CHINESE police have arrested three men for killing two young women and selling their corpses as "ghost brides" for dead, single men.
The women were victims of a belief dating back to before the Han dynasty in the highlands of western China that young men and women who die unmarried should go to their graves accompanied by a recently deceased partner to be their spouse in the afterlife.
Yang Donghai, 35, a peasant of Shaanxi province, confessed to killing a woman bought from a poor family for 12,000 yuan (785) last year, China's Legal Daily reported yesterday. Yang said he was "tricked" into buying the girl, who was mentally handicapped and unable to care for herself.
Realising she was not marriage material for himself, Yang hatched a plan to recover his losses with Liu Shengha, who reportedly told Yang: "Who wants a living person? A dead woman's body still gets a great price in Shanxi."
The two men went to Shanxi to find a buyer, making contact with Li Longsheng, an undertaker whom police said was known for buying and selling dead women for "ghost weddings". Yang and Liu poisoned and then strangled the girl, selling her to Li for 16,000 yuan.
Emboldened by their success, Yang and two accomplices lured a prostitute to an abandoned courtyard where they strangled her and sold her to Li for 8,000 yuan. "I did it for the money; it was a quick buck," Yang said, according to the paper. "I planned to do a few more."
Zhang Zhangyan, the Yan Chuan county police officer, said: "It's a good thing we broke this case when we did, otherwise who knows how many women would have been murdered? These guys found a get-rich-quick scheme."
People on mainland China and Taiwan, and Chinese people throughout Asia, still carry out "ghost marriages".
According to superstition, the unmarried dead will often haunt the living in dreams and can ruin the prosperity of future generations unless their ghosts are wed.
When the Communist Party took control of mainland China in 1949, it sought to eliminate "feudal customs" such as foot-binding and arranged marriages that relegated women.
However, despite decades of rapid political and economic change, many old superstitions persist. And in China - where no method for getting rich is beyond the pale, from the organ trade to mass production of fake medicines - cases such as these may not be rare.
Police in Yanan, the poor and dusty corner of Shaanxi where Chairman Mao Zedong nurtured his Communist revolution, believe there may be many more ghost brides acquired by murder.
Tai Jianlin, the journalist who interviewed Yang, believes this case reveals a dangerous gap between the rich and modernising cities and the poor and often backward countryside.