(Note: English below Chinese text.)
Quanfang Wen, my grand uncle (my grandfather’s brother), 95, passed way at his home in Zengtian on the evening of April 9, 2012. The news caught me by surprise. I put down what I did and went to the funeral with my mother immediately.
During the funeral, I found myself trapped between in and out. With him as the oldest, the most cultured and the most respected man from Puzhu, and one who represented a generation whose education was NOT communist, Quanfang’s funeral was an important part of my project “Puzhu in Transition.” I knew I had to photograph it. Fortunately, my uncles, aunts and cousins all supported my project, though they might not understand why I did it. Yet still, I found it quite discomfiting to raise my camera in the whole process. Often I couldn’t decide whether I should kneel with my mother by the body – and I really wanted to, or should step away to take pictures. In the end, I did half and half.
More often, I wanted to mourn his death and do nothing else, as he was an important figure in our extended family. Whenever something important was to be planned, my parents would seek advice from my granduncle, who studied The Book of Change (“Yi Ching”), Fengshui, and was the wisest man among our relatives. When I was born, he made a prediction based on his knowledge of “Yi Ching” that I would be making a living with a pen when I grew up, which is exactly what I do now.
According to the local customs, Quanfang’s age of death was considered 100 instead of 95. This was calculated based Chinese lunar calendar and the roundup system. This number made the funeral a “red” (happy) event instead of a “white” (sad) one. It meant he lived a long and happy life. So the couplets put on the wall around the door to announce his death were red. The ribbons we wore around the arms while sending him off to the other world were also red. And there were red longevity threads, which we still keep because they would bless us with longevity and happiness. Because of this, some relatives didn’t show grief during the funeral, as if this was more an opportunity for family reunion than a grieving time. In fact, the funeral did function to bring the scattered family together and allowed us to catch up with each other. For the two days I was there, laughter intertwined with tears.
This funeral was the first Chinese one I’ve been to or photographed. It was neither completely traditional nor modern, but like a montage that included a bit of everything. Some old ways were excluded while western ways were introduced – and really twisted.
There were no monks doing the ceremony, but a western orchestra was hired to sing and play music. The play list included pop songs, Buddhist prayers, The Funeral March (which is usually played at state level funerals), folk songs, love songs, and TV theme songs for “Red Mansion Dreams.”
The orchestra’s service also included firing deafening 21-gun salutes every 20 minutes from 4 p.m. till 10 p.m. on the first day of the funeral, then from 5 a.m. till the cremation started around noon the next day. (They accompanied the funeral procession to the cremation home 50 kilometers away.) No neighbors complained about the deafening 21-gun salutes, because on one in China would dare to offend the dead. Once dead, a man becomes a powerful spirit, whom on one should offend. This is typical Chinese culture. If you like to know more and why, maybe you want to read an ethnography called “Gods, Ghosts and Ancestors” by David K. Jordan.
The orchestra was required to wear their red uniforms during the whole time. However, we ourselves didn’t wear the traditional funeral costumes like in the old times. We didn’t even dress properly in my opinion. I asked several times how I should dress myself. The answer was “as usual.” It would be terribly disrespectful if it were in the United States.
As Quanfang Wen retired as a teacher from a public school, received pensions – till 20 months AFTER his death, plus a ¥2000.00 funeral aid, it was impossible to bury him, which is illegal any way. Cremation was the only legal way to reach the other world in Communist China, by the way. If his family broke the funeral law, all those after-death benefits would be canceled. Besides, the government might do something that would evoke the spirit of the dead, like digging the tomb, which was the least thing the family would like to see. So his body was sent to the cremation home.
Most old Hakka people feared to be cremated. Cremation meant hell to people like my grandmother. She expressed her fear of being cremated many times before she died, but she still ended up in a furnace nine years ago. As Quanfang’s coffin slid into the furnace, we waited by the window, watching him (really his coffin). His daughter-in-law murmured, “Dad, beware, the mountain is on fire.” I wondered if he could hear her.