Written by Stephen R. Bokenkamp.

At 2:28 PM on May 12, 2008, a massive earthquake struck Sichuan Province. Over 70,000 people died, of whom as many as 10,000 may have been school-children. From 28 to 30 May, an international gathering of Daoist priests held a salvation ritual at Mount Cranecall, the birthplace of Daoism. Participating Daoists came from as far away as Singapore, Malaysia, Taiwan, and Hong Kong. Each troupe of Daoists performed their traditional rituals, in their own dialects, for the crossing of the departed to favourable destinations – whether through rebirth or ascent into the heavens. But all, as part of their ritual, read the same memorial to the gods, announcing the purpose of the rite and converting the merit gained thereby to blessings for the dead and a return to prosperity for the nation. This memorial is a bureaucratic document, the nature of which may seem strange to those unaware of Daoism and of the ways the Chinese have historically communicated with their dead and achieved the restoration of order after cataclysmic disruption.

Crowd at Heming Shan ritual (1)

The crowd at the Heming Shan ritual (Source:Stephen R. Bokenkamp)

The memorial begins with the date and nature of the catastrophe and has a blank for the officiant to write in his or her religious name and title. It continues with formulaic language stating how the departed are mourned and announces the efficacy of scripturally sanctioned Daoist ritual in updating the records of heaven and restoring proper order. There is then another blank for the officiant to write in the name of the god or gods charged to act through each rite. This is followed by the charge, which states precisely what the ritual will accomplish when the gods fulfill their roles as the humans have theirs. The formal language of the charge defies translation. Here is a paraphrase of part of it:

The breaths of the Dao flood down on us; celestial blessings are everywhere assured. May the single characters and tattered records [=the dismembered dead] return to the red furnace where they will be physically refined; their scattered flesh and shattered bones entirely restored and made whole. May those who met disaster in the earthquake of May 12th who are already reborn carry these blessings to their new locales and those who are not yet born be born again in the pure lands of heaven.

The brutal realities of the disaster are not toned down in this document, which would be recited again and again during the three-day course of rituals. The ripped and incomplete books of life of the earthquake victims are directly parallel to their dismembered bodies. Striking, too, is the fact that the ritual anodyne promised for the dead is precisely the same as that promised the first Daoists who had roamed this spot eighteen hundred years before. These first Daoists called themselves “Celestial Masters,” teachers sent by heaven for the kingdom and its populace. In one of their early teaching texts, a commentary to the Daode jing dating around 200 CE, death of the faithful is portrayed as a sort of show:

Grand Darkness is the palace where those who have accumulated the Dao refine their forms. When there is no place for them to stay in the world, the worthy withdraw and, feigning death, pass through Grand Darkness to have their images reborn on the other side. This is to be “obliterated without perishing.” The profane are unable to accumulate good deeds, so when they die it is truly death. They are taken away in service of the Earth Offices.

Here, the “good deeds” are ritually provided and death is fully confronted, but the charge still states that a sort of translation through “refinement,” as when one removes the dross from metals in a furnace, is necessary to enter the next forms of existence. In short, it is not just souls that need saving, but bodies as well.

Heming Shan ritual scene

The Heming Shan ritual scene (Source:Stephen R. Bokenkamp)

Daoist practice and modes of organization have, of course, undergone massive changes over eighteen hundred years. Rituals are now large-scale and conducted by priests; rebirth, a concept that came with Buddhism, is widely accepted; some Daoists are celibate and live in temples; etc. etc. But many of the attitudes toward death have remained constant.

It is not unfair to say that, while Daoists do conduct rituals for universal peace, for the prosperity of the nation, and on the birthdays of major gods, their major annual rituals are directed to the salvation of the dead. In addition to smaller rites conducted for individuals, each year every temple will conduct salvation rites on the three primal days and on qingming (the grave-sweeping festival). The three primal days are the fifteenth of the first, seventh, and tenth months of the lunar calendar. The middle prime day is most important for death ritual. Qingming, held on the first of the fifth month, is widely observed by families who visit the graves of their forebears to provide them with incense and foodstuffs. Some also visit nearby temples to add the merit of the rituals held there to the stock donated to their ancestors. Whether they go to temples or not, their actions attest to the continued existence, and importance, of departed family members.

Taiwan Daoist purifies ritual area

Taiwan Daoist purifies ritual area (Source:Stephen R. Bokenkamp)

What I have been describing is often called “ancestor worship.” This is a misnomer, albeit a persistent one. Ancestors are not worshipped, but fed and thereby kept in the family since, from their new stations in the unseen realms, they might just possibly continue to contribute to familial welfare. At least, they should not be forgotten and bring curses. The widespread persistence of ancestral practice was underscored by a survey funded by the Templeton Foundation and conducted in 2007 by YANG Fenggang of Purdue University. The Yang survey paralleled PEW reports of about the same time that found China to be “one of the least religiously affiliated countries in the world.” These surveys are flawed in that they ask about “belief” and “affiliation,” none of which are traditionally important to the Chinese religious. Chinese have historically seen religions as paths that might be followed or teachings that might be employed in various life situations. No carpenter would limit herself to a single tool. Thus one will find few who proclaim themselves “Daoist” in exclusion to other practices. While it did not convince on matters of “belief,” however, the Yang survey did find that 72% of the over 7000 mainland Chinese surveyed connect yearly with their ancestors by burning incense beside their graves (#113). This is an amazing statistic, given the growth of Christianity in China and the governmental efforts of the sixties and seventies to erase traditional practices altogether.

Ritual of universal salvation

Ritual of universal salvation (Source:Stephen R. Bokenkamp)

Daoist chants announcement of universal salvation

Daoist chants announcement of universal salvation (Source:Stephen R. Bokenkamp)

So, while the bereft parents and other survivors of the 2008 earthquake may not be aware of the Daoist rites performed on behalf of their departed, we can be relatively certain that they continue to bring them foodstuffs and incense by the grave. And perhaps toys as well…

Dr Stephen R. Bokenkamp is Regent’s Professor at Arizona State University. Image credit: Stephen R. Bokenkamp.