He never heard her laugh. He never lost himself in her eyes. In life, boy never met girl, but in death they will now be united. The marriage is to take place today, in the grave they share. It is five in the morning, and Yang Xiong walks briskly along a muddy path. A small wiry man in his early fifties, Yang is a master of feng shui. He has already smoked a pack of cigarettes tonight, and the cigarette tucked behind his ear will soon be lit by the one that is currently in his mouth. It is still dark. From time to time the headlights of passing cars throw their bright light on the path, which leads to a hillock. Men stand smoking along the way, their faces prematurely aged.
They look on and say nothing.
It was 2:30 a.m. when Yang set out from his town in Yanchuan County, a forlorn corner of Shaanxi Province in central China. The feng shui master offers a range of services: “Examining astrological aspects of a candidate for marriage. Choosing an auspicious date for marriage.
Selecting optimal locations for homes, shops and graves according to feng shui principles.” The family of the deceased young man Li Xianying hired him to choose a grave, hold a burial and conduct a ghost marriage. In modern China ghost marriages are frowned upon, so they have asked that their real names not be used.
Yang reaches the end of the path and nods to two musicians who have been squatting in the dust. One holds a drum, the other a suona, a kind of traditional Chinese oboe. He passes the small, crooked huts that usually house migrant workers. Right behind them is the mortuary, where the dead are sleeping. It is here that Li Xianying has been waiting while they find him a bride.
Half a dozen men hoist Li Xianying’s wooden coffin onto the open bed of a truck, where a second coffin has already been placed. In the mortuary, the feng shui master brushes the abandoned bier with a broom and a shovel and murmurs something incomprehensible in spirit language, taking up the souls of the dead. He then walks around the truck and taps the back of it with a miniature hatchet, indicating to the souls that they can go. Set forth on your journey – your journey into the underworld.
The vehicle starts forward jerkily. The mother and sister of the deceased kneel on the truck bed in front of the coffins, moving their bodies in rhythm to their wails and lamentations. They will cry the whole way – all 40 kilometers of the route. The wind carries their keening over hills and fields, into the surrounding dawn.
Li Xianying, the groom, was the sort of boy who never listened to anyone, says his uncle, Li Yinyan. He just did what he wanted to do. At 13 he dropped out of school and apprenticed, first as a cook and then as a window maker. He wasn’t born for the working life. The sort of boy who’d “go fishing for three days and let the nets hang in the sun for another two,” says the uncle. He preferred hanging around Internet cafés playing computer games. His best friend says he was the kind of guy who makes life nicer – always generous, always ready to share a joke. “Something’s been missing since he’s been gone, like food that is suddenly missing an important ingredient.”
Li Xianying was 17 at the time of his death. It was the day of the Dragon Boat Festival, June 12, and he wanted to go into town with a couple of friends for a bit of fun. There were five or six of them sitting on the bed of a three-wheeled mini-truck owned by the window maker Xianying worked for. They were laughing and joking.
There was a sharp right onto the highway, right after the bridge that spans the broad river – just where the government has put up an enormous propaganda billboard: a happily smiling family with the slogan “Improve quality of life by keeping health in mind during the reproductive process!”
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.
The suona sounds its plaintive notes. The drums drone. The peasants heave the coffins from the vehicle and on to a wooden cart. They drag, pull and push the coffins up the hill, through dirt and sand. A trousseau for the betrothed has been set up in front of the grave, made of paper. This household will help the couple set up a luxurious life in the beyond: a miniature villa, a red Mercedes with a driver, a television, a washing machine and two pairs of eyeglasses – because Xianying was near-sighted.
A wedding photograph in a gilded frame shows the betrothed – united by Photoshop. He wears his long bangs boyishly combed forward. It is hard to say whether his smile is crooked from irony, skepticism, or simply shyness. Her face is as round as the moon’s: a permanent wave with neatly cut bangs, large and wide eyes that look uncertainly into the camera.
“I began to look for a spirit wife for him on the day after his death,” says Xianying’s uncle. He asked friends. They asked their friends. And so it went. At first he was offered the ashes of two women who had already been cremated. “That would have been cheaper; they cost 30,000 and 50,000 yuan, respectively. But I wanted an intact body.” Friends of friends told him about a female corpse that had already been in a morgue in neighboring Shanxi province for forty days. The uncle went, and employees showed him the young woman’s personal identification card and death certificate. She was 24, and her body had been found in water. Suicide is what the police had entered on her death certificate. But in the morgue they told a different story.
The girl’s parents think that their daughter was murdered. Two small holes were visible on the stomach of the body, which had been bloated with water. Shots? Stab wounds? Traces of a rope could be made out on the girl’s wrists. Her parents demanded an investigation for a long time. They paid a lot of money – bribes. But the police stuck with their statement: suicide. And then somebody started the rumor that the girl had walked into the water because her boyfriend had left her. Xianying’s uncle wanted to meet the girl’s family, migrant workers from Henan Province, but they demurred. “In Henan, people are afraid that single females can come back as ghosts and bring harm to their families. This is probably why they didn’t want her buried in the family grave,” he supposes. The morgue offered the woman’s family 30,000 yuan for her body and the right to sell it to a third party. The family made her documents available. Xianying’s uncle went to the police and had them check up on her identity. “I didn’t want anything illegal.” Then he paid the morgue 100,000 yuan, about 12,000 euros, plus 1,000 yuan to each of the three people who helped him find a body. “A ghost wedding isn’t illegal, but transporting corpses is. A corpse is supposed to be burned where the person died. That is why I didn’t want to fetch the girl myself,” he says. An employee of the crematorium used an ambulance for transport. “You can get through everywhere, but it’s not particularly legal. The morgue isn’t technically supposed to sell any bodies, but people will do anything for money these days.” The search for a body and arranging its transport went astonishingly fast. His nephew had died on June 12, and the body of the girl was brought on June 16. Now, three days later, the ghost wedding and the burial are taking place.
The peasants use strong ropes to lower the coffins into a grave, which they dug more than five meters deep.
“The souls should not travel upward. Nor should they travel to the North, South, West or East. Only down – down into the underworld,” explains the feng shui master in a rasping voice. Xianying’s father is shaking in pain. His mother and sisters weep and wail. They cling to each other and cry for hours, sending their grief far into the distance.
All the women of the village who knew the deceased cry and howl. They collapse in the dust and dig their fingers into the earth. This grief is not being hidden. It is everywhere in the village, in the earth, the trees and the grass.
Only the feng shui master keeps his cool, doing his work one movement at a time, one cigarette drag after another.
He climbs down a ladder into the grave to unite in wedlock the two who have just been buried. He lights five candles, places a bowl full of dates, walnuts and cakes in front of the coffins – just as one would do at a wedding for a living bride and groom. He puts down a comb and a mirror so the spirits can make themselves beautiful. Later he will take the mirror with him so that the ghosts won’t be frightened by the sight of themselves. This is the entire ritual. No words are spoken. The feng shui master says nothing and asks nothing. For the dead cannot answer.
Xianying’s best friend Zhou Peigen squats close by. He is 17, and the two got to know each other at the window factory. At first, Zhou recounts, he didn’t have much to say to Xianying. “He was quick-tempered, and, well, I don’t have the best character either.” But they worked together, shared a six-bed dorm and gradually grew closer. Xianying loved electronic music. “The first time we listened to it together, it was impossible to go to sleep, we were so keyed up.” Later they would often listen to music together, drinking and smoking and sharing their stories.
Did they have any dreams? Zhou laughs with some bitterness. “Oh, we boys from the country don’t have dreams. We can’t afford them.” Then he says that Xianying had a girlfriend. They got along well. He falters.
“She doesn’t know that he’s dead. She has been calling me because she cannot reach him and she asks me ‘Where is he? What’s going on with him?’” He buries his head in his arms. “How can I tell her? How can you tell something like that to somebody?” The feng shui master pushes a thick slab over the grave to seal it. The men of the village shovel the yellow earth over it, coughing the dust out of their lungs. They place layers of straw in the earth, to keep the grave robbers’ shovels from penetrating too easily. For the rising demand for female corpses has also brought about a rise in prices. The most expensive bodies go for 180,000 to 200,000 yuan. That’s about 21,000 to 24,000 euros – an astonishing amount of money in a region as poor as this one. And with big business comes foul play. More and more grave robbers are digging up the bodies of females and selling them. The brisk trade in female corpses has reportedly even led to cases of murder.
The grave of the newlyweds is filled. The gravestones are in place. An old man moves among them, distributing cigarettes. The peasants burn more straw to ward off evil. They burn the trousseau, so that it, too, will find its way into the underworld. The paper television and the washing machine. The villa and the red Mercedes. The good life. The feng shui master releases two roosters who have been lying bound by their claws next to the grave for the entire time. If the roving spirits lose their way, the roosters are there to help them find their way back to the grave. Off go the roosters, teetering up the hill, crowing. The peasants set up the decorations: colorful ribbons and a tall, beribboned tower bearing the names of the dead. The white crane on top symbolizes the hope that the souls of the departed will soar up into heaven.
The grave glows red, yellow and green glow in the landscape. You can spot it from far away. The crane sways gently in the wind
Text: Angela Köckritz for ZEIT Magazin