Betwixt & Between 陰陽界


This essay was written to accompany an installation at the Drill Hall Gallery of The Australian National University in March 2003, coinciding with the Qingming Festival of that year. It is reprinted here, on 5 September 2017 — the Fifteenth Day of the Seventh Month of the 2017 Year of the Rooster — coinciding with Ghost Festival, another occasion on which objects for the afterlife go up in smoke.


Yin & Yang: Betwixt & Between


An installation by Sang Ye with Geremie R. Barmé

Essay by Geremie R. Barmé


We have entitled our installation-by-implication Yinyangjie 陰陽界 in Chinese, for it is in the Sinophone realm that it was initially conceived.

Yin and Yang are concepts familiar to Australian audiences due to the popularity of geomantic or fengshui practices, acupuncture, Chinese cuisine and Taoist-influenced meditational techniques. The intertwined concepts of Yin and Yang embrace a range of the philosophical and quotidian within the traditional, as well as modern, Chinese worldview. Just as their fusion creates the material realm and its endless transmutations, so the admix of the Yin and the Yang fuses this world to the next, the present to the past, and the interior to the exterior.

Yin is often taken to represent the negative, ‘female’ principle, the dark and hidden, the moon, the nether realm, as well as the supine. Yang champions the positive, ‘male’ principle, the bright and open, the sun, the world of the living, the upstanding. Yin is said to be surreptitious, sly and surrogate; Yang is out in the open but often just as inscrutable; furthermore, it is a homophone for the foreign, that which comes from beyond the borders of the Sinitic world.

Our installation is a display about the melding both of the living and the dead, the Chinese and the international, the hybrid highbrow with friable folk art functionalism.  It features to-scale, and out-of-scale, otherworldly funerary objects crafted in China— by the artist-artisan Liu Bo in Lixian county in Hunan province, to be exact — and employed by people ranging from the new-rich and sodden party stalwarts to the average urban or rural family of that southern province. These objects constitute the paper-thin screen through which the still-living bid farewell to the dearly-departed who are en route to an assured future of eternal luxury, or at least well being, in the realm of shades.

Funerary objects have traditionally been offered or burnt at the time of a person’s death, or on fixed anniversaries (in particular 5 April each year, the day that marks the Qingming Festival, or Day for Remembering the Dead, when graves are swept and banquets for ancestors laid out), as part of a process that mediates between the afterlife and the world of the living. Traditionally, the objects offered included the paraphernalia required for safe passage to the Yellow Springs, and a comfortable posthumous existence in a world whose societal strictures were just as labyrinthine as those of the living. In some cases, the objects displayed and vaunted at funerals and then incinerated with great ceremony so that their vaporous essence can be conveyed to the other world, may merely replicate the luxurious realities of the deceased’s pre-humous life. Equally, they could in their ephemeral physical form express a collective familial hope for a status, convenience and wealth that only a good death could bestow. But always, from their earliest appearance to the present day of egregious consumerism, funerary objects have been one of the most obvious ways to display private aspiration in Chinese culture. It is a cultural act that, through ‘Yin & Yang: betwixt and between’, we claim resonates with a transcendent valence.


During the heyday of China’s state socialism (c.1950s-1980s), the state funeral for Communist Party and government leaders became the focus for considerable pomp and circumstance. The scale of the funeral, and the crucial memorial eulogy, determined the import of the life — and the fortune of surviving family members.The funerary objects (including the written oration, the paper floral wreaths, the corpse lying in state, the location of the leave-taking ceremony, and so on) determined the ‘afterlife’ for both the quick and the dead. Mao Zedong’s own afterlife has been particularly rich (see my Shades of Mao: the posthumous cult of the Great Leader, 1996), but his death, or rather the time when, as he put it he ‘went to meet Marx’, and the end of socialist excesses has allowed a revival of traditional and the formulation of neo-traditional death rituals.

The works in this installation are hand-painted on Chinese paper, and constructed using bamboo and wooden frames. The scale and significance of these one-off objects — they are of a kind not known to have graced Australian joss houses — strike a resonance with many of the elements of the ANU’s Fusion year. While preparing this work, we also soberly reflected on the fiery fate of Canberra in January 2003.  As firestorms and devastation claimed precious lives and visited cruel destruction on the city and its surrounds, laying waste to private property and a much-loved landscape, we were reminded of the power that all rites of passage, both in this world and into the next, do have.

‘Tower for Gazing Homeward’ 望鄉臺. Such pagoda-like towers are burned thirty-five days after death. According to tradition, on this day the deceased would realise they were no longer among the living and they would ascend such towers to gaze back at the world of mortals. Source: courtesy of Sang Ye.

Our installation includes much that reflects the necrology of traditional China, but it is a necrology that, while incorporating the modern, also offers certain intricate gestures of resistance. The funerary objects assembled by Sang Ye in late 2002 while crafted in a China of the twenty-first century, recall the styles, motives and culture of the Manchu-Qing era (1640s-1910s). This the last dynasty of imperial Chinese history was established by an invading force, the Manchus, and although the Han majority of China were conquered by the Qing, many continued to reject its dominance and persisted in recalling the glories of the last Han dynasty, the Ming (1360s-1640s). As one saying of the time puts it, ‘In life we may be subjugated by the Qing, but we enter the afterlife undefeated’ 生降死不降. The obdurate subjects of the new rulers would articulate their protests through the symbolic language of death ritual, many being buried in Ming-era costume and according to older Han traditions. This recollection of an era of Han prosperity and dominance, one that has enjoyed a second half-life during the zenith of the reform era (1978-), is also reflected in the ‘furnishings’ of the revived funerary habits portrayed in this installation. Or, as the maker of these objects, Liu Bo, says, ‘We may be born into a modern world, but in death we are all ghosts of the past’ 生是現代人,死是過去鬼.

There are also more practical reasons why the style of these latterly-modern paper funerary objects observe traditional custom. While China may now vaunt the rule of law in its public life, the netherworld has always been a confusing maze of regulations and spectral specifications. While illegal dwellings and lawless constructions are policed in the burgeoning conurbations of China’s cities in the sun, or Yang, in the darkling world, 陰間, all buildings must conform to traditional codes of practice, and eschew the blandishments of steel and cement. Those ghosts who attempt to import a modernist, or, heaven forfend, a slice of post-modern architecture into the necropolis will be banned from residency. Just so, the guides to the afterlife, famed fictional characters like the Monkey King 孫猴王, the Buddhist priest Xuan Zang 唐僧 and Pigsy 豬八戒, all of whom feature in the traditional novel Journey to the West 西遊記 not to mention the Eight Immortals, or the Cow-head Horse-faced Ones 牛頭馬面, always appear dressed in traditional costume. They are forbidden from following the transient fashions of the day, for to do so would corrupt their identity and lose them their jobs and stipends. And if the dead have the temerity to dress in modern fabrics such as polyester or nylon when they go to meet their ancestors, they will forever be subjected to derision.

Cleaving to perceived traditions accounts for one aspect of ‘Yin & Yang’; an acceptance and melding of the new with the old expresses another. For the sake of custom the creators of ritual funerary objects readily reach an accommodation with the changing face of the new. The ancestors are not so picky when it comes to their descendants appearing in the underworld bearing the signs of worldly success or in the company of the creature comforts they knew when alive. Thus, there is also room in the afterlife for a modern, hybrid materiality. After all, death is not the end; it is rather a further realisation of life; the dead have busy schedules and require all the conveniences that modern life may offer. The furnishings of the garish tower-like pavilions can accommodate refrigerators, colour TVs, calculators, and microwave ovens; and their owners (and here a male dominant view determines Liu Bo’s creations) can enjoy the company of barmaids (the notorious ‘three do’s girls’, 三陪小姐: do drink, do eat, do sleep with their clients), waiters and various other supernumerary figures, including sex companions (both male and female) who are always positioned at the back of the house, ‘out of sight’ 見不得人.

As in boom-time China, its spectral refraction is just as busy, the clamour and activities of the ‘great majority’ sweep the deceased up in a whirl of activity. First, their representative 領主 — always crafted wearing modern dress (after all, even the Central Committee of the Communist Party took to wearing Western suits in the 1980s) — has to be interviewed by the King of the Dead 閻王 to learn of the deceased’s fate. Then one must pay respects to the lord of the city 城隍, and after that there are all the ancestors to meet, as well as an endless round of banquets to attend (the food itself deriving olfactory substance from offerings made by the living). All such outings must be undertaken using traditional palanquins or buggies. Other, less formal, socialising permits the use of modern vehicles, and even chauffeurs. The vehicles are all themselves amalgams of old-fashioned jeeps and sedans, half remembered from commercial the heyday of the 1940s, before the Communist revolution. Nowadays, however, Audis, Benzes and even China’s own Red Flag limos are making a fleeting appearance at funerals before being consigned to the their own fiery fate.

On the paper trail that fuses the living with the dead, money is essential, in any and all of its permutations. It costs to paper over the divide with the next world, and life on the other side never comes cheap. The ‘squeeze’ is always being put on people, regardless of how they might want to live their afterlife, and with money issued by the Bank of Hell (printed in Kunming, but universally valid), credit facilities, ATMs and stocks and bonds, the dead can gamble on a futures market that truly provides unimagined, and limitless, possibilities.

Death is truly the ultimate Other, for in death everyone really can be different, in exactly the same way. Yet in recent years the Chinese authorities have attempted to curb revived funerary traditions. They have encouraged virtual and online cemeteries and funerals where, for a modest sum, the grieving family can buy an eternal ether-plot for the deceased and offer up paper money, incense, food and candles without depleting anything but electronic resources. The economic appeal of this necro-netopia is obvious for, according to 2002 official statistics, 16.2 billion yuan (US$2 billion) is annually spent on funerals and paying respects to ancestors in China.

This installation, unveiled in March 2003, coincides with the Qingming Festival, a time when the boundary between the world of light and dark, the quick and the dead, is blurred, and the most existential of fusions is possible.  Through it we offer a visually rich and purposefully naïve meditation on what it is to be living in the Yang but only ever a breath away from our inescapable fusion with the Yin.


Synergies, edited by Howard Morphy and Nigel Lendon, The Australian National University, 2003, pp.5-8.