FUNERAL ENTERTAINMENT, PROFESSIONAL MOURNERS AND CORPSE FISHERS IN CHINA

CHINESE FUNERAL PROCESSION

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funeral procession
On a day and time selected by the feng shui master or a diviner the coffin is carried to a cemetery or burial place in an elaborate funeral procession. The route is lined with lanterns to ensure the deceased doesn’t get lost. Sometimes the coffin is a carried in a hearse decorated with dragons, an ancient symbol of good luck. Other times it is carried by pallbearers on a bamboo litter, preceded by an empty chair for the deceased to sit so he can join the procession.

Funeral processions are associated mostly with funerals in northern China. Some are quite involved, featuring men throwing around spirit money, displaying written testimonials to the deceased, carrying plaques with teh deceased's titles and official posts, and bringing items for grave side sacrifices. Behind them are musicians, monks, priests, the chief mourners, pallbearers carrying the coffin, women and children.

The procession is often led by family members of the deceased who carry incense and portraits of the deceased and often are dressed in a precise manner which defines their closeness to the deceased. A traditional brass band and professional mourners often accompany them. The procession usually moves slowly and stops at roadside alters to allow offerings to be made and at the birthplace, home and other places associated with the deceased. In some places memorial arches are erected across a street to commemorate fulfilled and loyal deeds and remind passers by to revere morality and values.

Describing a procession John Pomfret wrote in the New York Times: The “casket was slid into a colorful canopy, festooned on each side with the images of four Taoist saints...Twelve laborers, hired for the task, lifted the contraption onto their shoulders. Two men with bags of firecrackers began tossing packets of their bombs, designed to scare off harmful ghosts. Before our final ascent to the burial site, we halted at an intersection. We made a circle around the casket and kowtowed, one by one, placing straw, knotted expertly by an elderly neighbor, under our knees. Three times were circled the casket: three times we kowtowed.”

Good Websites and Sources: Traditional Religion in China: Wikipedia article Wikipedia ; Religion Facts religionfacts.com; Deities Worshipped by Farmers China Vista ; Mazu China Vista ; Video: “Ancestor Worship, Confucian Teaching, featuring Myron L. Cohen Asia for Educators, Columbia University afe.easia.columbia.edu; Feng shui Wikipedia article Wikipedia ; Feng Shui Crazy fengshuicrazy.comfengshuisociety.org ;Skeptic’s Dictionary on Feng Shui skepdic.com ; Qi Gong Wikipedia article Wikipedia ; Classical text sources neigong.net ; Qi Gong Institute qigonginstitute.org ; Qi Gong association of America /www.qi.org ; Skeptic’s Dictionary on Qi Gong skepdic.com

Folk Beliefs and Superstitions: Chinatown Connection chinatownconnection.com ; New York Times on Earthquake superstitions nytimes.com ; Old Book on Superstitions archive.org/ or Old Book PDF Fileus.archive.org/2/items ; Five Elements chinatownconnection ; I Ching Wikipedia article Wikipedia ; China Vista chinavista.com ; Robert Eno, Indiana University indiana.edu;

Funerals and Death: Chinese Beliefs About Death deathreference.com ; Death and Burials in China chia.chinesemuseum.com.au ; Grief in China Culture www.indiana.edu ; Chinese Funeral Customs China Vista; Lucky Numbers Wikipedia article Wikipedia ; New York Times article nytimes.com ; China View article xinhuanet.com ; News in Science abc.net.au ; Symbols Chinese Symbols. Com chinese-symbols.com ; Chinatown Connection chinatownconnection.com ; What’s Your Sign whats-your-sign.com

Good Websites and Sources on Religion in China: Chinese Government White Paper on Religion china-embassy.org ; United States Commission on International Religious Freedom uscirf.gov/countries/china; Articles on Religion in China forum18.org ; Wikipedia article Wikipedia ; Council of Foreign Relations cfr.org ; Brooklyn College brooklyn.cuny.edu ; Religion Facts religionfacts.com; Religious Tolerance religioustolerance.org ; Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy stanford.edu ; Academic Info academicinfo.net ; Internet Guide to Chinese Studies sino.uni-heidelberg.de

Books: 1) James Watson and Evelyn Rawski, eds., “Death Ritual in Late Imperial and Modern China” (Berkeley, 1988); 2) the chapter by Maurice Freedman in “The Study of Chinese Society,” ed. G. William Skinner (Stanford, 1979), pp. 296-312; 3) Laurence Thompson, “Chinese Religion” (Belmont, 1979), Chapter 3; 4) C. K. Yang, “Religion in Chinese Society” (Berkeley, 1961), pp. 40-43, 52-53; 5) Henri Doré (1914-1933), “Researches into Chinese Superstitions,” trans. M. Kennelly, 6 vols. (Shanghai), vol. 4, pp. 417 ff.]; 5) Addison, James Thayer. “Chinese Ancestor Worship: A Study of its Meaning and its Relations with Christianity” (London: The Church Literature Committee of the Chung Hua Sheng Kung Hui, 1925); 6) Graham, David Crockett. “Folk Religion in Southwest China” (Washington: The Smithsonian Institution, 1961); Hsu, Francis L. K. “Under the Ancestor’s Shadow” (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1971); 7) "The Way of Qigong" by Kenneth Cohen (Ballantine Books); 8) "Astrology: A History" by Peter Whitfield (Abrams, 2001). You can help this site a little by ordering your Amazon books through this link: Amazon.com.

Chinese Funeral Entertainment

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Traveling folk opera troupes often perform comedy skits and sing arias at funerals. The head of one such group, that performed on the flat bed of an old jury-rigged trucks with loudspeakers, told National Geographic that 80 percent of his business was at funerals. He said, “Of course I’m sorry for the family but this is my living.”

The troupe leader’s business card read: “Zhang Baolong/ Feng Shui Master/Red and White Events: Services of the Entire Length of the Dragon, From Beginning to the End.” Among the 27 services listed on the back of the card were “choosing grave sites,” “choosing a marriage partner,” “house construction,” “towing trucks,” and “evaluating locations for mining.” [Source: Peter Hessler, National Geographic]

Funeral music is designed to soothe the spirit of the deceased and usually is in the form of high pitch piping from an oboe-like instrument played by a paid musician and percussion from cymbals, drums and gongs played by priests and monks. Music often accompanies key parts of the funeral. Under the Communists, brass bands and military uniforms were added to funerals.

Extravagant Funerals in China

Confucius urged people to have low key funeral rituals. Before the Communist era, elaborate funerals were common and were regarded as a respectful way to send off the dead. Lin Yutnag, a 20th century scholar, wrote: “There is no reason to be solemn. Even today, I can’t tell the difference between the rituals of a funeral and a wedding until I see a coffin or a bridal sedan chair.”

After Mao came to power extravagant funerals were considered a collasal waste of money and resources and were discouraged and condemned as superstitious and a results ill-gotten gains.

In receny years, ostentatious funerals have made a comeback. As incomes have increased so too have spending on funerals. These days it is not unusual for a family to spend the equivalent of several years income on a lavish funeral. The funeral industry is now regarded as one of the 10 most profitable businesses in China.

In August 2006, police in Jiangsu Province arrested five women from a “dance troupe” who danced naked and did a striptease in a send off for dead farmer. The entertainment might have served to help attract a crowd. Traditionally, rural people, especially, believed that the more people that showed up at a funeral the mor ehonor was bestowed on the deceased.

Funerals have traditionally served as way to pay bribes and influence people. In the old days it was common to give envelopes stuffed with cash and gold models of the birth animal of the deceased to the deceased's family. A law passed in the mid 2000s banned officials from inviting all but their closest relatives to funerals to reduce corruption by cracking down on the practice of passing cash-filled envelopes as bribes.

Taiwanese Funerals and Copyright Fees

Jens Kastner wrote in the Asia Times: “The back alley in Taipei's satellite city is closed to traffic... The tent's entry is decorated with orange wreaths, and gifts for the afterworld are displayed: beer pallets and models of a villa and a Mercedes Benz made of cardboard. The mourners sit on simple folding benches, the deceased man's coffin placed in front of them. [Source: Jens Kastner, Asia Times, April 20, 2010]

A subtle tension is perceptible when the funeral director starts tinkering with the widescreen flat-panel monitor in the corner. Seconds later, images depicting the deceased in his lifetime appear in a photo stream, and a pre-mortem recorded voice wishes a “Thank you for coming, I wish you all live to 120 years.” Incense smoke and the tunes of Willie Nelson's You Are Always on My Mind fill the tent. [Ibid]

This is how Taiwanese say farewell to the dead. But copyright protectors are now crying foul play to the popular use of memorial CD-ROMs, saying it infringes intellectual property rights (IPR), and mourners ought to pay up. Taiwan's zealous IP protectors claim that although police raids on funeral ceremonies are unlikely, the law is clearly being broken. This is especially the case when the deceased's favorite songs are placed on blogs or photo-sharing websites as is commonly done. In the past, Taiwan has been reputed for rampant copyright piracy, but the controversy over the memorial CD-ROM implies that times have changed. [Ibid]

Producers of memorial CD-ROMs advertise that songs chosen by the dead played at the funerals bring emotions to a climax. “To deliver quality work isn't child's play,” Chen Kai-wen who markets his services online points out. “Presenting a whole life in a few minutes to the satisfaction of the bereaved requires skill.” Some families would hand Chen hundreds of pictures, others only 10. Either way it doesn't work out because the amount of photos needed for an excellently made memorial CD-ROM should be around 30 per song. Otherwise the photo stream would become too boringly slow or, even worse, too hectic.

In Chen's eyes, Taiwanese morticians and CD producers both do a great job to soothe the bereaved relatives' emotional pain, and he also understands the necessity for the collection of copyright fees. Chen promises: “In future we will encourage the grieving families to be creative and use music they have recorded themselves. If they still insist on playing protected songs, I think it should be up to the morticians to pay the bill.”

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funeral procession the 1920s

Professional Mourners in China

Chen Ning wrote on Danwei.org : “Wailing is an ancient funeral custom. Texts show that dirges began to be used in ceremonies during the time of Emperor Wu of Han and became commonplace during the Northern and Southern Dynasties. Customs varied across ethnicities and regions. During the Cultural Revolution, wailing was viewed a pernicious feudal poison and went silent. In the reform era, it was revived in a number of areas.” [Source: Chen Ning, TBN, Danwei.org July 23, 2010]

The funeral performance industry reportedly started to take off in Chongqing and Sichuan around 1995. In 1992, the city of Chongqing imposed a ban on fireworks, which left funerals lacking an important Ceremonial feel and led indirectly to the rise of funeral performances. According to Chongqing media, the industry had nearly 100,000 practitioners at its height. [Ibid]

By 2002, Chongqing issued the Regulations on Management of Funeral Services, which did not permit [wailing] bands to perform within the urban area. Urban funerals could be held in funeral halls that were set up in each administrative district...This had a huge effect on the profession and led to the breakup of many bands. Subsequently, the industry was pushed to the margins, at the edge of the city or in rural towns and villages. [Ibid]

Professional Mourners Today in China

Chen Ning wrote on Danwei.org , “In Chongqing and Chengdu, wailers and their special bands have, over the course of more than a decade, developed into a professional, competitive market. Studies show that wailers are predominantly laid-off workers. To support themselves, they rely on weeping and melancholy songs for their income. They and their bands believe that, like everyone else, they are engaging in a profession and performing a job.” [Source: Chen Ning, TBN, Danwei.org July 23, 2010]

Typically, wailers will bring to mind their own experiences to make themselves cry. Professional wailer Jin Guorong says that the first time she performed she was scared of not being able to cry, but when she thought of how she was in the profession despite being afraid of dead people, and how difficult it had been to go into business for herself, she wept hysterically...For a wailer, sobbing, covering the face, and kneeling on the ground are all techniques to increase the effect of the performance. [Ibid]

Reportedly, women make up the majority of wailers, and their husbands are usually in the same profession... Jin Guorong say that in their industry, resentment is hard to avoid. When they get together, friends who come over to greet them will frequently find some excuse to leave immediately. “I know that they don’t want to sit near us... People look down on us, but we don’t look down on ourselves,” says Jin Guorong. “When we perform, we call each other by respectful titles. For example, the MC will say, “Let’s invite Teacher so-and-so to perform the next item on the program.” [Ibid]

The wailers are typcally members of bands that also play songs and perform skits. The bands do funerals in the evenings, but during the day they sometimes take on weddings. Most of them do their best not to let people know that they are wailers. When working a funeral roles have to be changed quickly. Weeping is necessary during the wailing portion, but afterward they have to pull themselves together and enter another mode of performance, which might be a comic skit. From tears to laughter, just like face-changing in a Sichuan opera. [Ibid]

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Story of a Modern Professional Chinese Mourner

Chen wrote about, 52-year-old professional wailer and bandleader named Hu Xinglian, who is known as one of the ten great wailers of Chongqing. Before the ceremony begins, she asks the family of the deceased about the situation. She wears her hair in pigtails and puts on white mourning clothes and makeup because she believes that makeup shows respect to the bereaved family. During the eulogy, Hu Xinglian sometimes howls dad or mom to create a melancholy atmosphere for the family. [Source: Chen Ning, TBN, Danwei.org July 23, 2010]

Hu says that fees usually run between 200 and 800 RMB (US$30-118) per performance. Tonight the fee is 200 RMB. Taking out 70 RMB for the agency leaves the six members of the band with 130 RMB. The agency fee is given to the wreath shop. Hu explains that as the industry has grown, shops selling funeral products, which engage the families of the deceased directly, have become middlemen for the bands. And as bands have become more numerous, wreath shops have developed into one-stop providers of all funeral-related services. The band is just one link in the shop’s comprehensive service chain. [Ibid]

Most of Hu’s business these days comes from the wreath shop. In addition to the fee they charge for their performance, wailers receive gratuities. In Chongqing, once the wailing ceremony has concluded, the bereaved will pick up the wailer and hand over a bouquet that contains some money. In Chengdu, they put small red envelopes beside the wailer as the wailing is in progress. Hu says that tips vary widely, from a few yuan to several hundred. [Ibid]

Professional Mourners at Work

Describing Hu at work at a funeral for an old man in a small neighborhood in of Baiyun in Jiangbei District, Chongqing, Chen wrote: “At around 7:30, Hu calls the family of the deceased into the mourning hall and begins to read the eulogy. There is a formula to the eulogy that is adapted to the particular circumstances of the deceased. Most of these say how hard-working and beloved the deceased was, and how much they loved their children. The eulogy requires a sorrowful tone and a rhythmic cadence. As Hu reads, she sometimes howls dad or mom. And then the bereaved begin to cry as they kneel before the coffin. [Ibid]

After the eulogy comes the wailing, a song sung in a crying voice to the accompaniment of mournful music. Hu says that the purpose of this part is mainly to create a melancholy atmosphere which will allow the family to release their sadness through tears. Because of the special status of the deceased at this particular funeral, the family members have requested that the wailing portion be eliminated. [Ibid]

Hu says that more time is devoted to wailing in the countryside. In video recordings, Hu can be seen howling, weeping with her eyes covered, and at times crawling on the ground in front of the coffin in an display of sorrow. At some funerals, she crawls for several meters as she weeps. This never fails to move the mourners. As she wails, the family of the deceased sob, and some of them weep uncontrollably. [Ibid]

After the wailing is done, the second part of the funeral performance begins. Hu says that a funeral performance is usually sad in the beginning and happy at the end. Once sorrow has been released through tears, then the bereaved can temporarily forget their sorrow through skits and songs. This segment was once the domain of the suona, drum, and Sichuan opera, but now it has developed into songs, skits, and even magic acts...On this occasion, at the family’s request, she has cancelled the skits and just has a few singers sing songs. Shortly after this segment begins, family members begin to leave. Hu and her band sing a few songs and then end their performance: If the bereaved think it’s important, we will too. If they don’t care, we won’t care either. [Ibid]

When the funeral performance concludes...it is time for the spectators to request songs. Hu changes into a floral dress and sings and dances with the performers on stage, to occasional cheers from the audience. This segment is a money-maker for the band: it costs 20 RMB to request a song. In Chongqing, bands reportedly rely on requests for most of their income. That evening, Hu Xinglian’s band makes 700 RMB on song requests. Every member gets 110 RMB, and after expenses, she is left with 130. [Ibid]

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Making a Living as Professional Mourner

Divorced, looking after her parents and child on her own, Hu Xinglian could not support herself on her salesperson’s salary, so she began a second job as a wailer...She says that the performance is draining to both mind and body. When she wails, she says, “My hands and feed twitch, my heart aches, and my eyes go dim.. Wailing has more lasting effects, too: Hu says that her hands have gone numb from time to time over the past year. [Ibid]

According to her own count, she has wailed for more than 4,000 people. She no longer sheds tears when she wails, but lets her voice and expression do the work instead...Hu Xinglian gathers her emotions together before she wails to look for something in the deceased’s story that resonates with her and connects to details of her own life. When she can’t cry, she will adopt a sobbing tone in her voice. [Ibid]

She recalls that she was terrified the first time she performed. That night, her head was filled with mournful music and she did not sleep a wink. She had never attended a funeral before. In Chongqing, Hu Xinglian was laid off in 2003, at which point she entered the funeral performance industry full-time as a professional wailer. CI had no other choice. It was the only thing I could do. 14

Hu Xinglian has special wailer’s clothes of her own design. For the past few years, her costume has changed significantly. She says that she has tried many new things since she started wailing. She has designed wailing clothing that copies costumes from TV dramas, and has created wailing songs by adding her own words to excerpts from traditional operas. She hopes that people will remember her, and hopes that more people will request her. [Ibid]

Hu Xinglian feels that so long as the bereaved approve, and so long as she can make money to support her family, she figures she is a success. Nothing else matters. As the industry becomes more regulated and competition becomes more fierce, Hu Xinglian feels that the market will be harder to handle, and she worries about the future....Hu says that her income is less than that, just 5,000-6,000 RMB. She says that she cannot afford old-age insurance and cannot meet medical insurance payments. [Ibid]

Corpse Fishers in China

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bodies in the Yellow River
Kent Ewing wrote in the Asia Times, “Of all those around the world whose trades and professions are misunderstood and unfairly maligned, surely China's corpse fishers rank near the top. Since ancient times, these villagers have taken on the macabre task of salvaging human cadavers - victims of drowning, suicide and murder - from China's rivers and returning them to their families. For this lurid public service, they were traditionally thanked and appreciated.” [Source: Kent Ewing, Asia Times, September, 24 2010 Kent Ewing is a Hong Kong-based teacher and writer. He can be reached at kewing@netvigator.com. Original story on Wei Jinpeng was found McClatchy-Tribune News Service]

Describing a man named Wei Jinpeng who kept of bloated corpses he found floating in the Yellow River tethered to the shoreline, Ewing wrote: “Wei had run a pear orchard until 2003, when he realized that fishing dead bodies out of the river could provide a big boost to his income. Now Wei finds 80 to 100 bodies a year. His favorite hunting spot on the river is located about 30 kilometers from the city of Lanzhou, capital of northwestern Gansu province, because that is where a combination of a hydroelectric dam and a bend in the river causes bodies to surface. These bodies are young and old, male and female; some are bound; some are gagged; some, especially those of young women - probably migrant workers who had worked in Lanzhou - are never claimed and thus released back into the river.” [Ibid]

For bodies that are claimed, Wei has a price system that is sensitive to the income level of his customers. He charges the equivalent of US$75 to a farmer who claims a body, $300 to someone holding a job and $450 when a company is the payee. Other corpse snatchers are reported to charge $45 just to view a body (according to practice, bodies are kept face down in the river to preserve their features so that they will be recognizable to relatives) and nearly $900 for a claim. [Ibid]

This may have reminded readers of Zhang Yi's award-winning photograph, “Holding a Body for Ransom,” which quickly went viral on the Internet after it was taken last October. The photo appears to show a corpse fisher refusing to hand over the body of one of three university students who lost their lives while helping to rescue drowning children in the Yangtze River in Hubei province. The fisherman reportedly collected more than $5,000 - and heaps of media abuse - before finally turning over the bodies of the students. [Ibid]

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bodies in the Yellow River
The villain of this bigger piece is not Wei or any of his fellow body fishers, whose services are still very much required on the country's rivers. After all, if they don't pull the dead out of the national current, who will? Forget the local police, who want nothing to do with water-logged casualties of 21st-century China. Provincial authorities are even more averse to the stench of death. And the central government would only choose to act if a river became choked and toxic with human cadavers. [Ibid]

Although it is virtually unknown in the West, a recently released Chinese-made documentary presents a thoughtful portrait of those who make a living harvesting corpses along China's rivers. Director Zhou Yu's 52-minute film, called The Other Shore, shows how the ancient practice of body fishing has transformed from a public service into a private, profit-making business. Salvaging bodies out the river used to be a voluntary act of boatmen in olden times,” Zhou told the Global Times. “They returned the bodies as a favor. That time is over, and younger people have developed it into a business.” [Ibid]

As one member of the audience at a showing of the film in Beijing's 798 Art District was quoted as saying of corpse fishers: “I felt bad to see them fishing bodies like fishing boxes out of the water, but after all they are just simple people who try to make a living. If one day I need them to find someone from my family, I will be appreciative, even if I have to pay afterwards.”

Image Sources: Wiki Commons; Bucklin archives bodies, McClatchy-Tribune News Service

Text Sources: New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Times of London, National Geographic, The New Yorker, Time, Newsweek, Reuters, AP, Lonely Planet Guides, Compton’s Encyclopedia and various books and other publications.

Last updated February 2011

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