China's bachelor boys and corpse brides tie the knot beyond the grave
FOR many Chinese, an ancestor is someone to honour, but also someone whose needs must be maintained. Families burn offerings, fake money or paper models of luxury cars in case an ancestor might need pocket change or a stylish ride in the netherworld.
But in the parched canyons along the Yellow River known as the Loess Plateau, some parents will go a step further. To ensure a bachelor son's contentment in the afterlife, they 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 travelling funeral director in the region who said he last attended such a ceremony in the spring. "I've been in the business for seven or eight years, and I've seen all sorts of things."
The rural folk custom 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 obliged to tend to their wants - or risk the consequences. Traditional Chinese beliefs also hold that an unmarried life is incomplete.
In villages across the Loess Plateau, which spreads across parts of Shanxi and Shaanxi Provinces, everyone acknowledges 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. No one considers the custom shameful or overly macabre. Instead, it is described as a parental duty reflecting 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 road, 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 travelling brokers who lure, trick or sometimes kidnap women from other regions and then illegally sell them into marriage.
Villagers from Chenjiayuan, and Yang, the funeral director, said a family searching for a female corpse typically must pay more than 10,000 yuan, or about 650, 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.
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 Qin saved his money and bought a bride from a man who showed up at a local market offering a woman for 270. The woman bore Qin's son a child and then left three years ago to visit her family - and never came back.
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