The Chinese University of Hong Kong Department of History Department of History
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Research Grants/Awards

Title of Project:
The Netherworld in Comparison: Beliefs, Imagination, and the Search for Happiness in Ancient Egypt and China

Total Fund Awarded:
HK$647,785

Principal Investigator:
Professor POO Mu-chou, Department of History, The Chinese University of Hong Kong

Funding Source:
RGC General Research Fund 2011/12

Abstract of Research:
        Many parallels exist between ancient Egypt and ancient China, one of which is the belief in a netherworld. While the imagined netherworlds of these two civilizations differ in their detail, they nevertheless share a common source of inspiration, namely that they are drawn from and shaped by a fundamental collective understanding of the meaning of life for the living. This study will compare core values from each civilization in order to establish to what extent beliefs and values about religion, ethics and the nature of happiness are present in ancient Chinese and Egyptian visions of life after death.

        While ancient Egypt (c. 25th-10th c. BCE) and ancient China (c. 8th c. BCE-6th c. CE) have been studied in depth, a comparative approach is rare, particularly one such as this which roots the netherworld in the experience of daily life. The structural similarities between these two civilizations, each with rich funerary traditions, suggest profitable comparison of the two cultures would yield mutually illuminating insights into their understanding of the meanings of life and happiness, for by imagining and describing the netherworld, the ancient Egyptians and Chinese reveal for us their beliefs about life.

        Methodologically, this project first examines religious texts and archaeological finds to reconstruct the conceptual architecture of the netherworld as a basic frame of reference. Second, ethical values and social norms that could have provided inspiration for the netherworld are examined, along with cultural beliefs about the nature of happiness and how it is attained. Third, I shall articulate how far people’s conceptualisation of the netherworld may be conditioned or influenced by their ethical values, social behavior and daily existence and how the collectively imagined netherworld evolved in step with changes in social values.

        The study hopes to demonstrate that the thematic examination of one ancient civilization can not only cast light on another, but on modern society too. By reflecting on the commonality of two ancient cultures, we hope to show that without observing how people in different historical and cultural contexts managed to deal with similar problems, problems that still exist for us today, any interpretation of cultural phenomena such as the concept of the netherworld will likely remain one-dimensional.