Ancient Chinese Afterlife Beliefs
“What happens after a person dies?” is a common question that has been answered by different religions in different ways. The ancient Chinese had a unique perspective on the afterlife, which underwent a great change with the rise of Buddhism in China. The Chinese Taoists were greatly concerned with life after death and survival of an individual's soul even after his physical demise.
The Concept of the Soul
Chinese metaphysics is based on the polarity of negative and positive, the yin and yang, the two basic principles of the universe. Their philosophy teaches that each human being is an amalgamation of two souls, the yin and yang. These are together during the lifetime of an individual, but at the time of death, the two souls separate and go in different directions. This is exactly in harmony with the cosmos, which was also created after the integration of light and dark, the yin and yang elements.
Cary Baynes, a Jungian writer, summarized this concept in the following way: “In the bodily existence of an individual are two polarities, a p'o soul and a hun soul. During the life of the individual these two souls are in conflict with one another, each striving to gain supremacy over the other. Upon death, they separate and go different ways, while the p'o sinks to earth as kuei or ghost, the hun rises and becomes shen, a spirit or god.”
Kuei and shen represent the two extremes, the lower, dark, and evil element, and the higher, spiritual element. The ancient Chinese idea of the soul was dualistic. The p'o was an earth soul that came into existence at the time of conception, while hun was made of chi, the life force, and came into existence at the time of birth. Each soul had its own afterlife; while hun went to heaven or a special underworld, the p'o went to the darker realms of the cosmos.
At the main entrance of many Taoist temples is an elaborately colored container. It is for joss sticks (incense sticks), which are placed there to be lit. The rising incense symbolizes prayers offered to heaven. On either side of the container will be carved dragons; similarly, there will be dragons on the roof of the temple. These symbolize strength, energy, and life force.
The ancient Chinese beliefs of the afterlife are largely a combination of Taoism and Buddhism. They believed that when a person died, messengers carried his soul to Cheng Huang, the God of Walls and Moats. Here the deeds and actions of the individual were judged, and those who were found virtuous were sent directly to paradise, a place inhabited by Taoist immortals. But those who led evil lives descended to hell to serve a fixed period of punishment. After the duration of punishment was over, the soul was given the Elixir of Oblivion and was prepared for rebirth.
The ancient Chinese believed everything that exists flows out of Tao, and humans are a small component of Tao. The concept of dual souls is unique — the lower and dark soul perishes away with death but the good and pious soul is immortal and an object of ancestor worship.
Most Chinese believe that the soul of the deceased must be kept happy by offerings and worship. It is also believed that unhappy souls, those who weren't buried in the right way, or for whom no rituals have been performed, turn into ghosts and can attack human beings to receive their due. This is one reason why elaborate ancestor worship rituals are carried out, as a significant way to please the soul of the deceased.
The ancestor worship cult is an important part of the Chinese afterlife beliefs and is based on the premise that the living need to sustain the spirits of their ancestors and protect their graves.
Chinese Notions about Heaven and Hell
The concept of heaven as the dwelling place of gods is a very old Chinese notion. According to the Shang Chinese dynasty beliefs, heaven was also the place where the hun (the good soul) would go. However, only the powerful hun, those of earthy kings, could enter heaven; the rest would be given a place lower to heaven, or would be reincarnated with a longer life span.
The Chinese notion of the underworld of the Yellow Springs could be conceived of as hell. It was the destination of the evil souls, or p'o. Yellow Springs was a miserable place where the souls were punished for their bad deeds and were kept under the bondage of the Queen of Earth.
Confucius, the great Chinese thinker and philosopher, summarized these beliefs of life, death, and the afterlife. He stated: “Death and Life have their determined appointments; riches and honors depend upon Heaven.”