One of the best lessons I’ve learnt from one of the professors here in NUS is about the Chinese view on death.
In Chinese culture, there are two words used to describe death: (1) 死 (si) which simply means termination of life; and (2) 終 (zhong) consummation/finale. Of course, zhong also holds the same meaning as si, which is why it is taboo in Chinese culture to give someone a clock as a gift (to give a clock is to 送鐘 songzhong which sounds exactly like 送終 songzhong, which means to send someone off to the grave).
But what’s so unique about the word 終 zhong is the emphasis on death as the consummation, the very climax of life; it is where you wrap up your story with the most awesome ending possible.
Interestingly, I found the perfect illustration of this idea from a movie, entitled “It’s a Great Great World (大世界 Dashijie).” It’s a Singapore production, with several short stories about life in Singapore during the 1940s, revolving around an amusement park known as the Great World. The last story was the most touching and emotionally powerful story I’ve ever come across. It’s beautiful.
The story goes like this: There was a wedding banquet in a Chinese restaurant. Unfortunately, that night, the Japanese were invading Singapore. Their planes were dropping bombs all over the island. The wedding guests weren’t aware of it and they thought that it was merely fireworks outside (it was an amusement park after all). The chef and his assistants decided that most of them would probably not live to see another day, or if they did, life as they knew it wouldn’t be the same forever. So, that night, they decided to cook all the food in the kitchen and give them the best wedding dinner ever. What was beautiful was how the chef and his assistants poured out their entire heart and soul in preparing every good meal to ensure that everyone had the best time ever. The acting was beautiful as it looked as if they were performing their last dance.
The father of the bride was the one who was going to pay for the bill. He was quite upset when he saw all the expensive dishes being served. He stormed into the kitchen wanting to complain, but learnt about the Japanese invasion from the chef. Immediately, as a good father, he went out and made sure everyone dined happily and had the best night of their lives so that they would remember that night.
This is by far, the most beautiful illustration of wrapping up one’s life. It climaxes in the biggest, boldest, and most courageous effort to showcase the best that one could do even in the face of death – to die with dignity, to spread happiness to others, and to give all that one could ever give in one’s final moments. Everything that one has experienced in one’s life leads up to that one final moment – death.
It is like the final dance in a performance (or an action movie). Everything right from the beginning leads up to that final moment where it climaxes with the greatest showcase the dancers could perform before the curtains come to a close.
Admittedly, it is difficult since many of us do dread the thought of death. Perhaps we dread it because we think of death merely as the termination of life. But I think when we begin to see death as the ultimate climax, the ultimate wrapping up of one’s life, where the multitude of one’s personal experiences lead up to that one final performance, I think the idea of death becomes very ennobling and empowering.
I really like how the Chinese (especially Confucian thought) emphasises the importance of dying with dignity. Every one and every thing dies. But as humans, we have the option of choosing to die with the greatest dignity as a human being.
I remember watching “Confucius: The Movie” and the one scene that really struck me was this: One of Confucius’ disciples was in a state invaded by a foreign state. Unfortunately, he was fatally wounded by arrows.
In that situation, the best way for him to wrap up his life was to ensure that he passed on orderly and not in a chaotic manner. All the lessons and values in life that he learnt and experienced led up to that one moment. It would have been a shame to cast away all those years simply because of pain. And so, he made it a point to endure the pain and conducted himself in the greatest possible performance that would consummate all that he learnt in life: he picked up his hat, slowly put it back onto his head, adjusted it so that it was in proper order; he re-adjusted his clothes and his belt to ensure that they were tidy, and slowly yet reverently fell to his knees, closed his eyes with gratitude for all that he has experienced and learnt in life. And there he passed on.
In that short yet simple final performance of his life, he showed great mastery over himself and that he was not a slave to his passions. He showed that as a human person, there are things more important than pain and death, and that it is possible to continue being civil and human despite feeling great pain.
That is what death should be about – dying properly, honourably, and as a consummation of all of the lessons, values, and experiences in life in that final performance of life.
These deaths are beautiful because they show us the beauty and strength of humanity, which we don’t see too often these days. It happens here and there – most of them quietly without much publicity. But I think, whenever we encounter such beautiful deaths, we gain the inspiration not just to live, but to live well, so that we too may go just as beautifully.