Chinese “Bad Death” Practices in Taiwan: Maidens and Modernity

Fang-Long Shih. Mortality. Volume 15, Issue 2, 2010.

This paper examines the concept of ‘bad death’, focusing on ‘maiden death practices’ in the context of Chinese religious culture. I use the term ‘Chinese religious culture’ rather than ‘Chinese religion’ to emphasise that we cannot understand traditional religious practices and beliefs in China or Taiwan without understanding Chinese culture and conceptions of family, kinship, and society. Indeed, religion does not exist in Chinese societies as something autonomous or separate. Rather, religion is itself embedded within Chinese culture, and is mediated through familial and social relations and orders.

It is a significant characteristic of Chinese religious culture that the world of the living and the world of the dead contrast but also interact (Hansen, 1996). Chinese death rituals are premised on the belief that the dead continue in some form, either as ancestors, ghosts, or gods, maintaining an existence in relation to the social order of the living world. In contrast to the other-worldly religions of western societies, the worship of the dead is indicative of the traditional Chinese conception of the cosmos and typifies Chinese religious culture: it has been practiced since the earliest recorded times of the Shang dynasty (Eno, 1996), and it contains many elements of the so-called three Chinese religions of Confucianism, Daoism, and Buddhism.

This paper begins by considering the so-called ‘good death’ practices, as defined by ancestral orthopraxy in relation to Confucianism. This is then contrasted with so-called ‘bad death’ practices, which differ for dead unmarried males and for dead maidens. I particularly focus on the problem of maiden death, as death with by Daoist specialists in pre-modern and rural Taiwan, and by Buddhists in modern and urban Taiwan. Death practices are regarded as the responsibility of the family line, in accordance with the Confucian heritage, but due to the influence of Buddhism and Daoism they are also seen as a special function of ritual specialists. I take an anthropological approach, building mainly on relevant English-language literature, and examine how changing maiden death practices relate to social trends associated with modernity. My field research was conducted among Holo-speaking Chinese people in Taipei city and county from the mid-1990s, when processes of modernisation were increasingly breaking down the basis of tradition. In this paper, I use interviews and case studies as texts reflecting and negotiating both traditional social relations and wider processes of economic and political change in Taiwan.

Introduction to Confucianism and Ancestral Orthopraxy

The Confucian contribution to Chinese religious culture assured the continuity of the indigenous shamanic tradition and transformed this ritual order into an ethical structure of human relations and social hierarchy (Ching, 1993, pp. 51-67). For Confucianism, it is a ‘sacred’ thing that humans have the capacity to give life and that human life is passed down from generation to generation in an unbroken chain (Kelleher, 1987, p. 137). In the Confucian Classic of Filial Piety (Xiao Jing), filial piety is described as ‘the root of virtue and that from which civilisation derives’ (quoted in Thompson, 1996, p. 37), and the male heir is regarded as the foundation of the family line and ancestor worship. Thus, the family can be viewed as a ‘shrine’ where the eldest son serves as the ‘priest’ (Ching, 1993, p. 20). Ebrey notes that Confucianism ‘provided a view of the cosmos and social order that legitimated the Chinese patrilineal, patrilocal, and patriarchal family system’ (Ebrey, 2003, p. 11). This Confucian framework developed into the hierarchical moral and social order of which traces remain in contemporary Taiwan.

Insertion into a family line and becoming an ancestor are indeed essential to the process of identity formation in Chinese culture (Watson & Rawski, 1988, p. x). To be granted ancestor status one must marry and have male heirs (Baker, 1979, p. 49). Thus only men, or women who are wives and mothers of sons, are regarded as socially correct and complete persons who will be granted the status of ancestor in the world of the dead. Thompson demonstrates that Chinese ‘religious responses to the challenge of death are designed to affirm by every possible ritual the continuing, unbroken relationship of deceased and survivors’ (Thompson, 1996, p. 130). This is what I call ‘ancestral orthopraxy’, indicating that ancestor worship emphasises rituals and practices rather than doctrines and ideas.

When people of ancestor-to-be status die, their death is defined as a ‘good death’. Thus, their death ritual is conducted principally to transform the discontinuity of their biological death into social continuity in such a way that they become ancestors; in other words, to transform ‘the corpse into an ancestor’ (Thompson, 1988, p. 73). Indeed, every act of ancestral death ritual is conducted in accordance with prescriptions systemised as the correct action (li) by Confucian scholars and later revised by neo-Confucians.

Much contemporary historical and anthropological work on Chinese religions and culture concerns itself with what makes ‘the rituals performed … at death … central to definitions of Chinese cultural identity’ (Watson & Rawski, 1988, p. ix); that is, those correct practices through which a dead person is transformed into an ancestor in a family line and thus incorporated in the social order. Regardless of which ritual specialists are engaged, the correct rituals provide, in particular, symbolic regeneration to negate the finality of death, such that the dead come to be regarded as the source of fertility and life. Ancestral status enhances the fertility of the family line and ensures the family’s ability to reproduce itself, and is indeed perhaps the primary mechanism for social reproduction.

The correct ‘good death’ practice normally ends in a gap-lo ritual (Suzuki, 1989, p. 342), which symbolically marks ‘one year’ after death (although in urbanised environments just a few months may have passed), and involves placing the incense-ash from the burner of the newly dead into the burner of the ancestors. This means that the newly individual dead person is incorporated into the family collective dead; in other words, into the family ancestral lineage. The name of the newly dead person is formally inscribed on the family’s ancestral tablet. Through the gap-lo ritual, the newly dead person is provided with a new status as a fully-fledged ancestor, a permanent ‘home’ on an ancestral altar of the family house, and a ‘connection’ with a family lineage in the living world. The dead ancestor and the living descendants exist in an ordered continuum of known obligations and reciprocating practices. According to Tong:

Descent creates an obligation to worship the dead [ancestors] not simply because of the descendants’ consanguinal and affinal ties to the deceased, but also because descent implies a certain debt owed to the dead by their descendants. Death rituals must therefore be seen within the context of the total transactions between the deceased and his descendants, with the rituals themselves providing a means of repaying these debts … The individual is governed by a set of social obligations to behave in a culturally prescribed way. Thus, ethical values which are highly regarded are reflected in death ritual performance (Tong, 2004, pp. 142-143).

Ancestors are the senior members of one’s own line of descendants, the people to whom one is indebted for the gift of life, for a family name, for social status, and for property. In return, the descendants are expected to care for their ancestors. Ancestors are usually accommodated in the same house in which their descendants live, and they are offered incense and food regularly. Once the food-offerings have been ‘consumed’ by the ancestors, the food is then (re)cooked, seasoned, and eaten by their living descendants. Paper money and paper models of items of necessity to be used in the afterlife, such as clothes and furniture, were traditionally transmitted to the ancestors through ritual burning (Watson, 1988, pp. 7-15). In return, the ancestors are expected to reciprocate, by granting the descendants a good harvest, offspring, health, and wealth (Ahern, 1973, p. 91).

Bad Death and Gender Discrimination

In contrast to ancestors and good death, ghosts are the spirits of people who die a so-called ‘bad death’ at the ‘wrong’ time and in the ‘wrong’ place, or who for some reason are excluded from or ignored by socio-family groups. Therefore, ghosts are the spirits of those who are not in the correct position of the dead in the socio- family structure (Weller, 1987, pp. 60-65); usually they died as infants or children, or were unmarried. For those people, the cycle of reciprocity has been broken, so nobody is obligated to take care of them after death as an ancestor. Instead, they are homeless, hungry, and poor, and they wander the earth, haunting the living in their search for a better lot.

According to ancestral orthopraxy, the elaborateness of any given death ritual is based upon the importance of the status of the deceased person in the family line, in terms of age and sex (Ahern, 1973, pp. 125-130). Those who die at an advanced age generally receive more elaborate rituals than those who die younger. There is very little information about death practices for those who die as infants or children in scholarly literature on China or Taiwan. A 1967 study on religious life in China states only that:

Those who died unmarried or under the age of twelve received simple rites or none at all. The latter were not even marked with a spirit tablet in the family altar. The only explanation for this was that the unmarried and the young occupied a relatively less important position in the family organisation (Yang, 1967, p. 47).

Arthur Wolf’s important paper ‘Gods, Ghosts, and Ancestors’ (1974) uses a 1935 ethnography for information about what happens when a child’s death appears to be imminent. The child would be:

stripped and placed on the floor just inside the outer door of the room. The parents leave it there and watch what takes place. If the child survives this treatment, it is recognised as a true child of their own flesh and blood; but if it dies, then it never was their child, but an evil spirit seeking to gain entrance to their family in order to bring trouble on them (Cormack, 1935, pp. 243-244, quoted in Wolf, 1974, p. 147).

Young children would never be buried in the family graveyard because that would mean adopting an evil spirit into the family, which would be ‘the height of folly’ (Cormack, 1935, p. 244 quoted in Wolf, 1974, p. 147).

Interestingly, similar accounts are also found in pre-modern, rural Taiwan. Writing about death rituals in Ch’inan village, Ahern reports that:

A boy who dies young is held to be the incarnated soul of someone to whom the parents owed a debt. ‘He is born and lives with us for a few years, eating our food until the debt we owe him is paid off. Then he dies, having no more to claim from us’. Because the child is but a guise adopted for this specific purpose, when a boy dies lineage members need have nothing more to do with him. No one is further obligated to him; it is assumed that he lived only until the debt owed him was repaid in full (Ahern, 1973, p. 125).

Aside from Ahern’s account, there is an assumption that these death practices are more or less applicable to babies and children of either gender. However, practices in fact discriminate according to gender in several ways.

Although a dead boy who has not yet achieved ancestral status is excluded from the immediate incorporation of his spirit tablet into his family ancestral line (Freedman, 1970, pp. 165-166), he can and will be ritually provided with a male heir when he reaches the state of social maturity at about the age of 20 (Ruan, 1972, p. 28). Also, if a dead boy returns to his family as a homeless ghost, or is thought to be the agent of family misfortune, the interpretation of his birth and death as the manifestation of the spirit of a creditor seeking payment is dropped. As recorded by Ahern:

If he [a dead boy] is thought to be the cause of some ill, then it is assumed that he was not after all the incarnation of a creditor. A creditor come to claim money owed him would not die until he had been fully repaid; if the boy is still trying to get attention, he must be a genuine lineage member and so entitled to further care in the afterlife … If this interpretation is accepted, regular offerings will be made to the boy and a tablet probably will be made for him and placed in the lineage hall … He is worshiped not because a son or daughter is obligated to him as a parent, but because, as a genuine lineage member, he is entitled to the privileges of a lineage member (Ahern, 1973, pp. 125-126).

The ritual of arranging a posthumous adoption for a dead bachelor is known as gue-bhangGue means ‘transaction’ while bhang refers to the male patrilineal descendants within two generations or so, as the sub-division of a lineage (Chen, 1985, p. 127). The adopted son arranged for a deceased bachelor is usually selected from the members of the same bhang, such as from among the sons of his brothers or of paternal male cousins. The gue-bhang ritual is normally held at an auspicious time in front of the ancestral tablets. A written contract for adoption is prepared with the offerings of three meat sacrifices of pork, chicken, and fish (sam-sing), along with spirit money and firecrackers. A senior family member reads aloud the contract, and then the adoptee bows three times to his adopted father’s spirit tablet. The ritual is completed with the burning of the contract, and with the firecrackers being set off in celebration. From then on, the adoptee worships the deceased bachelor as his ‘father’, and in some cases, he addresses his biological father as uncle (Ruan, 1972, pp. 26-31). Normally, this ritual adoption only changes the son-father relationship at the level of lineage and genealogy and does not affect ‘real’ family life (Chen, 1985, pp. 163-167). Nevertheless, a deceased boy is given the same treatment as a deceased adult man, even though he never married and fathered sons. This is because, according to ancestral orthopraxy, ‘a son who survives the first years of life is automatically recognised as a member of his father’s line, he is entitled to a place on his father’s ancestral altar’ (Wolf, 1974, p. 148).

It is important to note that it is patrilineal kinship that survives beyond death, whereas matrilateral and marriage ties are generally terminated. Ancestor worship is the concrete expression of this preoccupation with the patriline (Watson, 1988, p. 8), and there is no such easy way for a daughter to be incorporated into her father’s family line, although there is a compromise in cases where there is no male heir (Newell, 1985). This is uxorilocal marriage (zhaozhui hun), wherein the husband marries into the wife’s family and gives his (usually the first) male child to take his wife’s surname and to carry on his wife’s father’s family line. As such, the uxorilocally married daughter is regarded as a permanent member of her father’s family line and entitled to a place on that family ancestral altar (Wolf & Huang, 1980).

Maiden Death and Daoist Practices in Pre-Modern and Rural Taiwan

In the Chinese patrilineal system, a daughter is only a temporary member of the family into which she has been born. She acquires membership into a family line only through marriage into her husband’s family. Thus, she is supposed to die in her husband’s house. If instead she dies unmarried in her father’s house, her death occurs at the wrong time and in the wrong place, transgressing the norms of ancestral orthopraxy. Dead maidens lose the social continuity that a good death guarantees and also the reciprocity that ancestral worship enshrines. Dying without a husband, without being incorporated into a male line as an ancestor, deceased maidens are condemned to become homeless and unidentifiable ghosts, extremely polluting and dangerously powerful. Maiden ghosts are thought to bring illness and misfortune to their family members and others. Many prohibitions and exclusions are associated with maiden death (Shih, 2002).

Daoism served Chinese culture as both an alternative and complement to Confucianism, and it incorporates shamanistic practices, deities, and myths into a rich tradition of philosophy, ritual, and magic (Schipper, 1993). Daoist religion developed as a means of communicating with spirits, both benign and malignant; Daoist specialists are the main performers of rituals to secure the well-being of both the living and the dead, and they are often hired to conduct exorcisms or healing in circumstances of personal or communal crisis. The basis for their control over spirits is a form of ‘name magic’ (Thompson, 1996, p. 90) derived from the indigenous shamanic notion; Daoist specialists summon and dismiss spirits by virtue of knowledge of their names, features, and characteristics. They also control spirits by means of talismans made from mystical writing (fu). The involvement of Daoist specialists in death rituals and in dealing with the spirits of the dead, particularly the unrestful, makes their services an integral part of local religious practices in Taiwan.

Dealing with a deceased girl is a much more delicate matter than with a deceased boy. The information available in the scholarly literature is scant. A brief reference in Ahern (1973) notes that:

Just as women who die before marriage are not allowed a place in the [ancestral] hall, so young girls who die are barred from the hall if they are natural daughters of lineage members. These girls are destined to be other people’s, so they are not allowed close association with the lineage ancestors (Ahern, 1973, p. 29).

Two Daoist specialists in Taipei city and in Taipei county, respectively, both in conversation repeated the phrase u zu zia u zor bhong. This means that graves are built only for those dead who have descendants and who, as such, are responsible for the care of the grave. ‘Since dead girls have no descendants and since nobody is obligated to take care of their graves, there is no need to build a grave for a dead girl’. They spoke in an off-hand manner, indicating that this is a rule they take for granted. They both emphasised that the procedure for dealing with a dead girl is very simple and easy, so there is no need to employ funeral directors, let alone professional Daoist ritual specialists. Instead, a family usually hires a grave-digger, known as a togongah, to dispose of their dead girl’s body. Togongah is the title given to those who work as independent hired-hands in the burial ground; they do not belong to any professionally recognised or licensed organisations, and have no official status. For the Daoist ritual specialists, the practices around a girl’s bad death are simple and unworthy of elaboration.

I spoke with a grave-digger in Pingdong County in southern Taiwan who was then reaching his 70th year and who had more than 30 years of work experience in the burial ground. He answered my questions in a frank manner, explaining that, ‘I was hired privately by family members who wanted to remove their dead girl’s body from their house. I either placed the corpse in a container made from six pieces of wood or wrapped it in a grass mat. I then carried it to an out-of-the-way place in the burial ground, and buried it in a hole in a corner, covered with sufficient earth and grass so it would not be seen or dug up and eaten by dogs’.

In pre-modern and rural Taiwan, girls who died young normally had no funeral ceremony, and they were buried in a shabby way in an unmarked spot. The death practices are so ‘simple’ that few details could be recorded, and there is indeed a lack of academic literature on the subject. One elderly woman in Taipei County told me that on certain occasions, a girl’s dead body was not clothed in any trousers, because the appearance of the spirit corresponds to the way the dead body was laid to rest and a dead girl who was buried without lower garments would be too embarrassed to appear before people. This burial practice therefore prevented the spirit from returning home to bring misfortune to the family and community.

However, it was also commonly thought that a neglected dead girl’s spirit returned to her family, either demanding a husband in a dream, or causing family members to fall ill or even go bankrupt in an attempt to draw her family’s attention to her miserable after-life. In response to this haunting, the family would normally employ a Daoist specialist to call her spirit home in order to communicate with and accommodate the restless spirit. According to Daoist Master Kihian in Taipei County, this calling-spirit-home ritual (also see Yu, 1987) is performed either at the place where the maiden died or around the place where the maiden spirit was thought to be wandering. The ritual would begin by opening communication via burning incense and drawing a talisman, followed by giving directions home. The spirit would then be brought home in the form of incense ash in an incense burner. The family is then instructed to make a red sachet, which functions like a simplified and temporary spirit tablet. This sachet encloses the ash from the incense offered to the dead maiden, some items bearing her identity, and a paper talisman. Master Kihian explained that the incense ash represents the spirit, which therefore is believed to reside within the sachet. The talisman prevents the living from being attacked, and also protects the maiden spirit from being molested by male spirits. The family is then guided to set up a temporary altar to accommodate the maiden spirit, on which is placed the red sachet and the incense burner; they are the objects for worship of the maiden spirit.

For Taiwanese, having a maiden spirit accommodated at home is a shameful business:

When one’s daughter dies, she is buried in a simple grave, and her spirit tablet is then put in a secluded place in the house, such as the room where she slept before she died or behind a door, to guard against other people finding it (Lou, 1968, p. 24).

Also, during my field research I was informed that a maiden altar is placed in a dark corner of a storeroom or even in a pig- or chicken-sty, so that it would not be seen by visitors. If people unexpectedly see a maiden altar, they are always frightened of it. In I-Lan County in northern Taiwan, a euphemistic expression speaks of ‘the thing hanging above the chamber pot’, demonstrating the deepest shame and fear of a polluting maiden spirit. Once the altar has been established, the family begins to offer their deceased maiden incense and food regularly, but also to look for permanent accommodation outside the home. Once this has been found, the red sachet (i.e., the maiden spirit) would then be removed permanently. There are three places to which unwanted maiden spirits are usually sent.

In the case of a maiden spirit demanding a husband, the maiden’s family would normally find a living man to marry her. A ghost marriage (minghun ) would be arranged at night and the deceased bride would normally be represented either as a doll or in spirit tablet form. Three days later, the groom’s family would hold a gap-lo ritual, integrating the incense-ash from the burner of the deceased bride into the burner of their ancestors, and adding her name next to her husband’s in the family genealogy. Thus, the deceased maiden’s spirit is incorporated into her husband’s family line and given a new status as an ancestor with a permanent ‘home’ on his ancestral altar and thus a ‘connection’ to his living descendants. The solution of ghost marriage has, since the 1970s, been in decline (Jordan, 1972, pp. 140-155; Martin, 1991; Topley, 1955).

In the case of a maiden spirit causing misfortune, her family would normally work with a Daoist specialist. A middle-aged rural farmer named Mr Denn, whose family had experienced this problem, told me that around 1976 his mother had been taken ill for a long time but none of the doctors and herbalists she consulted were able to cure her. One day, through a spirit medium she consulted a god, who indicated that her illness had been caused by the unrestful spirit of her deceased unmarried daughter. His mother then hired a Daoist specialist to conduct the calling-spirit-home ritual. Mr Denn further explained that, following the Daoist’s instructions, he set up an incense burner in his backyard and started to worship his deceased sister’s spirit. He also made a red sachet in which some ash from his sister’s incense burner and a photo of her and a sheet of paper bearing her birth and death dates were enclosed. He then set up a temporary altar to accommodate his sister’s spirit in an unused room in his house. Mr Denn added that since then his mother had gradually recovered. Sometime after, a relative recommended the Sam-giap maiden temple as a place for his sister’s spirit to lodge. Mr Denn followed this advice, making a small donation to the maiden temple; this is an affordable way for poor rural families to solve the problem (Shih, 2007).

In the majority of cases, the family pays a standard fee for their deceased maiden to be lodged in a Buddhist temple, to receive care from nuns in the form of sutra-chanting. Indeed, lay Buddhist vegetarian halls (caitang) and Buddhist monasteries have long been places of refuge for those women who choose not to marry (see Topley, 1975). Unmarried women do not belong to their natal family, and therefore are essentially ‘homeless’. Joining a vegetarian hall allows the development of a Buddhist religiosity in a ‘family’ of lay Buddhist women who do not shave their heads and where ‘sisters’ take care of each other’s spirits after death. Furthermore, consecration as a Buddhist nun permits a retreat from household life, joining instead a religious ‘lineage’ where younger generations look after their seniors’ afterlives.

Maiden Death and Buddhist Practices in Modern Taiwan

Buddhism, unlike Confucianism and Daoism, is a foreign religion which was brought to China from India by missionaries some time before the first century CE (Ching, 1993, pp. 121-136). It was not until the Tang Dynasty (618-906 CE) that Buddhism was steadily Sinicised and became part of ordinary Chinese religious life, accommodating itself to Chinese culture while retaining certain aspects of Indian Buddhist philosophy that are in conflict with indigenous Chinese Confucian and Daoist ideas (Ching, 1993, pp. 137-152). In particular, Chinese Buddhism has incorporated practices and beliefs relating to the spirits of the dead, and has adjusted its theories of the afterlife. Like Daoism, it has developed rituals for the dead to be performed at funerals or at seasonal festivals, and has elaborated methods of salvation for the dead or on behalf of the dead. In fact, many Buddhist organisations have long provided such services, not only for their members but also for marginal people who are disregarded by Confucianism and who have no place to rest after death. Indeed, they make their living mainly from the income generated from performing such services.

Although neither education nor professional achievement can buy women formal interpolation into a lineage to ensure their status as ancestors, physical maturity and social status do make a difference in the way deceased women are treated. Since the post-war period, modernisation has transformed the position and status of women in Taiwan. In 1969, the Taiwanese government put into practice a policy of mandatory education for all children up to nine years of age. This particularly benefited girls and women, who have since taken advantage of better opportunities to further their education. It is now the case in Taiwan that parental investment in education for daughters has postponed female marriage age, so that women can reciprocate with financial assistance to their natal families. This has also become an acceptable reason for daughters to live with their parents after marriage or even to remain single for their entire lives. Since well-educated daughters can now be an alternative source of support, prestige, and wealth for their natal families, and also because they tend to keep closer kinship ties than sons, daughters are now more highly valued than at any time previously in Taiwanese history. Being an unmarried woman is now deemed less unacceptable, and increasing numbers of women in urban Taiwan have chosen to develop careers and social lives outside the family setting, living on their own wages as single women. Some devote their time and some of their earnings to taking care of their parents, siblings, or even people outside their kinship group. As such, they have created reciprocal ties with their families, and with certain groups in society. They are no longer only unmarried daughters within a family group, but also public figures regarded well by friends and colleagues. When an unmarried career woman dies, it would be inappropriate to dispose of her body in such a secret or private way as occurs in the past and today in traditional situations.

In January 1997 in Taipei, I attended the funeral of Miss Wang, a professional career woman who had died unmarried in her mid-40s. Some aspects of her death practices could be read as negotiations between processes of modernisation which had liberated her from the private realm, and traditional sentiments and conceptions regarding maiden death. In the public sphere, Miss Wang had developed a social network of colleagues and close friends, while in her private life she was a filial oldest daughter who maintained close ties with her family and contributed her earnings and time to assist her parents with raising her six younger siblings. Traditionally, the provision of nourishment (which commonly entails the transfer of money and food) by parents for their children obligates children to care for their parents later. However, this may also ‘produce kinship where there is no “natural” tie of descent’ (Stafford, 2000, p. 43). In Miss Wang’s case, the provision of nourishment (Miss Wang’s care for her younger siblings) produced quasi ‘parent-child’ relationships between her and her siblings. This incurred in Miss Wang’s siblings a debt whereby they felt morally obligated to provide her a public farewell ceremony and to ensure her spirit is taken care of, even though she is not institutionally regarded in death as a family member or ancestor.

Miss Wang’s farewell ceremony (gaobie shi), held by her siblings for her friends and colleagues, was announced at her workplace. Traditionally, this would be held by the deceased’s descendants on behalf of their dead ancestor, so that the deceased could bid farewell. It would always take place either in the main hall of the deceased’s house or at a temporarily-built tent nearby (Suzuki, 1989, p. 315). However, this did not happen in Miss Wang’s case, since there was no place for her spirit tablet in her father’s house. Instead, the ceremony was held at a Taipei funeral home, in a side room which is usually hired either by poor families or on behalf of those who have died without descendants. Miss Wang’s farewell ceremony was concise, beginning with family-mourning (jiaji) and then proceeding to guest-mourning (gongji), in total lasting for about an hour.

In traditional Chinese farewell ceremonies, the degree of kinship between the deceased and mourners is coded by the colour and texture of mourning dress (Suzuki, 1989, pp. 339-340), with filial mourning clothes (xiaofu) of unbleached linen marking mourning by direct descendants. A white armband represents the death of a family member of the same generation, and an armband with a red patch signifies the death of kin who are maternal relatives and therefore outside the family line. According to ancestral orthopraxy, mourning with a white armband is not very mournful, while mourning with a red patch has a prophylactic function, protecting the wearer from the potentially malefic effects caused by the contamination of death. The red patch announces: ‘There wasn’t a death in [our] family … So [we] won’t get sick’ (Wolf, 1970, p. 194). At Miss Wang’s farewell ceremony, none of the family mourners wore unbleached linen, but her siblings and sister-in-laws did wear white armbands, and her brothers’ children wore armbands with a red patch.

The family had arranged for a Buddhist nun, Shiwu, who was also Miss Wang’s adopted aunt, to take responsibility for caring for her afterlife. After the farewell ceremony, Miss Wang was cremated. During the cremation, her siblings urged her spirit to wake up and escape from the fire. Once Miss Wang’s spirit had been rescued, her ash urn and spirit tablet were then sent to Shiwu’s temple and lodged there. Nun Shiwu told me that she would chant Buddhist sutras in order to direct her adopted niece’s spirit to the Pure Land (see Fowler & Fowler, 2008, pp. 133-139) where she could rest peacefully. The upside-down arrangement of the junior Miss Wang being taken care of by her senior ‘aunt’ could not take place within the family setting, but only in the Buddhist context which has a more egalitarian tradition emphasising the equality of suffering between seniors and juniors and their equal difficulties in living the spiritual life and in attaining the perfect enlightenment of the Buddha.

The Buddhist Death Industry in Modern Urbanized Taiwan

Cremation was introduced into China by Buddhist monks in the beginning of the 10th century (Ebrey, 2003, pp. 144-164). It did not gain popularity because the Chinese traditionally believe that the dead still have feelings and consciousness, and as such cremating the body causes great pain. Moreover, it contradicts Confucian values: cremating one’s parents’ bodies implies roasting them and throwing them away, which would be in breach of filial piety. Traditionally, those who die with no male heir, such as dead maidens, are more likely to be cremated, with their bone-ash placed in an urn and usually kept in a Buddhist reliquary pagoda.

However, from the 1980s onwards, processes of modernisation and urbanisation in Taiwan have translated into changes in people’s life-style. People in modern Taiwan are less reliant on the legacies of their ancestors and more dependent upon educational achievement and income derived from professional employment for property, social networks, and social status (Thornton, Yang, & Fricke, 1994). New labour patterns are associated with migration from rural to urban areas for education and for jobs, weakening wider kinship links. It is hard for people who live in cities to fit the traditional practice of ancestor worship into their modern urbanised life-styles or even to maintain an interest in doing so. Obligations toward ancestors and kin have shifted away from normative conformity, towards more voluntary relations. Robert Marsh (1996) makes the following observation about current attitudes:

if I wish or can afford to fulfill some action toward kin, I shall do it; but if I do it, it is because I want to, or the special circumstance makes it appropriate, not because of a uniform, externally defined obligation that I must fulfill towards kin … (Marsh, 1996, p. 306).

Moreover, since the 1990s, cremation has been officially promoted in Taiwan and has been widely accepted among urban Taiwanese. In particular, the short supply of land as a result of urban expansion has forced a re-evaluation of orthoprax burial practices (Tremlett, 2009). Meanwhile, a reformist movement known as ‘Buddhism for the Human Realm’ (renjian fojiao) has increased in popularity. This movement resembles a business, marketing religious ideas, preaching on television, and selling products and services (including services associated with the dead). This reform meets and also encourages modern Taiwanese needs; it is now popular for people in urban Taiwan after death to be cremated rather than to be buried, and for their bone-ash urn and spirit tablet to be lodged in a Buddhist reliquary pagoda and merit hall rather than accommodated within the family graveyard and on a domestic altar.

As noted above, many more urban women in Taiwan have chosen a career over marriage and being a housewife. They enjoy professional success and economic independence. Increasingly, single women, when they reach middle age, come to think about the problem of their death and afterlife and arrange a place in such a reliquary pagoda for themselves. Financially independent maidens are now able to afford and purchase such places and services for themselves, where their spirits will have a home and receive care from nuns.

One of the four largest Buddhist organisations in contemporary Taiwan, the Zhongtaishan group, has successfully turned the provision of death services into a modern industry (see Zhongtaishan, 2001). The Buddhist Zhongtaishan group runs a new business that combines the reliquary pagoda and the merit hall for the dead and the dharma-assembly hall for the living. For example, Tianxiang Reliquary Pagoda and Chan Temple provides lockers for bone-ash urns in its reliquary hall and sells places for spirit tablets on the case shelf in its merit hall. The merit hall is located on the ground floor of the building and the reliquary hall is in the basement. Zhongtaishan stresses that it is better to accommodate the urn of the family’s dead in a Buddhist reliquary pagoda rather than to bury it in a graveyard. Sutra-chanting for the dead is performed twice daily (morning and evening) by nuns and occasionally by monks. Dharma Assemblies generate merit for the dead, a fact which makes, according to Zhongtaishan, the reliquary pagoda a cleaner and purer resting place for the dead than the cemetery.

Dharma Assemblies are held almost every day on the first floor. Family members are encouraged to practice sutra-recitation under the instruction of professional nuns for their own dead in Dharma Assemblies where other dead are also ‘worshipped’. Zhongtaishan emphasises that performing these practices benefits not only the dead but also the living; of the seven merits, six are granted to the living. If the family juniors offer these to their senior dead, it is considered to be an action of filial piety, while if the family seniors offer these to their junior dead (an act traditionally prohibited by Confucian custom) it is not seen as an improper action, but rather as merciful. Once a Dharma Assembly has finished, the family members are expected to donate money in a red envelope provided by Zhongtaishan to cultivate the Three Precious Jewels: these are to offer flowers and fruits to the Buddhas, to help print copies of Buddhist sutras, and to feed monks and nuns.

This can be seen as a reformulation of traditional family death practices. A nun in Zhongtaishan told me that ‘Not only deceased maidens, but also deceased grandfathers are being sent [to lodge in the Zhongtaishan temple]. Because families have moved into cities or have emigrated to other countries, it is hard for them to accommodate the traditional practice of ancestor worship into their new urban or Americanised life-styles. So, they have bought their ancestors a place here and have their ancestors listen to sutra-chanting taking place every day’. The nun then emphasised that: ‘There is no distinction between the services for dead grandfathers and dead maidens. They are all accommodated in the same place and share the same courses of sutra-chanting’.


Through the examination of Chinese ancestral orthopraxy, I argue that Confucianism, as a structure, articulates what is regarded as correct practices around good deaths, through which the discontinuity of biological death is transformed into the social continuity of being an ancestor. These articulations, or practices, have profoundly shaped a patrilineal social order and a reciprocal relationship between the living and the dead. However, through the exploration of ritual practices around bad deaths, we can see that a child without a male heir makes no contribution to the institutionalised socio-family and thus there is hardly any memorial ritual for his/her death. In a similar way, the analysis of bad deaths concerning maidens in pre-modern rural Taiwan shows that traditional maiden death practices were a private matter surrounded by prohibitions and secrecy. This reflects the concerns of traditional social relations and order: deceased maidens fall outside that Confucian structure, and are thus deemed to be the manifestation of anomaly within the patrilineal social order, representing pollution and misfortune.

However, with modernity, democratisation, and urbanisation in Taiwan have come changes in patterns of labour, education, residence, life-style, and women’s status which have led to the erosion of traditional values and sentiments relating to maiden death and, indeed, Confucian structures of mourning generally. Urban, professional, and financially independent women (like Miss Wang) have been increasingly able to use new sources and powers to mitigate against the allegedly polluting and shameful consequences of dying unmarried. Miss Wang’s funeral shows that traditional and modern frameworks of value and practice persist in tandem, and while some aspects remain unchanged differences can be seen in her death practices. Shame over her death is reconfigured, becoming her family’s motivation to provide her with a public farewell ceremony that involved people from beyond the kin group. During the ceremony, although nobody mourned her as a parent and thus as an ancestor, and although as an unmarried woman she was not recognised as a ‘permanent’ member of the Wang family, there was still sentimental obligation ‘produced’ through the provision of nourishment to her younger siblings: her siblings and their children had no ritual duty to her, but were nevertheless responding to her death by mourning. However, on the other hand, although Miss Wang had social continuity in this world after death, her afterlife status was neither that of an ancestor nor that of a ghost. Rather, her spirit was accommodated in a Buddhist temple where sutras would be regularly chanted so that her spirit would be directed to the Pure Land, from where there is no route of return to this world, and which entry into marks an end to her social continuity with this world. This procedure is not in conflict with ancestral orthopraxy; indeed, it corresponds closely to the category of maiden death within the ancestral orthopraxy as biological death with no social continuity.

Furthermore, the analysis of the Zhongtaishan Buddhist death industry highlights a far broader set of changes and a more profound shift in the relationship between the living and the dead. Responsibility for deceased maidens (as for deceased grandfathers and other categories of the dead) has shifted from a private matter of the family into a public concern. This concern is now dealt with via public institutions, with the result that the category of dead maidens is dissolved into a much larger category of the collectively worshipped dead, including ancestors. The dead lose status, pollution, and any individuating marks, and as such are transformed into a mass defined by sameness, although families are asked to regularly attend the Buddhist temple for commemorative events and to provide continuing financial support to ensure their ancestors’ continued peaceful rest.

These findings have important social implications: the private hired-hands (togongah) and Daoist ritual specialists are gradually being replaced by the rapid emergence of public institutions (such as workplaces, funeral homes, Buddhist organisations) to deal with deceased maidens (as for deceased grandfathers and other categories of the dead). These changes point to on-going tensions between traditional Confucian structures and values and urban, secular values. This new development also corresponds to the general rise in importance of public or civic institutions in Taiwan since democratisation began in the early 1990s. Significantly, changes in how dead maidens are disposed of mainly come from outside ancestral orthopraxy; from modernising processes and institutions as well as from Buddhist conceptions and values.