Wednesday, May 16, 2012

From Dynasty To Dust

By Beth Green

During the time I’ve lived in China, I’ve been honored to take part in baby-naming ceremonies, birthday parties, festivals, graduations and a wedding. It seems that the only way-point marker on the trail of life that I haven’t seen first-hand here—thank goodness!—is a funeral. When Westerners think of funerals in China, they might imagine the scenes in Amy Tan’s books or movie adaptations. These and other books set in Chinese culture evoke professional mourners, wakes and plenty of rituals.
Incense burning in a temple atop Mt. Emei, Sichuan Province, China.

My students in China, though most of them have a superstitious dislike of talking about death, have shared a little information with me too—I remember one embarrassing (for me) incident well.

 A pre-teenage boy, who had just transferred into my class and who had been giving me plenty of attitude, came to our English lesson one day with a green cloth armband pinned to his sleeve. Trying to get on his good side, I asked him if it was a new fashion trend.

Nope, the armband marked a period of mourning for his great-grandfather—kind of like the Victorian English used to do with their black clothing that subtly, over time, mellowed in hue to grays, violets and finally other colors.

People attending funerals in China wear somber colors, black, blue, or, sometimes white. I have seen gatherings outside restaurants or homes where all of the participants were wearing white robes and white head coverings. At first—being Western—I thought it might be a wedding. My students, when I asked, though told me it was more likely a funeral.
An ancestor hall, where families can pay respects to departed loved ones, in Hong Kong.

In Guizhou Province, which is predominantly rural and which seems to have more people following tradition than in the city where I now live, I’d often see huge wheels of flowers set on the sidewalks. My co-workers explained that wreaths are an important tribute to the deceased and his or her family.

These modern anecdotes aside, I’m probably more knowledgeable about some ancient Chinese funeral customs, seeing that on my travels around China I'm about 200 times more likely to choose to visit a tomb complex or museum than a shopping mall.

One of China’s most famous tourist attractions, is, after all, a big monument to funeral traditions. The Terracotta Warriors, the emperor Qin Shi Huang’s army of life-size pottery soldiers, were buried so they could accompany him to the afterlife. However, it wasn’t only emperors who used have pottery replicas of things buried with them when they died. In museums throughout China visitors today can see pottery wares that were made specifically to represent after-life wealth. My favorite of these is in the Shaanxi Provincial Museum in Xian, near the Terracotta Warriors. It’s a small addendum to a terracotta mansion that some wealthy homeowner wanted take with him. Indeed, it’s a miniature outhouse, economically placed above a pigpen so that nothing is wasted.
An economical outhouse for the afterlife. Shaanxi Provincial Museum, Xi'an, China.

Many visitors to China feel that stepping into the airplane hangar-esque Pit One at the Terracotta Warriors is the epoch of their trip. This and the Ming Dynasty tombs near Beijing are some of the first things tourists usually learn about when they are planning a trip to China. But a tomb complex that not many visitors make it to is the “Chinese Pyramids.”
The foundations of the Western Xia Royal Tombs, near Yinchuan, Ningxia Province, China.

This site is found in Ningxia Province. Years ago, this area was was the cradle of the Western Xia Dynasty (1038-1227 AD). The Xia rulers, who were often involved in battles with the Mongols, created opulent mausoleums for their final resting places. They consisted of palatial gardens; replete with underground chambers, colorful ceramics and woodworking and mighty watchtowers to protect them. The Mongols did eventually besiege and sack the Western Xia capital, and destroyed the mausoleums as well. Now visitors can only see the packed-earth foundations, which rise above the surrounding dry earth in pyramidal mounds. Like many other extinct cultures, the Western Xia are now understood primarily by what they left behind, by what they buried at their funerals.


  1. Wow, I never knew about the "Chinese Pyramids." Reading this blog is making me antsy for getting back to traveling!

  2. Thanks for your comment Gigi! Ningxia Province is not often visited by foreign tourists and has a lot of interesting sites, not only the 'pyramids.' :)