Death by Fire: The Story of Boji

Boji's story as it is related in Liu Xiang's Lienü zhuan differs radically from the earliest telling of this tale. This essay explores the process whereby Boji is transformed into a Confucian martyr who exemplifies the virtue of female purity.

Boji: Stage One

Boji makes her first appearence in China's written records in a text called the Chunqiu or Spring and Autumn Annals is a chronological history of China attributed to Confucius that records in a straightforward and telegraphic style important events from the year 722 to 464 B.C. Scholars generally date the Chunqiu to the fifth century B.C. but agree that some of its records may represent authentic documents from several centuries before its compilation. For the year 543 B.C. the Chunqiu merely states that "In the fifth month on a jiawu day, there was a fire in the palace of Song, in which the eldest daughter of our Duke Cheng, who had been married to Duke Gong of Song, died."[2] Note the absence of a storyline with a discernable beginning, climax and resolution, a cast of supporting characters or any account of martyrdom on Boji's behalf.

Stage Two

            The Zuo zhuan or Mr. Zuo's Commentary to the Spring and Autmn Annals, a text dated to about 300 B.C., on the other hand, tells basically the same story as the Lienü zhuan. Thus, we see added to the bare-bones account of the Spring and Autumn Annals a detailed story with a clear statement of the heroine's intentions. In addition, the account ends with a statement by "the Superior Man," whose narrative function is to stand outside of the historical narrative and draw morals from the story or make pronouncements about its major actors and events. His view of Boji's death is as follows: "Boji acted like a young lady and not like a woman of years. A girl should wait for the governess in such a case; a wife might act as was right in the case."[3] What started as a simple account of a woman dying in a fire in 543 B.C. has now become a case of a woman choosing to burn to death to avoid breaking ritual rules and a commentator who disapproves of her actions.

Stage Three

            Scholars have dated the next important commentary on the Chunqiu, the Gongyang zhuan (Mr. Gongyang's Commentary to the Spring and Autmn Annals), to the mid-third century B.C., that is, slightly later than the Zuo zhuan.[4] Its account of Boji's story is as follows:

[Chunqiu text: Fifth month, a jiawu day, there was a fire in Song. Boji died...In the seventh month Shugong went to Song to bury Duke Song's lady, Ji.] Normally the burials of wives of foreign states are not mentioned. Why is it recorded here? To mourn her. Why mourn her? Because Boji died in the fire of Song. What is her honorary posthumous title? The Worthy. Why worthy? During the fire of Song, Boji persevered. An officer repeatedly said, "Fire! Please come out!" Boji said, "I cannot." I have heard that when a woman goes out at night, if she does not have her governess and instructress in attendance, she does not descend from the hall." Although the governess arrived the instructress did not. When she encountered the fire she died.

The Gongyang zhuan version combines both a story as well as a commentary in the style of a catechism. In contrast to the Zuo zhuan version, the Gongyang zhuan mentions an instructress ( fu) in addition to a governess who must both be present to enable Boji to leave the house and escape the fire. Further, while the Zuo zhuan ridicules Boji's behavior, Mr. Gongyang gives her the honorary tile "Worthy."

Stage Four

            The Guliang Commentary to the Spring and Autunm Annals [Guliang zhuan, which is dated slightly later than the Gongyang zhuan, in the late third century B.C. goes one step further by pronouncing that: "A woman makes purity/chastity her practice. In this way Boji fufilled to the utmost the way of womanhood. Detailing her actions was a way to honor Boji."[5]

            There are many ways to envision the relationship between ordinary people and exemplars who strictly observe the codes of their faith. At the most extreme, would be group (1), which would urge all people either to adhere to the letter of the law or to model themselves as closely as possible on the example of certain martyrs--this group would advocate emulating the exemplars at a literal level. Group (2) would admit that most ordinary people cannot attain to such a high degree of obedience and sacrifice and would thus urge ordinary people to do their best and derive what lessons they can from the martyr's examples. We can describe this position as representing a metaphorical understanding of exemplars. Group (3) would deny the value of such self-sacrifice and flatly discourage imitators.

            The Zuo zhuan's commentator, the "Superior Man" expresses disapproval of Boji's actions, and thus falls into my group three, the one that discourages emulation of extreme acts. The commentator in the Gongyang, however, approves of Boji's martyrdom but does not seem to require all women to follow Boji's example and therefore falls into my category two, which urges ordinary people to derive what lessons they can from a martyr's example. The Guliang zhuan, with its exhortation to view Boji's behavior as a model for all women, seems to require strict observance to the letter of the law. The presence of both positive, moderate and negative views on extreme behavior documents the controversial nature of ritual martyrdom in Warring States China and the presence of both hard-liners and those with a more flexible attitude toward the rites. We should also note that the Zuo commentator ultimately abandons his moderate stance when he states that if Boji had been a young maiden, her martyrdom would have been appropriate. This view suggests that even among the more moderate, a young girl should prefer burning to death over emerging from her house unchaperoned.

            If we look at the evolution of this story from its first telegraphic appearance in the Chunqiu to the full-blown story of the Lienü zhuan, what appears to be happening is that commentators arguing both for and against a form or radical ritual literalism have commandeered Boji's death in a fire to express their own views on martrydom. In the process, it appears as if these commentators have added to the story by either consciously fabricating new elements or by simply drawing upon a current body of legend that support their point of view. Before moving on the Warring State's views of suicide, let us examine another case in which a Confucian martyr chooses death by fire and divergent views concerning this incident.

Jie Zhitui   

            In 636 B.C., when the exiled Duke Wen of Jin was finally able to return to his kingdom to rule, he rewarded those who had aided him during his nineteen years of exile. The Zuo zhuan tells us that one of the duke's faithful followers, Jie Zhitui, did not ask the duke for any recompense and and none came to him. Jie's mother asked Jie why he didn't speak up and ask for a reward as other supporters of Duke Wen had done. Jie told her that "It was Heaven that placed the duke in his present position. How false it is of those other officers to think it was their strength that did it!...He who steals the money of another is a thief; what name shall be given to them who seek to appropriate to themselves the work of Heaven?" Jie and his mother then made the decision to withdraw from the world. Later, duke Wen looked for him but in vain. The duke then enfoeffed the absent Jie to acknowledge that he had been at fault in not rewarding Jie and to honor him as a worthy man.[6]

            The same story is mentioned in a passage from the "Robber Zhi" chapter of the Zhuangzi, which A.C. Graham dates to about 200 B.C.: "Jie Zhitui was a model of fealty, going so far as to cut a piece of flesh from his thigh to feed his lord, Duke Wen. But later when Duke Wen overlooked him, he went off in a rage, wrapped his arms around a tree, and burned to death," (i.e., after Jie withdrew to the forest, the duke tried to smoke him out but he chose to die in the fire."[7] The Daoist interlocutor in this passage comments on Jie as follows: "[He] was no different from...a pig sacrificed to a flood... [He was] ensnared by thoughts of reputation and looked lightly on death, failing to remember the source or to cherish the years that fate had given [him]."[8] This passage stresses what motivated him Jie Zhitui to drown to death in this case, the quest not for moral excellence but for a virtuous name. This passage also presupposes that reader's familiarity with a well known legend that praised Jie's choice to die by fire.

            But again we must note that in the account of Jie Zhitui found in the Zhuangzi, both the fire as well as the hero's decision to die in the fire rather than compromise his integrity, are elements that are not found in the earlier Zuo zhuan version of the story. Based upon the stories of Boji and Jie Zhitui, it is plausible (1) that (like the account of Boji) the earliest version of this story did not feature Jie Zhitui dying in a fire to avoid violating a moral code and that these elements were added later; (2) that sometime between 300 -200 B.C. a willingness to die (or commit suicide) rather than compromise one's integrity came to be upheld as an admirable action and the ultimate sign of sincerity or virtue, and finally (4) that dying to uphold one's beliefs was not gender specific.

Death by water         

            Biography ten, also from the fourth chapter of Lienü zhuan, "The Chaste and Obedient" supplies further information about the philosophical context of ethically-motivated suicide in early China. The biography recounts that once the king of Chu was going out on a pleasure trip and he left his wife, Jiang, on the Jian Terrace and departed. The king, hearing that the river was rising, sent an official to bring his wife away, but the official forgot to bring his seal of commission. The official arrived and asked the queen to come away, but the wife replied, "The King has an agreement with his wife, that if he gives orders to summon someone from the palace, he must use the seal of commission. Now the official does not carry the seal with him and so I do not dare obey." The official, taking leave, said, "Now the river is rising very high and if I return to get the seal, I fear that it will be too late." The wife said, "I have learned that the duty of the chaste woman is not to break an agreement; the brave person does not fear to die. I shall preserve my chastity and that is all. I know that if I follow the official I shall live; if I remain, I must die. But on the other hand, to break an agreement and violate righteousness is not so good as to remain here and die." Such being the case, the messenger went to bring the seal. Then the river rose very high, the terrace crumbled, and the wife was carried away in the flood and died. The king said, "Ah, my wife! In preserving righteousness, you died for a rule of chastity. You would not trade life for an improper act; you kept our agreement and maintained loyalty in order to perfect your chastity."[9] A similar case is discussed in Mencius 4A:17 (possibly early to mid-third century B.C.):

           Chunyu Kun said, "Is it not he rule that males and females shall not allow their hands to touch in giving and receiving anything?" Mencius replied, "It is the rule." Kun asked, "If a man's sister-in-law be drowning, shall he rescue her with his hand?" Mencius said, "He who would not rescue the drowning woman is a wolf. For males and females not to allow their hands to touch in giving and receiving is the general rule; when a sister-in-law is drowning, to rescue her with the hand is a peculiar exigency."[10]

            The rule Mencius is referring to is preserved in the "Qu li" chapter of the Liji (complied in early Han of earlier sources), which states that "Male and female should not...let their hands touch in giving and receiving."[11] Thus, even the Book of Rites specifies that the taboo on physical contact between males and females is to be understood in the context of the everyday activities of giving and receiving objects.

            In contrast to the Mencius, a similar anecdote is found in the same passage of the Zhuangzi cited above, which is meant to ridicule Confucian ritual literalism. In addition to other figures such as Bo Yi and Shu Qi, who starved to death rather than serve a new dynasty, and Jie Zitui, who cut flesh from his thigh to feed duke Wen of Jin (Chonger), and who later burnt to death in a fire to protest the duke's failure to reward him, this passage also refers to a certain Wei Sheng, who very much resembles our virtuous woman above, Jiang the Chaste. The passage--a conversation between Confucius and Robber Zhi--has Robber Zhi making the following observation: "Wei Sheng made an engagement to meet a girl under a bridge. The girl failed to appear and the water began to rise, but, instead of leaving, he wrapped his arms around the pillar of the bridge and died." He, like Jie Zhitui "was no different from...a pig sacrificed to a flood... [He was] ensnared by thoughts of reputation and looked lightly on death, failing to remember the source or to cherish the years that fate had given [him]."[12]

            Here, the Zhuangzi stresses what motivated Wei Sheng to drown--in this case, the quest for a virtuous name, which suggests a strong contemporary presence of such exemplars and schools urging the emulation of such exemplars. In its argument against an inflexible attitude toward ritual niceties, this passage provides further possible evidence of a school of thought (possibly contemporary with the "Robber Zhi" chapter of the Zhuangzi) that urged, or was perceived as urging, or was lampooned as urging the emulation of such self-sacrificing exemplars. In particular, this view criticizes those who sacifice themselves over trivial concerns as self-seeking individuals concerned not with virtue but with making a name for themselves. The fact that Wei Sheng is a man also demonstrates that self-sacrifice in the name of loyalty was not necessarily endorsed for women alone.

            It is not my intention to suggest that in Warring States times there were large numbers of women and men emulating the martyrs whose stories were later told in compilations such as the Lienü zhuan, but that at that time in Chinese history a movement was afoot that encouraged men and women to practice the literal rather than metaphorical messages of religious or philosophical texts. In texts such as the Mencius and the Zhuangzi, this position is not overtly associated with a particular person or school; we only have indirect evidence of this view from arguments in famous texts such as the Mencius that oppose it. The Gongyang commentary, however, does seem to be the first text or school associated with this sort of ritual fundamentalism.

            Historical accounts of women in Han times supply few examples of women who martyred themselves for the sake of ritual correctness. Thus, when we read early Chinese accounts of ethically-motivated suicide, it is important to keep in mind that most people in Han times probably viewed the extreme behavior lauded in some of these stories as models of behavior that were to be admired but not followed to the letter. For example, a woman who is shown burning to death rather than venturing out alone at night may have been intended to demonstrate that a woman should avoid as much as possible appearing in public alone at night. On the other hand, because of the continuing importance of the Gongyang school throughout Han times, we cannot neglect the simultaneous presence of those who admired extreme observance of ritual laws and who felt that a woman's decision to burn to death rather than violate the rites was a beautiful thing and perhaps something to which all women should aspire.

            The Han histories, nevertheless, suggest that some women really did attempt to live up to the ideals of the female martyrs of earlier texts. Empress Wang, the consort of the last emperor of the Former Han dynasty, Emperor Ping (r. 1 B.C.-A.D. 6) is said to have burned to death to absolve herself from the crimes of her father, Wang Mang. Wang Mang, who was regent to the nine-year-old emperor, raised eyebrows at court when he selected his thirteen-year-old daughter to be the boy's wife and empress. People were generally offended by this match not only because of the tender age of the emperor but because the match served primarily to fortify Wang Mang's power at court. Several years after the marriage the young emperor died and Wang Mang seized the throne. In reaction to her father's usurpation of the throne, the young empress claimed to be ill and refused to attend court. When she reached the age of 18, Wang Mang, her father, and now ruler, was alarmed by his daughter's behavior and made plans to arrange another match for her. Wang Mang therefore ordered one of his generals to assume the disguise of a physician and gain entry into empress Wang's inner chambers. The empress was infuriated by this ruse and reacted by beating her attendants with a whip. After this incident Wang Mang abandoned all further attempts to arrange a marriage for his daughter. When the Han finally unseated Wang Mang, soldiers set the palace afire. The Han shu states that the empress faced the flames and said, "How will I ever be able to face the Han?" She then threw herself into the fire and burned to death.

Later traditions of self-immolation

            Images of self-immolation connected to Buddhist beliefs are deeply etched in the memory of all living today, most recently in the example of the woman who, along with her twelve year old daughter, burned herself in Tiananmen Square on February 3, 2001. Somewhat earlier, the American public became familiar with this practice through the self-immolation of Buddhist monks who burned themselves in protest of the Viet Nam war. In a recent article, James Benn, in an excellent and thought-provoking study, has argued that burning the body is an apocryphal practice, and that although autocremation is extolled in the Lotus Sutra and other texts of Indian origin, the practices advocated therein are those of the mahasattva rather than those of the monastics bound by the Vinaya. Benn further argues that no justification for burning the body is found in Buddhist texts of non-Chinese origin and that parts of later Buddhist texts that advocate this practice, such as the Fanwang jing (The Book of Brahma's Net) (A.D. 440-480) and the Shoulengyan jing (The Suramgama Sutra) were created in order to provide a justification. Benn also claims that body burning and autocremation existed in China long before the composition of these apocryphal texts (A.D. 100) and before the translation of the Lotus Sutra (A.D. 50-150) in the forms of moxibustion therapy (whereby atremisia tinder is burnt on the skin) and ritual autocremation in praying for rain. Benn concludes that burning the body can be considered an apocryphal practice in the sense that it is an indigenous and originally non-Buddhist practice, but one that spawned other rites such as burning at ordination, which serves as an act of penance, a seal upon a vow, and a means to enlightenment.[13]

            As for ritual autocremation for rainmaking, Benn traces the practice back to the Later Han dynasty in the year A.D. 90 when an official named Dai Feng piled up firewood and sat on top to burn himself, when his payers for rain were unsucccessful. Just when the fire began to rise, the rains came.[14] As late as the Song, people continued to use autocremation as a method to produce rain. Benn points out that from the year 1000 onward there are records of Buddhists who vowed to burn themselves to bring rain, though not even the apocryphal texts advocate this practice. Further, though figures such as the famous monk Yijing (635-713) condemned autocremation and other forms of self-mutilation and suicide, monks and nuns continued to burn themselves throughout the imperial and republican periods and burning the head at ordination became an orthodox practice (though it was condemned in China in 1983 by the official Zhongguo fojiao xiehui--the Chinese Buddhist Association. I disagree with Benn on several points. First is his failure to discuss the self-immolation of Boji and Jie Zhitui, which appear in the Chinese tradition at a much earlier date than the example of Dai Feng in A.D. 90. But before discussing this objection further, let us turn to the autocremation of a Chinese Buddhist nun in 494.

The autocremation of Tanjian

            It is significant that the earliest account of Buddhist self-immolation is in the Biqiuni zhuan, or Lives of the Nuns complied around A.D. 501 by Shi Baochang. This text says the following about her:

She often gathered firewood, saying that she was going to carry out a meritorius act, and on the day celebrating the Buddha's final nirvana, the eighth night of the second month in the first year of the jianwu reign (494), she mounted the pile of firewood and kindled a fire immolating herself, thereby abandoning her body of birth and death as an offering to the Three Treasures.[15]

If we compare Tanjian's self-immolation to that of Boji, the most significant difference between the two acts is in the realm of agency. Boji allows a fire to encompass her whereas Tanjian purposely sets the fire that consumes her body. Nevertheless, both died as a means to fulfilling personal religious devotion--Boji in steadfast devotion to the rites of the ancestors, and Tanjian as an offering to the Buddha. In this respect Boji and Tanjian seem more closely related than Tanjian and the Han official Daifeng, whose intention was either to induce Heaven's pity to bring rain or to create rain by means of reverse sympathetic magic.

            In early Chinese texts, there are, however, two examples in which a woman tries intentionally to burn herself for ethical reasons. The first story,in which Wang Mang's daughter threw herself into the flames of the burning palace when he was defeated by the founders of the Later Han, has been discussed above. The second is drawn from the Lienü zhuan, this time from the biographies of the Virtuous and Wise.[16] The story concerns a woman from the state of Jin named Ji, who was duke Mu of Qin's wife. The duke of Qin had taken Ji's brother captive. When Ji heard the news she appeared before her husband with their four children. She and the children stood before him on a pile of kindling wood wearing clothes or mourning. She told the king that if he held her brother captive she would die. Though the text is no more specific than this, commentators generally agree that Ji's actions indicate that she was about to set herself and her children on fire if her husband did not release her brother. Her self-immolation therefore serves as a form of moral blackmail in a way that links her story to that of the rainmakers, who threaten autocremation in order to force Heaven to release rain. I would therefore conclude that although Boji did not actively set herself on fire, the intention behind her self immolation is most closely linked to that of Tanjian in that both are expressons of religious devotion rather than a gesture meant to force the hand of an opponent.

Daoist liberation by fire

            Benn also does not mention Daoist accounts whereby practioners of various regimens become immortals by casting themselves into fire. To my knowledge, one of the earliest accounts of this practice appears in the Liexian zhuan, also attributed to Liu Xiang. The date of the Liexian zhuan is uncertain, a version certainly existed in the Later Han but it is clear that the Later Han version and the text that has come down to us today are not the same.[17] My sense is that this story is later than Liu Xiang and dates to the third or fourth century A.D. The account concerns a certain Ning Fengzi, who was able to burn himself and ascend by means of the smoke vapors, presumably to become an immortal, while leaving his bones behind. With this story we begin to approach a form of autocremation that resembles the Buddhist practice. What distinguishes this story from the earlier Chinese accounts of self-immolation is the sense that burning the body will allow the soul to travel to a better place. Chronologically, the closest Chinese account of this sort of practice is found in the biography of the Daoist adept Wang Heping in the Hou Hanshu, which mentions the practice of "separation from the corpse" (shijie) as a means to gain immortality. He was thought to live sometime during the later Han, so that this account may also be dated to the third century A.D., though it may be later.[18] It is quite possible that the practice of burning the body as a means to transport the soul to a better place does comes from Tibet (and perhapsIndia),though not necessarily from Buddhism. It is noteworthy that the Mozi, a text that may date to the fourth or third century B.C., mentions with horror the burial practices of the people west of the state of Qin, called the Yiqu. The texts states that, "Upon their death the parents were burned on a bonfire and amidst the smoke, and this was said to be the ascension to the golden clouds."[19] Though cremation was generally frowned upon in early China, to my knowledge, burnt sacrifices were often used as a means to send offerings to the ancestors. Those who burned themsleves to death in early times, may have done so not as a way to transport themselves to a different and better realm but to use the smoke from their burning bodies as a means to communicate with the ancestors.


            I have tried to show, first of all, how the ordinary historical figures of one period can become the exemplars of the next, and that in late Warring States times some schools of thought upheld suicide as a moral act worthy of emulation, while others condemned it as an egotistical pursuit of fame. Because prominent voices throughout Chinese history continued to praise practices such as self-immolation it is not surprising that it became part of the repertoire of Buddhism as it was absorbed into East Asian culture. Moreover, the emergence of Daoist self-immolators who appear in China at about the same time as Buddhism suggests that self-immolation as a means of transport to another realm may have originated in cultures west of China. A full analysis of autocremation is not within the scope of this study. We can, nevertheless, conclude that by the third or fourth century B.C., a form of radical ritual fundamentalism, which lauded women who chose to die rather than transgress the rites, informed discussions of female morality.

[1] O'Hara, trans., p. 105.

[2] Trans. Based on Legge, The Chinese Classics, vol. 5, p. 555.

[3] Trans., based on Legge, p. 556.

[4] See Michael Loewe, Early Chinese Texts, p. 68.

[5] SSJZS, vol. 2, pp. 2432A-B; Guliang zhuan, juan 16, p. 68.

[6] See Zuo, Xi 24; Legge, The Chinese Classics, vol. 5, p. 191.

[7] Translation based on Watson, p. 329.

[8] Zhuangzi, juan 29, "Robber Zhi," Watson, trans., The Complete Works of Chuang Tzu, pp. 329-330.

[9]Translation based on Albert O'Hara, p. 117.

[10]Legge, trans., The Chinese Classics, vol. 2, p. 307. Dating based on Brooks, Sino-Platonic Papers no. 46 (July, 1994):53-56.

[11] SSJZS, vol. 1, p. 1240; Liji, juan 2, p. 12C; Legge, Li chi, vol. 1, p. 77.

[12] Zhuangzi, juan 29, "Robber Zhi," Watson, trans., The Complete Works of Chuang Tzu, pp. 329-330.

[13] James A. Benn, "Where text meets flesh: burning the body as an apocryphal practice in Chinese Buddhism," History of Religions, vol. 37, no. 4 (May, 1998):295.

[14] Hou Han shu, 81, p. 2684.

[15] Biqiuni zhuan, no. 46; translated by Kathryn Tsai, Lives of the Nuns, p. 79.

[16] See Lienü zhuan, chapter 2, bio. 4; O'Hara, pp. 54-56.

[17] See Max Kaltenmark, Le Lie-sien tchouan: Biographies légendaires des Immortels taoïstes de l’antiquité, pp. 3-4.

[18] Houhan shu, 82, p. 2751.

[19] Mozi, "Jie zang," part 3, chapter 25, translation by Yi-pao Mei p. 266.


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