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Chinese grave shapes, furnishings, and their symbolic meanings have to be understood within the context of the Chinese world view and of Chinese mythical beliefs in the origin of human life. Christians believe that the universe was freely created by God "out of nothing." This varies from Chinese beliefs as follows:

  • In prehistoric China, the concept of God as the creator was unknown.
  • The belief of the traditional Chinese philosophers was that the universe was indeed created out of nothing. This nothingness was known as wu (literally meaning "without") ji (literally meaning "limits"), i.e., the boundless or the infinite. Out of this boundless nothingness, because of the movement of some mysterious forces, there evolved the dualistic elements of the yin and the yang. Upon their existence, the yin and the yang interacted and interchanged. As a result of these interactions and interchanges, similar to the way that live cells are produced and reproduced, more and more elements (including beings and non-beings) evolved and multiplied.
  • To the Chinese, interactions between the yin and the yang are the basis of births, multiplication, and growth, including the conception and reproduction of human lives, as well as the generation and accumulation of wealth. The dichotomy of yin and yang covers the duality of all elements in the universe.
  • The yin stands for the female; the yang stands for the male. Yin is the moon; yang is the sun. This dichotomy can be extended to include virtually all features in life and human experiences, such as cold-hot, night-day, soft-hard, invisible-visible; implicit-explicit, passive-active, hidden-manifested, covert-overt, earthly-heavenly, devilish-angelic, and dead-alive.
  • The yin and the yang co-exist in the universe. A person, when alive, stays in the yang world. When they die, however, they depart from the yang world and enter the yin world. Both the yin world and the yang world are eternal and they never cease to interact with each other.

To the Chinese, houses in the living world are known as yang houses, whereas those for the dead, i.e., graves, are known as yin houses. Moreover, as living people enjoy elegant and beautifully constructed buildings, they assume that spirits in the yin world have similar preferences. Because people in the yang world like money, yin spirits ought to like money too. To maintain harmonious interactions with the dead thus requires the living to respect departed spirits, and to take measures to enable them to live comfortably in the yin world. Such beliefs are further translated into the desire to construct elegant yin houses for ancestors, into the regular tending of graves, and into the showing of respect to spirits through the rituals of offering them food, money, and other objects that are believed to be pleasing for both the yin and the yang.

There is, nonetheless, no way to know for sure that yin spirits are pleased. People have to infer and speculate. If things in the yang world appear to them to be fine as manifested by, for example, prosperity and growth in the family, people will attribute that to harmonious relationship between themselves and yin spirits. They would, therefore, try to maintain the status quo and to follow the rituals that have appeared to be successfully working for them.

This belief, too, partly explains why purging other people's ancestral graves was regarded as a most severe form of revenge in historic China, and why disturbances to people's ancestral graves, such as the necessity for relocation due to public works projects in Hong Kong, have on countless occasions received strong opposition. If, on the contrary, people have run into troubles, suffered losses in finance, or experienced the death of some family members, they might relate that to disharmonies in yinyang interactions and look for remedial actions, by, for instance, reconstructing or even relocating the ancestral graves.

Through years of experimental trial and error, part of the Chinese experience in yin yang interactions has been distilled into the theories and practices of fengshui the principles of locating, orienting, and designing yin and yang houses. When a person dies, his family members will often consult a fengshui master for advice as to where, how, and when the body should be buried, and how the grave ought to be oriented, designed, and constructed. The outcome of the fengshui, however, will have to be attested by the subsequent development of the family. When the family enjoys prosperity after the burial, the members conclude that the fengshui of the chosen burial site is good. Otherwise, they would assume bad fengshui and would probably take action to correct it.

Contents

The On-Going Significance of the Ancestors

Yin and yang are inseparable. They make up a unity representing the whole of existence. Thus, the world of the deceased continues to influence that of the living. Families trace their genealogy back to a significant ancestor. The descendants of this ancestor form a lineage. The symbol of the lineage is the grave of this ancestor. Sometimes the grave contains the remains of his wife or wives; in Hong Kong, concubinage was made illegal as recently as 1971.

Traditional graveside rites are part of the Chinese practice known as ancestor worship, clearly an inadequate and misleading term. The rites had caused problems in the past to Christian missionaries, who found it impossible to reconcile them with Christian beliefs, yet Chinese converts incorporated them into their new commitments.

Ancestor worship has been part of Chinese culture for at least three thousand years, already ritualized by the time of Confucius (551-479 BC). It continues to form part of the culturally important hierarchical pattern of Chinese social relations and appropriate behavior known as li.

In Hong Kong, Singapore, and Taiwan, families gather at ancestral gravesides once a year at Qingming. This normally falls on April 4th or 5th. It is the occasion when people "sweep the grave," which comprises worshiping the ancestors, making offerings, and sweeping away the year's accumulated weeds and rubbish. The Chinese have celebrated Qingming since before the Zhou Dynasty (11th century BC to 221 BC).

The literal meaning of Qingming, "clear and bright," probably denotes a festival for the celebration of the blossoming of the spring season. Symbolically, the Chinese regard spring as a season of the utmost importance. In contrast to winter; which is "gloomy and dark," spring stands for birth and rebirth, i.e., the beginning of new lives. It also signifies new opportunities and possible new prosperity. Thus, sweeping the grave at this juncture reflects the wish for a harmonious transition between the season of winter and that of spring, and for favorable interactions between the yin and the yang. In some ways, the symbolic meaning of Qingming can be regarded as a parallel with Easter.

At Qingming, the Chinese offer to their ancestor(s) presentations of food and wine, particularly pork, and have a picnic together. In Chinese culture, the pig symbolizes food and the source of wealth, both of which are essential for the upkeep of the family. The Chinese character for "family" or "home" is made up of strokes that resemble a "pig under the roof." Offering pork to the ancestors denotes the wish for prosperity and wealth, and for an unceasing continuance of the family lineage.

Paper offerings are burnt at the graveside in the belief that in so doing they are sent to the world of the ancestral spirits where they will make the spirits more comfortable. Hence, paper offerings consist of representations of material goods, such as cars, clothes, and money. Few ever question whether their ancestors have received and used the offerings. All such notes claim to be issued by Hell Bank.

Besides paper money, Hong Kong Chinese burn "Rebirth Paper" (Paper for Rebirth in the Western Paradise, Amitabha’s Pure Land) for their ancestors.  Spirits receiving such papers are believed to become entitled to rebirth in this Paradise. This practice and belief reflects the absorption of Buddhist beliefs into the traditional rites of ancestor worship among the Chinese. It symbolizes the wish of the living for the peace and eternal life of their ancestors.

In the People's Republic of China, to which Hong Kong was returned in mid-1997, the festivals of Qingming and Chongyang were for some time not recognized, being seen as typical of ‘the "four olds" (old habits, ideas, customs, and culture) which have been confronted head-on as extravagant, wasteful, and/or meaninglessly superstitious.

Nevertheless, when Chinese officials began to relax their orthodox views of socialism, and to introduce reforms to their national economy in the late 1970s, the people (especially in rural areas) quickly revived their traditional rites of burials, grave sweeping, and ancestor worship.

The trend to cremation since the 1960s means that many of the deceased now occupy a niche in one of several imposing public columbaria. Many Chinese cities have promoted cremation in recent decades. For example, as early as 1965 in Changshu City, Jiangsu Province, coffin burial was prohibited. However, unlike in Hong Kong and Singapore, dignified public columbaria have not been provided. The strong resistance to cremation is illustrated by the practice of smuggling bodies from such cities into places where local law still permits coffin burial.

In other cases, individuals have shown their resistance to the mandatory requirement for cremation by constructing elegant graves, in which they place coffins containing the ashes of their deceased relative. Such practices reflect the persistence of the strength of tradition as a determinant of human behavior (a tradition which cannot be easily transformed through administrative edicts.

Traditional and Current Burial Practice

In such a vast country as China, and especially in historic times when cultural diffusion was severely restricted by terrain and distance, there unavoidably evolved high degrees of localized fengshui beliefs, and great varieties of "correct" ways to perform the rituals associated with burial. Hong Kong is culturally part of Guangdong Province, despite the peculiarities of its political geography. Therefore, it shares in the practice of second burial typical of southern China, including Zhejiang and Fujian.

Second burial is the practice of uncovering the remains of the dead after several years of burial and reburying them for a second time in situ or at an alternative site. Although the history of second burial in China can be traced to prehistoric times, most people in southern China tried not to disturb their ancestral graves, especially when nothing "disastrous or unusual" had occurred within the family. Nevertheless, if people had fallen sick often or if some unexplainable problems had frequently occurred within the family, they would then dig up the remains from their ancestral graves, clean the bones, and rebury them at sites with good fengshui.

In Hong Kong, when the British introduced rules to control and manage burial grounds and cemeteries, they accepted second burial as a customary practice of the Chinese and institutionalized it without questioning the meanings behind it. In Hong Kong's public cemeteries, such as Wo Hop Shek Cemetery, second burial is mandatory. The remains in graves have to be dug up for relocation or cremation within a maximum period of time (normally seven years). The crematorium at Wo Hop Shek is specifically and exclusively for disinterred remains.

Remains are by no means always cremated, however. Cleaned bones, which are yang and the flesh is yin, can be stored in a jinta, literally "golden pagoda." This is a large, brown, unglazed pottery urn. Such bone urns can be buried in small graves in public cemeteries. Urn graves are the only permanent graves available in public cemeteries, except for prohibitively expensive and scarce coffin graves in one of the four Chinese Permanent Cemeteries, which currently (1997) cost approximately US $35,000. Alternatively, bone urns can be placed in the open (with or without a small, open-fronted shelter), preferably on a hillside with good fengshui, protected from water damage, and with a good view.

Single, or more often clusters, of jinta are a common sight on wild hillsides in the New Territories of Hong Kong; but sites must have official approval and are restricted to the remains of the relatively small number of indigenous villagers. Urban residents can choose to deposit ancestors' bones in a columbarium, in a somewhat larger niche than those for urns containing ashes.

There are benefits relating to second burial. In the past, it was more convenient to repatriate bones than bodies from overseas to China. Emigrant Chinese yearned for a grave "back home," and a system developed using the good offices of the Tung Wah Hospital in Hong Kong to ensure that these wishes could be fulfilled.

Today the practice makes it possible for a compromise to have been reached between the people and the Government of Hong Kong. The desire for a few years in a coffin, until the flesh has decomposed, can be met for those prepared to pay the rent for a coffin grave for six to seven years, while the space-saving option of ashes or bone storage afterwards satisfies the government's need to prevent too much scarce land being taken up by cemeteries.

Cremation immediately after death has become the preferred option for the majority, accounting for 68 percent of deaths in 1993. Public columbaria (buildings providing niches where ashes are stored) are imposing buildings, the dignity of their design being essential in order for cremation to be an acceptable option in Hong Kong. Ashes, if not deposited in a columbarium niche, may be kept at home, scattered in one of the government's Gardens of Remembrance, or exported to relatives overseas, especially if the oldest son has emigrated.

This last option poses no legal problems and allows the son to see to his responsibility of carrying out the regular ancestral rites. Rarely, urns containing ashes can be seen alongside jinta in hillside shelters. Ashes can also be entrusted to Buddhist or Taoist establishments, including the zhaitong, which are vegetarian establishments inhabited mostly by lay women. Here, services for the dead are regularly provided, and the ashes can be visited at festivals. Such establishments welcome the resulting income. This is particularly convenient when relatives leave Hong Kong permanently.

Finally, it must be noted that, as well as providing for physical remains, relatives also maintain another form of memorial to the deceased. This is known as the ancestral tablet. In fact, these tablets are far more than a memorial. The tablet is one of the three places where the ancestral spirit is believed to be present, the other two locations being at the grave (or niche), and in the underworld. The tablet can be kept at home, where it is often lit by a red light bulb at a small shrine. Offerings are made on special occasions. However, like the ashes, the tablet can be entrusted to a temple or zhaitong.

Grave Form and Furnishings

Most Chinese, especially those in southern China, have regarded the form of an armchair as the ideal shape of the grave. An armchair gives a sense of wealth, comfort and dignity. In historic times, only the elite class or the mandarin Chinese could afford armchairs. Moreover, armchairs symbolize authority and power, for in the olden days the armchair was the seat for the magistrate when he presided in court. By erecting the grave in the armchair shape, people believed that their ancestors in the yin world could enjoy comfort, dignity, and pride. Therefore, the interaction between the yin and the yang would be harmonious and beneficial. People might even anticipate that "if my ancestors were to become magistrates in the yin world, they would be able to protect us and help us move upward into the ruling class in the yang world as well."

The history of building graves in the armchair shape can be traced to the years of the Northern Song Dynasty, 960-1127 A.D. This armchair shape for graves has thus persisted for a long time, reflecting its acceptance by the Chinese as a desirable way for the construction of yin houses. Nevertheless, an armchair grave does take up considerable space and is expensive to build. Expenses escalate especially in urban areas where land itself is costly. People who find the armchair grave prohibitively expensive may have to opt for simpler methods to bury their ancestors, including cremation and columbaria.

Apart from the armchair-shaped grave, there were, in Imperial China, many alternative forms. Graves in various forms can be seen in the oldest part of the Aberdeen Chinese Permanent Cemetery, which dates back to 1915. Managers of more recent cemeteries in Hong Kong limit the grave forms that are permitted.

Moving away from grave shapes to furnishings, graves in urban Hong Kong cemeteries today often have a concrete, molded, porch-shaped framework in which a tablet in polished granite or other stone is set. In part of mainland China, the tablet on a grave gives the name, as well as the dates of birth and death, of the buried person. In Hong Kong, the ancestral place of origin is also usually inscribed, as most of Hong Kong's residents are immigrants from mainland China.

Examples of Graves and Niches in Hong Kong

Chinese Permanent Cemeteries (CPC) are managed on a nonprofit basis by the Chinese Permanent Cemeteries Board (CPCB), which comprises Government-appointed trustees. The Regional Services Department manages seven cemeteries and several columbaria in the New Territories and Outlying Islands, and the Urban Services Department manages three cemeteries and associated columbaria, two on Hong Kong Island and one in Kowloon. There are also six cemeteries and associated columbaria run by various Christian providers.

The Aberdeen Cemetery is itself an important symbol of the commitment that successful Chinese residents of Hong Kong were prepared to make by 1915, when it was opened. For the first time, they were prepared to be buried here rather than back in their ancestral territory in China. This Cemetery is, therefore, an example of "place-making" in terms of making a public statement (through establishing an ancestral grave) that symbolizes identifying with a community in a specific place.

The Fujianese Cemetery was originally set up in 1919 at New Kai Lung Wan Tung Wah Cemetery. The current Fujianese Cemetery at Sandy Ridge was designated by the Hong Kong Government for the burial of bones and golden pagodas (jinta). After much hard work, the Cemetery at Sandy Ridge was completed in March 1957. Kai Lung Wan has now been developed into Wah Fu Estate, between Pokfulam and Aberdeen. This cemetery seems to have been part of the benevolent activities of the Tung Wah Hospital. There is a street called Ngau Chi Wan Street in the present Choi Wan Estate near Ngau Tau Kok that may indicate the location of this temporary cemetery.

A small symbolic Fujianese cemetery is set apart by a dilapidated wire fence from the rest of the sprawling, overgrown public cemetery. It is entered through an archway inscribed with a verse, through which one then proceeds up a gentle slope on a wide path lined with flower beds and leading to the obelisk with its inscription. There is a picnic pavilion near the archway large enough for 30 to 40 people. The site is backed by a hill and has an open view.

Symbolic graves are an important type in Hong Kong. Symbolic graves such as those described in Hong Kong are the focus of rites from a small section of the society only, and do not commemorate violent, wartime deaths. Neither are they primarily a site for mourning, but for rituals of ancestor worship that are regarded as part of the regular routine of the yearly cycle.

Charitable Graves

Charitable graves are a particular type of symbolic grave, set up by a charitable or regional association, or in the 19th century, by a guild. It is believed that souls of those not properly buried were doomed to a miserable existence in the afterworld. Therefore, giving a decent burial to paupers was a characteristic charitable activity in imperial China. It brought great personal merit to benefactors. The Tung Wah (Chinese) Hospital (established by wealthy and influential Chinese merchants in 1869) set an example in late 19th century Hong Kong by providing free burials for the destitute and a coffin home for bones returned from overseas. This may have set an example that was followed by regional associations, at least one of which was specifically set up to care for the dead of a locality in Mainland China.

Mass graves (known as yizhong) were provided by such associations, but some were merely symbolic and contained no remains. There were several such graves in the Mount Davis area of Hong Kong Island in prewar years and several remain today. At festival times, members of the regional association gather to carry out the necessary rites on behalf of those contained in or represented by the charitable grave. The Tung Wah Hospital continues to provide such graves for those with no relatives to look after the deceased.

Conclusions

Urban cemeteries, columbaria, and rural graves are striking, culturally important, and essential features of Hong Kong's cultural landscape. The situation in other cities with large Chinese populations, such as Taiwanese cities and Singapore, require further study.

As cultural landscapes, cemeteries, columbaria, and graves reflect the essential values of those who occupy and visit them. They contain a wealth of artistic motifs. They support essential occupations and crafts, such as makers of paper offerings, builders of graves, suppliers of special stone, and stone carvers. They pose ethical and practical dilemmas for planners. They also provide a wealth of information for genealogical research.

In the Peoples Republic of China (PRC), traditions relating to burial practice were for a time seen as an obstruction in the way of progress, an alternative irrational, superstitious ideology that challenged that of the Communist Party. Therefore, rural graves have been treated variously since 1949.

Certain Chinese cities no longer permit coffin burial, with cremation the only option. Nevertheless, since the late 1970s, and along with the open policies and reform movements in China, Chinese officials have relaxed the rigor of their control over people's ideological and cultural practices. The Chinese have quickly reverted to their traditional beliefs in burial rites and ancestor worship.

District associations often sponsored Chinese cemeteries and kept records in connection with the exhumation and shipment of bones back to home villages. Most large cemeteries, both Chinese and non-Chinese in the Untied States, generally have records of burials and plots of graves.

The Hawaii Chinese History Center has transcribed most of the Chinese cemeteries on the Neighbor Islands, and has a collection of grave marker transcriptions from large Oahu cemeteries.

Finally, in one specific regard, Chinese attitudes to graves and cemeteries are extraordinarily different from those of people brought up in the various western, Christian cultures. Death is regarded as polluting the environment, the landscapes of death are regarded as potentially powerful, and burial sites are avoided except at festivals or other appropriate occasions. Research is regarded with considerable reserve by Chinese colleagues, and it could even be said that the area is seen as taboo.


 

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