Mr. Denby to Mr. Blaine.
Peking , November 10, 1889. (Received December 23.)
Sir: In view of the practice of cremation, which is sometimes resorted to in the United States and is there attracting some attention, I have the honor to submit a few observations on this practice in China:
Following their favorite idea of classification by numerical categories, the Chinese distinguish five forms of burial; these follow the five elements or primordial essences upon which the whole scheme of Chinese philosophy is based, viz, water, wood, metal, earth, and fire.
Burial by water is practiced somewhat in South China by dwellers by rivers or the sea, and consists, as the name indicates, simply in intrusting the body to the water. Burial by wood is the usual interment in a wooden coffin, the universal custom of the Chinese. Metal burial is said of the interment of an Emperor, though, as a matter of fact, Emperors also are buried in wooden coffins. Earth burial is the burial practiced by the Mohammedans. Followers of this sect carry the dead to the grave in a coffin, but the body is committed to the earth uninclosed. The last form, burial by fire, as the Chinese call it, or cremation, is, in view of all circumstances, the most remarkable of all.
It would seem somewhat inconsistent in a people whose deepest religious instinct is reverence for ancestors to practice cremation. The teachings of Confucius on the observance of funeral ceremonies and the performance of certain rites at ancestral tombs would apparently be quite opposed to such a custom. In spite of his teachings, however, this form of burial is practiced somewhat to-day in China, and was much more so in the middle ages.
The foreign books on China usually consulted refer to it as practiced only by Buddhist priests and lamas and as required in the case of [Page 114] lepers. Well-informed Chinese in North China themselves will deny that the custom has ever existed outside of the religious orders. It seems, however, that while perhaps never universal, cremation was formerly practiced in many localities. A Chinese historical work states that huo tsang (burial by fire) was introduced from Tien Chu Kuo, now called Yin Tu Kuo (India), during the Han dynasty (about the beginning of the Christian era). It came as a feature of Buddhism and was probably confined at first to priests.
It is well known that cremation in Japan was introduced with Buddhism and had never been known there before. The cremation of a bonze in 700 A. D. is said by Griffis (Mikado’s Empire, p. 175, note) to have been the first instance. It is now regularly practiced there by certain Buddhist sects.
In a book called the Kao Seng Chuan, it is stated that the Chinese Emperor Han Wu Ti (92 B. C), in digging a lake, found some bone ashes and asked his celebrated minister, Tung Fang So, what they were. The reply was that they were the ashes of a Buddhist priest from Hsi Yii, perhaps Thibet, and it was explained that when a priest dies he is buried by fire, a custom which is therefore called chieh hui, “to reduce to ashes.” The minister further stated that the people of Ti Chiang have this mode of burial. Williams states in his dictionary that Ti Chiang was “a tribe in the Shang dynasty, which occupied a region on the upper waters of the river Wei, in Kansuh.” Whether or not this is the place referred to it would be difficult to say, but the statement seems to indicate the practice of cremation in that locality even anterior to Buddhism.
Another Chinese work, the Jih Chih Lu, refers to “burial by fire” during the Sung dynasty (twelfth to fourteenth centuries). It is stated that in the reign of the Emperor Shao Hsing (1131) the custom of cremation prevailed in Kiang-nau, (Kiangsi, Kiangsu, and Anhui). It is further stated that Han Chi (1008–1075), one of the most celebrated of the statesmen of that dynasty and a man who was renowned,” says Mayers, “by solicitude for the well-being of the people,” bought lands for free burial grounds for the poor and thus abolished the custom. Marco Polo’s mention of it, however, shows that it continued to be commonly practiced during the thirteenth century. This great traveler seems to have been chiefly struck during his journeys in China by the idolatry, the use of paper money, and the practice of cremation. At that time there must, however, have already been great feeling on the part of the officials and the educated classes against the custom.
In the vicinity of Su Chow, in the year 1262, a cremation furnace was destroyed by lightning. Upon the petition of the priests to whose temple it was attached and who had derived a profit therefrom, requesting permission to rebuild, a local official memorialized his superiors urging that this be withheld, and wrote at length against the custom in general. He recommended, in order to abolish the practice, that a free cemetery be furnished by the Government for each five families. Such incidents, which were not uncommon, show the prevalence of the practice of cremation at the time.
Were it not so opposed to the ideas of the Chinese on the disposition of the dead, cremation might furnish a solution of several difficulties. It would immensely reduce the area of ground required for graves, which continually encroaches on the arable soil. The economy of the practice also is a great recommendation. Funerals, as at present conducted, are ruinous to the poorer classes. The amount devoted to this purpose requires, in my cases, years for its collection, and frequently [Page 115] would suffice for the support of the family for several years. Cases are not unheard of where sons sell themselves into slavery that their parents’ funeral may be conducted according to their ideas of propriety. It frequently happens, also, that when there are not sufficient funds for the purpose at the time of death, the body is kept in the house, incased in a thick wooden coffin for three, four, and more years, awaiting the raising of money.
Cremation is, however, forbidden by the statutes of the present dynasty, and is rarely resorted to except to burn occasionally the bodies of Buddhist priests or poor persons.
I have, etc.,