Saturday, November 10, 2012

Chinese have a lot of Hells

Eddie: Well sure it was a war. And anybody that showed up was gonna join Lem Lee in the Hell of Being Cut to Pieces.
Jack Burton: Hell of being what?
Eddie: Chinese have a lot of Hells.

I don't know how true this is, but the story I've heard is that Christian missionaries warned all non-Christian Chinese they'd "go to Hell" upon death. The Chinese believed Hell was just the English term for the afterlife and incorporated the word "Hell" into their pre-existing cosmology of a underworld court, where the dead wound up regardless of their virtue during life.

I can't remember the first time I was exposed to the concept of Hell Money. If I had to guess, I would assume that it was through my copy of "Sex and Zen and A Bullet in the Head", which was a comprehensive (at the time of its publication) summary of the best Hong Kong flicks. It's also just about the best possible title for a book. The deal with Hell Money is that when you burn something in our world with the proper rituals, it goes to the deceased in hell. The burning of hell money enables the ancestor to purchase luxuries and necessities needed for a comfortable afterlife.You can also burn hell cars or hell houses or whatever. If you want to send a message to the dead, you can write a prayer on a piece of paper and burn it.

Wikipedia had this to add: In 2006, China's deputy minister for civil affairs, Dou Yupei, said he intended to ban at least the more extreme forms of joss paper (hell money), such as MP3 players, planes, boats and even paper condoms, paper prostitutes and Viagra. How awesome is that?!

I was rereading Bridge of Birds the other week, and it's such a great book. I can't remember the last time I cried over a work of fiction, but Bridge of Birds made me cry. There is this character, Miser Shen, who was a good man, who loved his daughter, but who became a miser in order to accumulate enough money to pay the wisest man in the world enough to bring her back to life. At this point in the story, Miser Shen was shot with a crossbow and he's dying and he believes he's talking to a priest.

"You are the priest?" he said hoarsely to Li Kao. "My little girl has been murdered by the Duke of Ch'in, and they tell me that I will feel better if I burn a prayer and send it to her, but I do not know how to write."

For Miser Shen it was forty years ago, when the death of his daughter had begun to drive him insane.

"I am the priest," Master Li said quietly. "I will write down your prayer for you."

Miser Shen's lips moved silently, and I sensed that he was rehearsing. Finally he was ready, and he made a terrible effort to concentrate on what he wanted to say to his daughter. This is the prayer of Miser Shen.

"Alas, great is my sorrow. Your name is Ah Chen, and when you were born I was not truly pleased. I am a farmer, and a farmer needs strong sons to help with his work, but before a year had passed you had stolen my heart. You grew more teeth, and you grew daily in wisdom, and you said 'Mommy' and 'Daddy' and your pronunciation was perfect. When you were three you would knock at the door and then you would run back and ask, 'Who is it?' When you were four your uncle came to visit and you played the host. Lifting your cup, you said, 'Ching!' and we roared with laughter and you blushed and covered your face with your hands, but I know that you thought yourself very clever. Now they tell me that I must try to forget you, but it is hard to forget you.

"You carried a toy basket. You sat at a low stool to eat porridge. You repeated the Great Learning and bowed to Buddha. You played at guessing games, and romped around the house. You were very brave, and when you fell and cut your knee you did not cry because you did not think it was right. When you picked up fruit or rice, you always looked at people's faces to see if it was all right before putting it in your mouth, and you were careful not to tear your clothes.

"Ah Chen, do you remember how worried we were when the flood broke our dikes and the sickness killed our pigs? Then the Duke of Ch'in raised our taxes and I was sent to plead with him, and I made him believe that we could not pay our taxes. Peasants who cannot pay taxes are useless to dukes, so he sent his soldiers to destroy our village, and thus it was the foolishness of your father that led to your death. Now you have gone to Hell to be judged, and I know that you must be very frightened, but you must try not to cry or make loud noises because it is not like being at home with your own people.

"Ah Chen, do you remember Auntie Yang, the midwife? She was also killed, and she was very fond of you. She had no little girls of her own, so it is all right for you to try to find her, and to offer her your hand and ask her to take care of you. When you come before the Yama Kings, you should clasp your hands together and plead to them: 'I am young and I am innocent. I was born in a poor family, and I was content with scanty meals. I was never willfully careless of my shoes and my clothing, and I never wasted a grain of rice. If evil spirits bully me, may thou protect me.' You should put it just that way, and I am sure that the Yama Kings will protect you.

"Ah Chen, I have soup for you and I will burn paper money for you to use, and the priest is writing down this prayer that I will send to you. If you hear my prayer, will you come to see me in my dreams? If fate so wills that you must yet lead an earthly life, I pray that you will come again to your mother's womb. Meanwhile I will cry, 'Ah Chen, your father is here!' I can but weep for you, and call your name."

Miser Shen fell silent. I thought that he had died, but then he opened his eyes again.

"Did I say it right?" he whispered. "I practiced for a long time, and I wanted to say it right, but I am confused in my mind and something seems to be wrong."

"You said it perfectly," Master Li said quietly.

No comments:

Post a Comment