Saturday, April 3, 2010

China and Death

This Monday is 清明节, also known as Tomb-Sweeping Day, where Chinese people pay respects to their deceased relatives. It's a somber festival, and devoid of the hoopla and atmosphere that Halloween enjoys. And it's this very different take on a similar theme that points out a key divergence in Eastern/Western thinking.

Death is not fun in China. Death is not cool, death is not entertaining, death is not a sweet release from a wearisome life. Death is the ultimate mortal terror and is in no way preferable or desirable. Chinese accept death as a natural part of life but death is not romanticized or personified by easily-marketable ghoulish cartoon characters.

The West, on the other hand, has long had a morbid fascination with death, and many psychologists would no doubt argue that this is a coping mechanism; i.e., make friends with the object of your terror to convince yourself that it's less terrible. We have the Grim Reaper, a tall thin gentleman dressed in a black suit and top hat, Jack Skellington from The Nightmare Before Christmas , the Final Destination films, and countless other tangible incarnations of death.

Yet in daily life, Westerners are often far removed from actual contact with death, whereas in China, and most developing countries, death rubs shoulders every day with the people on the street. Now I'm not talking about homicides or anything (this isn't Somalia, after all), but even a stroll through a Chinese open market is a somber reminder that for life to sustain, another life must be snuffed. And I believe that it is because of these continual reminders that Chinese have a very realistic and instinctive aversion to death, whereas Westerners have romanticized death to the point that it's a badge of honor to openly defy death, even to the point of recklessness.

Now I confess that I subscribe to the Western perspective on death, and while I'm not a daredevil, I've had several experiences pursuing the adrenalin rush that had me looking death in the eye, though usually just for a moment. After nearly five years of living in China, I still believe that Chinese people are too safe and their fear of death and injury paralyzes rather than liberates them, but this is just cultural and personal perspectives. The bottom line is that death mortifies all, and anyone who seeks a brush with death for a thrill is a fool, but that doesn't mean we should stay as far away from the edge as possible. But death is not the dread behemoth that has most people cowering in fear of it, and since this weekend is Easter, I think it's an appropriate time to give props to the One who defeated death on its home turf. I can honestly say that because of this truth, I do not fear death. I do not want to die, but the idea of death does not paralyze me, because I know it's not the end. Life wants to remain, and for most people, this life is all they have. But if you believe that there is something beyond this life, then death is just a door to something better. It might be painful, but we've all got to go through sometime, and like most things in life, it's never as terrible as we imagine. I'm actually pretty curious about it :-P.

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