New rulings by county governments in eastern China to restrict the scope of funeral ceremonies in rural villages have been met with opposition from 21 scholars, who on Thursday published a letter outlining their concerns on Sixth Tone’s sister website, The Paper.
Rules announced this year across a number of rural counties in the eastern province of Shandong aim to regulate village funeral ceremonies. Following the proposal, families have been banned from organizing their own funerals, wearing mourning clothes, and holding multi-day ceremonies. Large banquets and the offering of gifts during the funeral procession have also been banned, and families are now required to organize funerals through a government-backed body called the Hongbai Council — literally the Red White Council.
The rules are an attempt to curb lavishness and superstition, both seen to be at odds with the Communist Party’s ideology.
For the scholars who signed the letter sent to The Paper, this is one step too far. The group of scholars includes professors from Sun Yat-sen University in the southern province of Guangzhou and the capital’s Peking and Tsinghua universities. Many of the letter’s signees are Confucian scholars.
“The rules forcefully repeal funeral customs that have persisted in China for thousands of years,” the letter said. “Not only do they strip villagers of the right to grieve for their loved ones in ceremonies traditional to the Chinese people, but they also strike a fatal blow to the barely surviving Confucian ceremonies of life and death.”
The Shandong government’s proposals go as far as to call the common practice of zacai — or putting up elaborate festoons — a corrupt feudal practice, but in the letter the scholars strongly refute the claim that customs such as zacai are superstitious. “Today, some people still see traditional funeral ceremonies and feudal superstitions as one and the same,” the letter says. “These people are ignorant of national culture.”
“This kind of reform is destroying culture,” the letter continues. The scholars draw parallels between the new laws and the “Destroy the Four Olds” campaign, which in 1966 kick-started the Cultural Revolution, a sociopolitical movement that resulted in significant human and cultural cost. In the iconoclastic “Destroy the Four Olds” campaign, the aim was to smash old ideas, old culture, old habits, and old customs. The ideas of Confucius were a prime target.
Large funerals that last three days are a common occurrence in China’s countryside. It is believed that three days is sufficient time to be certain the person is dead, and for the family of the deceased to grieve. Many of China’s funeral traditions are Confucian in nature and have persisted for 3,000 years, according to the scholars’ letter.
The new regulations also aim to put an end to extravagance. In recent times, funerals have become big business in China. The sale of paper offerings for burning is commonplace, and in a bizarre twist, striptease at funerals has become increasingly popular. At some village funerals, lavish banquets are held with live performances, the content of which has little to do with the funeral itself.
Huang Deng is a professor at Guangdong University of Finance who grew up in the countryside in Hunan. Earlier this year she wrote a long and popular piece for October Magazine about her experiences with her family who still live in the countryside. Huang doesn’t think attempts to control village ceremonies will be very successful. “It’s difficult to control these customs, in some places they have very deep roots,” she told Sixth Tone.
But Huang has also noticed the nature of funerals changing in recent times. “I can’t deny that in the last 10 years some ceremonies have become vulgar,” she said. “Some bad customs have developed, including striptease performances.” Huang remembers that when her grandmother died, the funeral cost her family over 4,000 yuan (around $590) per person. She thus believes there is some value in regulating funeral ceremonies, but advises caution. “The government should not go too far and intrude on people’s lives.”
For their part, the scholars also recognize the need to avoid over-the-top funeral ceremonies. “It’s true that in improving funerals we should emphasize frugality, but we should not emphasize it excessively,” the letter says.
But the letter finishes with a dire warning: “[These rules] will seriously disintegrate traditional village culture and increase the rate at which foreign religions spread through our villages.”
Additional reporting by Lin Qiqing.
(Villagers carry the coffins of a couple during a funeral procession in Yunnan province, Aug. 7, 2014. Zhou Pinglang/Sixth Tone)