July 28, 2007

The Economist: Wet Goods and Dry Goods

There's a very odd story in The Economist this week about the theft of female corpses in China. Some Chinese, who can be very superstitious*, are trying to fulfill an ancient belief that husbands and wives should share a grave together; however, when the man dies unmarried, what should be done? The apparent solution: dig up the graves of women or, in the case of one man, murder living women.

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 o'clock that evening, 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 custom has a long history. In the legends of the classical romance of the “Three Kingdoms,” the warlord Cao Cao finds a corpse bride for his son who died in 208 AD at the tender age of 13.

The communists discouraged burials and suppressed ghost marriages as “feudal superstition.” Yet ancient beliefs die hard. As Marxism wanes, burials are reappearing—and so are corpse brides.

The practice is most common in the northern provinces of Shanxi, Hebei and Shandong. This is China's coal-mining heartland. In mountainous Shanxi, pit accidents kill many men too young to marry. Compensation to the family is spent on giving their son a wife in the afterlife.

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. At the bottom of the supply chain come hospital mortuaries, funeral parlours, body snatchers—and now murderers.

On March 7th this year, 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 ($4,000-5,300). In contrast, “dry goods” (long buried) fetch just 300-500 yuan down the Shanxi coal mines.

Such incentives prompted Song Tiantang to kill. In the late 1990s he had made money supplying the market by robbing graves. Mr Song (whose name is a homonym for the phrase “to send someone to heaven”) was jailed after he dropped his mobile phone at a grave he had plundered: the police used it to track him down. This January he was arrested again and confessed to strangling six women and selling their bodies. Killing for corpses, he said, was an easier way to make money than digging them out of the ground.

* I'd like to stress that by no means are all Chinese, in China or living overseas, superstitious.

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