October 5, 2006
By JIM YARDLEY
New York Times
CHENJIAYUAN, China — For many Chinese, an ancestor is someone to honor, but also someone whose needs must be maintained. Families burn offerings of fake money or paper models of luxury cars in case an ancestor might need pocket change or a stylish ride in the netherworld.
But here in the parched canyons along the Yellow River known as the Loess Plateau, some parents with dead bachelor sons will go a step further. To ensure a son’s contentment in the afterlife, some grieving parents will search for a dead woman to be his bride and, once a corpse is obtained, bury the pair together as a married couple.
“They happen pretty often, especially when teenagers or younger people die,” said Yang Husheng, 48, a traveling funeral director in the region who said he last attended such a funeral in the spring. “It’s quite common. I’ve been in the business for seven or eight years, and I’ve seen all sorts of things.”
The rural folk custom, startling to Western sensibilities, is known as minghun, or afterlife marriage. Scholars who have studied it say it is rooted in the Chinese form of ancestor worship, which holds that people continue to exist after death and that the living are obligated to tend to their wants — or risk the consequences. Traditional Chinese beliefs also hold that an unmarried life is incomplete, which is why some parents worry that an unmarried dead son may be an unhappy one.
In random interviews in different villages across the Loess Plateau, which spreads across parts of Shanxi and Shaanxi Provinces, everyone acknowledged the custom. People say parents of a dead son depend on an informal network of friends or family, or even a well-connected fixer, to locate a family that has recently lost a single daughter. Selling or buying corpses for commercial purposes is illegal in China, but these individual transactions, usually for cash, seem to fall into a fuzzier category and are quietly arranged between families.
In some villages, a son is eligible for such a spouse if he is 12 or older when he dies. None of the people interviewed considered the custom shameful or overly macabre. Instead, it was described as a parental duty to a lost child that reflected Confucian values about loyalty to family.
“Parents have a sense of responsibility for their son,” said one woman, Li Yinlan. She said she had attended ceremonies where the coffins were placed side by side and musicians played a dirge. “They have this custom everywhere,” she said of her region.
The Communist Party has tried, with mixed success, to stamp out beliefs it considers to be superstition. But the continued practice of the ancient custom in the Loess Plateau is a testament to the region’s extreme isolation. In other parts of rural China, it is difficult to know how often, if at all, the custom is followed.
The Loess Plateau, a dense warren of eroding canyons where some villages are unreachable by roads, is separated from much of the change stirring up China. Many young people have fled the arid hills, while those left behind struggle to raise a crop. Many of the men left behind also struggle to find a wife.
The reason is that many women have left for work in cities, never to return, while those women who remain can afford to be picky. No family would approve of a daughter marrying a man too poor to afford a dowry and a decent future. Families of the poorest bachelor sons sometimes pool their savings to buy a wife from bride sellers, the traveling brokers who lure, trick or sometimes kidnap women from other regions and then illegally sell them into marriage.
In the tiny village of Chenjiayuan, a farmer named Chen Xingwu, 57, stabbed a spade into his field overlooking the Yellow River and said minghun represented the final effort by parents to find a bride for a son. He said the parents of a local disabled man were so worried their son would die before finding a spouse that they recently gave a gold ring and earrings to a woman’s family to secure her as a bride.
Mr. Chen said his own marriage, at 35, was a lucky stroke, coming after he lobbied the family of a younger woman in another village. It allowed him to have three children and carry on his family name. But he said the pool of available brides was limited, a scarcity that increased their value — an irony, given that some rural families, conscious of China’s one-child policy, abort female fetuses before birth or abandon newborn girls.
“For girls, it doesn’t matter about their minds, whether they are an idiot or not,” he said. “They are still wanted as brides.” Dead or alive, he added, as he peered at the river.
“There are girls who have drowned in the river down there,” he said. “When their bodies have washed up, their families could get a couple of thousand yuan for them.”
Villagers and Mr. Yang, the funeral director, said a family searching for a female corpse typically must pay more than 10,000 yuan, or about $1,200, almost four years of income for an average farmer. Families of the bride regard the money as the dowry they would have received had death not intervened.
The existence of such a market for brides has led to scattered reports of grave robbing. This year, a man in Shaanxi Province captured two men trying to dig up the body of his wife, according to a local news account. In February, a woman from Yangquan tried to buy the remains of a dead 15-year-old girl, abandoned at a hospital in another city, to satisfy her unmarried deceased brother. She said the brother’s ghost was invading her dreams and demanding a wife, according to a news account.
Guo Yuhua, a sociology professor at Qinghua University in Beijing, an expert on folk traditions and burial customs in the Loess Plateau, said the minghun custom stemmed from both dread and sympathy for the dead. She said parents with dead daughters, like those with dead sons, were also carrying out an obligation to their child. They will sell their bodies as a way of finding them a place in a Chinese society where tradition dictates that a daughter has no place on her father’s family tree.
“China is a paternal clan culture,” said Professor Guo, who did postdoctoral work in anthropology at Harvard. “A woman does not belong to her parents. She must marry and have children of her own before she has a place among her husband’s lineage. A woman who dies unmarried has no place in this world.”
Pinpointing the origins of minghun is difficult, but scholars have found allusions to the practice in different ancient texts, including the Rites of Zhou, a guidebook of appropriate Confucian behavior written around the third century B.C. Commentators on the Confucian classics have argued that the ancient educated elite disapproved of the custom.
Yet Professor Guo emphasized that the values of Confucianism, later blended with Buddhism and Taoism, are the basis of folk customs like minghun, which share a reverence for family.
In the village of Qinjiagelao, where roughly one in four eligible men are unmarried, Qin Yuxing, 80, is a genial grandfather unashamed of the minghun practice or the fact that he bought living brides for both his sons.
His younger son, now 40, had tried to find a spouse but the family was too poor. The elder Mr. Qin saved his money and bought a bride from a man who showed up at a local market offering a woman for $500. The woman bore Mr. Qin’s son a child and then left three years ago to visit her family — and never came back.
“People aren’t willing to come here,” the elder Mr. Qin said to explain why he was willing to purchase a woman for his son. His village is perched atop a cliff and had no road until last year. Women often face backbreaking work. Mr. Qin said similar pressures weighed on a neighboring family after their unmarried son died in a gas explosion more than a decade ago. That family spent $500 for an afterlife marriage, he said. Mr. Qin’s wife, Cao Guoxiang, 76, recalled another case involving parents buying a dead bride for their unmarried son, a trucker who died in an accident.
She said the size of afterlife ceremonies depended on a family’s wealth. “Poor people just bring the bodies over and put them in the earth,” she said. “People with money will have a reception and slaughter a pig or a sheep for friends.”
She added: “It’s superstition and religion. People live as couples. If they die, they should live as a couple, too.”
And that is why families too poor to afford a minghun bride also follow a similar custom in some villages: They make a figure of straw and bury it beside a dead son as the spouse he never had.
Jake Hooker contributed reporting.