Like a few other cultures in the world, modern China comes with thousands of years of tradition behind it. As with those others, it sometimes struggles to find a way to make that tradition and history mesh well with modern life (most often by simply jettisoning the former). However, every once in a while, you’ll see an example of how the Chinese will take a tradition and … get a little carried away with it. The results are as breathtakingly brilliant as they are horrifying.
The first example I came across was in late 2006, early 2007, when I read about the practice of minghun, or ghost marriages. Essentially, having an unmarried son in traditional China is bad enough — having him die without being married is nearly unbearable for some, so they endeavour to find him a bride. Various members of the clergy will offer to help the family find a family recently bereaved of a daughter whose horoscope is compatible with that of their son, and then arrange to have the couple ‘married’ and then buried together, so that they may enjoy a happy (and apparently quite frisky, according to academic Ping Yao) afterlife together. In some cases, the family of the male will compensate the family of the female for the hassle.
And that’s where the entrepreneurial spirit of the Chinese comes in and things start to get carried away. Normally, families will rely on networks of friends and relatives to find these deceased single women to marry to their deceased sons. But in some cases, there are none to be found, or those found are too long dead to be appropriate for the deceased son. Suddenly there appears a market for brokers who will help expand the search and find an appropriate bride, for a fee of course.
Now, in order to earn that fee, sometimes brokers will start bending the rules. For those cases where they truly cannot find an appropriate corpse, some will find themselves resorting to grave robbing. Knowing that a newer corpse will do better than an older corpse, some will stake out funerals, wait until the evening, and then nip the fresher corpse in return for a higher fee.
Which leads some extreme people to just start murdering women to get the freshest corpse possible and the highest price. Sure, they’ll target prostitutes, the mentally handicapped, the infirm, and other easy targets at first, but even those will get hard to come by and it’s only a matter of time before they’re arrested after abducting somebody off a city street at night.
I more or less forgot about this over the years, however, and it was only recently that I came across another example that made me put it all together and brought back memories of the ghost marriages. The second incidence came from a news report about arrests at a funeral.
Again, centering around burial traditions, it was noted that many people in poorer parts of the country believe that the larger the send-off you give somebody into the afterlife, the more the deceased is honoured. Families will thus try to ensure that as large of a crowd as possible will attend the funeral.
When mere appeals to people’s decency or sentiments doesn’t work, you start bribing people to show up, perhaps with free booze and food, or by making important people attend the proceedings.
But when even that fails, once again, the enterprising business mind comes to the rescue: why not hire strippers to perform at the funeral. It’s never hard to find farmers who are willing to hang out somewhere for a few hours when there are hot naked women to be had.
This, in fact, led to the formation of funeral stripper troupes, and subsequently government “funeral misdeed” hotlines. Thus, the arrests in Jiangsu province (interestingly enough, also in 2006, although the news has just come around again) of five people involved in organising these funeral strippers.
Now, before you decide to berate me for looking down on the Chinese or otherwise laughing at their silly traditions and beliefs, please note that my intention is exactly the opposite — to show how the magical combination of a massive population (1.4 billion and counting), thousands of years of history, and a mercantilist / entrepreneurial spirit I have not seen elsewhere in the world can, on extremely rare occasions, come together to produce brilliantly bizarre results. You can say a lot about China, but you can never, ever say it’s boring.