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17: CHAPTER XV. On Death

CHAPTER XV. On Death(Lun-sse). 

People say that the dead become ghosts, are conscious, and 

can hurt men. Let us examine this by comparing men with other 

beings: — 

The dead do not become ghosts, have no consciousness, and 

cannot injure others. How do we know this? We know it from 

other beings. Man is a being, and other creatures are likewise 

beings. When a creature dies, it does not become a ghost, for 

what reason then must man alone become a ghost, when he expires? In this world you can separate man from other creatures, 

but not on the ground that he becomes a ghost. The faculty to 

become a ghost cannot be a distinctive mark. If, on the other 

hand, there is no difference between man and other creatures, we 

have no reason either to suppose that man may become a ghost. 

Man lives by the vital fluid. When he dies, this vital fluid 

is exhausted. It resides in the arteries. At death the pulse stops, 

and the vital fluid ceases to work: then the body decays, and 

turns into earth and clay. By what could it become a ghost? 

Without ears or eyes men have no perceptions. In this 

respect the deaf and the blind resemble plants and trees. But are 

men, whose vital fluid is gone, merely as if they had no eyes, or 

no ears? No. their decay means complete dissolution. 

That which is diffuse and invisible, is called a ghost, or a 

spirit. When people perceive the shape of a ghost or a spirit, it 

cannot be the vital fluid of a dead man, because ghost and spirit 

are only designations for something diffuse and invisible. When a 

man dies, his spirit ascends to heaven, and his bones return to 

the earth, therefore they are called Kwei (ghost) 1 which means " to 

return."2 A spirit (Shen) is something diffuse and shapeless. 

Some say that ghost and spirit are names of activity and 

passivity. The passive principle opposes things and returns, hence 

its name Kuei (ghost). The active principle fosters and produces 

1 鬼 2 归

192 Lun-hêng: B. Metaphysical. 

things, and therefore is called Slim (spirit),1 which means " to ex- 

tend."2 This is re-iterated without end. When it finishes, it begins again. 

Man lives by the spiritual fluid. When he dies, he again 

returns this spiritual fluid. Activity and passivity are spoken of 

as spirit and ghost. When man dies, one speaks likewise of his 

spirit and his ghost. 

The fluid becomes man, just as water turns into ice. The 

water crystallises to ice, and the fluid coagulates, and forms man. 

The ice melting becomes water, and man dying becomes spirit 

again. It is called spirit, just as molten ice resumes the name 

water. When we have a man before us, we use another name. 

Hence there are no proofs for the assertion that the dead possess 

knowledge, or that they can take a form, and injure people. 

When men see ghosts, they appear like living men. Just 

from the fact that they have the shape of living men we can infer 

that they cannot be the essence of the dead, as will be seen from 

the following : — 

Fill a bag with rice, and a sack with millet. The rice in 

the bag is like the millet in the sack. Full, they look strong, 

stand upright, and can be seen. Looking at them from afar, people 

know that they are a bag of rice, and a sack of millet, because 

their forms correspond to their contents, and thus become perceptible. If the bag has a hole, the rice runs out, and if the sack 

is damaged, the millet is spilt. Then the bag and the sack col- 

lapse, and are no more visible, when looked at from afar. 

Man's vital fluid resides in the body, as the millet and the 

rice do in the bag and the sack. At death the body decays, and 

the vital fluid disperses, just as the millet and the rice escape from 

the pierced or damaged bag, or sack. When the millet or the rice 

are gone, the bag and the sack do not take a form again. How 

then could there be a visible body again, after the vital fluid has 

been scattered and lost?

When animals die, their flesh decomposes, but their skin and 

their hair still remain, and can be worked into a fur, which appears still to have the shape of an animal. Therefore dog thieves 

will don dog skins. People then do not discover them, because 

disguised in a dog's fur-skin, they do not rouse any suspicion. 

Now, when a man dies, his skin and hair are destroyed. 

Provided that his vital force did still exist, how could the spirit 

' 神 ' 伸 

On Death. 198 

again enter the same body, and become visible? The dead cannot 

borrow the body of a living man to re-appear, neither can the 

living borrow the soul of the dead to disappear. 

The Six Animals 1 can only be transformed into a human 

shape as long as their bodies and their vital fluid are still unimpaired. When they die, their bodies putrefy, and even, if they 

possess the courage and the audacity of a tiger or a rhinoceros, 

they can no more be metamorphosed. Niu Ai, duke of Lu 2 during 

an illness could be transformed into a tiger, because he was not 

yet dead. It happens that a living body is transformed into 

another living body, but not that a dead body is changed into a 

living one. 

From the time, when heaven and earth were set in order, 

and the reign of the " Human Emperors" 3 downward people died 

at their allotted time. Of those, who expired in their middle age, 

or quite young, millions and millions might be counted. The 

number of the persons actually living would be less than that of 

those who died. If we suppose that after death a man becomes 

a ghost, there would be a ghost on every road, and at every 

step. Should men appear as ghosts after death, then tens of 

thousands of ghosts ought to be seen. They would fill the halls, 

throng the courts, and block the streets and alleys, instead of the 

one or two which are occasionally met with. 

When a man has died on a battle-field, they say that his 

blood becomes a will-o'-the-wisp. The blood is the vital force of 

the living. The will-o'-the-wisp seen by people, while walking at 

night, has no human form, it is desultory and concentrated like 

a light. Though being the blood of a dead man, it does not resemble a human shape in form, how then could a man, whose 

vital force is gone, still appear with a human body? 

If the ghosts seen all looked like dead men, there might be 

some doubt left that the dead become ghosts, and sometimes even 

assume human form. 

1 The Six Domestic Animals are: — the horse, the ox, the goat, the pig, the 

dog, and the fowl. 

2 Cf. Chap.XXVII. 

3 A series of mythical rulers of remotest antiquity. 

194 Lun-hêng: B. Metaphysical. 

Sick people see ghosts, and say that So-and-So has come to 

them. At that time So-and-So was not yet dead, but the fluid 

perceived resembled him. If the dead become ghosts, how is it 

that sick people see the bodies of the living? 

The nature of heaven and earth is such, that a new fire can 

be lighted, but an extinguished fire cannot be set ablaze again. A 

new man can be born, but a dead one cannot be resurrected. If 

burnt-out ashes could be kindled again into a blazing fire, I would 

be very much of opinion that the dead might take a bodily form 

again. Since, however, an extinguished fire cannot burn again, we 

are led to the conclusion that the dead cannot become ghosts. 

Ghosts are considered to be the vital spirits of the dead. If 

this were really the case, people seeing ghosts ought to see their 

bodies naked only, but not wearing dresses, or covered with garments, because garments have no vital spirits. When men die, 

their clothes become decomposed together with their bodies, how 

could they be put on again? 

The vital spirits have their original seat in the blood fluid, 

and this fluid always adheres to the body. If notwithstanding the 

decay of the body the vital spirits were still extant, they might 

become ghosts. Now garments are made of silk stuffs and other 

fabrics. During man's life-time his blood fluid does not permeate 

them, nor have they any blood of their own. When the body is 

destroyed, they share its fate, how could they of themselves re-assume the shape of garments. Consequently, if ghosts are seen 

which bear a resemblance to dresses, they must also be like bodies, 

and if they are, we know that they cannot be the vital spirits of 

the dead. 

Since the dead cannot become ghosts, they cannot have any 

consciousness either. We infer this from the fact that before their 

birth men have no consciousness. Before they are born, they form 

part of the, primogenial fluid, and when they die, they revert to 

it. This primogenial fluid is vague and diffuse, and the human 

fluid, a j)art of it. Anterior to his birth, man is devoid of consciousness, and at his death he returns to this original state of 

unconsciousness, for how should he be conscious? 

Man is intelligent and sagacious, because he has in himself 

the fluid of the Five Virtues, which is in him, because the Five 

On Death. 195 

Organs 1 are in his body. As long as the five parts are uninjured, 

man is bright and clever, but, when they become diseased, his 

intellect is dimmed and confused, which is tantamount to stupidity 

and dullness. 

After death the five inward parts putrefy, and, when they do 

so, the five virtues lose their substratum. That which harbours 

intelligence is destroyed, and that which is called intelligence dis- 

appears. The body requires the fluid for its maintenance, and the 

fluid, the body to become conscious. There is no fire in the world 

burning quite of itself, how could there be an essence without a 

body, but conscious of itself? 

Man's death is like sleep, and sleep comes next to a trance, 2 

which resembles death. If a man does not wake up again from 

a trance, he dies. If he awakes, he returns from death, as though 

he had been asleep. Thus sleep, a trance, and death are essentially the same. A sleeper cannot know what he did, when he 

was awake, as a dead man is unaware of his doings during his 

life-time. People may talk or do anything by the side of a sleeping man, he does not know, and so the dead man has no consciousness of the good or bad actions performed in front of his 

coffin. When a man is asleep, his vital fluid is still there, and his 

body intact, and yet he is unconscious. How much more must 

this be the case with a dead man, whose vital spirit is scattered 

and gone, and whose body is in a state of decay? 

When a man has been beaten and hurt by another, he goes 

to the magistrate, and makes his complaint, because he can talk 

to people, and is conscious. But, when a person is slain by somebody, the murderer is unknown, his family perhaps not knowing 

even the place, where his corpse is lying. If under such circumstances the murdered man was conscious, he would assuredly be 

filled with the greatest wrath against his murderer. He ought to 

be able to speak into the magistrate's ear, and give him the name 

of the miscreant, and, if he were able to go home, and speak to 

his people, he would inform them, where the body was. But all 

that he cannot do. That shows that he has no consciousness. 

1 The Five Virtues are: — Benevolence, Justice, Propriety, Knowledge, and 

Truth; the Five Organs: — the Heart, the Liver, the Stomach, the Lungs, and the 


2 No dictionary gives this meaning for t'ien 殄, which usually means " to 

exterminate, to cut off, to cease." But it cannot be anything else here. The Chinese 

of to-day will likewise call a faint "death," or "small death," hsiao-sse 小死. 

196 Lun-hêng: B. Metaphysical. 

Now-a-days, living persons in a trance will sometimes as mediums 

speak for those who have died, and diviners, striking black chords, 

will call down the dead, whose souls then will talk through the diviner's mouth. All that is brag and wild talk. If it be not mere 

gossip, then we have a manifestation of the vital fluid of some being. 

Some say that the spirit cannot speak. If it cannot speak, 

it cannot have any knowledge either. Knowledge requires a force, 

just as speech does. 

Anterior to man's death, his mental faculties and vital spirit 

are all in order. When he falls sick, he becomes giddy, and his 

vital spirit is affected. Death is the climax of sickness. If even 

during a sickness, which is only a small beginning of death, a 

man feels confused and giddy, how will it be, when the climax 

is reached? When the vital spirit is seriously affected, it loses its 

consciousness, and when it is scattered altogether? 

Human death is like the extinction of fire. When a fire is 

extinguished, its light does not shine any more, and when man 

dies, his intellect does not perceive any more. The nature of both 

is the same. If people nevertheless pretend that the dead have 

knowledge, they are mistaken. What is the difference between a 

sick man about to die and a light about to go out? When a light 

is extinguished, its radiation is dispersed, and only the candle 

remains. When man has died, his vital force is gone, and the 

body alone remains. To assert that a person after death is still 

conscious is like saying that an extinguished light shines again. 

During the chilly winter months the cold air prevails, and 

water turns into ice. At the approach of spring, the air becomes 

warm, and the ice melts to water. Man is born in the universe, 

as ice is produced, so to say. The Yang and the Yin fluids crystallise, and produce man. When his years are completed, and 

his span of life comes to its end, he dies, and reverts to those 

fluids. As spring water cannot freeze again, so the soul of a dead 

man cannot become a body again. 

Let us suppose that a jealous husband and a jealous wife are 

living together. The debauchery and the disreputable conduct of one 

party is the cause of constant outbursts of anger, fighting, and quarreling. Now, if the husband dies, the wife will marry again, and if 

the wife dies, the husband will do the same. If the other knew of it, 

he would undoubtedly fly into a rage. But husband and wife, when 

dead, keep perfectly quiet, and give no sound. The other may 

marry again, they take no heed, and it has no evil consequences. 

That proves that they are unconscious. 

On Death. 197 

Confucius buried his mother at Fang. 1 Subsequently such 

heavy rain fell, that the tomb at Fang collapsed. When Confucius 

heard of it, he wept bitterly and said: — " The ancients did not 

repair graves." 2 Therefore he did not repair it. Provided the 

dead are conscious, they ought to be angry with those who do 

not keep their tombs in repair. Knowing this, Confucius would 

have repaired the grave to please the departed soul, but he did 

not do so. His intelligence as a Sage was of the highest order, 

but he knew that spirits are unconscious. 

When dried bones are lying about in lonely places, it may 

happen that some mournful cries are heard there. If such a wail 

is heard at night-time, people believe that it is the voice of a dead 

man, but they are wrong. When a living man talks, he breathes. 

His breath is kept in his mouth and his throat. He moves his 

tongue, opens and shuts his mouth, and thus produces words. It 

is like playing a flute. When the flute is broken, the air escapes, 

and does not keep inside, and the hands have nothing to touch. 

Consequently no sound is produced. The tubes of the flute correspond to the human mouth and throat. The hands touch the 

holes in the tubes in the same manner, as man moves his tongue. 

When he is dead, his mouth and throat decay, and the tongue 

moves no more. How should words be articulated then? If, while 

dried bones are lying about, wails and laments are heard, they 

come from men, for bones cannot produce them. 

Others imagine that it is the autumn (which produces these 

sounds). This statement is not much different from the other that 

ghosts cry at night. If the autumn air causes these extraordinary 

moans and wails, it must have some substratum. Because this has 

happened near the bones of a dead man, people have presumed 

that these bones are still conscious, and utter these mournful cries 

in the wilderness. There are thousands and thousands of skeletons 

bleaching in the grass and in the swamps, therefore we ought to 

be haunted by their laments at every step. 

It is possible to make somebody speak, who usually does not 

speak, but impossible that somebody who speaks, should be induced to speak again after death. Even he who spoke before, 

cannot be caused to speak again. Similarly, when a plant comes 

1 A place in Lu (Shantung). 

2 A quotation abridged from the Li-ki, Tan Kung. Cf. Legge, Li-ki Vol. I, 

p. 123. Modern commentators explain the passage quite differently. The dictum of 

Confucius would mean that the ancients did not repair tombs, because they built them 

so well, that they could not collapse. Wang Ch'ung's interpretation is more natural. 

198 Lun-Hêng: B. Metaphysical. 

forth, its fluid is green, which is, as it were, given it. When the 

same plant dies, the green colour disappears, or is taken away. 

Endowed with the fluid, the plant is green, deprived of it, it loses 

the green colour. After the latter is gone, it cannot be added again, 

nor can the plant grow green again of its own accord. Sound 

and colour correspond to one another, and are both derived from 

Heaven. The brilliant green colour is like a lugubrious cry. The 

colour of a faded plant cannot become green again, it would, therefore, be a mistake to assume that a dead man's cry could still be 

produced of itself. 

Man is able to talk, because he possesses vital energy. As 

long as he can eat and drink, the vital energy is well fed, but no 

sooner do eating and drinking cease, than the energy is destroyed. 

After this destruction there are no more sounds possible. When 

the person is worn out, and cannot eat any more, the mouth cannot 

speak any further. Death is exhaustion in the highest degree, how 

could man still speak then? 

There are those who say that the dead smell the sacrificed 

meat, and eat the air, and that they are thus enabled to speak. 

The vital force of the dead is that of the living. Let a living 

being neither eat nor drink, and only inhale the smell of offerings, 

and feed upon air, and he will die of starvation after no more 

than three days. 

Another opinion is that the vital force of the dead is more 

powerful than that of the living, and that for this reason it can 

smell the air, and produce sounds. 

The vital force of the living is in their body, that of the 

dead, out of it. In what do the dead and the living differ, and 

what difference does it make that the vital fluid is within the 

body, or outside of it? Take water, and fill it into a big jug. 

When the jug breaks, the water flows to the earth, but can the 

water on the floor be different from that in the jug? The water 

on the floor is not different from that in the jug, then why 

should the vital force outside the body be different from that 


Since a man, when dead, does not become a ghost, has no 

knowledge, and cannot speak, he cannot hurt others either for 

the following reason, in his anger, a man uses breath, but in 

order to injure others, he requires strength. To make use of it, 

his sinews and bones must he strong, then he can hurt others. 

An angry man may breathe heavily so near to others, that his 

breath shoots forth against their faces, but though he possess the 

On Death. 199

valour of Mêng Pên, 1 it does them no harm. However, when he 

stretches out his hand, and strikes, or lifts the foot and kicks, he 

breaks whatever he hits. The bones of the dead decay, the strength 

of his muscles is lost, and he does not lift hand or foot. Although 

the vital fluid be still existant, it is, as if it were, only breathing, and nothing else follows. How then should it do harm to 


Men and other creatures hurt others by means of knives, 

which they grasp with their hands and arms, and with their strong 

and sharp nails or teeth. Now, when a man is dead, his hands 

and arms waste away, and cannot lift a blade any more, and nails 

and teeth fall out, and cannot bite any more. How should they 

do harm to others then? 

When a child is just born, his hands and feet are quite 

complete, yet the hands cannot grasp, and the feet cannot kick. 

The fluid has just concreted, but has no strength. Hence it is 

evident that the vital fluid possesses no strength. The fluid forms 

the body. As long as the body is still feeble and weak, it cannot 

do harm to any one, and how much less still, when through death 

the fluid becomes lost, and the vital spirit is dissolved. Something 

feeble and weak is uncapable of injuring people, and one asserts 

that cold bones can do it? Is the fluid of the dead not lost? How 

should it injure anybody? 

Before a hen's egg is hatched, there is a formless mass in the 

egg-shell, which, on leaking out, looks like water. After a good 

hen has covered the egg, the body of the chicken is formed, and 

when it has been completed, the young bird can pick the shell, 

and kick. Human death resembles the time of the formless mass. 

How could a formless fluid hurt anybody? 

A man becomes bold and fierce, so that he can assault others, 

by eating and drinking. Eating and drinking his fill, he grows 

stout and strong, bold and fierce, and can do harm to others. 

While a man is sick, he can neither eat nor drink, and his body 

becomes worn out and weak. W^hen this weariness and languor 

reach the highest degree, death ensues. During that time of sickness and languor his enemy may stand by his side, he cannot 

revile him, and a thief may take his things away, he has no means 

to prevent him, all on account of his debility and lassitude. Death 

is the debility and languor in the extreme, how then could a man 

after death still injure any one? 

1 Cf. Chap. XXXI. 

200 Lun-hêng: B. Metaphysical. 

If chickens or dogs, which somebody keeps, are stolen, he 

will, at all events, wax angry, though he be timid, and not very 

strong. and his anger may be so violent, that he tries conclusions 

with the robber, and is slain by him. During the time of great 

anarchy people will use one another as food. Now, provided that 

the spirit was conscious, it ought to be able to destroy its enemies.1 A human body is worth more than a chicken or a dog, 

and one's own death is of greater consequence than a robbery. 

The fact that a man is excited over a chicken or a dog, but has 

no bad feeling against the individual who devoured him, shows 

that he 2 has not the power to hurt any one. 

Prior to its casting off its exuviæ, a cicada is a chrysalis. 

When it casts them off, it leaves the pupa state, and is transformed 

into a cicada. The vital spirit of a dead man leaving the body 

may be compared to the cicada emerging from the chrysalis. As 

cicada it cannot hurt the chrysalises. Since it cannot do so, why 

should the vital spirit of a dead man hurt living bodies? 

The real nature of dreams is very doubtful. Some say that, 

while people are dreaming, their vital spirits remain in their bodies, 

and produce lucky or unlucky visions. Others hold that the vital 

spirit communicates with men and other creatures. Now, if it 

really remains in the body, the vital spirit of the dead must do 

the same. If. however, the spirit mixes with men, people may 

dream that they have killed somebody. Having killed somebody, 

they are perhaps themselves murdered by somebody else. But if, 

on the following day, they look at the body of that person, or 

examine their own, they will find no trace whatever of a wound 

inflicted by a sword. Dreams are caused by the vital spirit, and 

this spirit is identical with the vital spirit of the dead. The vital 

Spirit of dreams cannot injure people, therefore the spirit of the 

dead cannot do so either. 

When the fire burns, the caldron boils, and when the boiling 

stops, the steam ceases. All depends on the fire. When the vital 

spirit is incensed, it can do harm, not being angry, it cannot injure 

people. The fire blazing in the stove, the kettle bubbles, and 

the steam rises. When the vital force is enraged in the bosom, 

there is an innervation of strength, and the body is hot. Now, 

when a man is about to die, his body is cold and chilly. The 

cold and chilliness increase, until at last he expires. At the time 

1 Those who used its body as food. 

2 His spirit. 

On Death. 201 

of death, the vital spirit is not irritated, and after the death of 

the body it is like the hot water taken from the caldron, how 

should it hurt people? 

Things have a certain relation to man. When a man becomes 

insane, and one knows the proper tiling, his malady may be cured 

by applying this thing as a remedy. As long as a thing is alive, 

its vital spirit adheres to its body, and consequently can change 

its form, and enter into close connection with man. After it has 

died, its body rots, and the vital spirit is dispersed. In default 

of a substratum it cannot undergo any more changes. The human 

vital spirit is like that of things. While they are alive, their spirit 

may become sick, when they die, it evaporates and disappears. 

Men are like things in this respect, when they die, their vital spirit 

also becomes extinguished, how could it still do any mischief? 

Should anybody object by saying that men are much more 

precious than things, and that their vital spirit is different, we can 

reply that, as a matter of fact, things can be metamorphosed, but 

man cannot, and that so far his vital spirit is on the contrary 

inferior to that of things, whose essence surpasses that of man. 

Water and fire drown and burn. All that can injure man 

must be a substance belonging to one of the five elements. ^Metal 

hurts man, wood beats him, earth crushes him, water drowns him, 

and fire burns him. Is the vital spirit of the dead a substance 

like the five elements? Does it injure people, or is it not a sub- 

stance? — It cannot injure people. Not being a substance, it must 

be a fluid. Of the fluids which injure man that of the sun is the 

most virulent. Does the fluid of a man, when he dies, become 

virulent? Can it injure people or not? — It cannot injure people. 

Thus we hold that the dead do not become ghosts, are not 

conscious, and cannot hurt people. Consequently, it is evident that 

the ghosts, which are seen, are not the vital force of dead men, 

and that, when men have been hurt, it cannot have been done 

through this vital force. 

202 Lun-Hêng: B. Metaphysical.