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Burial practices in China

From early in China's history, society attempted to cross the boundary between this world and the next, calling on the ancestors of both rulers and ordinary people. Ancestors were worshipped because of their ability to communicate with the many gods and spirits on behalf of the living. Chinese burial practices had two main components: tombs and their contents, and ceremonies to honour the dead, performed in temples and offering halls by their relatives.

The Chinese believed that the next world was a continuation of this one, and so the deceased were provided with everything they would need. Different dynasties emphasized different aspects. For example, in the Shang and Zhou periods (about 1500-350 BC), the dead were buried with sets of bronze vessels, so they could continue their practice of offering sacrifices to their ancestors. In the late Zhou and early Han periods (fourth-first century BC), fine bronzes, lacquers and jades used in court life were buried, and ritual vessels declined in importance. In the later Han dynasty (first-second century AD), replicas of buildings and other aspects of daily life were placed in the tombs. In the Tang dynasty (AD 618-906), the deceased preserved their servants, ladies-in-waiting and military escorts in ceramic models.

Despite these differences in detail, attempts to recreate the world show that the idea of life continuing after death was a constant feature of Chinese belief, right up to the end of the Qing dynasty in the early twentieth century.

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