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Wǔfú 五服: The Traditional
Chinese Mourning Categories

Part I: Overview

(Visitors to this page may find it useful to refer first to the page on the Traditional Chinese Family & Lineage.)

In China, formal mourning at the death of a relative was a fundamental act of social participation, and the actions to be undertaken were prescribed by local custom. Across China these were considered to be rooted in the rituals of remote antiquity, however much actual practice might vary, and some of the texts we have on the subject even prescribe, for royal deaths, how loud a mourner should wail, how far he should stand from the coffin, and other behavioral minutiae, all depending upon his social relationship to the deceased.

Mourning by Degrees

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Part of a Funeral Procession in Fújiàn 福建 in the Middle 1800s

In all times and places, Chinese mourning behavior has included a formal recognition of the genealogical distance between the mourner and the deceased, and has marked five or more categories of genealogical distance (1) by distinctive mourning clothing (sāngfú 喪服) worn at a funeral (again, varying by local custom) and (2) by the length of the period during which a mourner is considered to be officially in mourning. During this time s/he should hence avoid normal activities, sometimes even subsistence activities, but certainly weddings and normal amusements. In dynastic times, it was forbidden to hold official office while mourning in the first degree. Today, households in mourning do not put up fresh decorations for Lunar New Year.

Although the five major mourning “grades” or “degrees” are usually referred to in English by simple numbers (with first degree being the most intense mourning), they have names in Chinese. Collectively they are referred to as the “Five Kinds of Mourning Apparel” or “Five Clothes” (wǔfú 五服), and the term “wufu” has made its way into English in this meaning.

(Caution: In Mandarin wǔfú is also the pronunciation of a term that means “five felicities” 五福 and refers to a design of five bats often seen on ceramic ware. In that usage it has also been borrowed into English. The two terms are not quite full homonyms in Cantonese or Hokkien.)

The five grades are:

* “Three years” in practice means one year plus two days, understood as one at each end, so that the entire period extends across one year and into two others, to a total of three.

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Kindreds

Because membership is defined by relationship to Ego, the wǔfú is what anthropologists term a “kindred” and define as an “ego-centered kinship group” (definition). A kindred is more an intellectual category than a social group, since its membership varies depending upon the ego on which it is centered, and it is therefore quite limited in its “group” activities. About the only thing a wǔfú “group” does together in China is mourn.

One can think of the wǔfú either as the set of people to whom you owe mourning or the set of people who owe mourning to you. (Like on-line friendship circles, if you are in mine, I am in yours, at least most of the time.) The wǔfú can be mapped either way, but traditionally Chinese have found it more useful to think of it as the obligations that a living ego has to various types of deceased relatives, since most people want to know what they are expected to do while they are alive, not who is going to do what when they are dead. (The maps are not identical, since, for example, more mourning is owed to higher generations than to lower generations, and since women owe more mourning to their husband's relatives than they receive from them.)

Wǔfú Beyond Mourning

Mapping is merely a matter of convenience in displaying the system, one might argue, except that in fact the wǔfú categories, although anchored in mourning ritual, are used beyond mourning. It was possible to say that a custom or law applied to all those to whom a person had, say, first or second degree mourning obligations, or to all wǔfú members through the fourth level. Thus your wǔfú was not only the cloud of people you had mourning obligations to; it, or a subset of it (depending on local custom), was also the cloud of people you were not permitted to marry. Marriage within the wǔfú was, in principle, incest. And (theoretically) degrees of mourning were used to define people you were not permitted to testify against in court. (A quick review of family court cases suggests that this may have been honored mostly in the breach.)

Reference to mourning grades was a convenient way to designate a person’s immediate kinsmen. And since the wǔfú includes some people outside one’s own family or lineage, such a measure of genealogical closeness was a quick and easy marker of who might be trusted (at least theoretically) in, for example, financial transactions.

A Basic Chart

Various ritual manuals have traditionally included reference diagrams of the wǔfú, displayed in a series of boxes arranged in a kind of diamond shape. The underlying design shows a column of boxes showing line of descent from the plus-four generation above Ego to the minus four generation below him.

At each level a row of boxes extends to the side representing same-generation collaterals set out beside each other. For example, to Ego’s right comes his brother, then his first cousin, next his second cousin, then his third cousin. Above Ego is his father, and to his father’s right is his father’s brother (Ego’s uncle), then his father’s first cousin, second cousin, and third cousin. And so on. Except in his direct ancestral line, a man’s mourning obligations attenuate rapidly with genealogical distance. In broad outline this produces roughly (not in fact) the following distribution of mourning obligations:

Generation Main
Line
Men
Their
Brothers
Their
1st
Cousins
Their
2nd
Cousins
Their
3rd
Cousins
+4 2
+3 2 5
+2 2 4 5
+1 1 3 4 5
0 Ego 2 3 4 5
-1 2 3 4 5
-2 3 4 5
-3 4 5
-4 5

Once you understand this diagram, the chances are that you do not need (or want) to know any more than this. However nothing has been said yet about female relatives, or the obligations of wives to their husband’s relatives, and so on. And that odd “Degree 2.5” (not on the simplified diagram) seems like a compromising addition to the scheme.

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On the rest of this page I have laid out the messy details, following one particular ritual manual, A Compendium of Family Rites (Jiālǐ Dàchéng 家禮大成), produced in southern Fújiàn 福建 Province in the second quarter of the 18th century by a writer named LǙ Zǐzhèn 呂子振. This influential handbook for fusty families is still in print today, nearly three centuries later, and copies may be bought in several reprintings from various Internet distributors.

Some Observations

A close examination of these tables will show several interesting facts.

  1. In nearly all cases, a woman’s mourning for her husband’s relatives was less intense than his. The husband-wife unit is not treated as undifferentiated.
  2. Although women did observe mourning for their own parents and siblings (at the very least), Lǚ provides no table, and the matter either struck him as obvious or as unimportant. This is congruent with the Chinese custom of transferring a woman out of her lineage into her husband’s, attenuating her connection with her own.
  3. Within the group of agnates (male and female relatives connected to Ego only through male links), the mourning observed for a deceased woman (such as a father’s sister) is comparable to what is observed for a man (such as a father’s brother) until she marries (leaving the lineage but not the kindred), at which time it drops only slightly. The male bias that pervades much of the system is not prominent in this central feature.
  4. In actual practice, mourning for generations lower than one’s own was rarely elaborated and in some communities was not permitted, since it was regarded as unfilial for a child to die before a parent and thus become unable to fulfill filial obligations. Hence the mourning grades given in the chart for generations below 0 are used as measures of genealogical distance, but do not represent actual mourning behavior.
  5. The word “genealogy” is spelled with an A where most people expect an O. You can be the first on your block to spell it correctly.

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Unless you are planning a career as a Chinese funeral director, you really don't want to read beyond this point. Really! Trust me!

Part II: The Ugly Details

I have divided the following material into two listings: Ego’s mourning obligations (1) through male links (i.e., his obligations to agnates) and (2) through at least one female link (i.e., his obligations to affines), and I have tucked in his wife’s obligations adjacent to his own. For an explanation of “kintype” abbreviations like FaBr, click here .

Table 1: Male Ego’s Mourning Obligations to Agnates

All the people in this group are related to Ego entirely through male links —that is, they are agnates— and all share a surname with him. (A women adds her husband’s surname on marriage.) (definition of agnate)

Ego’s wife has also mourning obligations to most of these people. Her obligations are identified here with the abbreviation “WO” for “wife’s obligations.” In a few cases, I have omitted them when they were "none."

For readers paying attention to the Chinese terms,

+4 GENERATION
(marked by the term gāo zǔ 高祖 “high ancestor)
Main Line: Gāo zǔ fù 高祖父 (Ego’s great great grandfather or FaFaFaFa) (mourning: 2 [WO: 5])
Gāo zǔ mǔ 高祖母 (Ego’s great great grandmother) (mourning: 2.5 but only 2 months)
+3 GENERATION
marked by the term zēng zǔ 曾祖 “next ancestor”
Main Line: zēng zǔ fù 曾祖父 (Ego’s great grandfather or FaFaFa) (mourning: 2 [WO: 5])
zēng zǔ mǔ 曾祖母 (Ego’s great grandmother) (mourning: 2.5 but 5 months [WO: 5])
Collateral 1 Male: zēng bóshū zǔ fù 曾伯叔祖父 (Ego’s great grandfather’s brother or FaFaFaBr) (mourning: 5 [WO: none])
zēng bóshū zǔ mǔ 曾伯叔祖母 (his wife) (mourning: 5)
Collateral 1 Female: zēng zǔ gū 曾祖姑 (Ego’s great grandfather’s sister or FaFaFaSi) (if unmarried: mourning: 5; if married out: mourning: none) [WO: none]
+2 GENERATION marked by the term zǔ “ancestor”
Key term: zú (“descent line”) = sharing descent from the +3 level
Main Line: zǔ fu 4 祖父 (Ego’s grandfather or FaFa) (mourning: 2 [WO: 3])
zǔ mǔ 祖母 (Ego’s grandmother) (mourning: 2.5 no mourning staff [WO: 3])
Collateral 1 Male: bóshū zǔ fù 伯叔祖父 (Ego’s grandfather’s brother or FaFaBr) (mourning: 4] [WO: 5]
bóshū zǔ mǔ 伯叔祖母 (his wife) (mourning: 4)
Collateral 1 Female: zǔ gū 祖姑 (Ego’s grandfather’s sister or FaFaSi) (if unmarried: mourning: 4 [WO: 5]; if married out: mourning: 5 [WO: none])
Collateral 2 Male: zú bóshū zǔ fù 族伯叔祖父 (Ego’s grandfather’s 1st cousin male or FaFaFaBrSo) (mourning: 5 WO: none])
zú bóshū zǔ mǔ 族伯叔祖母
(his wife) (mourning: 5)
Collateral 2 Female: zú zǔ gū 族祖姑 (Ego’s grandfather’s 1st cousin female or FaFaFaBrDa) (if unmarried: mourning: 5; if married out: mourning: none)[WO: none]
+1 GENERATION
Key term: gū = FaSi
Key term: bóshū 伯叔 = FaBr
Key term: táng = sharing descent from the +2 level
Main Line: fùmǔ 父母 (Ego’s parents) (mourning: 1 [WO: 1])
Collateral 1 Male: bóshū fùmǔ 伯叔父母 (Ego’s uncle or aunt or FaBr/Si) (mourning: 2.5 [WO: 3])
Collateral 1 Female: gū (Ego’s aunt or FaSi) (if unmarried: mourning: 2.5; if married out: mourning: 3) [WO: 4]
Collateral 2 Male: táng bóshū fùmǔ 堂伯叔父母 (Ego’s father’s 1st cousin or FaFaBrSo/Da) (mourning: 4 [WO: 5])
Collateral 2 Female: tánggū 堂姑 (Ego’s father’s 1st cousin female or FaFaBrDa) (if unmarried: mourning: 4 [WO: none]; if married out: mourning: 5 [WO: 5])
Collateral 3 Male: zú bóshū fù mǔ 族伯叔父母 (Ego’s father’s 2nd cousin or FaFaFaBrSoSo/Da) (mourning: 5 [WO: none])
Collateral 3 Female: zú gū 族姑 (Ego’s father’s 2nd cousin female or FaFaFaBrSoDa) (if unmarried: mourning: 5; if married out: mourning: none) [WO: none]

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0 GENERATION
Main Line: Male Ego [WO: 1]
Collateral 1 Male: xiōngdì 兄弟 (Ego’s brother) (mourning: 2.5 [WO: 4])
(his wife) (mourning: 4)
Collateral 1 Female: jiěmèi 姊妹 sister (Ego’s sister) (if unmarried: mourning: 2.5; if married out: mourning: 3)[WO: 4]
Collateral 2 Male: táng xiōngdì 堂兄弟 (Ego’s 1st cousin male or FaBrSo) (mourning: 3 [WO: 5])
(his wife) (mourning: none)
Collateral 2 Female: táng jiěmèi 堂姊妹 (Ego’s 1st cousin female or FaBrDa) (if unmarried: mourning: 3; if married out: mourning: 4)[WO: 5]
Collateral 3 Male: zài cóng xiōngdì 再從兄弟 = (Ego’s 2nd cousin male or FaFaBrSoSo) (mourning: 4 [WO: none])
(his wife) (mourning: none)
Collateral 3 Female: zài cóng jiěmèi 再從姊妹 (Ego’s 2nd cousin female or FaFaBrSoDa) (if unmarried: mourning: 4; if married out: mourning: 5)[WO: none]
Collateral 4 Male: zú xiōngdì 族兄弟 (Ego’s 3rd cousin male or FaFaFaBrSoSoSo) (mourning: 5 [WO: none])
(his wife) (mourning: none)
Collateral 4 Female: zú jiěmèi 族姊妹 Ego’s 3rd cousin female or FaFaFaBrSoSoDa) (if unmarried: mourning: 5; if married out: mourning: none)[WO: none]
-1 GENERATION
Key term: zhí = descended from a brother
Main Line: zhǎng zǐ 長子 (Ego’s eldest son) (mourning: 2.5 [WO: 2.5])
(his wife) (mourning: 2.5)
Main Line: zhòng zǐ 眾子 (Ego’s non-eldest son) (mourning: 3 [WO: 3])
(his wife) (mourning: 3)
Collateral 1 Male: bāo zhí 胞姪 (“womb nephew, ” Ego’s nephew or BrSo) (mourning: 2.5 [WO: 2.5])
(his wife) (mourning: 3 [WO: 3])
Collateral 1 Female: zhí nǚ 姪女 (Ego’s niece or BrDa) (if unmarried: mourning: 2.5 [WO: 2.5]; if married out: mourning: 3 [WO: 3])
Collateral 2 Male: táng zhí 堂姪 (Ego’s male 1st cousin’s son or FaBrSoSo) (mourning: 4 [WO: 4])
(his wife) (mourning: 5 [WO: 5])
Collateral 2 Female: táng zhí nǚ 堂姪女 (Ego’s 1st cousin’s daughter or FaBrSoDa) (if unmarried: mourning: 4 [WO: 4]; if married out: mourning: 5 [WO: 5])
Collateral 3 Male: zài cóng zhí 再從姪 (Ego’s male 2nd cousin’s son or FaFaBrSoSoSo) (mourning: 5 [WO: 5])
(his wife) (mourning: none [WO: none])
Collateral 3 Female: zài cóng zhí nǚ 再從姪女 (Ego’s 2nd cousin’s daughter or FaFaBrSoSoDa) (if unmarried: mourning: 5 [WO: 5]; if married out: mourning: none [WO: none])
-2 GENERATION
Key term: sūn = two or more generations down
Main Line: dí sūn 嫡孫 (The eldest son of Ego’s eldest son or SoSo) (mourning: 2.5 [WO: 3])
(his wife) (mourning: 4 [WO: 5])
Main Line: zhòng sūn 衆孫 (Ego’s other lineal grandson(s) or SoSo) (mourning: 3)
(his wife) (mourning: 5)
Collateral 1 Male: zhí sūn 姪孫 (Ego’s grandnephew or BrSoSo) (mourning: 2.5 [WO: 4])
(his wife) (mourning: 4 [WO: 5])
Collateral 1 Female: zhí sūn nǚ 姪孫女 (Ego’s grandneice or BrSoDa) (if unmarried: mourning: 4 [WO: 4]; if married out: mourning: 5 [WO: 5])
Collateral 2 Male: táng zhí sūn 堂姪孫 (Ego’s cousin’s son’s son or FaBrSoSoDa) (mourning: 5 [WO: 5])
(his wife) (mourning: none [WO: none])
Collateral 2 Female: táng zhì sūn nǚ 堂姪孫女 (Ego’s cousin’s son’s daughter or FaBrSoSoDa) (if unmarried: mourning: 5 [WO: 5]; if married out: mourning: none [WO: none])
-3 GENERATION
Main Line: zēng sūn 曾孫孫 (Ego’s great grandson or SoSoSo) (mourning: 5 [WO: 5])
(his wife) (mourning: none [WO: none])
Collateral 1 Male: zēng zhí sūn 曾姪孫 (Ego’s brother’s great grandson or BrSoSoSo) (mourning: 5)
(his wife) (mourning: none [WO: none])
Collateral 1 Female: zhí zēng sūn nǚ 姪曾孫女 (Ego’s brother’s great granddaughter or BrSoSoDa) (if unmarried: mourning: 5 [WO: 5]; if married out: mourning: none [WO: none])
-4 Generation Main Line: yuán sūn 元孫 (Ego’s great great grandson or SoSoSoSo) (mourning: 5 [WO: 5])
(his wife) (mourning: none)

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Table 2: Male Ego’s Mourning Obligations to His Father's Affines

This table really deals only with Ego's obligations to his mother’s relatives outside of his own lineage or surname group. Technically they are his father's affines (definition of affine).

Ego has obligations to his wife's parents and siblings that are not shown here.

Notice that because the wǔfú is the basis of the incest taboo, the table shows a number of women who are not eligible for marriage to Ego for this reason even though they do not share a surname with him.

+3 Generation
Mǔ zǔ fùmǔ 母祖父母 (Ego’s mother’s paternal grandparents or MoFaPa) (mourning: none)
+2 Generation
Wài zǔ fùmǔ 外祖父母 (Ego’s mothers parents or MoPa) (mourning: 4)
+1 Generation
jiù (Ego’s maternal uncle or MoBr) (mourning: 4)
(Ego’s maternal aunt or MoSi) (mourning: 4)
0 Generation
gū zhi zǐ 姑之子 (Ego’s patrilateral cross cousins or FaSiCh) (mourning: 5)
matrilateral 1st cousins (MoBrCh, MoSiCh) (mourning: 5)
matrilateral 2nd cousins (Ego’s mother’s 1st cousins) (mourning: none)
-1 Generation
grandchildren of Ego’s maternal aunts and uncles (mourning: none)
-2 Generation
gū zhi sūn 姑之孫 (Ego’s FaSiSoCh) (mourning: none)

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