Cultural views of suicide

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Various human cultures may have views on suicide not directly or solely linked to religious views of suicide.

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East Asian views


Chinese culture has historically taken an ambivalent view on suicide. It has been commonly mentioned throughout Chinese history and frequently tolerated, if not explicitly sanctioned. It is frequently used as a means of escaping tragedy and shame, an especially strong pressure given the collective aspects of traditional Chinese culture. Ritual suicide has historically been relatively common, particularly as a form of political protest.

Nonetheless, many moral systems dominant in traditional China prohibited or looked disfavorably upon suicide, including Buddhism and Confucianism. (See also Chinese bioethics) However, even in these cases, exceptions were often made.

Suicide has been closely tied with gender in Chinese culture, both historically and today. There are countless examples of females committing suicide in pre-modern Chinese history, usually as a result of oppression or misfortune, such as family members (particularly husbands and mothers-in-law) looking upon them in condemnation, or when women fell into shame. In the latter cases, it was viewed as an honorable way to escape shame – especially because the repercussions of shame typically fell not merely on the individual, but to an immense degree upon the individual's extended family.

Suicide was also glamorised by popular stories among the people, in which lovers unable to be together in life because of various reasons, were joined together in death. An example is that of the Butterfly Lovers, and also Pan Yu-Ann and Su Qi in "A Dream of Red Mansions", one of the four great works of Chinese literature. In these stories, death by suicide was the only way that they could be together.

During the Cultural Revolution in China (1966-1976), numerous publicly-known figures, especially intellectuals and writers, are reported to have committed suicide, typically to escape persecution, typically at the hands of the Red Guards. Some, or perhaps many, of these reported suicides are suspected by many observers to have, in fact, not been voluntary but instead the result of mistreatment. Some reported suicides include famed writer Lao She, among the best-known 20th century Chinese writers, and journalist Fan Changjiang.

Today, suicide among females in China is at an extraordinarily high rate, reckoned to be the highest in the world. This typically occurs among poorly educated rural women. Because of the difficulties in transportation in the rural environment, women who attempt suicide are frequently successful in ending their lives because they cannot be brought to medical care early enough to be treated successfully. Some researchers, such as Canadian physician Michael Phillips have called to light this tragic phenomenon, and authorities in China are gradually awakening to the problem.


Like the contemporary Asian cultures of China and Japan, Indian culture has historically taken an ambivalent view on suicide. It has been commonly mentioned throughout Indian history and frequently tolerated. Ritual suicide has historically been relatively common, particularly as a form of political protest, warrior code or as a religious/philosophical undertaking. Many notable Indian rishis, kings and other figures have died through suicide for these reasons.

The religions of India, such as Hinduism, Buddhism, Jainism and Sikhism, have traditionally opposed suicide, except in extraordinary circumstances. Hindu, Jain and Buddhist monks would sometimes practice sallekhana, where starvation was used as a form of suicide that prevented rash decisions, and so was used with full consideration, perhaps as a way of ending one's life in their final years, or as a form of extreme protest, as during the Indian Independence movement, when various freedom fighters, such as Mahatma Gandhi would declare 'fast unto death'. Occasionally self-immolation was also practiced for similar reasons - perticularily by Hindu monks who would enter their own funeral pyre at the end of their lives as a form of devotion/renouncement, and Buddhist monks for similar reasons.

Like other East Asian cultures, 'death before dishonour' was a tenet of warrior classes or kshatriya, and thus military or martial suicide was permitted when defeat was deemed inevitable, such as in the case of Rajput warriors, who would ride out to meet death when a siege was inevitably doomed, whilst their womanfolk would immolate themselves to avoid capture, molestation and rape by dishonourable enemies such as the Arab, Central Asian and Persian raiders of medieval times. This practice was known as jauhar. There are numerous examples of Indian warrior classes such as Gurkhas, Sardars and Rajputs giving their lives to further a battle or - many of these warriors gained renown even amongst the British - many Indians during World War II allegedly astonished even Japanese troops with their willingness to die for honour, and launch kamikaze-like attacks.

In some parts of India, an extreme interpretation of select ancient philosophical texts led to the practice of sati, where a woman would immolate herself to join her husband upon his death, and theoretically vis a vis. In practice this was abused, with women often being forced to commit suicide in this manner by the local rural communities to prevent the burden of a widow on resources.

Heroic suicide, for the greater good of others, is often celebrated. For instance, Gandhi went on a hunger strike to prevent fighting between Hindus and Muslims; if they had not stopped before he died, he may have indeed killed himself. For this, he earned the respect of many.


Similarly to China and India, Japanese culture takes a view that, in comparison to European and American cultures, is relatively tolerant of suicide. However, recent events in Japan and some of the highest rates of suicide in the world among younger people have forced the Japanese government to take a more critical view of suicide as a "problem". As in China, suicide is traditionally viewed as a means of maintaining one's honor, perhaps more so - a ritual self-disembowelling known as Seppuku was in common use in Feudal Japan, and while this tradition largely faded out with the demise of the Samurai and the introduction of a western-style society, many young Japanese people of today still perceive suicide as an acceptable means to avoid bringing shame or dishonor upon their family. In the early 21st century, an average of 30,000 Japanese killed themselves every year.

It is a common misconception that the act of kamikaze also belongs to Japanese culture. However, it was a tactic devised during the Second World War by the Japanese air force and was used neither prior to nor after the war. The term "Kamikaze" has no such connotation in Japanese, instead meaning "godly wind", which originated after not one, but two storms protected Japan from invasion by destroying the invading fleets of Kublai Khan from Mongolia in the 13th Century.

European views

The Netherlands

The decline of religion and the rise of individualisation in the Netherlands over the course of the latter half of the twentieth century contributed to a relatively open-minded culture around the turn of the millennium regarding the subject of suicide. This atmosphere allowed for liberal laws to be passed through parliament, legalising euthanasia in 2001. The right to live is widely recognised and supported throughout the Netherlands and the past few decades have seen the 'right to die' gain equal status. The strong decline of religions (most notably Protestantism, to a lesser extent Catholicism) changed society's view of suicide to the extent that old views (based on Christian religious views), which strongly condemned it, started to fade. Although usually experienced as a tragedy by those who are left behind, the consensus towards the deceased tends to be vastly similar to that in case of a natural death. Feeling everybody has a right to live, as well as a right to die, the Dutch will usually respect the decision made by the deceased even if they don't understand the reasons behind it (or don't even have knowledge of them).