Episode 38: Day Of The Dead

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The Pixar movie Coco won a lot of laughs and tears from audiences last year. Because it is about family and death which are the two most sentimental topics for everyone. Birth and death. Where did we come and where are we going. Day of death is the Mexican festival Dia de los Muertos, however, a lot of details reminds me of QingMing Festival 清明节in China.

Qing means clear ming means bright. It is on the first day of the fifth month in lunar calendar usually on either 4th or 5th April every year. In the book LiShu历书, it says the 15th day after ChunFen 春分, a solar term in China, which refers to the day when the sun at the celestial longitude of 0 degree, everything in the nature is clean and bright. It is clear to see the world. The name of the festival came from here. So it is in the beginning of the Spring, people start to go outdoors doing picnic and visit ancestors after a long winter.


The festival originally is from Hanshijie 寒食节, Cold Food Festival which is to memorize JieZiTui 介子推, a general from the Spring and Autumn period 春秋时 期. The Prince ChongEr 重耳of State of Jin 晋国 exiled during a revolution in the year 655 BC. JieZiTui was with him. One day, the prince was so hungry and had nothing to eat, JieZiTui cut a piece of flesh from his thigh for his lord. In 636 BC, after 19 years, Prince ChongEr became the Duke JinWen 晋文公 and generously rewarded to those who helped him during his exile, but he forgot about JieZiTui who offered his own flesh. JieZiTui didn’t say anything and asked for retirement. He lived in Mountain Mian 绵山 with his elderly mother. Until the duke realized his neglect and wanted to invite him back. Mountain Mian was hard to climb so somebody suggested to set a fire in order to force JieZiTui out. JieZiTui was so determined not to see the duke and died with his mom under a tree.

The duke was so regret and made a pair of shoes out of the burned wood and decided that day as Cold Food festival, when nobody in the country was allowed to set a fire. People usually eat cold deli and do tomb sweeping on the festival. Since Cold Food Festival is close to the time of QingMing 清明, another solar term in China, they became one festival QingMing Festival. I remember when I was a kid in China, it was the annual day to visit my past grandparents in the cemetery. We would bring all kinds of food and drinks and worshiped them on the tomb and share some of food with family there together. I do admire the way the Mexican people treat death that they dance and celebrate and have comics making jokes about death. I mean death is kind of a forbidden topic in China which is always related with sadness and separation in Chinese culture. People try to avoid talking about it instead of facing it even before dying. That’s why the tomb sweeping day is kind of the only time family are together to talk about death and communicate with past ancestors.


Another important tradition on Qing Ming Festival is to burn joss paper. Joss paper in Chinese called ZhiQian 纸钱 or MingBi 冥币also is known as ghost money. It is paper or paper crafts made for burning as offerings to the ancestors. Chinese people believe that when you burn these things while saying ancestors’ names they could receive in another world. Since burning paper crafts are acceptable, you can find anything literally anything made of paper in shops nowadays like Iphones, beautiful ladies, mahjong 麻将 and etc.


In the Taoist rituals, the practice of burning joss paper is acceptable however some Buddhist groups and some environmental activists discourage it out of concern for the environment. Maybe in the future instead of burning real paper, people can send money to their ancestors through apps on their phones or even bitcoins.



Dia de los Muertos/ Day of the dead

清明节 QingMing Festival

寒食节 Cold Food Festival

春分 ChunFen

清明 QingMing

介子推 JieZiTui

晋文公 Duke JinWen

麻将 mahjong

纸钱/冥币 joss paper

Episode 37: Death By Laughing

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Today we are going to talk about a short story about death by laughing. It is from the book Strange Stories from a Chinese Studio 聊斋 志 异 , which we mentioned before. I love the book so much and we will talk more stories from it in the future.

A director of education Mr. Sun Jingxia 孙景夏from ZiChuan 淄川county said, there was a guy from his village once was almost got killed by the rebels. The guy’s head was left hanging down on his chest. His family secured the body and were going to bury it after the rebels had gone. However, hearing sounds of breathing, they checked the body and found his windpipe was not totally severed but still with a finger’s width’s skin attached. So they carefully placed his head in its proper place. After a day, he started moaning. The servants served him food with a spoon little by little and it was a miracle that after half a year he was recovered.

Nothing went wrong until some ten years afterwards. One day he was chatting with some friends. One of them made a joke everyone including our hero too clapped hands and bent back and forth with laughter. Suddenly, the seam on his neck split open down fell the head with blood splashing everywhere. His friends found that he was dead. His dad was devastated and sued the friend who made the joke. A sum of money was subscribed by everyone who presented and laughed at the joke and given the the dad who buried his son and stopped the further proceedings. The author commented at the end that it is the biggest joke that somebody’s head fell off while laughing. The guy survived for more than 10 years while dead because of a joke. Did his friends who paid for his death own him in the previous life?

Dying when laughing is not the worst way to go. But his friends presented were probably thinking what the heck?! Maybe the guy didn’t laugh for the past ten years and that his life was so miserable. Maybe the joke was really funny. Now I really want to know what the joke was about. We will never find out cause his friends probably were afraid to tell that funniest joke again.


聊斋 志 异 Strange Stories from a Chinese Studio — 诸城某甲


Episode 12: The Underworld

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In different cultures, people are always curious about what the afterlife is like and where do our spirits go after our physical bodies deceased. Today we are going to talk about the underworld.

In Christianity, there is the idea of “hell”, which is a little different from the Chinese culture. Since China is affected by Buddhism, Taoism and of course regional culture through thousands of years of history, when we talk about one concept or one tradition, it is a little bit complex and always a long story. Diyu地狱, the closest translation for hell, where di means the ground and yu means prison. However, the differences from hell in Christianity and the underworld in China are diyu is a place everybody goes after death instead of a result of a divine punishment and also the stay in the underworld is not eternal because of karma and reincarnation. From the Chinese culture perspective, I think the better translation for underworld is YingJian阴间. Ying is the Ying in Ying Yang. Jian means space. We call the world we live in YangJian阳间, so the space we live after death is YingJian.

YingJian, the underworld is partly based on the Buddhist concept of Naraka and is depicted a place with various levels and chambers. Diyu, the hell, is part of the underworlds. Before Zhou Dynasty 周朝, which is between 1046 BC to 256 BC, Chinese people already had the idea of HunPo魂魄, which represents the body and spirit. After a person died, the spirit goes to the sky and the body goes to the ground. Since Han Dynasty 汉朝, which is between 202 BC to the year 220, we had the concept of 阴间 from Taoism. Since the underworld is like the world we are in, there are different gods in charge of different chambers and levels.

In Taoism, Dongyue the great 东岳大帝, is in charge of life and death of all creatures. Dongyue means the east mountain, which indicates the Mountain Tai 泰山 in the east of China. Because east represents the beginning where lives are born. Fengdu Emperor 酆都大帝, is one of the assistants of Dongyue the great. He is in charge of the hell, where bad spirits get punishment. Fengdu, a real place in the west south China, is considered as the entrance to the hell. Today you can visit there since it becomes a touristy spot for people experiencing the afterlife.


Since the Buddhism came to China, we had the concept of the “ Ten Courts of the hell” 十殿阎罗 and 18 levels of hell, which is simplified from 134 worlds of hell in the Buddhist text. Sinners get tortures in different level based on the sins like the descipting in the book Divine Comedy by Dante Alighieri. The tortures includes mountains of knives, cauldron torture, burning, ice world and so on. Influenced by Buddhism, YanLuoWang 阎罗王 is the King of Hell. YanLuo is a transcription of the Sanskrit for King Yama. YanLuoWang is probably the most well-known god in the underworld in China. He is portrayed as a man with a red face, bulging eyes and a long beard, which I am sure looks differently from the image in Hindu vedas since he wears a traditional Chinese robe and a traditional Chinese judge’s cap. Similarly to the original Yama god, he is the fair judge of all the dead. The final judgement is also common in different cultures and definitely conveys the meaning to warn people behave well when they are alive. However, in the Chinese version, he has a book listing every soul and death date for every life.

You know the book Journey to the West 西游记, a fantasy novel published in the 16th in Ming Dynasty 明朝. We will tell stories from this book in the future since it is one of the four greatest classical novels in China. The monkey king in the novel just changed the book to change people’s lives. He saw his name that he could live for 342 years and he crossed all the monkeys’ names from the book, which means they would be no longer controlled by YanLuoWang. YanLuoWang’s assistants Ox-head and Horse- face 牛头马 面, two guardians of hell would bring the newly dead to YanLuoWang for judgment. Human with merit with be rewarded good future lives such as born in a rich family. Those committed misdeeds would be sentenced to miserable future lives or to torture. The torture in the hell can be years or thousands of years before reincarnation.


DizangPusa地藏菩萨, a transcription from Ksitigarbha from Buddhism is another god we believe, who is depicted as a Buddhist monk with halo and is regarded as the Bodhisattva of hell-beings.

Maybe it is commendable to be a good person knowing there is no underworld because you choose to be.



阴间 YingJian/underworld

东岳大帝 Dongyue the great

酆都大帝 Fengdu Emperor

泰山 Mountain Tai

十殿阎罗 Ten Courts of the hell

Divine Comedy by Dante Alighieri

阎罗王 YanLuoWang

King Yama

西游记 Journey to the West

牛头马 面 ox-head and Horse- face

地藏菩萨 DizangPusa