Wedding the dead

Updated: 2015-10-23 08:10

By David Dawson(China Daily Europe)

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In rare cases, death is no obstacle to marriage

Being dead renders one immune to most forms of social pressure, but it would seem the desire of a few Chinese to see single people wed transcends even the mortal coil.

Such is the foundation of minghun (冥婚), or ghost weddings, which involve at least one dead person, possibly two.

Wedding the dead

Today they are illegal and very rare, but that has not stopped the macabre practice, which in some rural parts of the country can result in grave-robbing and clandestine ceremonies organized by families who fear their single dead sons will lead a lonely afterlife.

The origins of ghost marriages are shrouded in mystery, but the Records of the Three Kingdoms, published in the third century, includes the tale of Cao Chong, son of the infamous warmonger Cao Cao, who died at the tender age of 13. Having passed away so young, his relatives scrambled to find him a wife, settling on a deceased daughter in the Zhen clan. They were buried together in the hope that, even if they didn't know each other in life, they would get along in the afterlife.

An academic paper on the subject, published in 2008, put the earliest date of a ghost wedding in 1700 BC, peaking in the Tang Dynasty (618-907).

Chinese history has long been peppered with beliefs relating to ancestor worship, infused with the idea that the dead continue to live on in the netherworld. It is often up to people left in this world to ensure the needs of dead relatives are met, which can range from material possessions like iPhones, in some cases, to a partner to spend their death with.

One theory about the origins of the practice comes from Jan Jakob Maria de Groot, a Dutch Sinologist and demonologist, who in 1892 wrote that it was a natural evolution from the earlier practice of sacrificing living wives of dead husbands. He was referring to xunzang (殉葬), a burial sacrifice, which dates back as far as the Chinese dynasties.

Visitors to Anyang in Henan province can also still visit sites believed to be 3,500 years old and containing the skeletons of slaves beheaded to serve Shang Dynasty monarchs (c. 16th century-11th century BC) in the afterlife.

Given the frequent occurrences of sacrifices for the dead throughout Chinese history, it is perhaps unsurprising that a filial belief system resting on the idea that the dead still have needs would embrace the concept of ghost marriage in some rural areas.

The practice has varied from place to place throughout history and even in communities beyond the mainland. In the late 1970s, British anthropologist Diana Martin wrote a paper describing the differences in the traditions practiced on the Chinese mainland and in Hong Kong. Taiwan and Singapore.

"(In Taiwan) it is always the dead girl who initiates the marriage, and she is always married to a living man. The man is free to marry again, or if he is already married the ghost becomes his retrospective first wife," she wrote. "In other areas, both parties are dead and the wedding can be initiated by either of them appearing in a dream to a parent or relative. The exception to this is when one party of an engaged couple has died and is then married by the survivor."

She also describes a ceremony told to her by a middle-aged Hong Kong man called Ho: "The boy and the girl at the wedding were both represented by wooden ancestral tablets inscribed with their names. The boy's tablet was carried into the main room first, then the girl's. Both were made to bow to the ancestral altar. The tablets were then put on the altar and worshipped on festival days along with other ancestors."

The paper mentions there were no more dream appearances and that the two families considered themselves related.

Indeed, families play a central role in ghost marriages. De Groot noted over 100 years ago: "Such posthumous marriages are peculiarly interesting as showing that the almost unlimited power of parents in choosing wives or husbands for their children does not cease when the latter have been removed to the realms of death. They further prove how faint the line of demarcation between the living and the dead is in China, even if it exists at all."

One can't help but wonder what he would make of some of the grisly modern stories about ghost brides.

In 2007, two men were arrested after a case of human trafficking became something even worse. Yang Dongyan, a farmer in Shaanxi province, was alleged to have purchased a woman he intended to sell as a bride for the equivalent of about 10,000 yuan ($1,600; 1,400 euros) . However, a man familiar with the ghost bride trade told him he could get a higher price for a corpse.

According to the Associated Press, Yang killed the woman and sold her to an undertaker for about 13,000 yuan. He later committed another murder, this time a prostitute in Yan'an, and sold her corpse for a lesser amount because he believed she was less attractive.

Police said they believed the killings were not isolated cases, while several media reports have mentioned murders of young women to "meet the demand".

China's gender imbalance has fueled demand for brides over husbands, both living and dead. In the case of the ghost brides, this has meant a need for female corpses, and some truly bizarre tales.

In 2012, a family sold the body of their deceased daughter for a ghost wedding for 35,000 yuan — before a band of grave-robbers dug up her corpse and sold it again in another town for 30,000 yuan.

Another Chinese media report in 2011 blamed superstitious coal barons in Shaanxi for driving demand for corpse brides, quoting an insider as saying: "On the black market, a female corpse can fetch 130,000 yuan." He said there were about 30 people involved in the trade and that, most of the time, deals were sealed at the hospital, shortly after women had died.

The practice raises some intriguing questions, not least: What happens when a widow remarries and which dead husband gets the wife?

This usually comes down to a legal agreement. This second husband is supposed to sign a contract saying the woman will be buried with her first husband. Of course, sometimes the second husband doesn't agree, which can cause all kinds of problems.

De Groot recounts one folk legend of a "handsome woman" who had nine husbands. After her death, the dead husbands were believed to have fought over her as jealous spirits.

Such drama of course is ripe fodder for entertainment. A Fantastic Ghost Wedding, a 2014 Singapore slapstick comedy movie, features a spirit-medium and families trying to organize a lavish ghost wedding.

Whether it continues off-screen in Singapore is anybody's guess, yet despite crackdowns by the Chinese government it has remained a rural custom in some rural parts.

Courtesy of The World of Chinese,

The World of Chinese

(China Daily European Weekly 10/23/2015 page27)