Tuesday, August 7, 2007
In rural China, a revival of `ghost marriages'
A member of the Chao clan of Gelao village in Shaanxi province was paying her respects recently to a newly buried female relative. She noticed a wheat stalk stuck in the mound of earth with a ribbon tied to it. Alarmed, she alerted her relatives. At 11 that night, they ambushed two grave robbers who were starting to dig up the body.
A member of the Chao family told a friend from the Wang clan in a nearby village, who had just buried one of its womenfolk. Clan members found nothing suspicious at the grave but the next day came across a large plastic bag in a ditch. Sure enough, it contained the body of their relative, exhumed and waiting for collection.
Parts of rural China are seeing a burgeoning market for female corpses, the result of the reappearance of a strange custom called "ghost marriages." Chinese tradition demands that husbands and wives always share a grave. Sometimes, when a man died unmarried, his parents would procure the body of a woman, hold a "wedding," and bury the couple together.
The practice is most common in the northern provinces of Shanxi, Hebei and Shandong, China's coal-mining heartland, where pit accidents kill many men too young to marry.
A black market has sprung up to supply corpse brides. Marriage brokers – usually respectable folk who find brides for village men – account for most of the middlemen.
In March, a local newspaper, Huashang Bao, reported that demand for corpse brides had led to sustained inflation.
A top-quality piece of "wet" (recently deceased) merchandise that the newspaper said would have sold for a few thousand yuan four years ago now goes for 30,000-40,000 yuan $4,200—$5,600).
In contrast, "dry goods" (long buried) fetch just 300-500 yuan ($42-$69) down the Shanxi coal mines.