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Chinese doctors reflect on death and afterlife


A Chinese woman lights a memorial candle for a deceased relative and burns imitation paper money for their use in the afterlife.

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On special occasions, including Qing Ming, family members place lighted candles and food on an alter to ancestors and ancestral gods, and bow in remembrance and respect. Sometimes photos of the deceased are placed on the altars.

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March 13, 2009
-Philip Bender

CHONGQING, China — In Chinese culture, death is a sensitive subject that is generally avoided. Even the doctors who attend my English classes at Chongqing Medical University don’t often tell patients when they have a terminal illness. But because many of my students deal with death and dying in their work, I decided to risk a discussion of the topic.

First, I asked about euphemisms for death in the Chinese language. I told my class that in North America, we sometimes say that a deceased person has “passed away,” “gone to sleep,” or “gone to a better place.”

They replied that in China, euphemisms were common too. A dead person has “closed their eyes,” “left the world,” or “gone to the Western sky.” An important person who dies is “hung up,” like a wall portrait, and if the deceased is over 100, they’ve “gone to see Chairman Mao.”

Next I asked about how traditional Chinese culture viewed the idea of an afterlife.

“Our ancestors believed that if you have been a good person, you will go to paradise, which is a happy world somewhere in the sky,” one student said.

“If you have been a bad person, you will go to a hell that has 18 layers, the bottom of which is fire.” Not far from Chongqing a popular tourist site features ancient Buddhist stone carvings that vividly depict the torments of those consigned to hell.

Another student alluded to reincarnation; “If you have been good, you will become another human being. If you’ve been bad, you will become an animal, like a pig or insect.”

The festival of Qing Ming, or Grave-Sweeping Day, is connected to traditional Chinese beliefs about death. Each year on April 4, relatives clean the graves of their ancestors, burn incense and ceremonial money, and leave offerings of food to help supply the deceased’s needs in the afterlife.

“Is observing Qing Ming important today?” I asked. Most students agreed, saying that it was important to honour their ancestors. “If you forget, something bad might happen to you,” came one response.

I then asked a third question. “What about you? You are modern people. Do you believe in an afterlife?”

Several students were clear in their disbelief.

“I’m a doctor. I can see that dead people have no consciousness.”

“From primary school we were told to only believe in science. There is no God, no spirit, no afterlife – only this life. So we should make the most of it.”

“Afterlife is a superstition used by a government to control its citizens.”

Others replied by citing persons they know who do believe in an afterlife.

“My daughter reads books and thinks that our spirit is immortal.”

“My brother-in-law believes. He had dreams of his dead father speaking to him.”

“When Chairman Mao died, many believed that he continues to live.”

Then there were a few students who, while sceptical about life after death, seemed ambivalent.

“My grandparents did not believe in an afterlife, and taught us never to believe in it, so they had no tomb. But maybe there are spirits to protect my family.”

“My son asked how much I love him. I said, ‘I’ll love you till I die.’ He replied, ‘I don’t want you to die, I’ll be sad.’ So I said, ‘Don’t worry, I will go to paradise.’ I don’t know whether we have life after death. I believe a little.”

“We cherish this hope that we will have the spirit after death, and see our friends again. But I don’t know if it is true. I’d like it to be true, but I don’t know.”

Finally, one student asked me what I believed. So I responded. “As a Christian, I believe that Jesus, at his resurrection, defeated death and opened the door to life. This is the message of Easter. That gives me hope of an afterlife.”

Was the quietness in the room that followed due to my students’ respectful response to a foreign teacher whose beliefs contradicted theirs? Or were some of these modern doctors, steeped in science, Marxism and official ridicule of religion, also grappling with the possibility that death may not, after all, be the end?

Philip Bender and his wife, Julie, provide a Christian presence through teaching English to faculty and students of Chongqing Medical University. They are Mennonite Church Canada Witness workers through Mennonite Partners in China.

See the Resource Centre for Interfaith Dialogue resources.