PERSONAL NOTE: I decided to share my book with friends and students in mainland China because it costs too much to order a copy from USA. Enjoy it and share it with people you care and love. Peace, steve, usa, feb 21, 2019 firstname.lastname@example.org blog – https://getting2knowyou-china.com
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Three days before the official 2015 celebration of the Qingming holidays (Tomb Sweeping Day) in China, an article by a certain Emma Gonzales in an online newspapers not only piqued my interest but increased my anxiety a few notches: “Expats who die in China ring up a hefty tab”. In America we often joke among my friends it is beyond the means of many ordinary people to be born or to get married or to die in the United States. Now we also include seeing a doctor. (About one-quarter of over 300 million Americans do not have health insurance. So, many resort desperately to using the emergency rooms to get some attention. If you are poor and needy, and you are near death or desire immediate attention, and if you dial 911, the emergency vehicle will, by law, take you to the emergency facility in a local hospital. For some it might be too late.) Many expats consider China a paradise on earth. To some, it is the real heaven. I get the impression living and working in China that everything is cheap or within one’s limited budget for a foreigner. Many Chinese, especially women, unfortunately think all the white guys or expats are loaded with cash. If you are white you must be rich, how ridiculous and naïve and stupid this can be. I am now an expat in China and that article could be about me. You mean I could not afford to die in China? It has not occurred to me that as an expat a car might hit me while riding my bicycle to school. In America, many accidents or collisions are known to take place at major intersections. On my bicycle immediately outside the campus gate, I had seen reckless drivers flying through red nights, unable to slow down for student pedestrians on their way to their evening meals. On these Qingming holidays I thought less of this but more on what if I should die in the air over a different continent like the unlucky Malaysia Airlines Flight MH 17 from Amsterdam to Kuala Lumpur, brought down by a missile in Ukraine on July 17, 2014. What if?
My fear of flying dated back to the day when a group of us American teachers were granted the privilege to visit a Boeing factory (The Boeing Company is an American multinational aviation corporation that makes and sells airplanes to all parts of the world) not far from my residence in Washington State. One particular section of the tour got me worried after hearing a worker telling us how all these very thin colored wires he and others were working on—seemed countless to me—connect all the electronic parts inside a plane, some running along the walls and the belly of the huge big bird. What if? Questions flashed in my mind quick as lightning. At that moment all I could think or imagine was what if one or two of these thin wires got lose after many hours of ascending and descending, with all the hitting on the hard ground on landing and some shaking uncontrollably at times, causing the possibility of the meters in the cockpit to function inaccurately. Unknown to all those around me I was
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watching a silent movie in my head of a plane crashing unexpectedly into a high cliff in the dark because a pilot did not know one of his meters was giving him a wrong reading. All because of some loose wires. Not birds. Then what? Instant death. Inevitable. No ifs or buts!
And this vivid picture of an airline catastrophe would haunt me every time I take a flight anywhere in the world, especially when a plane in flight would sway a little like a duck or drop a little like losing your grip of a slippery eel because of air turbulence, even when I flew EVA, one of the best and safest Taiwanese airlines in the world.
Nothing is certain anymore, what with the deliberate March 24th 2015 downing of budget airline Germanwings Flight 4U 9525 from Barcelona, Spain to Duesseldorf, Germany into the mountains of the French Alps killing all 150 innocent people by co-pilot Andreas Lubitz, someone who had severe depression, received treatment for suicidal tendencies, and researched suicide methods and cockpit security days before the tragedy. What about the Malaysian flight MH370 March 8th 2014 with 239 people onboard, flying from Kuala Lumpur to Beijing, which remained missing without a trace, despite very extensive international cooperation and search in the southern Indian Ocean, and now declared an accident by the Malaysian government. What amazed me the most was the news of one sane and intelligent American woman working for Microsoft, whose boyfriend was one of the passengers, who recently offered a million-dollar reward to anyone who would come forward, anonymously, with information of the whereabouts of the missing Malaysian airplane. And in the air, unbridled speculations and theories abound as to the “whereabouts” of the missing plane.
Unsafe at Any Speed is a thought provoking book by Ralph Nader, an American consumer advocate, the very first book warning about the safety and dangers of American made cars in the 60s. A global sequel in the 21st century should be Unsafe With Anyone In The Blue Skies. It continues to annoy me to no end like a sharp thorn in my flesh when the general public is often persuaded to believe it is much safer to fly than to drive in today’s modern superhighways. It does not matter to me whether it is pilot’s error or bad weather conditions. It matters when you or someone dear to you becomes one of the unfortunate victims. Death is death and I definitely do not want to be one of the casualties—it seemed a widespread occurrence of airplane disasters in 2014 around the globe. It is no consolation that China has gained the reputation, without much trying, of being the country now with the highest record of vehicular accidents, collisions and deaths in the world.
As I celebrated Qingming to remember and pay respect to the death and the living
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with millions across China, I think more of my own mortality. I am aware many traditional Chinese believe the dead are not dead at all, and so on a Chinese New Year’s Eve, as family members, from far and wide, gather for a big family reunion feast, there are empty seats reserved at the big round table for those long gone to another world beyond. It is not uncommon to see many women, less men, burning paper money in metal grills in front of their businesses or shops in cities, big and small, across China, money going up in smoke to the deceased or some deities, as if to appease the dead or to curry some favors.
A caption accompanying a photograph of the terra cotta warriors in a National Geographic magazine speaks volumes about life after death: “Ghost warriors, sculpted 2,200 years ago to accompany China’s first emperor into eternity, were to serve in a carefully planned afterlife—along with bureaucrats, beasts, and entertainers.” This is about Qin Shi Huang Di—the First Emperor of Qin—and the terra-cotta army “is part of an elaborate mausoleum created to accompany the first emperor of China into the afterlife.” Or this heading to introduce an article above the same photograph. “Restless Spirits: In China, ancient human sacrifice has given way to modern tomb-tending ceremonies, but the dead still make demands”. And the same is true with ancient Egyptian pharaohs known to be buried with those who had served them faithfully throughout their lives, their loyalty and services not to be interrupted by temporary physical death.
In modern China, for the rich—there is ample evidence of their growing number in mainland China—a proper burial ritual, to the envy of those less fortunate around you, will include ostentatiously, way beyond the call of filial piety, the burning of paper mansions, cars, servants, airplanes, and golden paper money, and in Guangzhou, Guangdong Province, the deceased can also enjoy Apple’s products such as iPhones, iPads, earphones and chargers, representing modern tastes. One Vietnamese friend told me that in his country, some people would place rice, money and gold in the mouth of the deceased believing the deceased would have a safe and happy journey to the next world. On Tomb Sweeping Day the living will burn paper money and make offerings of abundant fruits and foods in the temples and before tombs of the beloved.
Purpose? To ensure our loved ones are happy, comfortable and well taken care of in the next life.
I grew up in a Chinese farming village in Malaya and was told untold times the unhappy departed souls would return to harm and cause you troubles if they are not happy in their afterlife. They might be gone but not completely dead. So if we somehow neglect them on Tomb Sweeping Day (April) we have another chance to
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appease them during the Ghost Festival on the fifteenth day of the seventh lunar month when spirits and ghosts are believed to visit the earth. The entire seventh month of the Chinese lunar calendar allows those who are Buddhists especially and all of us Chinese to make sacrificial offerings to our ancestors and different deities and display brightly-lit candles floating on rivers to guide the spirits in their wanderings on earth.
The fear of living ghosts and spirits was instilled in me when I was a little boy by my conservative mother, born and grew up in mainland China. When you are in the woods, she would say, do not just urinate anywhere to disturb and irritate the spirits. Don’t walk near the temples, Buddhist or Hindu, she would warn me. Avoid making any contact with them, that was her lifelong warning and concern. So when sister carried me on the back of the bicycle to and from school when I was little, she would bicycle very fast as if chased by a ghost when we had to pass by the main cemetery in our village. The same when we went to or returned from a night in town to watch a Chinese movie, always suspicious some ghosts might be trailing behind our speeding bicycle. On the third night, mother would tell me, the deceased would return to visit the family. When eldest uncle died in his own grand mansion far away from my village and the ancestral home where he once lived, I could not sleep for nights for fear he might return to the ancestral home where my family and I now lived, and the barking of dogs or howling of winds late in the nights did not calm my nerves. As far as I was concerned, eldest uncle was very much alive and could be anywhere.
So how to avert a confrontation with the dissatisfied or angry spirits of your ancestors or departed loved ones? Every Chinese who is an authentic Chinese knows the answer: an improper burial of a loved one can wreak havoc and misfortune on the family of the deceased. As we would say in America, people who are complete strangers have no reason to harm you. The corollary is obvious: only those dear and close to you have their reasons to hurt or harm you. As Chinese we must pay close attention to how we treat and bury the dead to ensure their happiness in their afterlife.
Yet in China I discovered death is a taboo subject in Chinese culture and education. Schools would not talk about it and parents would also avoid talking about it. For example, number 4 is considered unlucky because the words 4 and death are homophones. So much so that if you go to Hong Kong, you should not be mystified if some high-rise apartments would omit all floor numbers like 4, 14, 24, 34 and all 40-49, like some buildings in the West without a 13th floor because 13 is also considered unlucky by Westerners. My mother, born and raised in China, certainly wasn’t afraid to show me, when I was very young, the clothes, that my two elder sisters had made
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special for her, to be worn when she died, believing she would take them with her to the next world. For this reason, you could not convince my mother or any traditional Chinese to destroy your body by cremation. Somehow she, like many of her contemporaries, believed they would have the same physical bodies intact in the afterlife. Mom’s death clothes were nothing special to me. Made from ordinary cloth. Of course the Jews and the Muslims would use special shrouds for burial, dictated by traditions.
Amy Tan, the famous American writer visited a community of Dong people in Dimen, Guizhou Province in south China and wrote about it. In one photograph that accompanies her article, the caption says, “Wu Lianlian shares a laugh with her mother beside her coffin tree, chosen for her at birth, if she follows tradition, she will have the tree cut down and carved to order when she reaches old age. In a sign of the times, one carpentry shop now sells ready-made coffins.” Another caption for another photo says, “The son never cut down his father’s coffin tree to have it made into a coffin. No wonder the old man’s ghost was wandering.” And so the grand old lady—also the most respected proficient match-maker—in the village where I grew up had her coffin, given to her by her children as an expression of filial piety, proudly on display in one of the rooms in her house. Way before she was ready to die. One day Jay, a Chinese student, from Hunan Province, told me he saw a coffin in the home of his grandma way out in the countryside and he never had the courage to ask his parents the reason for the presence of the coffin. “I used to see two coffins, one for grandpa and one for grandma but they used one to bury grandpa when he died a few years ago.” I conjectured this must be a common practice among certain Chinese in ancient China to have coffins in their homes when land was plentiful and country houses were big and spacious, unlike the modern limited spaces of high-rise residential apartments everywhere now in China. There is not enough room for the living, not to mention the presence of coffins in their midst.
Depending on who you were, death could be a time of elaborate celebrations like feasting and playing mahjong close to the deceased silent inside the coffin. More than once, right outside my campus, a small crowd of relatives and strangers and mourners wearing different funeral outfits (indicating the nature of their relationships to the deceased) would gather in one particular open space near a shopping center to watch performances by a group of female belly dancers in colorful costumes using popular belly dance music. I associated the music with some ethnic minority people in Xinjiang Province or borrowed from a Middle Eastern country. Half-naked women doing belly dancing next to the coffin and mourners of the deceased? And loud music, blaring from boom boxes, loud enough to wake up the dead? And the processional
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band music sounded like a broken record, repeating the same music over and over, more like welcoming a circus to town, then leading the coffin for burial somewhere. This is China.
And when I was in high school, I with many others would often participate in different funeral processions carrying banners, essentially made from large pieces of cloth given by friends and relatives of the deceased to show their respect. Banners and long procession would reflect the deceased’s social standing in the community. I did it for a personal reason, because I would get a free meal for doing it. I would have to admit that at times I would pray for someone to die, so I could get a free meal to eat because I grew up in a very poor family. It was not important who died. As long as there was plenty of food for the participants in the funeral processions. The bereaved were not there to check who ate the food in some local restaurants. You could say death—someone’s death—meant something to me.
From ancient times to 1911, the end of the imperial dynasties, to 1949, the beginning of communist China, Confucianism dominated and permeated every aspect of Chinese traditions, the foundation of all Chinese life, as if imprinted in all Chinese DNA. The belief that all the dead should be buried besides their ancestors or in the hometowns where they were born was the norm and rich elaborate burial rituals were the embodiment of filial piety for one’s parents or ancestors. Thus “A falling leaf returns to its roots” was indisputable then. But with the advent of the Cultural Revolution, one of its goals was to end the Four Olds, starting on August 19, 1966, which were considered anti-proletarian, having “poisoned the minds of the people for thousands of years”. The landlords, considered bourgeois, were publicly humiliated by the unscrupulous Red Guards, who were unstoppable in demolishing many Buddhist and Confucian temples, anything and everything associated with the Four Olds. Burial, stripped of all its pomp and ceremony, was now a private colorless silent affair.
With Chairman Mao’s death and the opening up of China and massive social and economic reforms in early 1980s under Deng Xiaoping, there is now an overwhelming demand for traditional land burials because of new wealth and social status in today’s society. Many continue to see traditional land burials as an obligation of filial piety toward their parents.
However, the writings are on the walls about limited availability of land for traditional or conventional land burials, and there are warnings about the depletion in 10 years of burial plots in most of China’s provincial-level regions. In 2013, the Ministry of Civil Affairs reported 9.73 million deaths in China and would have used up 10 million
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square meters of land—arable land, forest and grassland—if everyone were to insist on traditional land burials. Same year, Guangzhou, Guangdong Province, reported a cemetery plot cost 80,000 yuan per sq. meter compared to 10,000 yuan per sq. meter of local commercial apartment property. A cemetery burial plot is less than 2 sq. meters with a price tag of 140,000 to 150,000 yuan. Many blame the rising costs on 3 factors: limited land resources, rising cost of building materials and workers’ salaries. Rising exorbitant cost did not prevent many from buying the plots as expression of their filial piety for their parents or loved ones. In 2014, 15 of Beijing’s government administered cemeteries reported only 3.5 percent of burials used green or eco-friendly burials, and in 2015 Beijing doubled its subsidies to families from 2,000 yuan to 4,000 yuan for sea burials.
The headlines in the newspapers seem to capture the current thinking of the nation. In 2014, one headline reads, “‘Tree funerals’ take root: memories for less money”. The idea is to place the ashes under a tree in a bio-degradable urn and the ashes from 3 to 6 months, especially in a humid environment, will eventually become a part of the soil to nourish the trees. So some do choose cremations with the options to scatter ashes on trees, lawns or flower gardens. Green funerals are on the rise, slowly. Or, “A sea change in burial services.” In the beginning there was genuine concern with sea burials, especially fear of contaminating marine industries such as fishing or seaweed farming along coastal areas before the introduction of strict governmental laws concerning where and when and how to bury the dead in the seas. Another one in 2015: “Now and then: changing funeral trends”. In an article about “Chinese observe Tomb-Sweeping Day in different ways”, there is a fascinating story that thousands of people from different parts of China including many overseas Chinese would gather every year during Tomb Sweeping Holidays in Hongtong county, Shanxi Province, confirmed by a live CCTV NEWS broadcast (April 5, 2015), looking for their ancestral roots. The story is that the government of the Ming Dynastry (1368-1644), according to historical records, gathered countless people in Hongtong county 18 times from 1368-1417 before being relocated to different parts of China and beyond the Chinese borders for resettlement. So now many from all over come to this county each year during Tomb Sweeping Day to seek their ancestral roots.
Just before this year’s Qingming, Wuhan, Hubei Province, announced a soon-to-be completed new cemetery near a village started in 2010, built to look like The Temple of Heaven in Beijing with 400,000 niches for urns, costing 10,000-20,000 yuan for a single space, considered a luxury by most villagers nearby who earn less than 3,000 yuan a month. And the most audacious advertisement in 2015: “A funeral option that’s out of this world”. An American company Celestis, Inc. (inaugurated its memorial spaceflights in 1997) has authorized Biian, a Beijing undertaker, in 2013, to launch its first space burial service with prices ranging from 5,600 yuan to 75,000 yuan
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depending on the final destination of the ashes. The high cost covers the shipment of the ashes to the United States, then sealed in lipstick-size capsules before sending them off into outer space. A family is responsible for the flight to the United States to see the launching of the ashes with the possibility of downloading an app on a smartphone to keep track of the location of the ashes as they travel through space. “The capsules will fly along an orbit,” said Tian Zhenqiang, a senior engineer with the China Aerospace Science and Industry Corporation, “therefore it will not become space debris.” So for 5,600 yuan the ashes will orbit around the earth for 30 to 50 weeks before falling into “the atmospheric layer.” For 75,000 yuan, the company will “launch the ashes on a voyage through deepest space, on permanent celestial journey”.
Celestis launches about 100 capsules on their six to eight memorial spaceflights each year. In China, many inquiries but no reservations are reported. But Biian is not about to give up its funeral business. Since 2014, it has tailor-made more than 100 diamonds from ashes, for those who believe ashes should be kept close to the living.
As the most populous country of 1.4 billion people, it has the most deaths in the world each year—9.7 million in 2012. The rising aging population and the desire for ostentatious display of wealth and status and filial piety are creating a boom in the funeral industry. The drive to combat extravagance by the central government in 2012, and now under President Xi Jingping might curb the appetite of some people to spend less on once lavished burial traditions and customs. In Beijing, government officials are told to set an example with “simple and civilized funerals” and avoid using the occasions to “show off wealth and connections.”
I was watching a segment of World Insight, hosted by Tian Wei (a respected anchor woman and host in China) on CCTV NEWS on April 6, 2015 (a day after Tomb Sweeping Day) when she kept repeating her favorite line to her two guests (social events commentators): filial piety is the most important virtue to the Chinese people, in her endeavor to stress the importance of traditional burial traditions favored by most Chinese. The two guests held opposite views, one saying the government should not force people to pursue non-traditional burials because if they do, the citizens are not going to be happy, and the government should respect peoples’ wishes; the other obviously believing citizens must be realistic about the scarcity of land that is now available for land burials and should embrace green or eco-friendly burial alternatives.
“If the ashes of my brother can grow into a tree,” a woman was quoted as saying because she could not afford a traditional burial for her younger brother, “it will be like a continuation of his life.” I hope her message will be taken seriously by those who are serious about the future of China. Good enough for me because I love nature.
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It is not easy to change Chinese minds on family burial traditions. The real problem facing China today is how to balance environmental or ecological concerns with China’s burial traditions, still viewed as measurement of filial piety and also of wealth and social standing in a culture that highly values social dignity.
As for me, born in a huaqiao family in Malaya, later a scholarship student to study in the United States, now an expat in China because of my American citizenship label, I must do what is expected of every expat. According to China’s National Funeral Association, I would be in good company because 1,800 bodies are shipped out of China every year. Roseates, a Beijing-based body repatriation service, founded in 2007 by a Belguim-born Wilfried Verbruggen, charges 7,500 yuan for their service but the total cost could exceed 80,000 yuan due to expenses imposed by a local funeral home. Once you die, someone must report you to your embassy, inform the next of kin, obtain a death certificate and a quarantine certificate, have the body embalmed and stored before the coffin is shipped out of China. A regulation released by the Ministry of Civil Affairs in 2008 banned all foreign burials in China. If you are one of those expats who have made “exceptional contributions” to the Chinese society, and your application for Chinese burial is approved by a municipal government, you can die and rest in peace in China. I am not that optimistic, like most expats now living and working in China, and I am not going to wait for it to happen to my remains.
A different picture emerged if you were to travel to remote areas in China. Just a false hope. I had been there. I was visiting a student in a small coastal village two hours away from my campus recently, and riding behind him on his moped I noticed some fresh land burials, randomly dotting here and there along the country road, far away from the gaze and scrutiny of provincial government officials. What if all their friends and relatives were to do the same thing, digging a hole here and there, seemingly indifferent to or unaware of the depletion of burial plots in major metropolitan areas far away?
Anyway, if I have a choice, I would gladly embrace the millennium-old tradition of sky burial. Today it is practiced in the Chinese provinces of Tibet, Qinghai, Sichuan, Inner Mongolia and Mongolia. Vajrayana Buddhism, practiced by the majority of Tibetan people and many Mongols, teaches the transmigration of spirits and that
means there is nothing left but a useless dead body once a person dies. And so the purpose of sky burial is how to dispose of the human remains in as generous a way as possible, so feed it to the big birds of prey like vultures or allow nature to decompose it. The earth in much of Tibet and Qinghai is too rocky and hard to dig a grave and
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with the scarcity of fuel and timber, it is more practical to give the body away to feed the vultures.
I like the practice because it is my last act of generosity to other creatures on this earth.
Leave it to the vultures.
This is China.