Qingming Festival Lecture: Do Humans Have Souls?

File photo of Yang Peng
File photo of Yang Peng
By Sophia LiuApril 8th, 2024

Scholar Yang Peng gave an online lecture to discuss the existence of the soul and its residence around this year's Qingming Festival. 

On April 2, Yang Peng, a previous research scholar at the Asia Center of Harvard University from 2014 to 2016 who graduated from the Department of Western Languages at Beijing University, shared his views on the soul from the perspective of Chinese history, quoting Chapter King Wen in Greater Odes of the Kingdom from the Book of Songs, as well as those of Greek philosophy and Christian beliefs. As the Qingming Festival is a time for mourning and remembering the deceased, he hoped to use the occasion to guide Chinese people in seriously considering whether the soul exists and where it resides.

Yang Peng has conducted comparative studies between sinology, Judaism, and Christianity, with profound and accessible insights. His works include Becoming God, The Rise of New East Asian Culture, and The Origin and Development of the Concept of God in China.

At the beginning of the lecture titled “A Brief Discussion on Chinese and Western Beliefs in the Soul for the Occasion of the Qingming Festival: Starting from Chapter King Wen in Greater Odes of the Kingdom from the Book of Songs”, Yang pointed out that we sometimes do contradictory things, such as not believing in the existence of the soul but still worshiping our ancestors and sweeping their graves during the Qingming Festival. Therefore, he posed a question: "Do you believe you have a soul?"

Afterward, he shared a true story about a friend who was worried about the existence of the soul after death and facing an unfamiliar place. Although he did not know where the soul would go, he still donated money to build temples, churches, and Buddhist statues so that he would have familiar faces to greet after he dies.

The scholar then revealed a fact through interpretations of verses from Chapter King Wen in Greater Odes of the Kingdom from the Book of Songs, such as “King Wen is on high; Oh! Bright is he in heaven" and “He who dies yet his spirit remains has longevity” from the Tao Te Ching, and “My way layeth remote and so far, far away; I shall go up and down to make my long search aye” from Ch’u Tz’u. The beginning of the spirit of Chinese civilization is the belief in the existence of the soul, which resides in the heavens with God and ascends into a warm and bright world.

He mentioned that in the Zhou Dynasty, the soul was believed to ascend to the heavens, while the soul of Qin Shi Huang, the founder of the Qin dynasty and the first Emperor of China, was deemed to go underground because he built an underground palace. "Nowadays, people may believe that the soul goes to the eighteen levels of hell or the underworld. However, there was no mention of such beliefs in pre-Qin literature. It emerged only after the Han Dynasty. Mentioning hell and the underworld is very frightening, so during the Qingming Festival, people burn yellow papyrus as money for the dead because they are believed to be suffering and impoverished in hell. People offer leeks as food to the dead because they are believed to be hungry, and they burn clothes made of paper because they are believed to be cold. If no one cares for them, they will become wandering spirits. This also explains why ancient people believed having many children was a blessing," he explained. 

Subsequently, he compared and contrasted Greek and Christian cultures, which both believe in the existence of the soul and consider the essence of human life to reside in the soul rather than the physical body. Representative figures of Greek culture include Aristotle, Plato, and Socrates, who believed in the existence of the soul and its ascent to a warm world.

He then compared Christian beliefs, which proclaim that the soul comes from God because God formed man from the dust of the ground and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life, and he became a living being. The Bible is the pathway that guides the soul back to God.

“A drizzling rain falls like tears on the Mourning Day; The mourner’s heart is going to break on his way.” This is a verse from well-known poem titled Qingming. Yang mentioned that such poems are sung when the soul goes to an undesirable place like hell or the underworld, but not when it goes to a bright and warm place. He shared that observing George W. Bush recalling his father’s parachute jumps and chasing after his mother at George H. W. Bush’s funeral, which elicited laughter from the audience and made the funeral a lighter occasion, is very different from the usual weeping and crying. "George W. Bush did not burn yellow papyrus or offer clothes or food to his father because he believed his father’s soul had gone to a beautiful and warm place."

- Translated by Charlie Li

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