Death in literature: East vs. West | Minnie Chen – Grade 12

china funeral death A funeral in three religions

Death in novels often shows a writer’s relationship with death, and moreover, their life philosophy. Different countries’ cultures have greatly influenced writers’ interpretations of life and death, and makes them see the death as either something positive or passive.

Death in Japanese literature

Many Japanese novels use death to tell their story, like Akutagawa Ryūnosuke’s In A Grove. The story starts with a recently murdered character, but three suspects respectively admitted that he or she is the murderer. What’s more, the dead character said that he killed himself. The main reason that he said he committed suicide is that he wants to protect his noble image. Instead of being killed by others, killing himself seems to allow him to die with dignity. This behavior indicates a strong link to the typical Bushido outlook.

Bushido is regarded as Eastern “chivalry”. Chivalry was formed with the manorialism system in the Medieval Christian era. Each lord had knights to protect his castle. Therefore, the standards for knighthood took shape, asking for sacrifice, mercy, and honesty, to name but a few. In the same way, Bushido originated from Japanese feudal society in the Edo period, but their faith in this chivalric system was stronger. They deeply believed that their reputation was much more important than their life. There’s a Bushido’s saying that goes “Bushido takes death as nothing.” They believed that if they died with honor, the time spent alive was perfect, as with the iconic Japanese flower- the sakura- which wither in their most beautiful time. When they are blown down by the wind, the fallen red petals are strongly associated with the blood of Bushido philosophy.

In Japanese society, Bushido can be seen everywhere. The philosophy is known by everyone who has lived in Japan. Politeness, manners, and respect are the most distinctive feature of Bushido’s spirit. However, committing suicide is the first thing to comes into mind for modern citizens when talking about Bushido. Seppuku, a ritual self-disemboweling, is how a samurai commits suicide. They use this practice to restore their honor if they have lost it.

Chinese literature and life philosophy

Chinese novels, specifically martial arts novels, explore how the emperor and authorities oppress the citizens. Outlaws of the Marsh is a classic novel written about people’s revolt against long enduring government pressure. For nearly 2000 years, Chinese people lived under the emperor’s control the quality of their life was directly related to the emperor at that time. In the Wei and Jin Dynasties, the unsteady political situation made writers want to live like a hermit: this life philosophy was Neo-Daoism. In the fusing Daoism and Confucianism, they got out of a depressing situation. They tried to avoid talking about politics, and instead started to evaluate others’ personalities, and left the etiquette they had long been forced to have behind. The Seven Sages of Bamboo Grove (竹林七賢) are the most famous representatives of Neo-Daoism. In one of their stories, Ruan Ji’s (阮籍) mother was dead, and he was so saddened that he suddenly became severely thin and drank alcohol everyday. It’s not appropriate in traditional Chinese culture for people to do anything related to entertainment, including getting drunk, after their parents die.

Daoism’s main idea is closely tied with nature. Daoists believe that life and death are a natural cycle, and people shouldn’t be too upset or sorrowful for others’ deaths. They emphasize following nature, which is related to fortune-telling, and the reason that they use I Ching (易經) to explain the world. Confucianism is a kind of moral system in Chinese society. Confucianists have faith in the ability to make the world better. Contrasted with Daoism, Confucianism puts people into social groups to better regulate them.

In the Ming and Qing dynasties, the governors made the citizens live in hot water – severe punishments were given out often, and the intelligentsia had no stage to raise their beliefs. Depressed by the political situation, they began to write novels to show their indignation. They often satirized their leaders and the corruption of the government.

Western literature and attitudes towards death

Death in Western novels is more rational. Unlike Chinese culture being afraid of talking about death, Western writers are more sensible when they face the issue. Christians believe that the spirit will not disappear. The body may be dead, but the spirit will go to another world, like heaven or hell. In the Middle Ages, Christians even thought that death would be more happy than life because the world was too depressing a place to live. They were seeking a peaceful life with their God.

Death seems to be not so serious in Western society. It is more a personal than public thing. In ancient Rome, there was a law that if a person had a sufficient reason to commit suicide, the authorities could give poison to them. Death is not the end of the life, it just changes to a new form and keeps going. In the memoir Tuesdays with Morrie, the titular Morrie says that when learn you how to die, and learn you how to live. In contrast, Confucius had said “While you do not know life, how can you know about death?” This obviously shows how different people think of death when from a different culture.

While different cultures have different concepts of life and death, they have one thing in common: that life is valuable. Whether people choose to live or die, no one can deny them that right. People are responsible for the choices they make in their lives, from the beginning to the end of the journey.

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