Twentieth Century Impressions of Hongkong, Shanghai, and other Treaty Ports of China/Ceremonies/Funeral Rites


In a country where the veneration of ancestors forms part of the very fibre of the national character it is not surprising to find that the customs and ceremonies attendant upon the disposal of the dead are of the most elaborate description. Before a Chinaman breathes his last his relatives lift him from his bed and carry him into the hall, where he is clothed in full mandarin costume. Every head of a family is entitled after death to lie in state for a certain number of days in the hall, where his friends may perform the last rites and pay their respects to the memory of the departed. Coverlets of silk or cloth are sent by his kinsmen and more intimate friends, and are laid upon the corpse, the colours white and red — the Chinese mourning and lucky colours, respectively — alternating. The red is supposed to augur well for the man's posterity. The hour at which death occurs is made known to a priest, who thereupon makes certain calculations, and writes upon a piece of paper inter alia the time when the body may be encoffined, and when the soul of the departed may be expected to return to visit the family. Many superstitious Chinese actually believe the latter prediction to be true, and at the time indicated by the priest, a table, spread with wines and cakes, is placed in the hall for the refreshment of the returned spirit. They aver that invariably something is taken from this table, showing that the soul of the departed has actually come back, and has consumed a portion of the food in order to manifest its return. During the lying-in-state, Taoist or Buddhist priests are called in to say mass, and to perform other religious rites, and more often than not nuns are also in attendance. A vigil is kept every night, candles, sent by relatives of the deceased, are lighted, and the subtle fragrance emitted by burning joss-sticks rises continuously. Sounds of mourning mingle with the prayers muttered by the priests in an unknown tongue, incense is offered, and paper money, gilt or silvered, cut or fashioned in the shape of coins, is burned in the belief that the departed will be able to make use of it as currency in the nether world. Round the hall the members of the dead man's family, with hair dishevelled, sit upon mats or straw thrown upon the ground, wailing and bemoaning their loss.

The heir of the departed, attended by different members of the family, and possibly by some friends, goes out at a time appointed by the priest to buy water for the last ablutions before the body is placed in the coffin. In a country district the water is taken from a stream, and a few cash are thrown in for payment ; but in a town where there is no stream available the water is obtained from a bucket placed at a street corner near the house. In days gone by the body was actually washed, but nowadays a white cloth is dipped in the water by the heir of the family and passed in front of the face and limbs of the deceased, without coming into actual contact with them.

The coffin is often of the most expensive description, costing sometimes as much as several thousands of dollars. Pine from Laochow, in the Kwangsi district, is generally used in its construction, and the price varies according to the fineness of the wood. Great care is taken to place the body fairly on its back, exactly in the centre of the coffin. The coffin is then packed with small bags of lime, obtained from the cuttlefish, and these serve the double purpose of keeping the body in position and of absorbing moisture. Putty is used in fitting on the lid of the coffin, so that, when fastened down, the receptacle is practically airtight. The screws used are of brass, and are a foot or more in length. When the coffin has to be carried a long distance tarred ropes are placed round it to facilitate handling and to render the fastening more secure.

The wearing of unhemmed white dresses of some coarse material is enjoined upon children mourning their parents, and over this dress a sort of surplice of sack-cloth is worn. The head-dress for the male is woven of bamboo and coarse cloth, with tassels of cotton ; but that for the woman is a hood of hempen sack. The shoes are of coarse straw. Each of the chief mourners carries a curious stick, usually of bamboo,


The Watercarrier.     Washing Day.     Coolie Family.
Aged Peasant.     A Cheerful Crowd.     Aged Peasant.
The Family Conveyance.     A "Fair" Load.     Country Dame.
Handbarrow Men.     Swineherd and his Charge.     A Street Sewing Woman.
with a paper frill, attached with gum, wound spirally along its whole length. In some parts of the country these sticks are necessary for driving away dogs, hyænas, wolves, and other wild animals, for Chinese burial grounds are often at some long distance from human habitations.

The coffin is carried by from eight to sixteen men, sometimes by even more. The funeral is attended by bands of native instrumentalists, wearing white clothes, and playing mournful music. Banners are carried in the procession, and friends and relatives often send scrolls of silk or flannel bearing complimentary references to the departed. These scrolls are taken back to the house and hung up for a certain time, after which the characters affixed to them are taken off so that the material may be used for clothing or for other purposes. If the burial-place is some distance away in the country, or if the deceased is to be buried in another country, the procession makes its way to a temporary resting-place, where the coffin is deposited, and the friends who have followed the cortege take leave of the departed after burning incense, kowtowing, and performing other religious rites. Only the relatives follow to the graveside and witness the interment.

The cemetery itself is not necessarily the last resting-place of the deceased. The relatives consult a necromancer, who engages in a search for a "lucky spot" for the grave, as near to their own ancestral village as possible. This search may occupy months, or even years. Many points have to be considered. If possible, the site must be on a hill-side, and it must occupy a certain position in relation to the wind and the sea, or the nearest river. The situation having been selected, the coffin is buried on an auspicious day indicated by the necromancer, and a horseshoe-shaped tomb is built round it. In some cases in which it is not practicable, for pecuniary or other reasons, to move the coffin, the body is buried for ten or twenty years, and the bones are then exhumed and placed in jars. These jars are conveyed by the relatives to their native village, and deposited outside the grave, awaiting the decision of the necromancer as to a lucky date for the final interment. Not until the jar itself is placed in the ground do the Chinese consider the burial complete.

For forty-nine days — seven periods of seven days each — after a man's death masses are said, religious ceremonies performed, and sacrifices offered. The days of the third and fifth periods are days of sacrifice, and a third sacrifice falls within the seventh period. During these forty-nine days a business man mourning his father absents himself from work, and allows his head to go unshaven.


Quite a number of rules surround the practice of mourning for the dead. Children mourn their parents three years, brothers and sisters mourn each other for one year, and grandchildren mourn grandparents for the same period. A husband mourns his wife for one year, but a widow wears her weeds for three years. Nephews and nieces mourn for one year. For the purposes of mourning a year is only nine lunar months, and a married daughter is only permitted to mourn for her parents one year, reserving the three years' mourning for her husband and her parents-in-law. Whilst in mourning for parents the Chinese are not supposed to take part in gaieties of any kind.

Among the official classes it is a recognised rule that no man may hold office during a period of mourning for a parent except by the special permission of the Emperor. The period of mourning the death of the Emperor himself is three years.