An Analysis of Suicide in the Chinese and English Cultural Contexts in the Early Modern Period

Social Sciences in China

Vol. 41, No. 2, 2020


An Analysis of Suicide in the Chinese and English Cultural Contexts in the Early Modern Period



In early modern English and European culture, suicide was both a sin and a crime. Suicide was condemned both by religion and civil law. The corpse of the suicide would be profaned; his/her property would be confiscated, and his/her family would be humiliated. In China at the same time, suicide was neither a sin nor a crime; the body of a suicide was never subject to any form of abuse. Until the 17th century, the term for “suicide” in English was “self-murder.” The terms for “suicide” in Chinese convey the manner of death, but never suggest the idea of “murder,” and there are many terms in Chinese that start with “xùn” (meaning “sacrifice one’s life for …”). Although Chinese and English people often had similar reasons for committing suicide (for love, illness, debts and humiliation), there were forms of suicide that were peculiar to Chinese culture. These included suicide to achieve moral fulfilment; suicide to remonstrate or admonish; and suicide as a way of redressing a wrong. In the early modern period, English people believed that the right of ownership of life resided solely with God; no one had right to take their own life. By contrast, the Chinese were primarily concerned with whether someone had caused the suicide and whether it had been committed for a reason. My conclusion is that in Chinese and English culture, notions of the “self” are different, and the way suicide is understood in Chinese culture is different from the way it is conceived in English culture. This is in large part due to the differences between Confucianism, Buddhism, and Taoism on the one hand and Christianity on the other. Chinese society conceives of suicide in an obligational sense and sanctions certain forms of suicide as righteous; English society focuses on the absence of a right to commit suicide and condemns suicide no matter what its motivation might be.


Keywords: suicide, culture, China, England