Back in October 2014, the South China Morning Post reported a bizarre and necromantic crime: Police in eastern China’s Shandong province arrested, and eventually sentenced, 11 men for raiding women’s graves and selling the corpses to people seeking yinhun, or ghost marriages. In March that year, the robbers also exhumed the three-months-old corpse of a woman and sold it to a middleman for 18,000 yuan ($2,850). The parents of a dead bachelor in neighboring Hebei province, in turn, bought the stolen cadaver for 38,000 yuan, presumably before conducting a wedding for their dead son and his equally dead bride and reburying the woman next to her new husband.
While the Chinese government punishes those who rob or desecrate graves with prison sentences of up to three years, none of the country’s regulations specifically outlaw ghost marriages. However, ghost marriages persist in rural parts of the country — sometimes with consequences for the living. In a 2016 case, a mentally disabled woman in central China’s Henan province narrowly escaped being buried alive. Fed powerful sedatives that were meant to kill her, she nevertheless regained consciousness during the burial and alerted the frightened family who bought her by loudly thumping her coffin walls.
Depending on the age of the deceased, their physical appearance, and their socio-economic background prior to death — as well as the freshness of the cadaver itself — corpses used in ghost marriages can potentially sell for more than 20,000 yuan.
Ghost marriages raise a number of interesting questions about contemporary China beyond why they still occur in the modern era. For instance, given that the Chinese tend to treat death as a potentially dangerous and polluting social taboo, why would anyone marry the dead? How should we comprehend the trafficking of cadavers as a social practice linked to marriage?
People in China — and in many other countries — have been practicing ghost marriages since antiquity. The practice likely originated as a replacement for the ritual of human sacrifices that were prevalent during the Shang dynasty in the second millennium B.C., when living people were sometimes sacrificed and buried alongside the dead in order to serve them in the afterlife. The most famous example of ghost marriage is probably that of Cao Chong: After passing away at the age of 13, Cao’s father, a Han-era warlord named Cao Cao, officiated at his marriage to a girl, according to a third-century historical text.
At the time, many Chinese apparently believed that the souls of the dead still had the same social needs as the living, even though they resided in the underworld. Ideally, the soul of one’s spouse would provide companionship, but not everyone got married before they died. The vast majority of those who died unmarried would also have failed to fulfill the cultural imperative to beget children and extend the family line, and therefore had nobody to honor their memory on Tomb Sweeping Day and other major festivals.
Angry and unfulfilled, the ghost of the deceased singleton was believed to haunt its natal family and ask for a spouse, either by appearing in its mother’s dreams or by bringing all kinds of misfortune to the household. The ghost had become an uncanny stranger: It belonged because it was familiar kin, but it also should not stay because it was now a ghost.
An early death also created other problems for the still-living relatives. As custom dictated that siblings should marry in order of seniority, the premature death of an elder brother or sister frequently prevented his or her younger siblings from finding their own marital happiness.
However, there were ways to pacify an angry ghost. If the deceased was a man, a living woman might consent to marry him anyway because she loved him too much. She would be widowed immediately upon marriage, and she would live chastely with her husband’s living family thereafter. This move would be applauded as an act of supreme feminine virtue and sacrifice, although it was unlikely ever to have been popular. The husband’s relatives could then adopt a young child, preferably from the same extended family, as his son.
Things got trickier if the deceased was female. Because women traditionally became part of their husbands’ lineages after marriage, they could not be enshrined on the ancestral altar of their natal families. Many people believed that doing so would enrage the other ancestors and invite disaster. Whether male or female, an angry specter would be best pacified through a ghost marriage.
Modern ghost weddings look rather normal, but their secretive nature means that only immediate kin are invited to the wedding. Most families forego the complicated matchmaking rituals that precede matrimony, but often the groom’s family will pay a bride-price to the wife’s family and cover the costs of the wedding and subsequent burial. The ghostly groom is generally older in terms of age, and has higher education, income, and social status than the bride. Depending on local customs, the wedding takes place either at the groom’s home or at a temple. Then comes a feast, where the dead might be represented by an inscribed spirit-tablet, a white cockerel, a bamboo-and-paper effigy meant to be burned later as a funeral offering, or even in person — usually in a closed coffin.
For all their creepiness, ghost marriages evolved as an act of humaneness that aimed to comfort both the dead and the living. While I cannot say for sure that people never committed murder or body-snatching for ghost marriages in the past, the recent spate of grave robberies is almost certainly exacerbated by China’s current neoliberal economic model.
The trade in corpses exemplifies neoliberalism’s imperative to maximize human capital for material gain. Carried out to its extreme, neoliberalism ignores notions of sacredness, and treats corpses not simply as inert and useless lumps of flesh, but rather valuable assets brimming with the potential for capitalization and profit. During my research, I found that a corpse willingly provided by the family of the deceased fetched a lower price — say, 4,000 yuan — than the 70,000 yuan or so paid to a middleman who may have stolen the body.
In fact, the trade makes the corpses simultaneously dead and alive. As inert objects, corpses can be bought and sold like any other lifeless commodity. However, the same dead bodies must also be treated as living persons, so that the ritual can achieve its social goals.
How can someone buy a stolen corpse and still think of themselves as moral? Unlike Western societies, Chinese morality is best described as relative, not absolute. The great Chinese anthropologist Fei Xiaotong articulated this position most clearly in his idea of chaxu geju, or the “pattern of difference sequence” native to Chinese ethical views.
Fei argued that Chinese society is composed of multiple, categorically different relationships, for example person-to-person or person-to-state bonds. Each relationship has its own specific ethical principles. Within this framework, it can be seen as foreign — indeed, even unethical — for an individual to pledge allegiance to an abstract body of absolute laws; the morality of any act depends on whether the person judging it is standing within or outside the perpetrator’s social network. Seen from this perspective, even grave robbing can be forgiven: A man who buys a corpse to marry to his dead son might think, “So what if the body was stolen? I provided for my son, and in the eyes of my relatives and neighbors, I’m a good father.”
The resurgence of ghost marriages reminds us that kinship ties remain of paramount importance in contemporary Chinese society. Whether we believe in the existence of ghosts, or agree with ghost marriages and their criminal mutations, is not really the point. As long as kinship remains at the core of what it means to be Chinese, the specter of ghost marriages will likely continue to haunt Chinese modernity.
Editors: Lu Hua and Matthew Walsh.
(Header image: A funeral is held for two people wedded during a ghost marriage in Yuncheng, Shanxi province, May 6, 2016. Chen Wei/IC)