Teaching Module

Ancient China

Mourning Rituals for Deceased Children [Tribute]


This moving tribute, carved in the stone of an elaborate shrine, honored a five-year-old boy who died in 170 CE. While the emotions expressed in this inscription seem universal in nature, it is important to note that in Chinese antiquity, mourning a small child was considered to be highly irregular.

According to an ancient Chinese text on ritual called the Yili, mourning rites are prescribed for the "early death" of children according to three different age groups: children eight to 11; children 12 to 15, and children 16 to 19. Children who died between the ages of three months and seven were designated "early deaths for which no mourning garments are worn." Infants who lived less than three months were not to be wept for and were presumably outside all of these categories, though one early commentator claims that parents who lost a child less than three months old could weep one day for each month the infant lived. But even with that provision, a child who survived less than a month was not to be wept for at all.

We can perhaps interpret the lack of ritual recognition accorded most deceased newborns to the very fragility of the infant in early China. The absence of mourning and burial rites here may well reflect a general reluctance to become too attached to an infant whose chances of survival were uncertain. A quotation from a letter Plutarch (b. ca. 45-50 CE) wrote to his wife, Timoxena, urging her not give way to excessive grief at the death of their two year old daughter, shows a similar attitude toward mourning small children:

"But the truth of this will appear in the laws and traditions received from our ancestors. For when children die, no libations nor sacrifices are made for them, nor any other of those ceremonies which are wont to be performed for the dead. For infants have no part of earth or earthly affections. Nor do we hover or tarry about their sepulchers or monuments, or sit by when their dead bodies are exposed. The laws of our country forbid this, and teach us that it is an impious thing to lament for those whose souls pass immediately into a better and more divine state. Wherefore, since it is safer to give credit to our traditions than to call them in question, let us comply with the custom in outward and public behavior." 1

1 Plutarch. "Consolatory Letter to His Wife." In Plutarch's Morals. Vol. 5. Translated from the Greek by Several Hands. Corrected and Revised by William W. Goodwin, with an Introduction by Ralph Waldo Emerson. 5 Volumes. (Boston: Little, Brown, and Co., 1878). Available online (accessed January 29, 2009).


Translation based on Hung, Wu. "Private Love and Public Duty: Images of Children in Early Chinese Art." In Kinney, Anne Behnke, ed. Chinese Views of Childhood. Honolulu: University of Hawaii Press, 1995, 79-91. Annotated by Anne Kinney.

Primary Source Text

Mourning Rituals for Deceased Children

In the Han era of Jianning,
In the third year of our emperor's reign,
On this fifteenth day of the third month,
We pour out our grief for Xu Aqu.

You were only five years old
When you departed life's glory.
You entered a night without end,
Never again to see the sun or stars.

Now your spirit dwells all alone,
Underground, returned to eternal darkness.
You have left your home forever.
There is no way to ever look upon your face again.

We reported to our ancestors,
Anxiously thinking of you,
We increased our offerings and incense three times,
All to mourn the departed.

You, alas, did not recognize your ancestors,
But darted east and west, weeping and crying.
Finally you left with them,
Turning back to gaze on us from time to time.

Full of emotion, we, your father and mother…(inscription damaged).
All delicacies are tasteless to us.
Pale and gaunt, we have depleted our savings to build this shrine for you,
In the hope that your spirit will live on forever… (inscription damaged).

When you see dust on this grave
Please sweep it clean.
Your kindness will make the departed one happy.

How to Cite This Source

Anne Kinney, "Ancient China," in Children and Youth in History, Item #187, https://cyh.rrchnm.org/items/show/187 (accessed August 10, 2021).