 3 pints and 20 smaller ones of 2 pints-all of earthenware. 10 rice dishes of earthenware, 2 wine-pots of earthenware holding 5 pints and 2 gourdspoons of 1 pint. Sacrificial garments and clothes.

No doubt lesser lights had a simpler equipment for their ghosts, but apparently all the graves of this period, and indeed those of the T'ang dynasty, were furnished with food utensils to an extent commensurate with the affluence of the departed one.

Another very frequent addition to the grave contents was a plentiful supply of bronze mirrors. On first thoughts it is difficult to understand the meaning of these, but the Chinese argued in this way. The spirit would need light in order to distinguish the various implements and utensils stored in the crypt. Substances which gave out light did so for only a short time and were therefore useless : but mirrors do so practically for all time. To the unscientific mind there is no real understanding of the difference between reflected light and light itself; and this accounts for the custom. The practice was continued long after more accurate knowledge of optics was obtained; but the conservative habits of the race preserved the procedure.

During the latter part of the T'ang dynasty and in the Sung epoch less lavish grave equipment was the rule. This was partly due, no doubt, to the less settled state of the country and to the frequency of robbery by bandits De Groot, in illustration of this fact, quotes a passage 1 relating how, in the eleventh century, there were two magnates; one directed that he should be buried in rich style and the other indicated that a plain burial would be his pleasure. Both graves were rifled by robbers. The richly furnished tomb was completely gutted, but before leaving with their booty the bandits paraded before the coffin and made their obeisances. But in the other tomb only earthenware utensils were found : the enraged robbers broke open the coffin to collect the gold belt, which surely would be found on the waist of the corpse. But finding this was made of wood, they hacked the body to pieces. Thus economical grave trappings brought about dire results !

In Ming days, Hung Wu, the illustrious founder of the dynasty, started a fashion of economy which seems to have affected grave ceremonial and equipment : wooden vessels rather than pottery utensils were used and the whole ritual appears to have been on a much more simple plan. We may therefore look for fine examples of mortuary ware dating from Han and T'ang times, for less good specimens of Sung manufacture, and for little of ceramic importance of Ming origin.

In Northern China the old grave customs have persisted to a greater extent than in the South; and in modern times mortuary ware is made in survival of the ancient practice.' Buddhist doctrines never seem to have gained the hold in China that we should expect, and customs arising out of that religion do not apparently form an important factor in Chinese life; though Buddhist influence in the art of the country is apparent.

Discussion of graves and burial grounds calls to mind a Chinese story, for the inclusion of which I make no excuse.

A Chinese philosopher was passing through a burial ground when he saw a young and prepossessing lady, dressed in white (the Chinese mourning colour), sitting beside a newly made grave which she was fanning vigorously with a fan.

He went up to her and said, "' Madam, you interest me very much; will you tell me why you are fanning that grave? " The lady scowled at him and made no reply : whereupon he repeated his question, saying, " I ask out of no idle curiosity, for I am a philosopher and a student of human nature, and your action interests me immensely."

The lady again scowled at him and said nothing; so he walked on. As he was passing a bamboo grove hard by, a Chinese servant came out of it and plucked him by the sleeve, saying, " I saw you speaking to my mistress just now, and I feel sure you were asking her why she was fanning that newly made grave. The reason is this : my mistress and my master, who died a fortnight ago, were passionately devoted to each other : when my master was on his death-bed, my mistress wept and said, ` If you die, I swear I will go into a nunnery.' My master replied, ` Swear not that.' My mistress then said, ` Well, if I do not go into a nunnery, I swear I will never marry again.' My master replied, ` Swear not that, but if you must swear, swear that you will not marry again until the sods on my grave are dry.'



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