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Wei Minghe was in his late 60s. He still had the rawboned build of a farmer, but now he lived in a retirement apartment in the nearby city of Huairou, although he returned faithfully each year for Qingming. Later that day, I gave him a ride back to the city. When I asked him if he missed Spring Valley, he said, "Before this apartment, I never lived in a place with good heat." His view of progress made perfect sense, just like the wishes of the ancestors—tile roofs versus thatched.

The Chinese view of the afterlife has always been marked by qualities many Westerners would perceive as earthly. In ancient times the vision of the next world tended to be pragmatic, materialistic, even bureaucratic—values that are apparent in today's archaeological discoveries. When royal tombs are opened, they're usually characterized by meticulous organization and impressive wealth. The tradition of burying bodies with precious goods goes back at least as far as the fifth millennium B.C., when some tombs contained jade and pottery.

It's not until the Shang, a culture that flourished in northern China from roughly 1600 to 1045 B.C., that we have written evidence of how people viewed the afterlife. The earliest known Chinese writing appears on Shang oracle bones­—ox scapulae and turtle shells used in rituals at the royal court. Cracked and interpreted, the bones were a means of communicating with the unseen world, including passing messages to ancestors of the royal family. "We ritually report the king's sick eyes to Grandfather Ding." "As to the coming of the Shaofang [an enemy], we make ritual-report to Father Ding."

The dead were believed to have great power over daily events. Unhappy ancestors could cause illness or disaster among the living, and many oracle bones refer to human sacrifices meant to appease these spirits. At one complex of tombs in Henan Province, excavations have uncovered more than 1,200 sacrificial pits, most of which contain human victims. An archaeologist once told me that he had counted 60 different ways a person could be killed during a Shang ceremony. But he also reminded me that these were rituals, not murder and mayhem. From the Shang perspective, human sacrifice was simply part of a remarkably well organized system. The Shang kept a strict calendar, with certain sacrificial days devoted to certain ancestors. They were meticulous almost to the point of scientific inquiry. In one instance, a diviner patiently made 70 individual oracle-bone cracks in order to determine which ancestor was responsible for a living king's toothache.

As for the dead, they functioned in an extensive bureaucracy. Royal names were changed after death to mark the transition to new roles. The purpose of ancestor worship was not to remember the way people had been in life. Instead, it was about currying favor with the departed, who'd been given distinct responsibilities. Many oracle-bone inscriptions request that an ancestor make an offering of his own to an even higher power.

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