Painting by Zhang Hongnian (张红年). Retrieved from here.
Most humans experience intense emotions throughout their lives, such as love, lust, anger, and grief. In its most general sense, the nature of grief is about feeling pain and sadness. First used in 13th century France, grief is defined as the feeling of injustice, misfortune, and calamity, and derives from grever, which means to “afflict, burden, oppress” (Harper, 2017). In Latin, gravare is something which makes heavy or causes grief, coming from gravis– that which is weighty or heavy. While the expression ‘good grief’ has been used since the 1900s to express surprise or dismay, grief is a deep emotional response or a mental state when reacting to the death of someone or loss of something. Bereavement or mourning, on the other hand, indicates the process of grieving. Although there is no timeframe for grieving, mourning is meant to signify a period when grieving can properly take place.
There are many examples of how grieving takes place, and the expression of grief is culturally specific. In other words, how we experience sadness and pain is influenced by our culture’s rituals, customs, and beliefs. Generally, sobbing at the news of the death of a loved one and the experience of shock and sadness is an example of grief. From the Euro-American view, such an experience can be harmful as it destroys an individual’s assumptive world: the condition of one’s reality is altered as the loss of a loved one disrupts one’s social network and emotional health. Thus, Shear and Smith-Caroff (2002) calls the act of grieving a ‘syndrome’ as grieving often induces a person to be shocked, cry, decline to eat, neglect basic responsibilities, and so on. The extent of which grief can affect one’s life was criticised by the Greek philosopher Epicurus (341-270 B.C.), who argued that grief is entirely self-centred and misguided. Since, Epicurus believed that being dead was harmless and we cannot stop death from occurring, the fear of death and sadness for someone’s death is irrational and only harms the griever.
In Chinese philosophy, Zhuang Zhou (370-287 B.C.) had a similar opinion. In the ancient text, the Zhuangzi 莊子, which was written during the late Warring States period, the chapter ‘Perfect Enjoyment’ (至樂) particularly deals with this theme. The story goes that one day, Zhuang Zhou meets with his friend Hui Shi just after Zhuang Zhou’s wife had died. Hui Shi found that Zhuang Zhou was singing joyously and beating on a drum. Astonished, Hui Shi remarked:
“When a wife has lived with her husband, and brought up children, and then dies in her old age, not to wail for her is enough. When you go on to drum on this basin and sing, is it not an excessive (and strange) demonstration?”
Zhang Zhou replied that it is not. Initially, he had been very upset. But after reflecting on the circumstances of her being, and how she came to be through changes in the cosmos- through the intermingling of waste and dark chaos that resulted in change, breath, change again, bodily form, birth, and life- he realised that death represented just another aspect of this cycle. Just as the seasons change, his wife had simply taken part in the process of life. Understanding this, Zhuang Zhou restrained himself and his grief disappeared.
For Confucius, however, grief is not only natural and expected, it is necessary. Although Confucius also suggested looking positively at the transformative stages of life and death, where people should be more concerned about life and care less about the uncertainty of death (Qin & Xia, 2015), ritual and respect were noted to be important factors to consider when reacting to death. As Confucius states in The Analects passage 3.4, “In rites in general, rather than extravagance, better frugality. In funeral rites, rather than thoroughness, better real grief.” Put simply, in following ritual and carrying out the correct mourning practices, one should not be afraid to feel sorrow and confront loss.
In traditional China, ancestor worship was one of the ways which many people could express their grief and sorrow while receiving guidance from those who had passed. The rituals in ancestor worship acted as narratives that connected the family to individuals, their social status, and the land which they once occupied. Researchers from Webster University, Klass and Goss (2003), note that funeral rituals actually developed from Daoism as they were meant to ensure the deceased received what they needed before passing on to the other world. But once Confucianism was popularised in the following dynasties, funeral rites were re-interpreted to fit within a Confucian social framework that represented hierarchy in the family and community. Since the most important family relationship was that of the father and son, and filial piety (xiao, 孝) or respect and obligation was one of the highest regarded virtues, funeral rituals were primarily designed for sons to mourn their fathers. For instance, only the death of a father who had a son merited a full funeral ritual, while all other deaths had only part funerals. Parents whose children had died merited no ritual at all.
Although grieving is culturally monitored in that individuals, families, and communities have rules for how to display and handle emotions of grief, grieving intensively and in ways that transgress ritual was not necessarily prohibited. There is not much information in the Analects on how to respond to those grieving over the death of a loved one, so the passages that describe Confucius’s grief over the death of Yan Hui顏回 are significant. Hui or Yan Hui was one of Confucius’s most celebrated disciples, often portrayed as someone who was wise and dutiful. In passage 6.3, when Duke Ai asked which of Confucius’s disciples loved learning, Confucius replied that it was Yan Hui who never repeated his errors or became agitated. From passages 9.20-9.22, Confucius also describes Yan Hui as never lazy and observant. In that case, when Yan Hui dies Confucius chooses not to hold back on his grief lamenting, “Oh! Tian destroys me! Tian destroys me!” (11.9). When Confucius’s followers state that the Master wails beyond proper bounds, Confucius replies: “Have I? If I do not wail beyond proper bounds for this man, then for whom?” (11.10).
If grief is to be understood as a necessary precondition for the process and ritual of mourning, it is only natural that one expresses emotions that signify sadness, sorrow, or despair. However, to explain Confucius’s expression of grief which went beyond the ‘proper bounds’, it is important to not only consider the relationship between Confucius and Yan Hui, but also the attitude towards death that Confucius demonstrates when losing Hui. As Ivanhoe (2002) and Olberding (2004) highlight, the sorrow of Confucius at the death of his disciple was partly attributable to the way in which Hui’s death was wasteful: Hui was a young person who lived in accordance with the Dao, but did not get to live life to his maximum potential. In addition to this, we can understand the relationship of Confucius and Hui by what the David Hall and Roger Ames (1987) call an “actualization of a mode of being” (p. 178), where a superior person realises or creates ritual through personal signification. Put simply, the “mode of being” for Confucius on the death of Yan Hui does not, and cannot, serve as instruction for all but rather shows Confucius reacting to the moment rather than prescribing action for all.
For Confucius, Yan Hui’s death signified not only the loss of a good student and friend, but the closing of developmental avenues for Confucius himself. With the “dramatic and final rupture in the relationship between him and his treasured disciple, Confucius laments over “the Confucius who never was” (Olberding, 2004, p. 294). To understand the phrase “the Confucius who never was”, it should be noted that the Chinese concept of self is inextricably linked to communal relationships. As a result, when one member of a community is lost, other members of the community are affected in ways where their own sense of selves are altered because of the self’s relational nature. Confucius sense of self was altered in that Hui’s death signified the loss of a friend and the loss of a Confucius who could never be as Confucius could no longer learn by interacting with Hui.
Contrasting the traditional view of Confucianism as a mode of philosophy that suppresses individuality and emotions (see Ho, 1995), the practice of grieving in passage 11.9 Analects highlights that there is flexibility in mourning practices. Sometimes it may be appropriate to transgress ritual if it is useful to help one deal with emotional pain and bereavement. Because we live through others just as others influence, shape, and live through us, grief cannot be a matter of theoretical instruction, but an immediate reality.