China's grave offense: Ghost wives
By Antoaneta Bezlova
BEIJING - Ghost stories might have been recently exorcised from bookshelves by
Chinese censors for the horror they inflict on the public, but equally grisly
tales of "ghost wives" have been unfolding in real life.
When Shen Wentang, a peasant from central China's Hebei province, bought a
"ghost wife" for his dead father, he asked no questions about where the body
had come from - and showed little curiosity about finding this out.
He knew that things had changed from the past, when an afterlife marriage was
nothing out of the ordinary and families of both the
"bride" and "groom" would have celebrated it with toasts and a feast.
Authorities now frown on these feudal customs, so Shen wanted the marriage done
quickly and without much ado. Still, he was grateful that the body of the ghost
wife was dressed in a shroud in the auspicious color for weddings - red.
He had had to borrow funds to pay for the body, and 3,500 yuan (US$454)
exceeded the annual earnings of many of his home village. Then, working swiftly
with two relatives one spring dawn, Shen unearthed his father's grave, lifted
the coffin's lid and slipped the female body inside.
All he remembered of the woman later on were the red dress and her age - about
40. Shen's father, whose wife had walked away years ago, now had a new woman to
keep him company in the netherworld. He could rest in peace.
Little did Shen know that the ghost wife - a mentally retarded woman - had been
lured to her death by a profit-seeking peasant. The ghost wife and five other
women had been murdered by Song Tiantang, from Hebei's Linzhang county, so he
could sell their corpses to be married in the afterlife.
"I only helped them to go to heaven earlier," Song said when detained by the
police in April, according to Chinese press reports. Ironically for a mass
murderer, Song's given name, Tiantang, means "heaven" in Mandarin.
In an interview with Beijing's Xinjingbao newspaper, he unabashedly described
how he always chose his victims from among the mentally retarded or single
"They are muddle-headed and never put up too much of a fight," he said. "No one
would make much fuss about deranged women. As for those who come from other
places, they would simply disappear, and their relatives back home would not
The custom of marrying bachelors posthumously and burying them together with
dead women goes back a few hundred years to the Ming Dynasty. Chinese people
believe that the journey to the netherworld needs to be a shared one. In the
past, they also used matchmakers to find partners for their dead relatives.
Zhao Shu, an expert on China's folk customs, reckons that the tradition of
marrying people in the afterlife is nowadays merely a vestige of the country's
long feudal history, practiced only in a few isolated areas.
But he admits that some families still pay a high price to procure a bride for
the deceased. "It is seen as a last comfort for the dead," he said.
The current resurrection of these feudal customs in Hebei bears an unusually
When Song embarked on his moneymaking scheme, he first sought to dig up and
steal dead women's bodies. But he soon realized that the price of a desiccated
corpse was just a fraction of what he could earn for "fresh goods" - women who
had died only recently. Then he started to murder women.
Song's killing spree was exposed by China's increasingly daring media as yet
another unforeseen dark side of the country's headlong pursuit of economic
growth. With millions of rural people left on the fringes of the economic boom,
more and more cases of moral degradation have come to light as people are
willing to go to any lengths to make money.
The story of murdered ghost wives has appeared almost simultaneously with the
uncovering of a wide slave-labor network in China's backward hinterland
provinces, where thousands of migrant workers and children were forced to work
in illegal brick kilns (see
Lessons from China's slavery scandal, June 20). They were beaten,
starved and overworked under the watch of guards and dogs.
Some of the workers and children were abducted from rural train and bus
stations or persuaded to travel to the kilns with bogus offers of good pay.
Once there, they were prevented from leaving, and those who failed to work fast
enough were beaten, some of them to death.
"Whether it is the slave-labor scandal or the ghost wives, it is all a
testimony to moral depravity brought on by the extreme pursuit of material
gains," said an opinion piece in the liberal Southern Weekend last week. "It
shows the collapse of moral and spiritual values at this time of rapid social
As in the slavery case, the murders of ghost wives occurred in some of China's
poorest provinces. Song Tiantang hailed from Linzhang county, Hebei province,
and scouted neighboring counties for his victims.
An investigation by Southern Weekly uncovered similar cases of women murdered
to be sold as brides in marriages in the afterlife in the provinces of Shanxi
and neighboring Shaanxi.
Some have speculated that the murders have been prompted by the mounting death
toll in China's mining industry, which has pushed up demand for ghost wives for
casualties. In many of the interior provinces where coal is produced in small
and unsafe mines, deadly accidents have been happening weekly. China's official
tally of coal miners' deaths for 2006 stood at 4,746, or an average of 13 each
With so many male miners dying prematurely, there is a booming market for ghost
wives, one middleman told Xinjingbao. "If the groom has died in a coal-mine
accident, my commission for finding a bride is higher," the man, identified as
Wang Zengxi, told the paper.
But even if confined to just several provinces, the commercialization of ghost
wives could have social implications for this country of 1.3 billion people,
where demographers estimate that some 40 million girls are already "missing"
because of infanticide or neglect, and as a result of China's one-child policy.
In their 2004 book Bare Branches: The Security Implications of Asia's Surplus
Male Population, Valerie Hudson and Andrea den Boer warn about the
looming danger of social and political instability stemming from a glut of
young men with no prospects of marriage.