How in China death rituals like ghost marriage are celebrated | VPRO Documentary

With my camera, I travel through the heart of China, from north to south On my journey, I try to find out what it’s like to live and work in today’s China Where is this gigantic country headed? And what do ordinary Chinese people appreciate or value? through the heart of China Each year, ten million Chinese die I sometimes think that number could be easily reduced It’s so dangerous here. I wonder how many plummet to their death each year But once dead, you are treated with the utmost respect As a matter of fact, each year, your family gathers around your grave bringing you lots of presents But why is that? What about the dead in China? a fridge for the hereafter episode 3 My trip has taken me to the Yellow River A special place, for this is where it all started It can be seen as the heart of China To the Chinese, it’s the cradle of their civilisation What defines a civilisation is how the dead are treated It’s one of the oldest civilisations in the world Xi’an, for instance. 1300 years ago, Xi’an was inhabited by millions of people When Amsterdam was a swamp and Paris and London mere villages that were regularly torched by the Vikings one million Chinese were walking around here Xi’an was the biggest city in the world by far and it’s still busy today Today even more so than normal The Qingming Festival is about to start which revolves around the dearly departed What do you sell? – Anything you like What have you got here? – Anything you could possibly need Like a camera – This is mah-jong Correct. I have a camera too What’s all this for? – For visiting the graves So it’s suitable for burning? – Yes Is this money for good luck? – Yes You can also buy dollars here to burn The United Stairs of America What do all these eights signify? Eight, eight It sounds the same as the Chinese word for ‘happiness’ So it’s a lucky number – I see The serial number contains many eights In Chinese, eight is pronounced as ba which sounds exactly like fa, meaning fortune or wealth Are there banks in heaven? – Of course there are At least, we’d like to think so I’m not entirely sure Are you here every day? – No, only during the Qingming Festival when most inhabitants from Xi’an come to visit the family grave Are you here every year? – Yes, it’s an annual festival Thanks – You’re welcome How many funerals are held each year? – Ten to twenty thousand That many? – It depends. Sometimes even more And do the deceased get cremated or buried? Everybody gets cremated – Are there no more burials? Burials are no longer allowed – Why is that?

Graves take up a lot of room, it’s a waste of our national land So there’s not enough land for burials – That’s correct And not just in Xi’an either, but all over China There simply isn’t enough land People are born and then they die If every Chinese needs 0.9 m², and there are so many of us That’s why the policy of cremating and vertical burials is the best solution The helpful manager wants to help us film in the cemetery But first he needs to make some calls To his boss. His boss’ boss and usually also to the local party boss In other words: it may take a while I decide to check out the country side, a couple of hours from the city It’s usually easier to get things done out there Here too, Qingming is celebrated extensively Out here there are no official cemeteries The graves are scattered all around the fields Everywhere I look, I see families with bags of gifts for the dead I get talking to a villager My family name is Li My full name is Li Zenglin He is very hospitable and invites me to spend the day with his family and friends Is it okay for him to take pictures? – May I? Go ahead – Thanks What are those, gold bars? – Yes, traditional money Is that a moped? – Yes, that’s all part of it Look over there, a wardrobe, a safe, a water cooler Why does he get so many presents? – He lived for a long time. He was 92 He passed away last year His children want him to have the same things in heaven as they have here A solar-powered boiler – Solar powered? These are all gifts for the longest-living man in the village Did he die when he was 92? – Yes 92 years old He is buried here with his wife Today they are placing the tombstone He gets to take many gifts, like solar panels but also a safe for heaven, several washing machines a motorbike, a big house, lots of money A solar-powered fridge and an air-conditioning unit for heaven Isn’t that wonderful? The tombstone has to go a little bit above ground level What’s going on? – The base is lopsided What will you do? – We have to fill in the sides Pour some cement in the hole – That won’t help Just do it. Lift it up and fill the hole so the tombstone will be level We need two more people – Jump on up The roof is facing the wrong way Right then. It’s up It took them a while to do it, but now it’s finally time for the Qingming rituals First bow Second bow And now it’s time to burn the offerings

A tombstone can only be placed if both spouses are buried in the same grave But what happens if single people die? If you are married and you die, you are the first one to be buried As soon as your spouse dies, he or she will join you in the grave Okay. But what happens if you never married? We try to find a partner for those who die single That sounds tricky. How do you find a partner for a dead person? It’s simply a question of money – Money? It sounds harsh, but you could compare it to a commercial product But the unmarried person is dead The person in that grave, for instance, is single We then look for someone of a similar age who passed away recently An intermediary contacts the family and discusses their wishes with them They come to a financial agreement and arrange the funeral I have to say, this is a very strange tradition We don’t have anything like that in the West Excuse me while I bow This is an old classmate of mine Is he waiting for his wife? – He is Being buried together is very important It’s good for the next generation and it keeps them from being lonely in heaven The deceased will no longer be a lonely spirit I get it I find it really remarkable It’s really remarkable that if you die single so if your brother, sister or friend dies while single he or she has to be buried with a complete stranger It’s that incredible? How expensive is it to buy the body of a recently deceased woman? It varies A couple of thousand euros on average – That’s quite a lot of money It can be even more, but a thousand euros at the very least Usually it’s between 3000 and 6000 euros And what happens if they can’t find anyone? They’ll find a way. It has to be done – Why is it such a necessity? A single grave is unacceptable You can’t be buried alone and stay alone for all eternity That brings bad luck to the next generations Single people need a partner for the hereafter Let’s go down Burials are expensive, even in the countryside but Mr Li has already made all the arrangements for his parents How are you? – I’m fine This is my dad. My dear old dad How do you look back on your life? – I’ve had a good life And what happens next? The next generation will have an even better life There will come a time for you to leave this life

I’m not worried. They’re all adults My brother and I have already had their coffins made. They’re paid for My wife has already made the clothes for us to wear in our coffins Has your mother already made the clothes? – Yes, by hand Where are they? Can I see them? – Yes, of course They’re over there – Why don’t you ask your mum? Are they just for you? – No, for me and my husband That’s my husband’s outfit – My dad’s Are these your dad’s? They’re really thick, aren’t they? It’s three layers: a shirt, an extra layer for warmth and a coat This is for my mum They’re all made out of silk And this is my mum’s too You did a great job It’s really beautiful Five layers in total Five layers? But surely that is way too hot I also made a duvet – Won’t that be too hot? It’s not like you’d notice So everything’s been taken care of – That’s good Who is buried here? – My dad Your dad? – That’s right That’s my mum Every year she comes here and cries I miss you so much, Mum You’ve had such a hard life too Before, after I’d been drinking, I’d miss my grandma terribly I’d come here at night and cry I’d be here for quite some time before going home again Every year around this time we are very sad So we gather here to remember them and wish them good fortune Nobody knows for how much longer Mr Li’s grandparents can rest in peace All over China, cities are expanding Every year, hundreds of Chinese villages are bulldozed and incorporated into the city’s high-rises And the dead move too Meanwhile in Xi’an the manager of the cemetery has arranged for us to film there People are burning their offerings – It’s not so busy now That’s because of the rain Rain causes traffic jams, so people wait for the weather to clear Have all those graves been visited yet? – Yes, because they have flowers on them So you can tell by the flowers In this building, there are some 30,000 urns Take it easy with the burning Can’t you burn them one by one? There is too much smoke Were your ancestors buried in the countryside? Did you move to the city? – Yes, our house was demolished Why did you have to leave? – To make way for new housing

Our land was taken from us By a property developer? – Yes How did you feel about that? – We had no say in the matter Life here is so much better than in the country We no longer have to work the fields and we were given a temple here When it rained, the cemetery became muddy and inaccessible All our dead are now here – From the whole village, you mean? Together with other villagers we bought this land and built the temple This is for you, Daddy Here are some new clothes Pour alcohol over it, for your father and grandparents It’s also for my brother – Do you have a brother here? He was sick and passed away – Is he no longer with us? He was only ten years old – That’s very young Little brother, I am sending you some money What was life like? – How do you mean? When you were little – Life was very hard Life is so much better now Every family has a car They never got to enjoy any of that, which makes me sad I understand I think they can see from heaven that life is so much better for you These graves look newer, are they? – Yes, this is the new Street of Heaven Why is there a QR code on that gravestone? What’s it for? It’s a service for visiting the grave People who live out of town or abroad who want to make offerings for Qingming can visit the grave in virtual reality by using the QR code The QR code helps to reduce the smog in Xi’an Thanks to new technology, you don’t have to burn your offerings on site So it helps the environment – Yes Can we try the code? After scanning you will see a picture of the gravestone, including all information As you can see, this person had two children, a son and a daughter Here you see messages from relatives Were they posted today? – Yes, at 10 in the morning We can see that relatives made offerings today The offerings you can chose from are incense, alcohol, cakes and gold There’s a lot to choose from – Music, flowers What’s that piano for? – To enhance the mood I can’t believe such an app exists – It does The most famous grave in China is around 2200 years old and can also be found in Xi’an It’s the grave of one man who is protected by 8000 life-size terracotta warriors Let’s take a look down below first I’m going to see it for the first time I’m not sure which angle to pick for my first taste of it Apparently, this is a good angle So let’s go Let’s take a look – My first time It’s incredible

Especially if you see it with your own eyes I can actually feel it – Are you impressed? It’s very impressive indeed Let’s go down to take a closer look This army was part of Emperor Qin Shi Huang’s empire This is an exact copy of the army he was in charge of as an emperor He was the first emperor of China After his death, he wanted to take all his belongings to the other side Security was very important to him, so this army is here for his protection Many people are taking selfies A couple of days ago I saw people visiting graves for Qingming They burned offerings like money and incense for their ancestors Is there a link with this terracotta army? – The dead shouldn’t want for anything That’s why people symbolically burn paper objects This terracotta army has the same purpose Emperor Qin Shi Huang wanted to take this terracotta army with him to the afterlife That’s why his son built this grave for him in the hope that the army would join him in the hereafter So this tradition is still around That’s very interesting When was this terracotta army discovered? It was discovered in 1974 When farmers wanted to dig wells, they came across terracotta heads and other fragments of pottery Can you see those holes over there? – Yes Those are the graves of ordinary farmers Nobody knew about this army They thought they could simply dig a hole to bury their dead See? There are more of those graves It’s incredible, those visible holes used to be the graves of villagers who lived on top of this army without even knowing it They also had to bury their ancestors, and so they did, among the warriors The longer I look at those petrified faces the more impressive this huge army becomes. No two faces are the same It moves me to realise that this work of art stems from the same belief that is still upheld today: Wanting to give your loved one anything he could possibly need in the afterlife I’ve been coming to China for years and I would love to attend a funeral and take pictures So I got in touch with a professional mourner who performs at funerals Our producer is now negotiating to see if we are allowed to attend this special event I think we may be alright It sounds alright, too It’s early in the morning, but the entire village is ready to go I’ve never seen anything like it It looks like a village funfair Preparations are underway for a banquet There is loud live music, wild dancing and comedy acts But in one of the courtyards the mood is a bit more solemn

This is where the guest of honour is laid out Can I ask you something? What are you doing here? My mother’s brother is getting buried – Did he die recently? When did it happen? – Two days ago, in the morning But the atmosphere is so cheerful I see many people making music and dancing When my uncle was still alive, he loved the hustle and bustle. That’s why It’s our tradition to give the people who lived to a ripe old age a merry send-off The merrier, the better This man was mentally disabled, which is why he never married How much did that coffin cost? You’d have to ask them They are the ones who bought it I’m embarrassed to ask Could you do it for me? Almost one thousand euros, they say Looking around, you can tell this funeral is a real happening It’s merry. There is singing and dancing Basically they are showing off their loyalty towards their ancestors the deceased relatives But I think there’s another side to it: By organising a huge funeral, you are showing your fellow villagers that you’re actually quite well-off This funeral is quite special He was never married, so he has no children So if he never married am I correct in assuming that his relatives need to find him a partner? And will the family also organise a wedding? That’s right. Today is the wedding That means that they also found him a bride When? – This morning When you got here, they took the bride’s coffin to the grave Where is that coffin now? – In the field Has she already been buried? – Yes, but the soil still needs to go back Is the coffin in the grave? Is it empty? – No, it’s not That’s incredible. So it’s not empty? – No, it contains a fake body You’re not going to believe this This man is unmarried, so I asked if a ghost wedding was going to take place to stop his spirit from wandering after death. That’s what people believe They actually found him someone, a fake person who is already waiting for him in a nearby grave So he and his coffin will end up lying next to a coffin containing a fake person Normally, people get buried next to their partners But we had to find him a fake partner Is the fake bride made out of paper? – Sometimes they are It varies. In this case, they decided to go for a blow-up doll We thought that was incredible too Normally, we’d make a doll out of paper to bury them with But today it happens to be a blow-up doll A ghost marriage of a deceased deaf-mute and a blow-up doll And no one batters an eyelid By now, it’s dinner time Food is prepared for the entire village And our professional mourner is getting ready for the serious part of the day This little mirror will do You look beautiful What are those clothes? – Official clothes for the condolences

It’s my job to mourn at this funeral Which means that I cry, sing, and pay an impressive tribute to the deceased I’m wearing a white dress to commemorate him I have to be as convincing as possible so people can feel my pain I have to look genuinely upset Can I please ask the bereaved to come forward I will be singing from the opera Mourn with the Daughters my dear oldie you have left us today Now she is going to show us the sleeve dance my dear oldie, I don’t want to let you go we’re all going to miss you so much can you hear me? After the relatives have shown their tears to all the villagers, it’s time The deceased is placed in his coffin and everybody gets ready for the funeral Mind his feet. Lift him first, and then we will slide him in Hold him over the coffin Mind the teapot

Are there cups too? – You need those in the hereafter And what else? – Stools and a dining table A toothbrush, toothpaste, a towel, all sorts of necessities A TV, mobile phone, cigarettes, you name it Can I ask you something? I notice there are two coffins in the grave It’s two people. They were a couple I thought he was single We managed to buy him a bride What happens if he gets buried alone? That will cause problems for the family – What kind of problems? It will bring the family bad luck A lonely spirit, you mean? – Yes, he will keep wandering Now he has a complete family They are husband and wife Is she a real woman, or is she fake? – Go on and take a look down below No, I mean it. Go and take a look There is a real woman in the coffin, but feel free to check it Me? Only if you come with me Shall we go together? – Go take a look and you will see What does a wandering spirit do? – I don’t know. We’ve never been there So you don’t know? – No I don’t know if the man who is laid to rest in this field was happy in life But today, his neighbours and family have done what they could to grant him eternal happiness In the next episode I will look into the meaning of Tao Open your heart Immerse yourself in nature Tao is everywhere For more information about my trip, go to www.vpro.nl/china