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Xinhua Insight: Brush with death challenges cultural taboo

English.news.cn   2014-04-04 20:32:37

by Xinhua writers Wang Ruoyao, Lai Yuchen and Weng Ye

GUANGZHOU, April 4 (Xinhua) -- Liu Yan (not her real name) was hard pressed to describe how it felt to see the ashes of a stranger being taken out of a cremator.

"I just thought, 'Well, that's the last stop of our life'," said Liu, a 67-year-old retired physician in Guangzhou City, capital of south China's Guangdong Province.

Liu was among over 20 visitors who visited the city's funeral home for its first-ever open day, a week prior before Tomb-Sweeping Day this Saturday, an occasion for Chinese people to pay their respects to their ancestors.

In January, the provincial civil affairs department ordered more than 20 funeral parlors in different cities of Guangdong to allow citizens a one-day tour of their forbidden zones before the festival.

The move made the headlines since death largely remains a taboo in China, with funeral homes regarded as mysterious and inauspicious.

Although the original intention behind the open day was to promote cremation, given that burials are popular in backward areas, and frugal memorial services, the event gave participants a rare glimpse of death.

"The 25 places were filled within a day. We had six applicants in their 20s and eight over 60," said Li Zhijian, a spokesman for the funeral home, the country's largest which handled 30,000 bodies per year.

In addition to the cremation, Liu and other citizens also watched the work of a mortuary cosmetician.

Doctors stood by in case some would feel that was "too much" for them, but fortunately everything went smoothly, Li said, adding the activity drew positive response from participants, the public and media.

"The experience inspired me to live my life well and to be more positive, after all it's good to be alive," said a 20-something male participant in Guangzhou.

The civil affairs department has decided to make an open day of funeral homes an annual event.


The extraordinary tour, however, made Liu a target of gossip among her acquaintances, which is why we can't use her real name. Her trouble does not seem incomprehensible in a society where people are not comfortable talking about death.

Chinese people's view on life and death has been deeply influenced by Confucius who asked his disciple, "if you don't know what life is, how will you understand death?" Liang Shuming, a renowned Chinese philosopher in the 20th century, concluded the core concept of Confucianism is "life".

In the eyes of Chinese, discussions on death are fruitless and unpleasant and they usually avoid saying the words "death" and "die", according to Ai Jun, an expert of Chinese folklore.

In the Chinese language, there are more than a dozen alternatives to the verb "die". Chinese words "chen" and "fan", meaning sink and capsize respectively, are taboos for boatmen and fishermen due to their associations with death. What's more, any mention of death in a hospital would be offensive.

Chinese scholars also lack passion about death-related studies compared with their foreign counterparts, said Chen Yinfa, an associated researcher with the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences.

Chen said, for example, the English edition of The Tibetan Book of the Dead, a famous masterpiece of Guru Padmasambhava, was first published in 1927 and over 520,000 copies have been sold since then, while the Chinese version came decades later.

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Editor: Yang Yi
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