Confucianism, the Literati, and Chinese Imperial Traditions

Customs and Rituals

How do Confucians deal ritually with death and mourning?

Confucian practices associated with funerals and ancestor veneration are of a piece with those of Daoism and CCT, in that the basic elements are common to most segments of traditional Chinese societies. Confucius and his disciples did have some specific thoughts on the matter, though. Disciple Xun Zi wrote that the feelings of loss and longing for a deceased person, and the ritual expression of those feelings, represented the height of human civilization and culture. In a way, one knows the humanity of others through the attachment they express for lost loved ones.

Although Confucius himself declined to speculate about the experience of death or the condition of one who has died, he seems to have felt strongly that there were appropriate ritual and emotional responses. When asked whether he recommended the full three-year period of mourning, Confucius responded that if Literati who lose loved ones were to dispense with the practice, they would risk the irrevocable loss of some of society’s most important rituals. He added that if the questioner felt comfortable performing only a year’s grieving, he might do so. After the questioner had left, however, the Teacher commented how heartless such a person must be. Parents attend to their infants unceasingly for three years; the least their children can do is return the favor symbolically.

One specific issue that has historically been very important for Confucianism and CIT is the question of monumental funereal architecture and memorials for the great and powerful. Confucius and several of the tradition’s later teachers have been remembered with fairly modest grave markers. Tombs of emperors, on the other hand, have often been grand, even extravagant, architectural works. At least one ruler even commissioned a virtual reconstruction of the royal residence underground, complete with thousands of life-sized terra cotta soldiers to protect the imperial remains.


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