Soul in Transit: Ancient Chinese Perspectives on Death

In Chinese traditions, death and funerals are regarded as inauspicious, leading to the avoidance of symbols and numbers like “4” or “13” associated with death. This aversion is evident in practices such as omitting these numbers in elevators and building floor plans. Crows are seen as harbingers of death, especially when they crow between specific hours. Conversely, Cicadas symbolize life the afterlife and reincarnation, serving as messengers of the deceased. Despite these superstitions, Chinese culture places great importance on ancestor veneration, honoring departed loved ones through rituals and ceremonies.

Death is a transition

Ancient Chinese beliefs regarding death and the soul’s journey offer a unique perspective on the afterlife. Their view of death as a transition rather than an endpoint demonstrates a profound understanding of the human experience. The interplay of Yin and Yang, the significance of the Five Elements, and the complex rituals tied to death and ancestral veneration reveal the rich cultural and spiritual heritage of ancient China. These beliefs still fascinate the modern world, providing a deeper understanding of life’s mysteries and why it merits us to pay respects to our departed loved ones.

The Chinese culture does not view death as finality but rather as a transition, with the potential for the soul’s return and reincarnation. These beliefs are firmly rooted in Daoist philosophy, ancestral veneration, and the interplay of Yin and Yang.

Release of the soul and the five elements

Significant also to these beliefs was the concept of the Five Elements, which composed the energetic foundation of an individual’s physical, energetic, and spiritual existence. As one approached death, these elements would dissipate back into nature, eventually returning to their original pure elemental state. This process symbolized the liberation of one’s accumulated energies.

Journey of the Ling Zi

The human soul, referred to as the “Ling Zi”, embarked on a complex journey upon death. The route was influenced by an individual’s spiritual attachments and personal evolution. More spiritually evolved souls are said to exit through the crown of the head, avoiding lower energetic realms. Conversely, less evolved souls left through lower parts of the body. This journey is significant in ancient Chinese beliefs, influencing the subsequent destination and experiences of the soul.

According to their belief, the soul could leave the body through nine “orifices”, including the eyes, ears, nose, mouth, and excretory organs such as the anus and urethra.

Yin and Yang in death

There was also an emphasis on the separation of “Yin” and “Yang”, both in an individual’s life and their journey after death. Much like the ageing process, where Yin increased at the expense of Yang, death marked the complete separation of these two vital elements. The human soul itself held both Yin and Yang aspects. The Yin aspect, the “Gui”or ghost, represented the soul’s darker, earthly attributes. In contrast, the Yang aspect, the “Shen” or spirit, was associated with light and transcendence.

Ancestral rituals to aid the journey

Ancestor veneration played a substantial role in ancient Chinese culture, which holds the belief that a departed family member’s soul consisted of a Yin component called “Po”- associated with the grave; and a Yang component called “Hun” – linked to the ancestral tablet. These components could potentially manifest as three distinct “souls,” each demanding ritual attention.

One soul went to the grave with the body, another was believed to journey to the Ten Courts of Judgment, a place where the soul faced judgment and potential rebirth. The third soul remained near the ancestral tablet on the family altar, necessitating ongoing veneration. Rituals were essential to ensure these transitions and to prevent the Po from becoming a Gui, or ghost.

Zhao Hun ritual

Upon an individual’s passing, a traditional ceremony known as “Zhao Hun” or “the calling of the Hun” was performed. A family member or loved one would visit the deceased person’s home and call for the Hun to return to the body. Failing to do so would initiate the descent of the Po into the Earth, leading to the decomposition of the body. To prevent this, relatives sealed the body’s orifices, using materials like jade or rice to confine the Po.

Every culture around the world has distinct rituals aimed at aiding the spirits of departed loved ones in achieving a peaceful transition after death. Despite these differences, it is evident that the shared belief in death not being an end, but a beginning of a journey makes these cultural rituals both unique and essential for the spirit’s passage.



Chinese Medical Qigong Therapy, vol 1 pp 116-118 , Prof Jerry Alan Johnson PHD DTCM DMQ (China)

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