China’s ghost brides

The World

TAIYUAN, China — A single man will always cause trouble. Even after he’s dead.

“A man who dies unmarried will be restless, he’ll move around haunting, making all sorts of problems for his family,” says Chang Libing, a researcher on Chinese customs and history at Shanxi University, explaining long-held local superstitions.

The lonely man’s spirit will torment his family with demands and neediness. There underlies the belief in parts of China including here in Shanxi province, where old superstitions die hard, that a man must go to the grave with a wife.

Even though high-speed trains and big coal money are changing the cities, an hour or two south of the capital Taiyuan lie villages trapped in another time. Traditional cave homes have been replaced by earthen villages that wind and sand blended back into the yellow hillsides. Many of these villages are losing women from their graves, bodies disappearing in the dark of night.

In Shanxi, a tradition outlawed decades ago has made a big comeback: ghost marriages. It’s not the same as it once was, when two families would meet and agree to marry off their dead children for the afterlife. Rather, grave robbing has become big business, with female corpses in these parts selling for between a few hundred dollars to upwards of $7,000, depending on age at death and time elapsed.

“Market economics have changed traditional customs,” said Chang.

The Wei brothers of Dafa village experienced this shift from the worst vantage, losing the bodies of their mother and stepmother to grave robbers two years ago.

Though the practice is widely known and on the rise (there are no official numbers), it took months to find a family willing to talk, as protecting ancestors after death is extremely important in Chinese culture. The Wei brothers, Wei Yinxi and Wei Fuxi, are angry enough to go public because they believe they know who did it.

For years, the Weis believed their family graveyard was unlucky. Five generations were too many buried in the plot overlooking their farm. The hard, yellow earth was crowded and the spirits of those buried beneath restless.

Those spirits, the brothers believed, kept causing bad luck. There was evidence: Two of the five Wei brothers died young; drought was withering crops.

Their late father was married three times. He and all his wives were dead, buried in that crowded plot.

When it came time for the Weis to move their parents to better grounds, the family turned to Jia Haizheng, the local feng shui master, a self-taught expert in the ancient principles and practices. Jia consulted his charts and returned with this advice, Wei Yinxi recalled:

“Dig up all the bodies and place them in red boxes outside the graves, just next to each person’s original grave. The timing isn’t exactly right so we’ll return two days from now and move their bodies to the new graves.”

Said Chen Bianping, the younger Wei brother’s wife: “The feng shui master helped us choose the time, the place. He decided everything. Every step.”

That evening, the brothers couldn’t sleep, suspecting something amiss. In the morning they returned to the family plot.

The red boxes remained, surrounded by two sets of new footprints that appeared in the night. Inside two of the boxes were only stones, left to weigh them down. The bones of their mother and stepmother were gone.

The trouble began when their 18-year-old brother died several years earlier, unmarried. Because he died single, the Weis hired Jia, the feng shui master, to make him a “flour bride,” the likeness of a woman sculpted from wheat flour paste and painted as though on her wedding day.

“She looked so beautiful, even her lips were like a real, living person’s,” recalled Chen, the younger Wei’s wife, explaining why the family trusted the feng suhi master.

“She was really perfect,” Chen said. “Because of that we felt very strongly that he was the right person to advise on where to move the parents.”

The Communist Party of China outlawed ghost marriages decades ago, along with a list of old superstitions believed to be keeping people bound to backwards and unproductive ways. Old folks here say the practice never went away, it just went underground, with ghost weddings taking place after dark, only whispered about. Now, they’ve become big business.

There’s a thriving trade in the bodies of dead women. State-run media, the English version of the Global Times newspaper, recently ran a report saying that oil barons in this region were causing inflation in corpse prices.

Nevermind the dead women have no say on who will be their husbands for all of eternity. There is money to be made, and in China, money talks.

With not enough women in China, tens of thousands of men are dying single and their numbers will only rise. The situation is especially evident in places like Shanxi, where coal-mining accidents claim the lives of thousands of young men every year.

When the Wei family’s mother and stepmother went missing in 2009, police launched an investigation. By then, any evidence was gone. They women are now likely buried with other men, strangers.

Jia, the feng shui master, is cagey, shying away from questions and denying knowledge of where the bones went. His grimy shop, a five-minute drive from the Wei family home, is filled with elaborate paper funeral ornaments, books on geomancy and calendars of auspicious dates. His 8-year-old son’s English grammar book lies open on the family’s shared bed.

“When you want to prepare a new grave, you have to pick the exact date and the exact place,” says Jia. “Changing the particulars could be just as unlucky.”

The Wei family paid him nearly $100 for consulting services on moving the graves. The trade in dead women is far more lucrative than feng shui advice.

For their part, the Wei family is desperate for answers. Police detained the feng shui master for a few days, but said that without evidence, they can’t take the case any further.

“They told us there are rules now, that 10 years ago they could have beaten him into a confession, but today there’s nothing they can do,” said Wei Fuqi, shaking his head. “I don’t know how we can ever find them now.”

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