China's grave offense: Ghost wives
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
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
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
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
"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
In an interview with Beijing's Xinjingbao newspaper, he unabashedly
described how he always chose his victims from among the mentally
retarded or single migrant women.
"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 know anything."
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
The current resurrection of these feudal customs in Hebei bears an
unusually ugly twist.
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
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 changes."
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 day.
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.
Five people have been
arrested in China for
digging up the corpse of a
young woman to be a "ghost
bride" for a man killed in a
The suspects included a
grieving father who
allegedly paid his four
accomplices around £2,700
pounds to find a female to
be his son's companion in
The men were caught after
unearthing the remains of a
teenage girl who had
poisoned herself after
failing her university
entrance exams last year. In
rural China, superstitious
villagers have for centuries
sought out the bodies of
recently deceased woman to
be ghost brides for young
men who die single.
Marriage ceremonies are
conducted for the two
corpses, and the bride is
placed in the same grave as