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ONE PREPARATION FOR THE AFTERLIFE IN ANCIENT CHINA Mu-chou Poo How people imagine life in the hereafter, or even consider whether there is a life after death, necessarily implies a complex mechanism that seeks to balance various fundamental notions regarding the origin and nature of life, the existence of souls and deities, and the structure of the world. The interplay of these notions with the attachment to life on earth, the fear of the unknown, the uncertainty of the human condition, the despair regarding human weaknesses, and reactions to the physical and social environment created kaleidoscopic views of the afterlife in different societies. Studying how people imagined the afterlife and made preparations for it, therefore, might be a necessary step toward understanding what they believed in and how they perceived the meaning of life on earth. In ancient China, like in other societies, ideas of the afterlife changed along with sociocultural development; thus, we may expect that the material and textual expressions of such ideas also changed accordingly. Ideally, if we have a clear understanding of ancient Chinese ideas of the afterlife and how they changed, it will be relatively easy to explain the material and textual remains related to the preparation for the afterlife. However, the reality is that our understanding of the idea of the afterlife often depends upon first deciphering the meaning of material and textual evidence. Thus, a logical procedure is to examine the material remains, identify the changes, and compare these with what can be found in the textual evidence before we can claim to have a secure foundation on which to construct our understanding of the ancient Chinese view of afterlife. In the following, I will first discuss the evolution of burial styles and its religious and social implications in 13 14 MU-CHOU POO ancient China; I will then turn to the changing ideas of the afterlife as seen in the textual evidence. Finally, I will address the rituals and texts related to the preparations for an afterlife. THE EVOLUTION OF BURIAL STYLES The most common burial style in early China, at least since the Shang dynasty, was the vertical-pit wooden-casket tomb, which refers to a tomb chamber in the shape of a vertical pit dug in the ground. Coffins and caskets were placed at the bottom of the pit and then often surrounded with carbon and clay as a means of waterproofing before being covered with earth and other material. An earth mound would usually be made aboveground, upon which trees would be planted as markers of the tomb’s location. Funerary shrines would sometimes be erected in front of the tomb.1 The use of a vertical burial pit is not only ancient but perhaps also natural for people everywhere: when one needs to hide the deceased, a most natural way to do so is to dig a pit in the ground and bury the body. What was special about the ancient Chinese case was that people developed out of this burial style a system that was designed to reflect the political and social status of the deceased. This system was much more than simply a sumptuous display of the wealth and status of the deceased, as can be found in many other ancient societies. Using several classical texts, we can reconstruct this system as it was practiced during the pre-Qin period (eighth to third centuries B.C.E.). When a Son of Heaven (an emperor) died, his burial would consist of seven layers of coffins and caskets; for a prince, five layers; for an official, three; and for a gentleman, two. In accordance with the number of his coffins and caskets, the deceased would be supplied with a certain number of funerary objects, most prominent among these being bronze vessels such as ding 鼎, gui 簋, hu 壺, he 盉, and the like. Thus, for a Son of Heaven, nine ding and eight gui would be supplied; for a prince, seven ding and six gui; for an official, five ding and four gui; and for a gentleman, three ding and two gui. Similarly, the different shapes of burial pits reflected a hierarchical order: the tomb of the Son of Heaven would contain four ramps; that of a prince, two; that of a high-ranking noble, one; and that of a gentleman, no ramp at all.2 This seemingly logical and hierarchical system probably never existed as a universal institution at any given point in history. Archaeological finds in the pre...


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