What is the the placing a pearl/ball custom/tradition come from in China? I have inferred they used to put pearls in the deceased mouth for safe passage through the underworld but this seems slightly different although may be related.

I found the following on Wikipedia

Tomo Miličević finds a dead woman lying on her bed, and someone proceeds to put a small black ball (A ball of mercury, which is a Chinese custom) into her mouth. Wikipedia article

Here is the youtube music video "From Yesterday."

Here is similar video from the movie "The Last Emperor."

As a side note according to Wikipedia the Sanskrit word for alchemy is Rasavātam which means "the way of mercury". Being one of the few liquids at room temperature I could see this be used for similar purposes in Chinese history.

apparently it is from "The Last Emperor" movie. I just watched parts of the movie and they put a black pearl in her mouth when she dies I believe. I believe the Wikipedia article is wrong. Here is the scene from the movie. http://youtu.be/liUd2tukV3E?t=5m36s Here are some sources https://andrewsidea.wordpress.com/2008/09/12/the-last-emperor/ https://web.archive.org/web/20150506200811/http://www.mooreablackpearl.com/pearl_legends.htm

  • if you could reference the custom - is the Wikipedia quote the only source you're working from? What is the evidence that this custom exists? Why do you refer to a "pearl", which is not in the quote? (I"m not challenging anything, I'm just trying to understand a question that doesn't seem to be getting an answer.
    – MCW
    Nov 10, 2017 at 20:24

3 Answers 3


A song lyric from a modern western pop-band isn't the sort of place I would look for authoritative information about cultural practices in pre-communist China.

There are accounts of such practices in Chinese death rituals (in Singapore)

  • A pearl, placed in the mouth to protect the body, or
  • A coin to pay guardian spirits during the passage, or
  • A grain of rice to provide sustenance

Historically, the majority of the Chinese population have been extremely poor rural peasants. I'd be surprised if pearls or mercury were within the means of any but a tiny wealthy elite.


Śarīra is a tradition / belief referring to Buddhist relics, although in common usage it usually refers to pearl or crystal-like bead-shaped objects that are purportedly found among the cremated ashes of Buddhist spiritual masters.

see: Wikipedia's entry on Śarīra


Apparently the Wikipedia article is likely wrong. http://ghanisquest.livejournal.com/82903.html

She delivers a few lines before a large, black pearl is inserted into her mouth, signifying her death. Before dying, however, she tells the boy that men are not permitted in the palace past dusk. link


Ancient Chinese believed that pearls were conceived in the brains of dragons. In imperial china, the black pearl was regarded as a symbol of wisdom. As such, it was guarded between the teeth of the dragon. link


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