Monday, July 27, 2015

Is Death the End? Senses of Life after Death in Guangdong


Death appears to be the ultimate threat to our lives and senses of security. People in different parts of the world, with different religions and local beliefs, offer diverse depictions of an afterlife. On July 2, the Hong Kong Anthropological Society had invited Allie Kwong, an MPhil student of our department, to give a talk on “Is Death the End? Senses of Life after Death in Guangdong”. Allie has been doing research on the topic and had interviewed people in Guangdong to see how they envisioned their lives after death, in what contexts their imaginations were situated, and how their senses of life after death related to their understanding of life.

Allie presenting her research at the Hong Kong Museum of History

Allie’s informants included believers, agnostics and non-believers of life after death. Use of specific terms and concepts by non-believers revealed the forces that shaped their non-belief. These forces included the materialist and atheist education in the socialist era, the celebration of science and hierarchy created between science and “superstition”. Beliefs in life after death was considered and “superstition” by many. It was associated with the rural population and negative traits such as being “uncultured” and “uneducated”. For the believers of an afterlife, rather than adhering to a single doctrine, they constructed their own version of life after death by selecting different themes from available resources. Allie identified two conditions that encouraged such process of personalization and privatization. First, the religious policy in the reform era created a hierarchical plurality in the religious field. A diversity of religious views have been allowed for choice in contemporary China. Second, the stigma that supernatural beliefs continued to carry contributed to the privatization of beliefs in life after death.

Allie argued that there are relationships between senses of life after death and how individuals understand or lives their life. First, senses of life after death influences individuals’ lives. Beliefs in reincarnation, paradise and hell, and heaven and hell provided believers moral guidance and motivated believers to perform good deeds, while beliefs in spirits inflicted emotions and influenced decision making of the believers by supernatural agents’ direct participation in believers’ life. Non-believers spoke of the moral freedom that non-belief granted, which allowed them to be more “practical” and “flexible”. Second, individuals’ senses of life after death may be a reflection of their emotional bonding with the deceased. In turn, the imagination/belief of afterlife or its absence help them make sense of their feelings towards the deceased, how they should position themselves in the relationship and how they should proceed with life. Finally, senses of life after death becomes a means through which people imagine a better China, one that is morally regulated as they feel that today is not.. A number of interviewees, believers and non-believers believed that if more people in China believed in reincarnation or heaven and hell, China would become a better place. Allie argued that this statement, unsupported empirically, had to be understood as a response to the “moral vacuum” resulted from the end of a single dominant code of ethics and the emergence of heterogeneous values since the fall of the communist ideal.

Around 40 people attended the talk and audience showed great interest in the topic. They raised questions about symbolic immortality through descendants and nationalism, the differences between Guangzhou and Hong Kong people in their attitudes towards life after death, the social and economic pattern of believers and non-believers, and how the research influences the researcher in return. The discussion was lively and engaging. In short, Allie’s talk addressed the deepest fears of individuals in Guangdong and discussed how societal values and individuals’ senses of lives influenced each other. Individuals’ imaginations reflected their pursuits in life, their attitude to life, and the social values they internalized.

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