China has the highest rate of female suicide in the world, and one of the highest rates overall. While it’s not the most pleasant topic, understanding traditional ideas about suicide is critical to understanding why headlines like, “Worker suicides prompt probe,” appear so frequently.
In the traditional Chinese understanding of the afterlife, one’s ancestors require continued care for several generations. This included maintaining the grave, performing regular offerings of food and incense, and creating a small shrine within the home. Kept happy, the ancestor’s spirit was thought to provide advantages for the family.
Suicide on the other hand insured that one’s spirit would become a ghost, which is differentiated from an ancestor only in that it is a malevolent force. A ghost would be able to torment those who had “caused” the suicide. This conception leads to the belief that suicide is a means of revenge and exposing injustice.
Research by Wu Fei indicates that one of the leading causes of suicide in rural China is what Wu dubs “domestic injustice.” This could be anything from spousal abuse or abuse by other family members, to failing to uphold filial duties like supporting one’s parents in old age. The underlying idea, which is made clear in several interviews, is that suicide would right these wrongs. What is less clear from the interviewees is whether or not this justice comes from supernatural sources or from the public shaming that comes from a family suicide.
These traditional values help to partially explain why rural suicide rates are three times more likely than urban ones, and why there is an increase in suicide in old age (China has the 3rd highest suicide rate among elderly people, behind S. Korea and Taiwan where Confucian values are also very strong). Many sociologists would point to the fact that many elderly are left uncared for in the countryside, and that it is depression that leads them to take their own life. The villagers though would likely see it very differently, that the person’s death was caused by the unfilial child not meeting their duties.
Student suicides are also higher than average in China, and it is one of the top causes of death for Chinese children between 15 and 19 years old. Studies estimate that somewhere between 6-10% of Chinese youth attempt suicide. One article from The Journal of Adolescent Health showed that family conflicts were the leading indicator of whether or not a child was likely to attempt suicide. Failing to meet parents’ expectations was less influential than suffering from poor family relations, which is contrary to what I expected considering the pressure placed on children to perform in school.
Additionally, in many of the cases of suicide reported in the Chinese media, the suicide note frequently points to individuals for “causing” the act. Frequently these suicides lead to further investigations, which reinforces the connection between suicide and justice.
When I was in Chengdu, a Chinese friend pointed to the square in front of one of the gov’t buildings and said in a hushed tone, “A few weeks ago, a man burned himself here to protest something. I tried searching for it on Weibo, but it was gone.” When I pressed him on what caused the suicide, he said he wasn’t sure, but it was probably related to losing his land. He went on to tell me that someone having been so wronged by the local gov’t that they were willing to die such a terrible death was something that was still bothering him. Thinking out loud he said, “Maybe now the Central gov’t will get involved and help these people protect their land.”