Restless Spirits

In China, ancient human sacrifice has given way to modern tomb-tending ceremonies, but the dead still make demands.

This story appears in the January 2010 issue of National Geographic magazine.

In the village of Spring Valley, people rarely spoke of the dead, and they didn't like to reminisce. "This place was always so poor," villagers said if I asked about the old days, and then they fell silent. They had few old photographs and only a handful of written records. The Great Wall stood nearby, but even those impressive ruins didn't inspire much interest. In 2001, I began renting a home in the village, partly because I was curious about the region's history, but soon I realized that glimpses of the past were fleeting. Like most Chinese of the current generation, the villagers focused on today's opportunities: the rising prices for local crops, the construction boom that was bringing new jobs to Beijing, less than two hours away.

There was only one day each year when they looked backward, in April, during the festival of Qingming. The Chinese name translates as "day of clear brightness," and for more than a millennium it's been celebrated in various regional forms across China. Ancestor worship goes back even further. More than 5,000 years ago, the cultures of northern China were venerating the dead through highly systemized ceremonies. Echoes of these traditions still survive today, and during my first year in the village, when the holiday came around, I accompanied my neighbors on their ritual journey to the cemetery.

Only men were allowed to participate. All of them were named Wei, and a dozen members of this extended clan left before dawn, hiking up the steep mountain behind the village. They wore simple work clothes and carried flat wicker baskets and shovels on their shoulders. They didn't make small talk, and they didn't stop to rest. They had the determined air of a work crew—tools at the ready, trudging past apricot trees whose fresh buds glowed like stars in the morning half-light. After 20 minutes we reached the village cemetery. It was located high on the mountain, where simple piles of dirt had been arranged in neat rows. Each row represented a distinct generation, and the men began their work on the front line, tending the graves of the most recently dead—the fathers and mothers, uncles and aunts. They weeded the mounds and piled fresh dirt atop. They left special gifts, such as bottles of alcohol or packs of cigarettes. And they burned paper grave money for use in the afterlife, the bills bearing a watermark that said, "The Bank of Heaven Co., Ltd."

Each villager paid special attention to his own close relatives, working through the rows from father to grandfather to great-grandfather. Almost none of the graves had markers, and as the men moved back in time, from row to row, they became less certain of identities. At last the work was communal, everybody pitching in for every mound, and nobody knowing who was buried beneath. The final grave stood alone, the sole representative of the fourth generation. "Lao zu," one villager said. "The ancestor." There was no other name for the original clan member, whose details had been lost over the years.

By the time they finished, morning light glowed behind eastern peaks. A man named Wei Minghe explained that each mound represented a house for the dead, and local tradition called for them to complete the Qingming ritual before dawn. "If you pour dirt on the grave before the sun comes up, it means that in the afterlife they get a tile roof," he said. "If you don't make it in time, they get a thatched roof."

Wei Minghe was in his late 60s. He still had the rawboned build of a farmer, but now he lived in a retirement apartment in the nearby city of Huairou, although he returned faithfully each year for Qingming. Later that day, I gave him a ride back to the city. When I asked him if he missed Spring Valley, he said, "Before this apartment, I never lived in a place with good heat." His view of progress made perfect sense, just like the wishes of the ancestors—tile roofs versus thatched.

The Chinese view of the afterlife has always been marked by qualities many Westerners would perceive as earthly. In ancient times the vision of the next world tended to be pragmatic, materialistic, even bureaucratic—values that are apparent in today's archaeological discoveries. When royal tombs are opened, they're usually characterized by meticulous organization and impressive wealth. The tradition of burying bodies with precious goods goes back at least as far as the fifth millennium B.C., when some tombs contained jade and pottery.

It's not until the Shang, a culture that flourished in northern China from roughly 1600 to 1045 B.C., that we have written evidence of how people viewed the afterlife. The earliest known Chinese writing appears on Shang oracle bones­—ox scapulae and turtle shells used in rituals at the royal court. Cracked and interpreted, the bones were a means of communicating with the unseen world, including passing messages to ancestors of the royal family. "We ritually report the king's sick eyes to Grandfather Ding." "As to the coming of the Shaofang [an enemy], we make ritual-report to Father Ding."

The dead were believed to have great power over daily events. Unhappy ancestors could cause illness or disaster among the living, and many oracle bones refer to human sacrifices meant to appease these spirits. At one complex of tombs in Henan Province, excavations have uncovered more than 1,200 sacrificial pits, most of which contain human victims. An archaeologist once told me that he had counted 60 different ways a person could be killed during a Shang ceremony. But he also reminded me that these were rituals, not murder and mayhem. From the Shang perspective, human sacrifice was simply part of a remarkably well organized system. The Shang kept a strict calendar, with certain sacrificial days devoted to certain ancestors. They were meticulous almost to the point of scientific inquiry. In one instance, a diviner patiently made 70 individual oracle-bone cracks in order to determine which ancestor was responsible for a living king's toothache.

As for the dead, they functioned in an extensive bureaucracy. Royal names were changed after death to mark the transition to new roles. The purpose of ancestor worship was not to remember the way people had been in life. Instead, it was about currying favor with the departed, who'd been given distinct responsibilities. Many oracle-bone inscriptions request that an ancestor make an offering of his own to an even higher power.

David N. Keightley, a historian at the University of California, Berkeley, told me that he's particularly struck by how oracle-bone inscriptions convey a sense of hierarchy and order. "The more recently dead deal with the small things; the ones who have been dead for longer deal with the bigger things," he said. "This is a way to organize the world."

After the Shang collapsed in 1045 B.C., divination using oracle bones was continued by the Zhou, a dynasty that ruled parts of northern China until the third century B.C. But the practice of human sacrifice gradually became less common, and royal tombs began to feature mingqi, or spirit objects, as substitutes for real goods. Ceramic figurines took the place of people. The terra-cotta soldiers commissioned by China's first emperor, Qin Shi Huang Di, who united the country under one dynasty in 221 B.C., are the most famous example. This army of an estimated 8,000 life-size statues was intended to serve the emperor in the hereafter.

The next dynasty, the Han, left a collection of funeral goods that is less military in character. The tomb of Han Jing Di, who ruled from 157 to 141 B.C., has yielded an amazing array of spirit goods designed to reflect the needs of everyday life: reproductions of pigs, sheep, dogs, chariots, spades, saws, adzes, chisels, stoves, measuring devices. There are even official chops, or ink stamps, to be used by netherworld bureaucrats.

In a culture as rich and ancient as China's, the line from past to present is never perfectly straight, and countless influences have shaped and shifted the Chinese view of the afterlife. Some Taoist philosophers didn't believe in life after death, but Buddhism, which began to influence Chinese thought in the second century A.D., introduced concepts of rebirth after death. Ideas of eternal reward and punishment also filtered in from Buddhism and Christianity.

Yet many elements of early cultures such as the Shang and the Zhou remained recognizable across the millennia. The Chinese continued to worship their ancestors, and they continued to imagine the afterlife in material and bureaucratic terms. Near-death experiences gave rise to popular legends about how some low-level clerk in the netherworld miswrote a name on a ledger of the dead, nearly cutting a life short before the mistake was discovered.

David Keightley told me that the traditional Chinese view of death impressed him as optimistic. There's no concept of original sin, so entering the afterlife doesn't require a radical change. The world isn't fatally flawed; it provides a perfectly adequate model for the next stage. "In the West, it's all about rebirth, redemption, salvation," he said. "In the Chinese tradition, you die, but you remain what you are."

Keightley believes that such ideas contributed to the stability of Chinese society. "Cultures that engage in ancestor worship are going to be conservative cultures," he said. "You're not going to find new things attractive, because that will be a challenge to the ancestors."

China's current changes are anything but conservative, and they are hard on the dead. Cemeteries are often destroyed by building projects, and many rural Chinese have migrated to cities, making it impossible to return home for Qingming. Some try alternative forms of grave care—there are websites that allow descendants to tend "virtual tombs." But it's difficult to think about the past in a fast-changing country, and many traditions simply fade away.

Each year in Spring Valley it seems that fewer people turn out to celebrate Qingming. Yet the holiday survives, and some elements still recall ancient rituals. Village graves are organized with bureaucratic precision, each generation in its own row. Material concerns remain important: cigarettes, alcohol, and grave money for the dead. Perhaps someday even these traditions will be abandoned, but for now they still provide a link between past and present.

Three years after my first Qingming, only seven villagers made the journey up the mountain to the cemetery. At the top, a new grave stood in the first row, decorated with a candle that said, "Eternally young." I asked my neighbor who was buried there.

"Wei Minghe," he said. "You gave him a ride home a few years ago. He died last year. I don't remember which month."

Another man spoke up. "This is the first time we're marking his grave."

"Last year he poured dirt on other people's graves," somebody else said. "This year we pour dirt on his."

I picked up a shovel and contributed to the mound. Somebody lit a Red Plum Blossom cigarette and stuck it upright in the dirt. Wei Minghe would have liked that touch, and he would have appreciated the timing. We were gone before dawn—the ancestors, at least for another year, could enjoy their roofs of tile.