Confucianism and Daoism

CONCEPTS OF NATURAL DEATH. Confucian concepts of death are closely associated with ancestor worship, which was practiced as early as the first historical dynasty, the

Shang (ca. 1500-1045/1046 b.c.e.). Judging from the written record provided by inscriptions of oracles written on bones, the dead were consulted by means of divination, as if they were living. Everything needed for the next life was put in the tombs of the kings and nobles. Originally servants, entertainers, and others were buried with them. Later, pottery figures were substituted. (In modern times, paper effigies of servants are used.) The cult of the ancestors must also have been practiced by commoners, because it was considered an ancient and widespread practice by Confucius in the sixth century b.c.e.

The ancestor cult was based on rituals, or li. It assumed the continuity of life after death, communication between the living and the dead, the legitimacy of a social hierarchy, and a virtual deification of the ancestors. In his Analects, Confucius upheld the ancient practices, refusing to shorten the period of mourning (XVII.21). Nevertheless, he taught that the spirits should be kept at a distance, so as not to preoccupy the living (VII.20; XI.11). He also thought that mourning rituals should be moderate; they should express grief rather than fear (III.3). Four centuries later, details of the mourning rituals were described in the ritual text Yi Li. Now elaborate, they were to last for three years. During the first year, the eldest son (as chief mourner) had to wear sackcloth, live in a hut outside the home, wail periodically, and eat very little food. Over the next two years, the restrictions were gradually lifted. Even after life returned to normal, though, he reported family business to the ancestors. In Confucianism, as in other patrilineal traditions, the performance of funerary and ancestral rites by the eldest son has contributed to a preference for sons. As a result, female infanticide has sometimes been practiced unofficially.

The Chinese developed two other perspectives on death: a return to nature and physical immortality. The Daoist philosopher Chuang Tzu (365-290 b.c.e.) wrote that life and death were two aspects of the same reality, mere differences of form. Death was a natural and welcomed release from life, and was to be neither feared nor desired. Because individuals were reabsorbed into nature, both birth and death were as natural as the progression of the four seasons. Other Daoists were interested in alchemy, macrobiotic diets, exercises, fasting, and meditation. Besides desiring health, youth, and longevity, they wanted immortality. They had several views of the latter: the physical body would rise to heaven; the "real body," not the physical one in the tomb, would rise; the physical body would go to the Isles of the Blessed, said to be off the northeast coast of China; or the self would emerge from the body at death, like the butterfly from its cocoon, to wander freely about the universe or go to the realm of the immortals.

In Taiwan, the Chinese still practice ancestor worship. They believe that people are related to common ancestors and to each other by an elaborate kinship system in which status is symbolized by the length of time spent mourning and authority is passed through the eldest son. They also believe in two souls: the hun, living in a tablet at the shrine, and thep 'o, living in the grave. Both souls may influence the living. Kin meet periodically in the ancestral temple for sacrifices to the hun; the latter are offered wine, food, rice, and first fruits in exchange for health, longevity, prosperity, offspring, virtue, and a peaceful death. They are also remembered by preserving extensive genealogical records and documents written by the deceased. Families visit graves to communicate with or pay respect to the p'o and thus ensure thep'o's goodwill toward the living.

The Taiwanese euphemistically call death "longevity"; after fifty, a person begins to prepare for death by making "longevity clothes" in the Han style of the second century b.c.e., a coffin, and if possible, a tomb. At the time of death, the eldest son of the deceased person eats "longevity noodles" and puts on the "longevity clothes" inside out. Then he puts these garments on the corpse, whose personal name henceforth may not be spoken. Other family members don sackcloth, leave their hair uncombed, and wail periodically (Thompson). The hun is first given a temporary resting place in a paper sword, placed in front of the corpse to receive prayers. After processions to and from the grave, this sword is transferred to a home shrine where the son and relatives offer it food. Finally it is burned, and the spirit is thus transferred to a permanent tablet in the shrine. To keep the p 'o, the body's orifices are plugged. The body is then rubbed with an elixir, placed in a coffin, and buried. Sometimes it is placed in a strong, watertight tomb to prevent decay. Coffins and graves are positioned according to exact rules for magical protection. If mistreated, the p o causes trouble and threatens to become a ghost (kuei). Ritual specialists are then asked to inspect the grave, coffin, or bones to see why the p'o is unhappy (Berling). Daoist and Buddhist priests participate in the rituals of families who can afford them. For instance, priests hold services for seven weeks, during which they chant and pray for the soul to pass quickly through purgatory. Clearly, the Taiwanese try to ensure every advantage for the soul by incorporating practices from many religions.

In Taiwan, death remains associated with the ancestor cult. In the People's Republic of China, by contrast, there have been attempts to reform and even destroy ancestor worship. Communists have argued that traditional funeral rites and customs are remnants of the feudal economy and social structure; those lower in the clan hierarchy are exploited, and women, who cannot attend banquets in the ancestral temple, are excluded. Mourning clothes, moreover, waste cotton; wooden coffins waste timber; graves and tombs waste land; lavish funerals put families into debt; and beliefs in the afterlife instill superstition. Consequently, Communists have recommended the following: simple memorial services for the cadre, factory, village, or cooperative; the replacement of mourning clothes by arm bands; and the introduction of cremation (Maclnnis).

CHINESE CONCEPTS OF SELF-WILLED DEATH. Some of these concepts have already been discussed in the section on Buddhism. But it is important to point out that there were practices of self-willed death in the warrior circles of China as well. In fact, it was the obligation, not only the privilege of warriors to practice self-willed death under certain circumstances. This tradition, which had once been found among the elite, became common among the lower classes when warriors began to be recruited from them in the late Chou Dynasty. Later, members of the Mohist school of philosophy, which had links with the lower-class warriors, maintained a tradition of absolute loyalty to their leader. In one incident, eighty-three disciples followed their leader in death (Fung Yu-lan, p. 83).

IMPLICATIONS OF CHINESE VIEWS OF SELF-WILLED DEATH FOR BIOETHICS. According to a report by Shi Da Pu (1991), euthanasia in China, once a taboo topic, has been discussed since the 1980s in the magazine Medicine and Philosophy. After the controversial case of the active euthanasia of a patient named Xia in 1986, which led to a court case being filed by her two daughters against their brother, who had authorized it, the topic was hotly debated in the media. It was also debated by the Chinese Dialectical Institute and Beijing Medical Ethics Academy, which concluded that active euthanasia was permissible for patients with no hope of cure. When the widow of former premier Zhou En-lai wrote that euthanasia was a "proper point of dialectical materialism" in need of discussion, there followed even more public debate. Some argued that it represented the height of civilization because it was a pure act of freedom; others, that it was "the result of the infection in the area of medicine from sick Western customs and morality ... sharply against our socialist ethical values" (Shi Da Pu, p. 133). In 1988, a survey of 400 people (health professionals and nonprofessionals) showed that 80 percent were in favor of euthanasia. Both withdrawal of treatment and active euthanasia are being quietly practiced; though they are illegal, no one has been charged. Shi Da Pu concludes that most experts in China think that euthanasia should be regarded as part of the agenda of modernization, that the country should develop appropriate legislation to legalize it, and that the press should be enlisted to spread the dialectical materialist teaching about it.

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