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Food and Chinese Funeral Practices
Food in History
Summer Volume: 2007 Issue: 14(2) page(s): 10, 11, 12, and 13
Since the beginning of recorded Chinese history (i.e.: the Xia Dynasty--circa 2000 BCE), ancestor worship has been a dominant motif in Chinese peoples lives. No where is this more respectfully and attentively portrayed than in their funeral ceremonies. All elements of such ceremonies are carefully orchestrated according to prescribed rituals and customs.
AT FUNERALS: Those who come to pay respects to the deceased's family kowtow three times to the deceased. There is wailing by relatives who are dressed in the proper clothing with black arm bands, black waist bands, a sprig of evergreen in the female family member's hair, and white, green, or blue yarn placed on their clothing. There is burning of paper money, paper clothing, and selected paper replicas of everyday items; and family members who beat the burning items to keep away any wandering spirits trying to steal the items for their own use. When visitors take their leave from a funeral ceremony, they receive white envelopes filled with sweet pieces of candy and red envelopes containing coins. All of this activity might be cause to overlook the compelling presence of food and drink.
Food offerings are pervasive in funeral ceremonies as gestures of paying final respects to loved ones. Their presence appears simple or subtle, but behind that lays elaborate and codified traditions. At formal funeral services food is placed neatly and orderly on a table facing the deceased. These offerings include a roast pig, chicken, duck, jai (a vegetarian dish), rice, fruit, tea and wine. Incense sticks stand among the food offerings. Incense burns and its wisps of smoke summon the relative's ancestral spirits to come and help the newly deceased on their next journey.
These food and drink offerings are not just symbols of a final meal before that long journey. They are rich in meanings touching the essence of Chinese life and culture. A reminder of the basic values of Chinese life, and then some individual foods and ther significance are in order to better understand the importance of food in Chinese traditions regarding death. They are:
EARLY BELIEFS: These were established by the Imperial rulers and based upon the teachings of Confucius; they were the ideals of filial piety and respect for the elders. These values were (and are) to maintain order and give a distinct pattern to Chinese political, social and family life. These values regulate not only life on this earth, but life in the hereafter or other world.
Confucian values assume a patriarchal and hierarchical society that follows strict codes of conduct. At the top of the social pyramid is the ruler who is seen as a benevolent and disciplinary 'parent' deserving of filial piety. This has the added benefit of enabling a ruler to justify and strengthen his power over his subjects. The ideal for his subjects, the populace, is to observe the proper rites and decorum in order to have a good life, good health, prosperity, and longevity. The key relationships of monarch-subject, father-son, elder-younger brother, elder-younger generation are viewed as necessary consequences of the larger natural order of the universe, the cosmos, heaven and earth.
Heaven is governed by the natural forces of yin/yang and earth by the four seasons. These forces are considered everlasting and immutable. The concept of yin/yang prescribes that the workings of nature and the affairs of human life are based on the unity of complementary yin/yang opposites. Confucian scholars expounded further on this relationship between the heavenly cosmos and the Chinese people. There is no difference between 'earth' and 'non-earth' and the Chinese 'other world' is merely an extension of life on earth. When one dies, the soul and the spirit live on. Death merely ends yang life and begins the yin.
If there is too much or too little of either yin or yang, an imbalance results. Therefore, life's aim is to keep the forces of yin/yang in balance and in harmony with the political and hierarchical social order, in a manner reflecting universal order. One maintains harmony within one's own life and within one's family from generation to generation.
Expressions of filial piety, loyalty, and respect for the laws of one's rulers assure prosperity, good fortune and long life. Rituals operate as the formalized code by which people can maintain harmony with the forces of nature and human affairs. The end result is that ritualized ceremonies become an elaborate display of paying respect to the gods and the ancestors. It is in this context that offerings of food must be understood. Food literally is the channel through which the Chinese people maintain their link and harmonious relationship with the gods and ancestors.
The simple power of food is not to be underestimated. China has always had rich culinary traditions, an incredible variety of foodstuffs, and a sense of exploration to discover new dishes. Coupled with the pursuit of the pleasures of nourishment, was the preoccupation of ancient scholars in writing about food. In sum, food in Chinese culture was and is not merely sustenance. Food is endowed with yin, yang, and qi qualities. With their proper selection, one can maintain health, inner well being, and harmony. With appropriate 'medicinal' foods, the belief is that one can even cure ailments.
Therefore, ceremonial food is chosen with great care. It must be the 'best,' it must be 'right,' and it must be 'endowed with the strength of communication.' The rituals associated with food exemplify proper codes of behavior. They are reflective of Chinese ideals such as purity of mind and body, harmony, balance, humbleness, obedience, and frugality.
THE MOURNING PERIOD: This begins the moment a person dies. From that moment, it is customary for family members to begin rituals of filial piety to honor the newly deceased. Among the rituals are preparing and dressing the deceased, choosing the proper date and site for the wake and burial, and the commencement of a fast for family members, especially the sons and daughters of the deceased.
Close family members must refrain from eating meat because the immortal gods do not eat meat. One reason is that meat has blood, and blood symbolizes uncleanliness. The exclusion of meat is also a respectful gesture of 'down grading' the meals; that is, no fancy foods. Meat does not appear in family meals until the morning of the burial day.
The family mourners diet is therefore vegetarian, and a common vegetarian dish is jai. Jai symbolizes purity, and by eating this vegetarian dish, family members keep their bodies clean. Whenever food is eaten by them, the same food is offered to the deceased. This customarily is a bowl of rice and vegetables including jai. By abstaining from meat and purifying their bodies and the spirit of the deceased with jai, the family is demonstrating their faith in the gods and helping to ensure their loved one has a safe journey to heaven and to eternity.
There are other customs associated with the offering of food to the newly deceased. On top of the bowl is laid a pair of chopsticks. Some resources report that the chopsticks are placed into the rice bowl, standing straight up to help the deceased spirit eat. However, the family does not use chopsticks, only spoons. The reason is that the ends of chopsticks are sharp, and the family may harm the spirit whose presence is nearby. One may speculate that this practice is traceable to general Chinese social etiquette. In dining, once everyone is seated the guests wait for the host to invite them to eat by saying qi kuai, meaning 'let us start to use chopsticks.' Perhaps this is a family's respectful way of waiting for the spirits to signal the proper time to dine.
These dining practices with their simplicity and austerity are consistent with other traditional observances during mourning. For example, the family must not wear silk nor red colors; they should only wear white cotton-like clothes. Regular shoes are not worn, they are to use simple hemp/straw-like ones. Family members do not sleep in the bed, only on the floor.
The symbolic use of food at home marks the beginning of what will become a centerpiece in all rituals honoring the dead; that is the offering of food in paai sin (worshiping divinities). From here on, food offerings in the home before the ancestral tablet are to be made daily, every day for one year, sometimes for three years after an ancestor's death.
THE WAKE AND THE FUNERAL: These also have food protocols. According to the principles of Chinese thought and belief, as previously described, sharing of a meal with the deceased establishes family ties to them. A pleasurable and harmonious meal ensures that the spirit will not be angered nor will it suffer from hunger. The family ensures the deceased's safe journey and final entry into heaven through the selection of proper foods. As a result, the departing spirit will be benevolent towards, and protective of, the family on earth.
The main occasions for expressing the core of these beliefs and values are the wake and funeral. At these, there is a great variety of ceremonial food and drink. The wake meal includes a whole pig, chicken, duck, jai, rice, fruit, tea and wine. These items are placed on a table facing the deceased. Each item is placed in proper alignment. The main dishes are in the center, the fruit to the left and right. Tea and wine are placed in the front and in column alignment. It is as if tea is offered first, followed by wine, then the anticipated main meal dishes. Again, the distance between family and the newly departing spirit will be marginal. Food will be shared as if at home for a family meal, shared as if honoring the arrival of a guest, whether that guest be living or a god or an ancestor.
In examining each of the food items, one can better appreciate their place in Chinese funeral worship. Some important funeral foods are:
CHICKEN: This bird has a history in divination as does cock fighting. These were meaningful practices in ancient China, and the cock was a symbol of the sun and the yang element. This equates the cock with possessing properties of light, warmth and strength. A white cock is used as a means of exorcizing the spirits of darkness, the yin elements of cold and weakening.
One custom reflecting these beliefs is that when the deceased's body is being transported to the burial site, a white cock would be placed on the deceased's coffin. The crowing of that cock, a 'soul chicken' (ling huen chi), is a call to the soul. It ensures that the soul stays with or returns to the body. Another funeral custom occurs when lowering the coffin into the grave. At that time, a white cock is thrown across the grave and must be caught by the oldest son. If he does not catch it, bad luck may befall the family. And, at the offering table at the wake, the chicken (or cock) also represents the bird's ability to 'fly' to heaven. It is a metaphor for the spirit's ultimate journey there.
DUCK: These animals have the ability to swim. Since the spirit must cross three rivers to get to heaven, the Gold River, the Silver River and the largest, the Yin/Yang or Life-Death River, the duck symbolizes protection for the spirit, should it fall into the rivers. In essence the chicken (or cock) and the duck ensure the safe departure and journey of the spirit to the heavenly world.
VEGETARIAN DISHES: Those such as jai or jai choy have many layers of meaning. A special preparation of jai is known as Buddha's Delight. It is prepared with eighteen ingredients each bearing its own significance as well as symbolizing the eighteen Buddhas. As described earlier, the family of the deceased abstains from eating meat. Their vegetarian, or jai diet, cleans the body and makes it more pure. The presentation of jai to the deceased at the wake allows the deceased's spirit to be purified. By eating strictly jai, the family is demonstrating their respect for the gods and communicating to them that this spirit is their loved one. Their faith in the gods help fulfill their desire for the loved ones spirit to reach heaven and eternal life.
RICE: This food is offered as a way to pay respect to the deceased by symbolizing the event of a meal with the family. All Chinese meals follow the fan/cai (also known as fan/tsai) principle. Fan, literally rice, connotes any grain or starchy food. Cai refers to the vegetable/meat dishes. A meal is not balanced unless it contains the appropriate amount of fan and cai. On the day of the funeral, the family breaks their fast and eats meat. In this context, meat takes on magic-like properties which can aid the spirit on its journey. Additionally meat is needed to achieve balance in the family's shared meal. Just as in life, the deceased is asked to stay, to eat, and to share a meal.
DRINKS: Tea and wine add to the symbolism of the shared meal. They are offered as gestures of welcome whenever visitors/guests come to one's home.
FRUIT: Tese foods are offered during the wake. There must be five different kinds of fruit, one each of the five different colors: green, yellow, red, white and black. These five elements correspond with the five directions: Green for east; yellow for center; red for south; white for west; and black for north. The reason for these is to signify the various directions, should the spirit of the deceased not know the direction they are headed. These fruits symbolically guides them.
Aside from the foods that may be offered to the deceased, food is also used in an indirect way as a means to protect the departing spirit. One example is taking boiled rice that has been mixed with water and scattering it among the burning items. The idea is to distract 'outside' wandering spirits from eating the offering foods. A second example is the practice of using 'sin-eaters.' A display of dim sum is laid at the floor of the deceased's casket. Buddhist priests engage in a chant which exorcizes the sins of the deceased and transfers them to the dim sum. The 'sin-eaters' then consume the dim sum as a means of ensuring that the deceased is free from sin and from any wrong doing when entering the next world.
THE TABLE: Food and drink set on the table are offerings laid before the casket. They unite the family with their departing relative through the proper observance of rituals designed to represent the 'best' food. These are food which is pleasurable to eat, food which gives strength, and food which is in harmony with the universe.
From the funeral day forward, day to day, year to year, and season to season, food will be laid before the family ancestors in all Chinese worship services and celebrations.
RECOOMENDED READINGS suggested by me include: Chinese Medicine, The Web That Has No Weaver by Ted Kaptchuk, published by Rider in 1985, and learning more about yin/yang, the 'Four Seasons' and how they relate to the 'Five Phases' i.e.: wood--spring; fire--summer; metal--autumn; water-–winter; and earth--a transition between each season. It is also helpful to know that the ancestral tablet is made of simple sticks of wood set on a pedestal. Inscribed on each one, in black ink, is the name of the deceased ancestor, titles, and dates of birth and death. A single red dot made with red ink or the blood of a cock is placed as part of one of the characters. This opens or vitalizes the tablet for the spirit to descend upon it during the sacrifices. An ancestral tablet, done by Hsieh Li-yun in 1972 is illustrated on this page.
The first recipe below is thanks to Jefferson and Joanna Lee of San Francisco’s Ching Chung Taoist Association of America. They advise that measurements are "kind of by feel, the way Chinese always do," and add, "make sure there is enough for everyone." Their recipe is rewritten close to the style of all others in this magazine.
The next recipe is a variation and combination of ones by Ken Hom, this magazine's Honorary Chairperson, along with the editor and several friends who are cookbook authors. It is meant to be a template, not a recipe followed to its very letter.
The editor notes that jai recipes have many names including: Lo Han Jai, Buddhist Delight, Vegetarian Stew, etc. Traditionally made with eighteen vegetarian ingredients, modern cooks simplify and reduce that number on many a New Year's Day. However at funerals, this dish is made as traditionally correct as possible. Using it when sending the dearly departed off, no effort is spared, in appropriate gustatory style. Chinese families traditionally serve jai on New Year's Day out of respect for their ancestors. As this is a day for ancestor worship and not funeral behavior, it can be made with dried oysters and other preserved animal foods.
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