The Funeral Ceremonies of a Dowager Princess

There are five degrees of mourning, as follows: -- For parents, grandparents and great-grandparents; for brothers and sisters; for uncles and aunts; and for distant relatives. In the first sackcloth without hem or border; in the second with hem or border; in the third, fourth and fifth, pieces of sackcloth on parts of the dress. When sackcloth is worn, after the third interval of seven days is over the mourners can cast it off, and wear plain colours, such as white, gray, black and blue. For a parent the period is nominally three years, but really twenty-seven months, during all which time no silk can be worn; during this time officials have to resign their appointments, and retire from public life.
-- Dyer Ball in "Things Chinese."

[5] Taken from Mrs. Headland's note-book.

One day I received a large sheet of white paper on which was written in Chinese characters the announcement of the death of the Dowager Princess Su, and inviting me to the "third-day exercises." The real meaning of this "chieh san" I did not comprehend, but I knew that those who were invited sent presents of cakes or fruit, or baskets of paper flowers, incense, gold and silver ingots made of paper, or rolls of paper silk, all of which were intended for the use of the spirit of the departed. The paper presents were all burned on the evening of the third day, while the spirit feasted upon the flavour of the fruit and cakes.

As I did not feel that it was appropriate for me to send these things, I had a beautiful wreath of white chrysanthemum flowers made, and sent that instead. While I appreciated the invitation, I thought it was probably given only as a matter of form, and that I was not expected to attend the exercises, and so I sent my Chinese maid with the wreath, saying that as I did not understand their customs I would not go.

It was not long until the maid returned saying that they were anxious to have me come, that under no circumstances must I refuse, as they wished me to see their funeral ceremonies. The Princess sent her cart for me, and according to the Chinese custom, I took my maid seated upon the front, and set out for Prince Su's palace. As we neared our destination we passed numerous carts and chairs of princes who had been at the palace to pay their respects. The street leading off the great thoroughfare was filled with carts, chairs, servants and outriders, but the utmost order prevailed. There were scores of soldiers and special police, the latter dressed in long garments of gray with a short jacket of white on the breast of which was his number in black. These gray and white uniforms were mourning colours, and were given by the Prince.

As we entered the gate we saw white-robed servants everywhere, each with a sober face and a dignified bearing, waiting to be of use. My name was announced and two servants stepped out from the crowd, clothed from head to feet in white sackcloth, one presenting his arm to help me through the court, as though I were a bound-footed woman, and the other led the way. We were taken by a roundabout path, through numerous courts and passages, the front being reserved for the male guests, and were finally ushered into a room filled with white-robed women servants, who with one accord bent their knee in a low courtesy.

We were there met by the first and third Princesses, daughters of the Dowager who had just passed away. They were dressed in white, their hair being put up in the Manchu fashion. Instead of the jewels and bright flowers, however, it was crossed and recrossed with bands of white folded sackcloth. As these two ladies were married daughters, and had left this home, their sackcloth was not so coarse as that of the daughters-in-law and granddaughters who dwelt in the palace. It was they who received the guests and conducted them into the room where the mourners were kneeling.

As the white door screen was raised I saw two rows of white-robed figures kneeling on the floor, and as I entered they all bent forward and touched their head to the ground, giving forth as they did it a low, wailing chant.

Not knowing their customs I went up and stooped over, speaking first to the Princess and then to the ladies as best I could. I afterwards watched the other lady visitors and saw that they put their right hand up near their head as our soldiers salute, and courtesied to the Princess, her daughter-in-law and her eldest daughter. They then went over to a little table on which was a silver sacrificial set, consisting of a wine tankard, a great bowl, and a number of tiny cups holding but two tablespoonfuls. They took the cup in its little saucer, and, facing the beautiful canopied catafalque where the Dowager Princess was lying in state, they raised the cup as high as their head three times, emptying and refilling it each time. The mourners prostrated themselves and gave forth a mournful wail each time the cup was poured, after which the visitor arose and came over to where we were, and the ceremony was over.

The third daughter of the late Dowager seemed to regard me as her special friend and guest, and insisted on my coming over to a white curtain that separated us from the view of the gentlemen, and from there I watched the proceedings of princes and officials who went through a similar ceremony. There was this difference with them, however, as they entered through the great canopied court, they were conducted by white-robed servants directly to the altar, and there kneeling, they made their obeisance to the spirit of the departed, after which they went into the room where the Prince and the other male descendants of the dead Dowager were kneeling and prostrating themselves.

There was a heavy yellow curtain over the door that led into the sacrificial hall, and when the servants from without announced a visitor, this curtain was drawn aside, and as the guest and a flood of light entered, the mourners began their wailing which they continued until he had departed. These visitors remained but a moment, while the ladies who were there were all near relatives, and were dressed either entirely or partially in sackcloth.

The room in which these ladies knelt was draped in white. The cushions were all covered with white, and all porcelain and other decorations had been removed. The floor was covered with a heavy rope matting, on which the ladies knelt -- all except the Princess, for whom was prepared a small dark blue felt cushion. The Princess knelt at the northwest corner of the room, directly in front of the curtain which separated them from the sacrificial hall. Several of the very near male relatives entered and gave the low Manchu courtesy to the Princess, the son's wife, and the eldest daughter, though none of the other kneeling ladies were recognized. They left immediately without, so far as I noticed, raising their eyes.

The Prince, his sons and the other mourners in the men's room were clothed in white fur, and the servants too, who stood in the sacrificial hall, and at intervals along the way towards the hall, wore white fur coats instead of sackcloth.

To the left of the Princess there knelt in succession all the secondary wives of Prince Su, and if I mistake not there were five of these concubines. Behind the Princess knelt her son's wife -- the future Princess Su, and on her left, the daughters and granddaughters of the Prince knelt in succession. The Princess and secondary princesses had bands of sackcloth wound around their heads, though their hair hung down their backs in two long braids, and as I had never seen these princesses except when clothed in beautifully embroidered satin garments, with hair put up in elaborate coiffures, decked with jewels and flowers, and faces painted and powdered in the proper Manchu fashion, it was not easy to recognize them in these white-robed, yellow-faced women, with hair hanging down their backs.

The grandson's wife and granddaughters, on the other hand, had their hair combed, but the long hairpin was of silver instead of jade or gold, and instead of being decorated with jewels and flowers, and a red cord, it was crossed and recrossed with bands of folded sackcloth an inch and a half in width. It was neat and very effective -- the black hair and white cloth making a pretty contrast to the Western eye, though it would probably not be so considered by the Chinese.

After I had watched them for a few moments I said to the princess who accompanied me:

"I must not intrude upon your time longer; you have been very kind to allow me to witness all these interesting customs."

"Oh, but you must not go now," she insisted; "you must remain and see the arrival of the priests, and the burning of the paper houses, goods, chattels, and images on the great street. I want you to understand all our customs, and this is the greatest and most interesting day of the funeral ceremonies."

I urged that I ought not to intrude myself upon them at this time.

"No, no," she said, "you must not say that. It is not intrusion; you must stay and dine with us this evening."

When I still insisted upon going she said that if I went they would feel that I did not care for them, and she was so persistent that I consented to remain if the maid might be sent home to the children, which they at once arranged for.

In the interval between the arrival of male guests, the ladies took me out into a large canopied court to see the decorations, and into the sacrificial hall. These ceremonies were all conducted in the house and court which the Dowager Princess had occupied, and where I had often gone to see her when she wanted to thank me for some medical attention I had given her children or grandchildren.

As we passed through the great gate, I noticed that the court was covered with a mat pavilion making a room about one hundred and fifty feet square, lighted by great squares of glass near the top, and decorated with banners of rich brocade silks or satins, of sober colours, blue, gray or white, on which were texts extolling the virtues of the late Dowager or her family. These were the gifts of friends, who had been coming and would continue to come for days if not weeks.

At the north end as one came in at the gate was a gallery running the whole length of the northern court, fitted up with special hangings which separated it into different compartments. Many elegant banners and decorations gave it a striking effect. This was the place where the priests, who had not yet arrived, were to say their prayers day and night until the funeral ceremonies were over.

Directly in front of the catafalque, in the gallery, there was a table on which I afterwards saw the priests place a silver vessel which the head priest carried, and the others regarded with much solemnity.

From the gateway leading into the sacrificial hall the floor of the court had been raised even with the door of the house and the gate, a height of about five feet, and forty feet wide, and was covered with the same kind of rope matting that was on the floors. On the canopied verandas there were stacks of cakes, incense, fruit and money. These were the most novel sights I have ever seen in China. They were ten or twelve feet high. They were a very pretty sight, and it required some scrutiny to discover that they were made of cakes and fruit. How they were able to build them thus, tier upon tier, and prevent their falling when they were touched is beyond my comprehension. What magic there is in it I do not know.

As one entered the door of the sacrificial hall, towering above everything else, was the great catafalque, draped in cloth of gold, and in front of it were stacks of these sacrificial cakes. Near them there was a table on which there were great white, square candles, five inches or more in diameter, the four sides of which were stamped with figures of fairies and immortals. On this table there were also various savoury dishes, together with cakes and fruit, prepared to feed the spirit of the dead. In front of this table again there was another about a foot high on which were placed the sacrificial wine vessels, and before which the guests knelt. As we entered I saw the gentlemen kneeling to the left, while the ladies, separated from them by white curtains, were kneeling to the right.

After we had seen the various customs without, I was taken into the dining-room, where I sat down with the young Princess and her two aunts, daughters of the Dowager. They were very kind and polite, and did all in their power to make me feel at home. We were attended by white-robed eunuchs, who knelt when they spoke to the Princess. There was such a lot of them.

"How many servants do you use ordinarily?" I asked the eldest daughter.

"About four hundred," she replied.

I thought of the task of robing four hundred servants in new white sackcloth, and attending to all the other things that I had seen, in the forty-eight hours since the death of the Dowager Princess. Even the bread, instead of being dotted with red as it is ordinarily, was dotted with black!

As we were finishing our supper we heard the horns of the priests and went to see them arrive. Prince Su, and the other male members of the family, went out to the door to receive them, but we remained within. They first went to the gallery, then the head priest came down into the sacrificial hall and made nine prostrations before the catafalque, without, however, pouring or offering wine. After each third prostration he stood up and raised his clasped hands to a level with his eyes. They then began their weird music, standing on the two sides of the raised platform between the gate and the house, thus allowing a passageway between them for the guests.

The Princess told me that they were about to form a procession to go to the great street. I therefore took my leave in order that I might precede them and see the procession arrive, and witness the burning of the presents for the spirit.

When I arrived on the great street I there beheld a paper cart and horses which were intended to transport the spirit to the eastern heaven. There was a sedan chair for her use after her arrival, numerous servants, money, silk, and a beautiful, big house for her to dwell in, all made of paper. I had not long to wait for the procession, which was headed by the priests playing mournful, wailing music on large and small horns and drums. The priests were followed by the mourners and their friends. When they arrived at the place of the burning, the mourners prostrated themselves upon white cushions before the paper furnishings amid the shrieks of the instruments, the wailing of the hired mourners, and the petitions of the priests for the spirits to assist the departed on her way.

While this was going on, fire was applied to various parts of the paper pile, and in a moment a great flame sprang up into the air -- a flame that could be seen from miles around, and in less time than it takes to tell it the whole was a heap of glowing ashes, the mourners had departed, and the little street children were stirring it up with long sticks.

The first three days after death, the spirit is supposed to visit the different temples, going, as it were, from official court to official court receiving judgment, and cards of merit or demerit to take with it, for the deeds done in the body. On the third day it returns to say farewell to the home, and then leaves for its long journey, and all this paper furniture is sent on ahead.

They continue forty-nine days of prayers by the priests, alternating three days by the Buddhists, three by the Lamas, and three by the Taoists, after which the Buddhists take their turn again. Everything else remains much as I have described it. The family, servants, everybody in mourning, and all business put aside to make way for this ceremony of mourning, mourning, mourning, when they ought to be rejoicing, for the poor old Princess had been a paralytic for years and was far better out of her misery.

The Princess frequently sent her cart for me during these days. Once when I was going through the court where there were vast quantities of things to be burned for the spirit, all made of paper, I noticed some that were so natural that I was unable to distinguish between them and the real things. Especially was this true of the furniture and flowers like that which had been in her apartments. There were great ebony chairs with fantastically marked marble seats, cabinets, and all the furniture necessary for her use. Among these things I noticed on the table a pack of cards and a set of dice, of which she had been very fond, and a chair like the one in which the eunuchs had carried the crippled old Princess about the court, and I said to the young Princess who accompanied me:

"You do not think your grandmother will require these things in the spirit world, do you?"

"Perhaps not," she replied, "but she enjoyed her cards and dice, and the chair was such a necessity, that, whether she needs them or not, it is a comfort to us to get and send her everything she liked while she lived, and it helps us bear our sorrows."

back to the table of contents