Chapter

The Han Cult of the Dead and Salvific Religion

Richard von Glahn

in The Sinister Way

Published by University of California Press

Published in print April 2004 | ISBN: 9780520234086
Published online May 2012 | e-ISBN: 9780520928770 | DOI: http://dx.doi.org/10.1525/california/9780520234086.003.0003
The Han Cult of the Dead and Salvific Religion

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During the four centuries of the Han dynasty, Chinese conceptions of death and the afterlife underwent a profound transformation brought about not only by new ideas about the divine, but also by changes in the relationship between the living and their ancestors. The spirits of the dead were believed to endure as vital beings in the tomb yet at the same time were subject to divine judgment and punishment. The infernal gods meted out severe punishments to mortals who led a sinful life. Han tombs were outfitted with a variety of apotropaic talismans intended to protect the deceased from the forces of putrefaction and decay. The changing forms and functions of tombs, grave goods, and mortuary ritual show that older conceptions of the ancestors as powerful and willful gods had become overshadowed by images of the dead as pathetic ghosts condemned to a bleak existence within the subterranean prisons of their tombs. Around the end of the first century CE, the cult of the dead began to assume increasingly elaborate forms.

Keywords: Han dynasty; the dead; death; afterlife; punishment; ancestors; tombs; ghosts; gods; divine judgment

Chapter.  12969 words.  Illustrated.

Subjects: Christianity

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