That’s the Spirit! Ghost Marriage in Lisa See’s “Peony in Love” (Part Seven of Minnesota Couch Warmer’s Guide to China)

Ghost Wedding

Ghost Wedding

See source of this photo here.

Chen Tong (known by her family as Peony) and Wu Ren finally get married after pining for each other for 23 years. All of the rituals considered proper for their time and place—17th century China–were performed, including the payment of a dowry and a bride price. Peony was dressed up beautifully and carried in a palanquin to her new husband’s house. A lavish banquet was served, and finally the bride and groom retired to the bridal chamber, where they spent the night together.

Peony and Wu Ren are characters in Lisa See’s meticulously researched historical novel Peony in Love. The wedding scene between the two of them might seem commonplace, except for a couple of important details. For one thing, Wu Ren was already married to somebody else. Also, Peony happened to be dead when she married her beloved Wu.

"Peony in Love" by Lisa See

“Peony in Love” by Lisa See

Peony and Wu Ren had a ghost marriage. I learned from reading Peony in Love and doing a little research afterwards, that ghost marriages were not uncommon in pre-Communist China. It was believed that if a person died while single, they would be very lonely in the afterlife. Furthermore, if the single ghost was a woman, she would have no living descendants to care for her. (Daughters can only be venerated by their husband’s family, not by their natal family.) Because of their loneliness and lack of proper veneration, they would most likely cause a great deal of mischief to their family members and descendants who were still alive. Therefore, it was better for everyone involved to find a spouse for the dead family member.

In this case of Peony in Love, Peony was engaged to Wu Ren but died before they could marry. The Chinese believe that death does not take away any of the human longings we all feel when still alive. If anything, they are amplified. So Peony spent 23 love sick years in the afterlife, pining for her beloved and wreaking a fair amount of havoc on the living. Once they were properly married, she was venerated by Wu Ren’s current wife as the dead first wife, and everybody was much happier.

Although this custom seems strange to Western sensibilities and was outlawed when Mao Zedong came to power, I learned that ghost marriages still occur occasionally in China. In fact, according to March 2013 article in Time Magazine, four Chinese men were arrested and are facing more than “2 years in prison for digging up female corpses and selling them for ghost marriages, an ancient ritual of burying newly deceased women alongside dead bachelors so that they can accompany each other in their afterlives, according to the state-run newspaper China Daily.

According to the report, the men have been digging up graves in coal-rich Shanxi and Shaanxi provinces since 2011. They reportedly washed the corpses and fabricated hospital documents to push up the prices. The thieves allegedly made almost $40,000 off the 10 stolen corpses before being caught.” (See Time article link here.)

I will be traveling to China soon, so learning about ghost marriages and the fact that they still occur made me think about how the practice might affect me. One the one hand, I see a good business opportunity here. $40,000 for ten corpses is not bad money. I could probably earn that in five days of relatively light work, assuming I dug up two graves per night. Piece of cake!

On the other hand, I wonder what would happen if I died while in China. Would I be eligible to be a ghost bride? I don’t think I would like that. It was bad enough to learn a few years ago that I could be baptized posthumously as a Mormon. (No offense to Mormons, but I am a card-carrying Lutheran and would prefer not to convert after death.) Now, I might end up not only a Mormon, but in an arranged marriage to somebody I don’t care for—and it will last literally forever. Although, if I become a Mormon, would that make my desirability as a mate for a dead Chinese man less desirable?

Another point to consider is that I am sure I do not meet the physical ideal of Chinese bachelors. But let’s be honest—after being dead for a week or more, most women aren’t at their best. With the right chemicals, make-up, clothing and photo shopping, I could probably get by.

Clearly, as with any custom, there are pros and cons to this practice. I will keep you posted on my outcomes—either as a grave robber or a blushing ghost bride. (Can ghosts even blush?)

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2 thoughts on “That’s the Spirit! Ghost Marriage in Lisa See’s “Peony in Love” (Part Seven of Minnesota Couch Warmer’s Guide to China)

  1. Whether the Mpls Institute of Art still has the show of Chinese art, I don’t know. They had three ghost paintings of women without eyes who wandered the earth looking for the child they lost while pregnant. I think they lacked feet also since they floated. Now I understand a little more about the Chinese culture of ghosts. I wonder if they thought about aliens.

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