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?)

Whizzing Up Mount Kilimanjaro: “Kilimanjaro Diaries”

Mount Kilimanjaro
Mount Kilimanjaro


Kilimanjaro Diaries
Kilimanjaro Diaries


I once considered climbing Mount Kilimanjaro. That thought lasted for about a minute, and then I remembered that I liked to breathe. (I’m funny that way.) There’s not a lot of oxygen at Kili’s peak of 19,341 feet—the tallest point in Africa. Also, people sometimes die from this climb and I am generally opposed to death, especially my own.

However, after reading Eva Melusine Thieme’s book Kilimanjaro Diaries: Or, How I Spent a Week Dreaming of Toilets, Drinking Crappy Water, and Making Bad Jokes While Having the Time of My Life, I am starting to reconsider.   This highly engaging travelogue makes the climb sound do-able—not easy, certainly, but within the realm of possibility for an ordinary mortal. Thieme presents herself as someone who is not especially fit (although I think she was lying about that), but she made it the top when something like half of  the 35,000 people who attempt to climb the mountain every year fail. Usually, people fail because of altitude sickness—not because of the physical fitness of the hiker.

Those odds sound daunting, but I learned from her book and other research (i.e. googling Kilimanjaro) that spending a few extra days climbing increases the odds of making it to the top dramatically. According to this website, those who take 8 days to climb have an 85% chance of success, whereas those who spend only 5 days have only a 27% chance.

The longer hikes are more successful because people have more time to acclimate to the depleted oxygen levels. Knowing this makes me more inclined to want to try the climb.   Spending more time going up is something I could imagine myself doing. Becoming a super-duper fit human being who can trot up and down a mountain like a goat is considerably less likely, even in my imagination.

If you, like me, are even remotely considering this climb, here are some things I learned from Kilimanjaro Diaries that you might find helpful.

  • Intense preparatory training might be a good idea, but it is not absolutely necessary. Thieme did not do a great deal of training because her philosophy “is to avoid doing unpleasant things in preparation for something unpleasant.. . Some things are better left unknown. If I have to feel exhausted and tired and cold for the duration of the week that I’ll be climbing Kili, so be it. But I don’t feel the need to add any exhaustion and tiredness to my plate right now.” (36)

This seems like a great philosophy to me!

  • While on your 5-8 day climb, you don’t have to worry about the pesky details of life such as where to sleep, what to eat, where to get water, etc.   You hire porters to do that. In fact, if I understand correctly, you HAVE to hire them; you are not allowed to hike up unguided and without porters.   Hikers just have to carry a daypack carrying what they need for a few hours. As Thieme phrased it, “Nowhere else but Africa can you expect to be completely pampered when embarking on a week of hardship!” According to her, the food was plentiful and tasty and there was always enough water, tea and coffee to keep people going.
  • One thing the guides and porters can’t do for you is…how can I put this delicately…use the toilet for you.   Never fear, Thieme has given this topic a great deal of thought and research, and she provides readers A LOT of information on the various issues related to this topic. Many of the most humorous sections of the book are in-depth explorations of all things related to relieving oneself in less than ideal circumstances. I learned, for example, that there is a whole industry devoted to creating devices into which women can urinate. They have names such as “Urinelle” and “Shewee.” Click here if you’d like more information on what a shewee is.

Thieme, however, discovered something much better than any Shewee: a private toilet tent. For a reasonable fee, she and the other members of her group hired a porter whose sole purpose was to carry and set up a private powder room for them every evening.   According to Thieme, this was the best investment she ever made.   I won’t explain in detail why, but just remember that something like 35,000 people climb the mountain every year, and there are only a few different trails. Each person hears the call of nature at least once a day. Using the public “long-drop” facilities is thus like walking through a mine field, except the mines are really crappy, if you see what I mean.

Kilimanjaro Diaries is chock full of informative and entertaining details such as these. In addition to the information she provides, Thieme also provides some history and other background information on the Kili climb industry. Perhaps most important, she explains the preparation and the ascent in such a way that it seems achievable, enjoyable, and definitely worth the effort. I would recommend this book for anyone looking for an enjoyable, informative and inspirational read on what it takes to climb Mount Kilimanjaro.

Kilimanjaro Diaries is sold on Amazon in paperback and Kindle versions.

Click here for the amazon link.

Eva Melusine Thieme is a popular blogger.  Check out her blog here:

Why Did You (Not) Write The Book?

Why Can’t I Be a Savannah Weirdo?


Fountain in Savannah
Fountain in Savannah

An otherwise nondescript salesman named Jack wears a “carefully applied arc of purple eye shadow that blazed like a lurid sunset” –but only on his left eyelid. This is because his boss forbade him from wearing any makeup to work. To avoid getting fired for misconduct, Jack has spent years looking at his boss only over his right shoulder so that the boss can only see his right eye. In order to succeed in this mission he always walks “sideways around the store, like a damned crab, twistin’ this way and that” (58).

Serena Dawes, an aging upper-class beauty whose hair is dyed a flaming red, decided to spend the last half of her life holding court in bed, “drinking martinis and pink ladies, and playing with her white toy poodle, Lulu” (70). She “drawled and cussed and carried on” with visitors and servants while lounging in bed, dressed in one of her many peignoirs.   When she has a particularly strong point to make, she throws objects across the room—sometimes even Lulu the poodle (71).

Serena’s shy lover Luther has his good qualities, but he is possessed by inner demons and everyone worries that he will dump his lethal poison into the city’s water supply, killing the entire population. One of Luther’s hobbies is to anesthetize house flies and glue lengths of thread to their backs.   Some days, he walks his flies through downtown Savannah, holding a dozen different colored threads in his hand.

These are a sample of some of the colorful characters John Berendt describes in his book Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil. Set in Savannah, Georgia, this book is a nonfiction account of the legal battles of Jim Williams, a successful antique dealer and restorer of old houses.   Jim Williams definitely killed his young lover and employee Danny Hansford. He admitted to doing so. The legal question was whether the killing was self-defense or murder.

Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil
Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil

Berendt’s account of the events leading up to the shooting and the four (yes four) trials Williams endured are riveting.  What fascinates me most about this book, though, are the other characters Berendt profiles—and there are many. This is as much a book about the weird denizens of Savannah, Georgia as it is about how and why Williams killed his boy toy.

Some of the main characters readers get to know include Joe Odom, the cheerful lawyer/crook that is such a a wonderful host, piano player and all around likable guy that nobody wants to send him to jail. We also get to know Minerva, a voodoo priestess who helps Jim Williams with her dark arts.  And we meet one of the most unforgettable characters of all: the Lady Chablis, an African-American transvestite “show girl” with a penchant for mischief.

With such a remarkable cast of supporting characters, I sometimes forgot that the main thread of the book was about Jim Williams’s trial for murder. His story paled in comparison to the characterization of the rest of Savannah. And this book does seem to be about the city of Savannah as a character, a weird character who likes to drink a lot and act outrageously.

For more details on Midnight’s cast of characters and where they lived, check out this website which maps out all of the main locations and people of the book.

Berendt points out that Savannah encourages eccentricity: “For me, Savannah’s resistance to change was its saving grace. The city looked inward, sealed off from the noises and distractions of the world at large. It grew inward, too, and in such a way that its people flourished like hothouse plants tended by an indulgent gardener. The ordinary became extraordinary. Eccentrics thrived. Every nuance and quirk of personality achieved greater brilliance in that lush enclosure than would have been possible anywhere else in the world” (368).

Some of these Savannah eccentrics seem harmless; others are downright dangerous.   As a group, though, they seem to be more colorful and to live life with more zest than do the denizens of my beloved Midwest.

We Midwesterners are decent, hard-working folk. Contrary to national stereotypes, we are actually highly educated and literate in comparison to the rest of the country. We do good things.   But we don’t cultivate eccentricity. Sure, we have our share of nut jobs, but we expect our nut jobs to keep their nuttiness to themselves. Mostly, we expect people to fit in. These are fine qualities, I suppose, but they can make us all a bit colorless.

Reading Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil makes me wonder how I would have turned out if I’d been born and raised in Savannah.   I think it’s time to find out. I shall henceforth cultivate eccentricity. I am going to move my bed to my office at work. I will greet my students during office hours wearing nothing but a purple peignoir and my 13 cats. I’ll be smoking cigars and drinking champagne simultaneously.  After I get fired for this behavior, I will perform voodoo on the people who fired me, causing them mysterious, wrenching pains in body parts they didn’t know they had.

And I’ll wear purple eye shadow on only my right eyelid.

I’ll let you know how it turns out.

Where are you from? What sort of behavior is encouraged in your neck of the woods?