Saturday, October 07, 2006

Chinese and their dead

Chinese customs regarding the dead are a treasure trove of ideas for science-fictional world building, I tell you.

First, there was an article a while ago on about strippers performing at Chinese funerals. The kin of a deceased person would invite strippers in order to attract more people to the funeral, because one of the key measures of a person's status in the Chinese society is how many people came to his or her funeral.

Many science fiction conventions have discussion panels on building alien cultures. For a SF or fantasy novelist it is important to describe an alien culture that would be different from us in interesting ways and challenge our assumptions about how things should be. It's difficult to create an alien society that's both sufficiently alien and yet understandable to us. I've heard it said that a science fiction writer can find inspiration for creating alien civilizations simply by observing other human cultures. I thought an article about strippers at funerals provided some interesting society-building material.

And now, by way of New York Times, more inspirational weirdness from the Chinese.

Dead Bachelors in Remote China Still Find Wives

For many Chinese, an ancestor is someone to honor, but also someone whose needs must be maintained. Families burn offerings of fake money or paper models of luxury cars in case an ancestor might need pocket change or a stylish ride in the netherworld.

But here in the parched canyons along the Yellow River known as the Loess Plateau, some parents with dead bachelor sons will go a step further. To ensure a son's contentment in the afterlife, some grieving parents will search for a dead woman to be his bride and, once a corpse is obtained, bury the pair together as a married couple.

This custom isn't mind-blowingly weird, but it is... promising. It has the potential. And like any fantasy novel worth its salt, the article duly explores this potential. Only, of course, it's not fantasy. It's real life. But let's look at it from a perspective of building an alien culture for our novel. This article hits all the right world-building points. It's clear that our imaginary novelist has thought through the implications of the customs and beliefs he has introduced into the culture he's creating.

For example. Where there's a demand, there will be a commercial opportunity.

People say parents of a dead son depend on an informal network of friends or family, or even a well-connected fixer, to locate a family that has recently lost a single daughter. Selling or buying corpses for commercial purposes is illegal in China, but these individual transactions, usually for cash, seem to fall into a fuzzier category and are quietly arranged between families.

And when the demand is hard to meet (as it must be in a society with the gender ratio skewed in favor of men), some traders may put aside their scruples. For some people, the end justifies the means.

"There are girls who have drowned in the river down there," [said a farmer in a remote Chinese village]. "When their bodies have washed up, their families could get a couple of thousand yuan for them."


The existence of such a market for brides has led to scattered reports of grave robbing. This year, a man in Shaanxi Province captured two men trying to dig up the body of his wife, according to a local news account. In February, a woman from Yangquan tried to buy the remains of a dead 15-year-old girl, abandoned at a hospital in another city, to satisfy her unmarried deceased brother.

Now let's add a sympathetic touch to the alien culture we're building. Let's say the parents of dead single daughters have more than commercial considerations for selling their daughters' corpses. Doing that satisfies their cherished beliefs:

[...] parents with dead daughters, like those with dead sons, were also carrying out an obligation to their child. They will sell their bodies as a way of finding them a place in a Chinese society where tradition dictates that a daughter has no place on her father's family tree.

"China is a paternal clan culture," said Professor Guo, who did postdoctoral work in anthropology at Harvard. "A woman does not belong to her parents. She must marry and have children of her own before she has a place among her husband's lineage. A woman who dies unmarried has no place in this world."

So in a strange way, the girls benefit from having corpses traded away after death. Perhaps they die in the comfort of belief that they won't end up forever as outcasts, having no place in anyone's family and therefore in the world. Perhaps they trust that their parents will find them a match after death. That's a nice concept that underscores the alienness of this alien culture we are building, but in a way that makes sense to a Western reader. On one hand, we may not identify deeply with this desire to belong to someone's family tree after our death, hence we get a feeling that these epeople think differently from us. On the other hand, such a wish is understandable even to us, so we, the reader, may start to see this culture in a more sympathetic light.

Still, if the heroine of my story belonged to this culture, would I make her desire to find a place after death a motivating factor for her actions? Would I let it dictate her critical choices? Probably not, since I don't think a Western reader would find this motivation sufficiently convincing.

No comments: