Even with all the qigong and mental purity, life eventually comes to an end. Traditional belief has it, that human beings consist of two parts that in themselves contain both physical and spiritual elements, that is, slower and faster vacillating levels of qi.
These parts are a heavenly or more spiritual (yang) dimension, the so-called spirit soul (hun 魂), which comes from heaven, and an earthly and more material (yin) part, known as the material soul (po 魄), which arises from earth. They come together during gestation and are fully viable throughout life, guiding people toward more spiritual, artistic, and intellectual pursuits (hun)while also making sure they remain alive by providing instinctual needs for food, sleep, and companionship (po).
At death, the two separate and go back to their realms of origin. Thus, the spirit soul, guided in a formal funeral, moves up to reside in an ancestral heaven. Its symbolic replica on earth is the ancestral tablet, today often complete with a photograph of the deceased, through which it is honored and spiritually fed. Traditionally kept on the ancestral altar in the family home, it is today mostly placed in a pagoda at a Buddhist (and to a lesser degree Daoist) temple, where it receives regular blessings through the monks’ chanting.
The material soul stays with the physical corpse of the person, whose remains—today usually cremains—are buried in a cemetery. Traditionally, it required grave goods, including meals, gifts, texts, and personal belongings. Today, these are still provided at funerals, consisting mostly of paper replicas of desirable items. Ancestors are believed to be conscious and knowledgeable of their descendants’ affairs. They require regular supplies of food, wine, incense, and incantations, and will in due return send good fortune and provide protection. The relationship is strictly reciprocal, and disasters and illnesses in life are often attributed to neglect of one’s ancestral duties.
Ghosts in this context are the unhappy or discontented dead. Some are people who died violently and who have come back to wreak vengeance; others are ancestors who have been neglected by their families and are hungry and in search of sustenance; yet others are mutant animals, creatures that have somehow gained the power to change their shape and cause trouble. To deal with these, people take basic precautions such as hanging demon-dispelling branches or talismans over their doors, muttering spells against ghosts whenever they enter an unknown area, or performing a divination before venturing out. In some cases, a community decides to take on the proper worship of such an entity, and a ghost can develop into a god, especially if prayers or rites turn out to be highly efficacious.
A key factor in the entire after-death process is the siting of graves, matching the belief, still important today, that ancestral spirits can only rest properly and benefit the living if their material souls are in proper harmony with the earth. Using methods of Feng Shui, learned masters who are often Daoists calculate the best place and time of interment. Both have to match the birth and death dates of the deceased, and especially the exact direction and layout of the grave has a direct and inescapable influence on the good fortune of the surviving family.
Picking up on old customs, wealthier people today, as Liao Yiwu describes in his interview with Huang Tianyuan, a 90-year-old fengshui master, pick and develop auspicious spots for their own graves while still alive. One local chief, he relates, purchased the indicated spot, had a major tomb structure erected, and moved all his ancestors into it. “He also ordered the craftsmen to build a grave for himself, which was more spacious than his house. After the project was completed, the chief hosted a huge banquet, with twenty tables full of guests.” This lavishness, however, to the master was counterproductive. “I was invited but didn’t go. I got my butt out of there as soon as I could. If a person becomes to greedy, he starts to carry bad energy. I was afraid he would pass that bad energy on to me.”
Read: Liao, Yiwu. 2009. The Corpse Walker: Real-Life Stories, China from the Bottom Up. New York: Anchor, 61-72.
Seaman, Gary. 1992. “Winds, Waters, Seeds, and Souls: Folk Concepts of Physiology and Etiology in Chinese Geomancy.” In Paths to Asian Medical Knowledge, edited by Charles Leslie and Allan Young, 74-97. Berkeley: University of California Press.