The truck went into a skid on the curve, throwing the passengers out. Xianying stood up right away, holding his head. He was fine, he assured his friends – just had a bit of a headache. It was noon. When they got to the home of a friend in the city, Xianying lay down. He didn’t want to get up, and his friends began to worry. They brought him to a small private clinic, where the doctor saw how dilated his pupils were – not a good sign. Frightened, the youths ran away. The doctor brought Xianying to the city hospital. Nobody knew who he was, and nobody was willing to pay. Some time later, he was recognized by a nurse, a former neighbor, who informed the family. Xianying was still conscious when his relatives arrived, and he was able to nod when they called his name. By that time it was ten minutes to three.
Cerebral hemorrhage, said the doctor. We cannot help him here. The family hired an ambulance and drove to the next largest city, Yanan. It was already after four in the afternoon when they arrived. Too late, they were told.
Nothing more could be done. Li Xianying died at half past one in the morning. “If only we had known sooner,” says his uncle Li Yinyan. “We could have saved him.”
The small caravan with the coffins now makes its way over cyprus-dotted hills of loamy silt, past yellow ravines.
The sun is rising behind the clouds. Firecrackers split the silence. The mourners throw them from the windows of their cars to blaze a trail for the souls of the dead. They also throw “spirit money” – faux paper notes meant to keep the spirits at bay as they watch the funeral procession along the route. It’s like paying a highway toll.
After Xianying’s death, the window maker paid 360,000 yuan in damages – about 43,000 euros. The 17- year-old was technically still too young to work, and the three-wheeled truck in the accident had belonged to the firm. This is a lot of money for a family like Xianying’s. The clan had fallen on hard times in the last few years. One can see it in the face of the patriarch, Li Yinyan, Xianying’s uncle: the dark circles under his eyes, the face lined with worries, the thinning hair died black. The 42-year-old was a contractor. Things had been going pretty well, he says, until his client stopped paying. The local government had hired him to build roads, but when he submitted his bill, his clients simply shrugged their shoulders. Bankruptcy was unavoidable. All that Li Yinyan had left was a small car wash, really just a garage with a hose. What could they have done with the 360,000 yuan? Opened a business. Bought a car. Fixed up the family’s old farmhouse. Instead, they decided to buy a female corpse. “A man over the age of 12 who dies unmarried needs a ghost marriage. That is what everybody believes here along the banks of the Yellow River,” explains Li Yinyan. People here believe that a dead mann wandering alone through the underworld could become unhappy. A man and a woman belong together, in life as in death, and a dead man who is unhappy could come back as a ghost, bringing misfortune to his family. This type of ghost marriage is fairly widespread in Shanxi and Shaanxi provinces. It takes very different forms in other places – and in many places there is no such thing. The practice was officially banned in 1949.
Chinese conceptions of the beyond are complex. Buddhist and Taoist elements have long since intermingled with ancient folk beliefs, giving rise to a sort of composite that often unites contradictory elements – for example, the belief in reincarnation, and in various sorts of heaven and hell. The way the living relate to the dead is also contradictory.
In the first three years after a family member’s death, it is normal for relatives to set out a chair, a bowl and chopsticks for him at the spring festival. That way a dead family member can join the rest of the family for the meal. At the same time, however, many fear the return of the dead. If bad luck or illness suddenly strikes a family, one might conclude that the ghost of a dead person is haunting them. If a departed relative turns up in someone’s dreams, it is a sign that the deceased is unhappy in the world beyond and needs something – maybe a little more spirit money. These are the beliefs that fuel the ancient tradition of the ghost marriage.
There have been ghost marriages in China for more than three thousand years. The first historically documented marriage of a dead person was that of Fu Hao, a famous queen of the Shang Dynasty who died about 1190 B.C. Inscriptions and burial objects found by archaeologists at her tomb indicate that Fu Hao’s husband must have been deeply saddened by her death. Fearing that she would be lonely in the afterlife, he arranged for a spirit husband to escort her into the underworld. “The Chinese believe that life in the beyond is basically identical to life here,” says Professor Huang Jingchun, an expert in Chinese rites at the University of Shanghai. “The dead therefore need everything they needed in life. It is the task of the living to supply them with these things.” Ceramic replicas of dogs, sheep and pigs, of musicians and artisans, of soldiers and horses, have been found in the old tombs of the emperors. Occasionally the concubines of the emperor themselves had to die in order to accompany him to the land of the dead.
Earlier, a sort of stone “grave purchase contract” was buried along with the body to keep other spirits from barging into a tomb and to make it clear to the spirits where they belonged: down below, not in the world of the living.
With modernization, the fear of ghosts has subsided in the cities, but the dread persists in rural areas. Even today many Chinese still burn spirit money at funerals, occasionally offering to the flames an iPhone made of papier- mâché as well. And, just as before, they celebrate ghost marriages, only they don’t like to speak of this. Ghost marriages have a dodgy reputation in Modern China.
The mourners wind through low hills into the village that was once home to the dead man, a hamlet forgotten by time. Here peasants have dug dwellings in the loamy earth, shored them up and given them wooden window and door frames. The earth gives warmth on cold winter days and keeps them cool in the summer. The peasants stand quietly in front of their homes. Old women. Young men. All of them are burning straw to ward off evil, to keep the dead souls from entering their houses. Nobody will be working today. All are in mourning with the family. The village is poor. Its inhabitants live from the meager yield of their fields and from selling red dates. But harvests have been bad these past three years. A squatting man brushes his teeth in the street while a dog looks on. The feng shui master gets out of the truck and walks along the field path to the grave whose location he specified. The yin here had to be especially strong, for yin, the female energy, stands for calm, cold, moon, stillness and death. It is the opposite of yang: sun, life, strength, manliness. Both forces are part of life, complement each other and close the circle.
Feng shui is not a science. It has grown up over thousands of years and exists in myriad practices, schools, and sub-schools. The heart of the practice, however, is always a human being’s harmony with his environment, be that person alive or dead. Yang Xiong’s family has produced eight generations of feng shui masters, each son learning from his father and transmitting his knowledge, in turn, to his own son. Yang’s father had a tough time of it. He lived through the Cultural Revolution, when the Communist Party sought to obliterate the practice, which it dismissed as a feudal superstition. Day after day Yang’s father was berated and humiliated. But in the evening the very same people who fought him by day came to him secretly so that he could help them choose the appropriate sites for their graves. For even the most convinced communists feared the power of ghosts. “The politicians no longer concern themselves with us,” Yang says. His son, too, is in the process of learning the craft. He used to be a cocaine dealer, but he’s switching to feng shui.
The demand for ghost marriages has been on the rise for the past ten years. It is almost as if the new times have brought with them a return to the old days. “The price for female bodies is going up,” Yang says. Families only seek spouses for their male relatives. In this region, there is no equivalent need to provide females with husbands. There have always been more men than women in the country. The patriarchic tradition privileges a male head of the family.
Female infanticide is not so unusual – even before China introduced its one-child policy in 1979. Not everybody can afford a female corpse. The poorest of the poor will simply light a stick of incense, which symbolizes a woman. Those who are not quite so destitute may have a figurine of a woman cast in silver. But people with money purchase a female corpse.