An ancestral graveyard in Hengshan county in the prefecture-level city of Yulin, Shaanxi Province Photo: Xu Donghuan
By Xu Donghuan
Even today Lei Jianzhong regrets his unmarried 22-year-old uncle being buried alone in 1948.
"His lonely spirit keeps coming back to haunt us," Lei says.
"If only we had found him a wife for his afterlife, all our family's misfortunes could have been averted."
Lei, 55, is a researcher at the chronicles office of the Party Committee in Hengshan, a county of 330,000 people 500 kilometers north of Xi'an, capital city of Shaanxi Province.
Sitting in his office, Lei isn't shy about sharing his beliefs in the netherworld. One night in the summer of 2008, Lei says, his uncle returned to him in a dream.
In the dream, he and his brother stood waist-deep in a ditch, reinforcing his uncle's tomb.
Morning came and he thought no more of it. Five days later, a heavy downpour washed away his uncle's tomb.
"All the relatives blamed us for failing to attend to the calls of my uncle in the dream," he says.
A dead man buried all on his lonesome brings bad luck down on his descendants, as everyone in Hengshan knows.
Haunted Hengshan families are willing to go to extraordinary cadaverous lengths to avoid this fate: Many arrange for a female corpse to be brought in and buried beside the dead bachelor.
With a wife next to him in the netherworld, the unmarried decedent is no longer of a mind to harass his family or make them ill, they believe.
"With that tomb now swept away, it's too late for us to do anything, let alone get him a wife," Lei says.
"Now we all have to bear the consequences."
Lei and his family are far from a minority among locals that cling to this curious collection of zombie-style beliefs.
Despite the atheist Chinese Communist Party labeling spirits and ghosts a feudal superstition, the ancient rite of minghun - ghost marriages - persists in Hengshan.
"Atheism is unscientific," says 71-year-old Wu Juliang, an expert on local culture and a Party member most of his life.
"After all these years, I'm confident there are ghosts and deities."
Dead men or women over the age of 12 cannot be buried without partners, Hengshan burial custom dictates.
The corpse of a spinster never goes into her family plot. Her parents marry her off and she's buried alongside her new necrotic paramour in his family's ancestral cemetery.
Funeral director Pang Shende. Photo: Xu Donghuan Right: Yang Jinyu, a farmer from Shaanxi Province, is arrested at a railway station in Xi'an on March 28, 2005, for selling the skeletons of six young women he dug up from tombs around his village. He was about to board a train to the Shanxi countryside hoping to find buyers for the coming Tomb-Sweeping Day. Photo: CFP
Every girl's dream day
The bridegroom's family holds a wedding feast and the bride's family receives a dowry.
"It's not much different from a normal wedding, only on a smaller scale," Lei says. After the wedding, the two families become in-laws.
The county seat of Hengshan is nestled in a valley of the Lu River, a minor tributary of the Yellow River. To the north is a stretch of barren loess plateau.
Lining the lowlands are rows of cave dwellings, churning out choking smoke from burning coal.
A winding road leads up through terraced fields of last year's shriveled soybean plants to the upper hills. The top of the hill is all graves, bathed in warm sunlight and away from air pollution, abounding in positive feng shui.
Stone columns with lion heads demarcate burial plots as large as 100 square meters. Rows of tall gravestones stand by pyramids of earth. Each row represents one generation. In front of the mounds lie empty liquor bottles and dried oranges.
The government may have achieved successes in other parts of China promoting cremation, but here in Hengshan, people stick with tradition.
Down the hill on a narrow business street is a shop run by Pang Shende.
Seventy-year-old "peacemaker" Pang handles weddings and funerals, helping people make peace with the living world and the netherworld: at competitive prices of course.
People pay Pang for an auspicious date for weddings, funerals and other important events in their lives. Occasionally he acts as a go-between for ghost weddings, matching star signs of bride and groom.
"On the black market, a female corpse can fetch 130,000 yuan now," he says.
"A few years ago, it was only worth 200 yuan."
Pang is a third-generation peacemaker. During the 1966-1976 Cultural Revolution, he was driven out of the town as a devil.
Today the devil's back and his zombie wedding trade is booming.
"Now we have around 30 people doing the same business as me in the county center," he says, smiling, revealing two silver-coated front teeth.
"Women are worth more money than men even after their death."
Families in need of a flat-pack bride tend to head straight for the hospital where the highest bidder can get in first and seal the deal with a grieving family.
"Poor families can only afford a 30-centimeter silver corpse made at the silversmith," he says, thumb and forefinger indicating the length. "It costs between 200 and 300 yuan."
A coffin the size of a bookcase is then made for the tiny silver lady to be buried alongside her ghostly groom.
Profits from the region's booming coal mines have produced a new class of millionaires over the last four or five years.
"These rich people come to our village to buy up female corpses and push up the price," says 48-year-old farmer Qiao Zhirong.
The afterlife marriage tradition poses an especially peculiar dilemma for a widow with plans to remarry: Who gets her rotting bones: first or second hubby?
Customs are strict: On the day of her remarriage, before she leaves for her new husband, she must sign a return agreement promising to go back and be buried with her first husband after death.
Conflicts often arise between families of a first and second husband when the second husband's family refuses to honor that agreement.
The widow's corpse is returned to the first husband in most cases, leaving the second husband's family with an empty grave to fill.
"The worst thing is to become a loner in the afterlife," Pang says.
The family of the second husband usually buys a stranger's corpse to bury next to their man.
The shortage of female corpses has spawned another lucrative business: grave-robbing.
Tomb diggers prefer to pinch the corpses of married women whose husbands are still alive. Disappearing corpses abound in this county.
"It's sad," Lei says, "but we have no laws now to punish those who disrespect the bodies of the dead."
Ghost marriages started in the 17th century BC and peaked in the 618-907 Tang Dynasty, Jia Yujie wrote in her Shanghai University thesis on April 1, 2008.
In modern times besides the regions north of Yan'an in Shaanxi Province, the tradition is also pursued in Shanxi, Henan, Hebei and Guangdong provinces.
In her paper, Jia noted that in central Shanxi Province when families cannot afford to buy a fresh corpse, they often pick up a cut-price skeleton.
Families bake a pancake and place it on the skull, using walnuts for eyes and dates for nose and mouth. Flattened dough is used for ears. Face done.
Now they dress the rotting fiancée up in a hat, dress and shoes. If the lady skeleton comes as a loose assortment of bits, the family knits a straw figure and ties the loose bones together with steel wire.
If a family can't afford even a skeleton, then they steam up a dough corpse figurine about 30 centimeters long instead.
Two black beans serve as eyes.
If the family can't afford new clothes, they make their own from colored pieces of paper or paint faces on the dry dough.
As an added touch, some like to wrap up a live bird or grasshopper inside the dough to demonstrate there's a live spirit.
Others like to use a softer dough to create a more flexible figure, worrying that otherwise they might get rickets.
Hengshan got its first highway in 2003. With the invasion of outside influences and young people leaving the poor, landlocked region for opportunities in the cities, the county can expect changing attitudes, with the ancient ghost marriage practice a viable victim for modernity.
Researcher Lei at the chronicles office disagrees.
"This practice is so deep-rooted in people's minds," he says. "When people have more money, they may invest more to cultivate their belief in a deity and spirits."