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Grief and mourning are expressed differently in every culture. However, research on bereaved populations has tended to be dominated by Western perspectives since Freud's (1917) Mourning and Melancholy. Drawing from more recent bodies of knowledge in clinical psychology and psychiatry, health professionals have shown a shift in direction and have included the assessment and diagnoses of specific states of grief. Specifically, professionals have regarded certain states of grief as disorders or requiring assistance, such as prolonged grief disorder found in the International Classification of Diseases 11th Revision (ICD-11; World Health Organization, 2020) and the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, fifth edition, text revision (DSM-5-TR; American Psychiatric Association, 2021). Furthermore, cultural differences in grief symptoms have been shown to exist as illustrated by a comparative study of Chinese- and German-speaking bereaved individuals (Stelzer et al., 2020). Therefore, the aim of this column is to explore the cultural origins behind expressions of grief and mourning in Chinese culture and illustrate some of the expressions and variations regarding the meaning and structural symbols of the Chinese word 哀伤” (grief). Another aim is to understand the impacts of social change on Chinese mourning and grief, which may provide a framework for future research and the recognition of the continuum of needs of bereaved populations in modern times.

The Original and Derived Meaning of the Chinese Character “哀伤

The Chinese word “哀伤” contains two pictograms, “哀” and “伤,” which are related in meaning but have some differences. For instance, the ancient Chinese dictionary Shuowen Jiezi (Xu, ca. Han dynasty/2020) regarded “哀” as etymologically related to pity, which has been used to refer to grieving relatives expressing their condolences for the deceased. In terms of pronunciation, “哀” (āi) sounded like people lamenting or wailing. Moreover, ancient people often covered their faces with sleeves or lapels when they were weeping. A pictographic representation of “哀” is wrapping “口” (mouth) within the “衣” (attire). Figure 1 shows the structure of “哀” and its evolution. Although “哀” has gradually become simplified, it always depicts the living covering their faces with sleeves and crying in the face of the deceased, indicative of someone too sad to speak. Therefore, “哀” also means sorrow.

Figure 1

Evolution of the “哀” word source (Chinese Dictionary, 2022)

A                          B                       C                                D                       E

Note. Panel A: Bell-cauldron Inscription. Panel B: Bamboo and silk books of Chu. Panel C: Shuowen Jiezi. Panel D: Bamboo books of Qin. Panel E: Regular Script.

With regard to the second pictogram, “伤” originally referred to physical injuries. Since the loss of a loved one could cause strong grief, as if a wound had been torn out in their heart, the words “哀” and “伤” are often used together to accentuate the intense psychological pain caused by loss. As the word “哀” is a figurative manifestation of specific behaviors and attitudes of Chinese people during the mourning process, the word “伤” is used to further emphasize the emotional intensity that is also associated with loss. Therefore, the combination of the terms, “哀伤,” represents the Chinese cultural concept and process of mourning, involving the cognitive, emotional, and relational aspects of the Chinese bereavement experience.

Ancient Chinese Mourning Rituals

Since the Western Zhou period (1046–771 B.C.), traditional Chinese mourning rituals have leveraged the principle of “礼” (propriety) to convey human concern through etiquette or ritualized behaviors to approach others (Peng, 2012). As “哀” is a figurative combination of two parts—“口” (mouth) and “衣” (attire)—weeping and mourning attire constituted two key parts of traditional Chinese mourning rituals.

Weeping ran through all parts of the ancient Chinese funeral rituals, i.e., it occurred before, during, and after burial, with different meanings and forms. Confucianism considered weeping as a natural human expression of grief. Regarding the extent of weeping, in the book On Propriety: Social and Individual Behavior, Dai (ca. Han dynasty/2017) noted that “the graduated reduction of that expression in accordance with the natural changes (of time and feeling) was made by the superior men, mindful of those to whom we owe our being” (p. 49). On an individual level, excessive grief may damage one's health. On a social level, Confucianism viewed excessive emotional expression as disobedience to the deceased, which can undermine order and stability in a family and society. It is therefore important to temper the grief process with ritual and observe the laws of nature to handle this major event (Peng, 2012).

During the pre-Qin period, from the mourning ceremony to the entire funeral, the Chinese used mourning attire to identify their kinship with the deceased. The general requirement was that during the mourning process, everyone had to dress differently from head to toe than they wore in their daily lives. Therefore, mourning attire was another focus of traditional Chinese mourning rituals. The Book of Etiquette and Ceremonial (The I-Li, ca. Spring and Autumn period/1970) has a chapter dedicated to this. For example, all mourning attire should be made of coarse cloth. The closer the relationship was, the coarser the cloth quality and the less artificially processed. Confucianism viewed kinship as the most natural feeling of human beings. An important feature of the mourning attire system was to match the intensity of kinship between people by setting different mourning periods (e.g., a filial son must observe a "death watch" a period of three years) and different weights of mourning attire. Attire, and other accessories adorned by people during periods of mourning, was also aimed toward generating harmonization between grieving individuals (and their stages of grief) and the poor and humble living conditions. The traditional Chinese mourning system was thus rich in symbolic meaning through dress (Zhou, 2019).

Traditional Chinese mourning rituals were also strongly communal in nature. What was more, by emphasizing filial piety to parents and elders, the needs of the family took precedence over individual expressions of emotion. Social control was established by clarifying kinship between each person and the deceased. Kinship relationships served thereafter to delineate corresponding hierarchies and the necessary order in the society and broader family systems (Wu, 2020).

The Simplification of Mourning Rituals in Modern China

Today, traditional mourning rituals have been greatly simplified in China. First, people choose individual grave burial more often than burial by kinship. Cremation has also become a more economical (and originally hygienic) way to bury the dead. As a result of these changes in rituals, the entire funeral process has been simplified and shortened. Weeping has also ceased to be a necessary collective ritualistic expression and more private. Furthermore, the original meaning of mourning attire has gradually become less important over time. The differentiation between relatives via the wearing of different mourning attire is no longer emphasized. Generally, only the deceased’s next of kin carries the mourning attire. For example, the black cloth is wrapped around one arm according to the gender of the deceased, with male on the left and female on the right.
Scholars have posited different ideas for why Chinese mourning rituals have changed over time; chief among them has been widespread atheism (Zhang & Jia, 2018). With the establishment of the socialist system in China, the modern Chinese mentality towards mourning or grief is affected by the materialistic or atheistic ideology. The traditional Confucianist, Buddhist, and Taoist interpretation of the mourning system has been diluted with this social shift (Hsu et al., 2009). Moreover, modern socio-economic development has led people to pursue a more convenient and straightforward mode of commemoration and burial (e.g., public columbarium construction). Other globalization factors have had further implications and have led to a restructuring of traditional mourning rituals in China, such as the impact of Christian holidays and other customs (Qin & Xia, 2015).


Ancient China viewed mourning rituals as a tool for expressing ideas and organizing society. In China, this historical knowledge is still much more disseminated on a cognitive level than in Western societies. Confucianism showed no excessive concern for the ritual itself, but rather emphasized emotional involvement and expression of notions from which the concept of filial piety and the division of kinship hierarchy was to be reflected. Regarding time frame, traditional Chinese mourning rituals have a kind of three-year "death watch" to enable the bereaved to express their emotions comprehensively and fulfill the function of internalizing their beliefs on loss and grief.

Although modern abbreviated mourning rituals can facilitate people’s grieving processes, they may lead to an “unfinished” mourning process compared to the complex mourning rituals prescribed in ancient China––even if such cultural-critical conclusions should not be drawn too easily. Mourning rituals are psychologically restorative in terms of increasing people’s sense of reality about death, their sense of control over their lives, the rich diversity of cathartic expressions, and their connection with others (Zhang & Jia, 2018). Prolonged grief disorder is a new diagnostic criterion with intervention value that is currently being closely studied by many clinicians and scientists around the world (Prigerson et al., 2021). Therefore, it seems valuable to consider abbreviated mourning rituals (e.g., grieving for the deceased with less time and frequency) as potential factors that warrant future research on the development of prolonged grief disorder.

About the Authors

Jun Wen is a PhD student in the Division of Psychopathology and Clinical Interventions at the University of Zurich, Switzerland. Areas of clinical and research expertise include cross-cultural research and intervention on prolonged grief disorder.

Andreas Maercker, Ph,D, MD, is a full professor and head of the Division of Psychopathology and Clinical Interventions at the University of Zurich, Switzerland. He is co-director of the Institute’s outpatient clinic services. Prof. Maercker is or has been principal and co-investigator in numerous national and international studies in traumatic stress research, clinical gerontopsychology, and internet-assisted mental health. He is particularly interested in the cultural clinical psychology and prolonged grief disorder.


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