In 2010, two years after Li Long died of leukaemia in a local hospital in China’s central Henan province, his mother finally found him a bride — Li Xiuying from the neighbouring village, who was hours away from dying of cancer.
- Locals say the practice is “very normal”
- Parents now buy “brides” for their sons off a black market of female corpses
- There have been at 12 murder cases linked to ghost marriages
A “ghost marriage” was immediately arranged by the two families — that is, a marriage for two deceased people to live in the netherworld together, according to the 3,000-year-old belief.
The bride passed away shortly after, and the two families hugged and wept in the hospital corridor, grieving but celebrating.
A few days after a funeral-turned-wedding was held and the couple — who both passed away at age 18 and had never met each other while alive — were buried together at Li’s family grave.
“He finally became a married man,” Li’s mother told the ABC.
“I finally managed to hold this significant life event for him.”
The marriage was incredibly significant for the family, as in the first two years after Li died, the elders of his family forbade his mother to bury him in the family grave because he died as a bachelor.
“It was really infuriating, and heartbreaking,” his mother said.
Li’s mother fought fiercely against the decision, but to die without continuing the family line, the elders insisted, made Li unworthy to rest alongside his ancestors.
Meanwhile for the bride’s parents, if a ghost marriage had not been arranged for their daughter, as a female, she would never have been allowed to have been formally buried anywhere at all.
‘You sleep alone in the dark world’: afterlife prayer
Despite the reality that cremation is mandatory in most of China and the ruling Communist Party tells citizens to believe in socialism rather than sorcery, the custom of ghost marriages persists in certain parts of rural China.
Folklore expert Huang Jingchun from Shanghai University told Chinese media earlier this year that practitioners find the tradition “very normal” and are surprised at the surprise.
Dr Huang has been studying the subject of afterlife marriage for 15 years and carried out years of field research around China’s Loess Plateau and nearby areas, where the custom is believed to be most prevalent.
“No one tries to hide [the practice] or to not talk about it. On the contrary, people are surprised that this can be a research subject,” he said.
In Shanxi province’s Hongdong county, Dr Huang said even his taxi drivers all had either had first-hand experience arranging such a marriage, or have witnessed a ghost marriage wedding being held by neighbours or friends.
“Many families have done ghost marriages in our area,” one driver told Dr Huang.
Ping Yao, a history professor at California State University in Los Angeles, showed the ABC a prayer for afterlife weddings:
“So and so, I hereby inform you: You died at young age and thus did not realise the great principle of marriage. You sleep alone in the dark world and lack the intimacy of man and woman. Just as living people long for companionship, the dead fear loneliness as well. Unexpectedly, so and so’s family had a daughter who just passed away like an autumn leaf. We sent a betrothal for you so your souls might meet. We selected this auspicious day for the rite of your union. We also set out an offering next to your shrine tablet, furnished with all kinds of food. Please send your spirit down to the banquet and eat the meal.”
In Chinese society, many believe that family members carry a duty to attend to the deceased’s needs. People burn offerings, such as money, little houses, and even servants made of paper for the dead to use in the netherworld.
Many afterlife marriages, Professor Yao says, are out of a “parental duty to a lost child that reflected Confucian values about loyalty to the family” — but practices of afterlife marriage also vary in different regions.
In Shaanxi province, afterlife marriages emphasise matching the deceased, in the hope that the deceased live a happy married life in the netherworld, Professor Yao said, however in Shanxi province (different to Shaanxi), the marriages are arranged so that the deceased bachelors can be buried at their family cemetery.
In Hebei province, the children can even arrange afterlife marriages for deceased parents.
Expert Dr Huang has suggested that the practice of ghost marriages is also about fear of ghosts and superstition.
“People are extremely scared of being haunted by deceased family members, because ghosts can come back [to the living world] and bring disasters and deaths,” he wrote in a paper.
“Ultimately, the ritual is meaningless for the dead and self-serving for the living.”
‘The girl is still alive’: A black market for female corpses
For Li Long’s mother, two years was a long time to be searching for a “ghost bride” while grieving, but she felt extremely lucky to be able to find one eventually.
“When a relative who worked at a hospital told me there was a young girl that was terminally ill, I immediately left for the hospital to look for her parents,” she said.
“If not for her, my son would forever be lying in the wild and never accepted by his own family.”
However, China is currently struggling with a gender imbalance problem: by the end of last year there were 32.66 million more males than females, according to the National Bureau of Statistics.
In 2003, Chen (L), a woman with disabilities, was sold by her own family for $6,000, given a fake death certificate, and trafficked to another province for ghost marriage. (Supplied: Shanxi Daily, file)
Many Chinese men struggle to find a wife, and things become even more complicated for the deceased bachelors in rural China, where “many women leave to work in the city; rural families, conscious of China’s one-child policy, abort female foetuses before birth and abandon newborn girls,” Professor Yao said.
As a result, in provinces like Shanxi and Shaanxi, where coal mining is the main industry and coal mine accidents claim the lives of thousands of young men every year, it is extremely difficult for the grief-stricken parents to find their sons a “ghost bride” — and this is when female corpses become a hot commodity.
Wang Yong, an employee at a Shanxi hospital, is quoted in Chinese media as saying that once the news of a young girl dying spreads, tens of families who had lost their sons would rush to the hospital for an “auction war”.
“Usually when the auction is over and the girl’s family promises to deliver her body to the winning parents, the girl is still alive,” Wang Yong said.
30 years ago, it reportedly cost around 5,000 yuan ($1,035) to buy a female corpse and host a ghost marriage wedding, a “matchmaker” who had been in the business since the 1990s told Chinese media.
The price apparently skyrocketed in the following decade, and by 2016, the “matchmaker” said that “you can’t buy a single bone” for less than 150,000 yuan ($31,059).
Professor Yao told the ABC that there have been at least 12 prominent murder cases related to ghost marriages, and more cases of kidnapping and grave robberies.
In 2016, a man named Ma Chonghua from north-west China murdered two women with mental disabilities and sold each body for 40,000 yuan ($8,300 dollars) for ghost marriages.
In China, there is currently no regulation that specifically outlaws ghost marriages, or even the selling or buying of corpses.
“It is a long and slow process to remove a tradition,” a staff from Shaanxi’s Department of Civil Affairs told Chinese media.
Outside mainland China, the custom of ghost marriage is also reported to be practiced in France, Sudan, and other parts of Asia.