Although Ghost Month is long past, Halloween fervor grips Westerners at this time of year. As the air grows colder and plants go dormant, the question lingers at the back of our minds – what happens to us when we die? Fortunately, Chinese mythologies tell us a great deal about death – everything from the existence of ghosts to how to secure a happy afterlife. Since spiritually-inclined Chinese usually subscribe to a combination of philosophies, it’s only fair to include several religions’ answers to the question, “What happens when you die?”
According to Buddhists –
Buddhists believe that death is just one facet of the cycle of rebirth. Since Buddhists’ work to reach enlightenment, dying is a partial “reset point” for your karma. Unless you have extremely good karma and are nearly enlightened, when you die in Chinese Buddhism you will most likely go to 地狱 (Dìyù, literally “earth prison” but usually translated as “hell.”) Unlike hell in Christian mythology, Diyu isn’t a place of eternal suffering. Instead, it’s somewhere a being goes temporarily (usually a long time) to work off bad karma. Once your karma is worked off, through either punishment or personal development, you’ll be reborn again into one of the higher worlds. (Calling Buddhism’s cosmology “elaborate” is an understatement.) Diyu is frequently described as subterranean tunnels, subdivided into different kingdoms and climates.
If you die and you’re an especially immoral person, perhaps a thief, miser, or murderer, you may find yourself a hungry ghost (饿鬼, èguǐ). Hungry ghosts live in even lower realms of hell, and it is more difficult for them to be reincarnated as humans or divine beings in higher realms. Occasionally these spirits find their way back to Earth and cause trouble for people in classic ghost stories.
According to Daoists –
Daoists place great value on long and healthy life, and the goal of many Daoists is to achieve physical immortality. Death, therefore, is regarded as an unfortunate consequence of a life imperfectly-lived, and most Daoist beliefs about the afterlife are borrowed from other traditions. Salvation in Daoism isn’t an escape from the world; salvation is about being seamlessly aligned with the natural world, in a state of perfect balance.
Some Daoist writings do discuss a “heaven” realm where people go when they die, especially important and wise people like emperors. Daoism also has its own hungry ghosts, borne from those who died violently or disrespected their ancestors, who are forever out of natural balance. Ghost Month (seventh month of the lunar calendar) came out of Daoist and Buddhist traditions, where ghosts and spirits come out from the lower realm to haunt the earth. On the fifteenth day of Ghost Month, the realms of heaven and hell are said to be completely open to the Earth, so people burn joss money (“Hell Money”) and make food offerings to their ancestors.
According to Confucists –
Confucius discouraged his students from worrying about the afterlife, focusing instead on proper relationships and maintaining order. He famously said, “Without knowledge of how to live, a person cannot know about death and dying.” While he didn’t’ dispute the existence of ghosts or gods, he said that they were not easy to understand, and people’s time was better served by focusing on practical life.
That being said, Confucianism’s emphasis on filial piety (孝, xiào, children’s loyalty to their parents) extends even after death. Venerating deceased ancestors by extravagant mourning, making offerings or even attempting to contact a dead family member is relatively common practice even today. Where exactly the ancestors “go” depends on who you ask. Some people believe that they’re in a Diyu-like place, while others believe they’re in a more Christian- or Islam-inspired heaven.
According to traditional Chinese mythology/folk religions –
Over the years, diverse Chinese myths and beliefs have gotten lumped into the nebulous category of “folk religion.” This category includes everything from Traditional Chinese Medicine to beliefs about yin and yang. In pre-Buddhist Northern Chinese beliefs, everyone’s soul had two parts, the po (the yin soul, made of earth) and the hun (the yang soul, made of qi.) Both souls needed sustenance to live and when the souls died, they went to different places, with the hun going to heaven in earliest ideas, and the po staying with the body or going to the underworld (although neither was specified as a place of reward or punishment.)
Heaven (天, tiān) is considered the source of all moral meaning and good, and is the place where many gods reside (including the first god, the Jade Emperor.) Traditional Chinese religion honors many gods, and a few preside specifically over the dead, including the demigod Zhong Kui who subdues evil spirits and recruits them for a ghost army.
These highlights barely scratch the surface of these complex beliefs, and of the diversity of Chinese religion in general, so we encourage you to read more!
The very colorful image is a depiction of punishments in Diyu from a Beishan Temple in Qinghai. Photo courtesy of The World of Chinese writer Dinah Gardner.