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?)

Would You Like Ruins With That Civilization? (Part Six of Minnesota Couch Warmer’s Guide to China)

Which best represents a civilization to you?  Architectural ruins or preserved calligraphy?


Photo by Erin Silversmith, GNU Free Documentation License



Calligraphy of Chinese Poem by Mo Ruzheng

(public domain)

My home is in the Midwest of the United States, where buildings more than 150 years old are relatively rare and are considered really, really ancient. When I travelled to Europe, I realized how funny it was to think of 150 years as being old.   I learned in Europe that honoring the past means to live surrounded by ancient edifices.

Therefore, I assumed that China, which is truly an ancient civilization, must be overrun with magnificent old structures.   Reading Peter Hessler’s Oracle Bones changed my mind. Hessler, who spent several years living China, noticed that although the Chinese take enormous pride in their history, there are in fact very few really old buildings. The Chinese tended to build out of wood, brick, and tile—elements that were not designed to endure for centuries. Hessler also points out that, historically the Chinese did not pay a great deal of attention to their architecture. He finds that an odd lapse, as do I. But, Hessler, goes on to point out, that is because we, as Westerners, are taught since childhood that “the past was embodied in ancient buildings—pyramids, palaces, coliseums, cathedrals” (185). Antiquity, we are taught, is found in old buildings.

It’s true that I do think of ancient cultures as being embodied in architecture—so much so that it really disappointed me to read what Hessler said about the paucity of old buildings.   I can just see myself having a temper tantrum in the middle of Beijing, crying out, “Where are all the old buildings? I WANT some old buildings!!!”

I will try to control myself.

On the other hand, Peter Hessler observes that while the Chinese may be indifferent to old buildings, they ARE very interested in calligraphy. They will spend hours every day practicing their strokes and take great pride their accomplishments in writing Chinese. Hessler says that they were shocked at his own sloppy handwriting in English and could not believe that an educated man like himself could not write well—in the sense of creating beautiful letters.

When I travelled to the Persian Gulf, I noticed that the Arabs also took great pride in their calligraphy, displaying it on the walls, in museums, etc. To be honest, I found this obsession with calligraphy a bit of a yawner, and wanted to see some REAL art. Now I’m starting to realize how blinkered my views have been and how thoroughly they have been molded by a Western world-view.

What do you think? What do you think best captures the traditions of a culture?

Minnesota Couch Warmer’s Guide to China, Part V. Oracle Bones: The Original Fortune Cookies?


See source of photo here.

Like many people, I sometimes dabble in “fortune telling,” purely for entertainment. By that, I mean I will occasionally consult my horoscope or have my tarot cards read or my tea leaves interpreted.

(Yes, I know, that places me in Dante’s eighth circle of hell. Does it help, Dante, to know that I don’t really believe it?)

And of course I always read the contents of the fortune cookies found in Chinese restaurants.


See source of photo here.

Perhaps that is one reason I am so intrigued by Peter Hessler’s discussion of Chinese oracle bones in his nonfiction book called, well, Oracle Bones.  I learned from his book that in China in the late 19th-early 20th century, some Chinese people discovered large caches of buried animal bones (mostly turtles and oxen) dating back to approximately 1300-1000 B.C. On these bones were written brief inscriptions (of no more than 200 words, usually much less) in Chinese. This discovery was important for many reasons. For one thing, these bones contain the earliest example of written language from East Asia. Furthermore, they provide archeological evidence of the existence (and many of the practices) of the Shang dynasty. Up until that point, people had no proof that it had actually existed.

I have to be honest, though. I find the oracle bones fascinating because I see them as the original Chinese fortune cookies. Here’s the way it worked. If you wanted your fortune told, you would have your question written on the bones of the turtle or ox by the diviner (the fortune teller.) Then the diviner would poke some holes in the bone to weaken it. After that, he would apply so much pressure to the bone that it would crack. They believed that somehow this process gave them access to the wisdom of spirit world.   The diviner would then interpret the cracks and inscribe the fortune on the bone.

Some of the fortunes they found were these:

  • “In the next ten days there will be no disasters.”
  • “There will be harm; there will perhaps be the coming of alarming news.”
  • “The king goes to the hunting field; the whole day he will not encounter great wind.”

Just like fortune cookies, right?

We in the decadent West sometimes add the word “in bed” to the end of fortune cookie sayings in order to make them more interesting.   This technique works just as well with the oracle bones:

  • In the next ten days, there will be no disasters in bed.
  • There will perhaps be thunder in bed.
  • We will pacify the Wind with three sheep, three dogs, three pigs in bed. (Well, maybe that one doesn’t work so well.)

It should be noted that although the oracle bones and other archeological evidence have revealed that the Shang dynasty was advanced for its time, having an advanced civilization is NOT the same as having a humane and benevolent one. Archeologists also discovered that large numbers of human victims were sacrificed to be buried along with the kings. As W. Scott Morton and Charlton M. Lewis note, these humans victims were buried in groups of ten. “They were ceremonially beheaded with large axes, also found in the tombs. They were prisoners taken in war or captured from nomad shepherd tribes on the western borders of Shang” (China, Its History and Culture 15).

I wonder if these victims ever had their fortunes told by the oracle bones. If so, what did they say?

  • “A journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step. Start running now!”
  •  “You have worked hard in your life, and it is time for a very long rest.”
  •  “A challenge is near. Try not to lose your head.”

 What’s your favorite fortune cookie saying? Do you think the rulers of the Shang dynasty could profit from it?

Minnesota Couch Warmer’s Guide to China, Part 4: I Wanna Party With This Guy!


Li Bo (aka Li Bai)
Li Bo (aka Li Bai)

Li Bo

Li Bo (a.k.a. Li Bai), was a Chinese poet who lived in the 700s, during the Tang Dynasty. Spanning the years 618-907 A.D, the Tang Dynasty is known as the Golden Age of Chinese culture. During this era, poetry flourished; Tang poets are among the most revered figures of Chinese literature.

I don’t know about you, but when I read terms like “Golden Age of Poetry,” “Tang Dynasty,” and so forth, it all sounds rather stuffy and forbidding, like starched silk (if there is such a thing).  I assumed the poetry would be highly formal and concerned with paying the proper respects to one’s elders and correctly using chopsticks at the dinner table.

Therefore, I was pleasantly surprised to discover how fresh and modern Li Bo’s poems seem to me. (One reason they seem modern is because they influenced Anglo-American literary modernism via Ezra Pound, but that’s another story.)

Far from being a stuffed-shirt, Li Bo was known as a free-spirit who wrote poems in praise of wine and nudity. He reminds me a little bit of Walt Whitman in his free-spiritedness, although his style is much more imagistic and controlled.

Li Bo played up his “fun party guy” image because it helped him professionally. According to Stephen Owen, a specialist in Chinese literature, the powerful people of the Tang Dynasty liked having a few free-spirited poetic types around to liven up their parties. Owen notes that “It was considered sort of nice to have one [a wild and free poet]. They entertained you.” Asian Topics: An Online Resource for Asian History and Culture.

Who knew a person could make a living cavorting drunkenly in front of the moon for the ruling class?  I wonder if Obama would hire me for such a position….

In any case, here are a few of Li Bo’s poems for you to enjoy.  Let me know what you think!

Poems by Li Bo (aka Li Bai)

Summer Day in the Mountains

Lazily waving a fan of white feathers,
stripped naked here in the green woods.
I take off my headband hang it on a cliff
my bare head splattered by winds through pines.

Amusing Myself

Facing my wine, I did not see the dusk,
Falling blossoms have filled the folds of my clothes.
Drunk, I rise and approach the moon in the stream,
Birds are far off, people too are few.

Autumn Air

The autumn air is clear,
The autumn moon is bright.
Fallen leaves gather and scatter,
The jackdaw perches and starts anew.
We think of each other- when will we meet?
This hour, this night, my feelings are hard.

Drinking Alone under the Moon

Among the flowers, a single jug of wine;
I drink alone. No one close to me.
I raise my cup, invite the bright moon;
facing my shadow, together we make three.
The moon doesn’t know how to drink;
and my shadow can only follow my body.
But for a time I make moon and shadow my companions;
taking one’s pleasure must last until spring.
I sing — the moon wavers back and forth.
I dance — my shadow flickers and scatters.
When I’m sober we take pleasure together.
When I’m drunk, we each go our own ways.
I make an oath to journey forever free of feelings,
making an appointment with them to meet in the Milky Way afar.

[Translation by Paul Rouzer]

Help! I Married A Barbarian: Part III of Minnesota Couch Warmer’s Guide to China


Huns in battle with the Alans, 1870s engraving after a drawing by Johann Nepomuk Geiger (1805–1880). public domain

ImageWang Zhaojun
Artist: Zirun Feng
Year Created: 1990
Status: Available

You can purchase this art work here

The Chinese have spent a significant amount of resources throughout their history attempting to keep the northern barbarian hordes at bay.  The Great Wall of China was built for this purpose. Countless battles were fought for this purpose.  Another way the barbarians were kept at bay, though, was by buying them off.  Sometimes the Chinese rulers bought them with money.

Other times, though, they kept the peace by sending them a Chinese princess as booty.  W. Scott Morton and Charlton Lewis, for example, tell us that Xi-Chun was a Han Dynasty princess who lived around 100 B.C.  She was sent by Emperor Wu Di to be married to a chief of the Wu-Sun in the Ili Valley.  His people were considered barbarian, as was everybody else who was not Chinese.

Xi-Chun most likely had little say in the matter and she wrote this poem to express her misery.  (This poem has obviously been translated into English.)

  My family has married me off,
Alas! and sent me far,

To the strange land of the Wu-sun.
I’m now, woe is me, the king’s wife.

I  live in a tent, and a house wall
Have I exchanged for–felt.

My food is only meat;
Koumiss they give me to drink with it.

O, my heart burns since they sent me here;
I can only think of my home, over and over.

Could I but be a yellow crane,
Fast would I fly back to my own kingdom!

(68-69 Morton and Lewis: China: Its History and Culture, 4th Edition).

I know it was also common custom among the European royalty to marry off their daughters to other courts for dynastic reasons.  I wonder how many other poems (or stories or memoirs) of lament have been written by these lonely exiles.

Part 2 of Minnesota Couch Warmer’s Guide to China: Anchee Min



Anchee Min, Red Azalea

Red Azalea is Anchee Min’s memoir of growing up in China during the Cultural Revolution. She was born in 1957 and left China for the United States in 1984.   In her memoir, she focuses on her experience being sent (unwillingly) to do back-breaking labor on a collective farm, her love affair with a woman named Wan, and being sent to movie studio to try out for a major role in Madame Mao’s film Red Azalea.


photo source

I learned a great deal about growing up in China during this period. I think what stood out most to me, however, was the saying mentioned by Min that poverty gives birth to evil personalities(145). With very few exceptions, most of the interactions between people portrayed in this memoir were marred by resentment, envy, betrayal, or hatred.   If Communism was supposed to lead to feeling of solidarity with the other Chinese people, it failed miserably—at least in the world portrayed by Anchee Min. People who were forced to work closely together fought like dogs over the occasional rare bone. Rather than living together in harmony, like chop sticks, instead, they “all carried [their] own thoughts, thoughts of how to kill one another” (120).

In addition to learning about how much Chinese people hated each other, I also learned some other useful information: Chinese sayings and techniques for insulting one another. In the rest of this post, I will share some of my newfound Chinese wisdom with you. That way, you will be better prepared should you ever journey to China yourself.

  1. First of all, you will need a new name if you are a boring Westerner with a name like Jim or John or Jane or Jill. You will need something more evocative. It could express something about your personality or what your parents wished for you. Anchee Min’s name, for example, means Jade of Peace. Some good Communist parents named their children things like Guard of Red, Big Leap, Long March. If you are not ideologically inclined, you could just name yourself something pretty or fragrant, such as Autumn Leaves, Sound of Rain, Little Bell, or Firewood.

Personally, I have chosen to go with a name that matches where I live and how I spend most of my time: Minnesota Couch Warmer.

  1. In order not to get into trouble, you will need to know how to show respect to your superiors. I learned from Min that the really powerful people are known simply by their titles:   “When someone in this country was called by his title instead of his name, he was beyond general importance. For example, Mao was called the Chairman, and Chou, the Premier. The omission of the last name displayed the power of the persona.”  So, to show proper respect to me, you could call me Madame Blogger or, better, yet “the Blogger.”


  1. In addition to respecting your superiors, you should learn how to flatter them as well. Red Azalea suggests that agricultural metaphors work best for this process. As one person said, “I am Soviet Wong’s student. I am what she made of me. I am the soil and she is the cow who cultivates me. I am her harvest” (116).  I think it would be acceptable to employ variations on this theme, such as, “I am the dirt, and she is the peat moss who made me fertile” or “I am the seed, and he is the Miracle Grow product that produces lovely blooms if used as directed.”


  1. Although you will hate most everybody you meet, it’s possible you’ll have a little room for a close relationship with someone you actually like. In that case, you can express your intimacy by saying things like “you are a good sprout,” and “you know me better than the worms in my intestine” (132).   If you want to vary this language, try to restrain yourself to creepy animals and/or disgusting body parts, such as, “You are as close to me as a wood tick whose head is stuck in my bloodstream and whose body is bloated with my blood.”


  1. To Express Suffering. So far, all of the books I’ve read about China focus on the extensive suffering of the people. Be prepared, therefore, not only to suffer, but to express your suffering appropriately, as the following passages do.
  • We were rice shoots that had been pulled out of the mud. We lay, roots exposed. But we did not want to submit. We would never submit. We were heroines. We just tried to bridge the gap. We were trying out best. The rice shoots were trying to grow without mud. Trying to survive the impossible. We had been resisting the brutality of the beating weather.
  • It is difficult for a snake to go back to hell once it has tasted heaven.


  1. Because of all the suffering you will endure, you will want to insult people frequently, either behind their backs or to their faces. Make sure you study this section carefully.

Insulting a woman’s looks is apparently a universal pastime, and here are a few suggestions on how you might do this, Chinese-style.

  • “She had a small thin mouth. So small that it looked like the anus of my hen Big Beard.”
  • That woman’s body reminds me of a piece of furniture—a door-thin back, flat breasts, nipples like drawer knobs, table-leg legs and the face of a cooked eggplant.

I’ve always said that you can never go wrong with eggplant and hen anus metaphors and these are classic examples of my philosophy.

China is still at least nominally a Communist country, so it wouldn’t hurt to have some handy Communist-style insults on hand to use in a pinch.

  • “They said you had been a bourgeois individualist, they said you always acted alone, you had no sense of groupism, you’re selfish, so you should be eliminated.”
  • “Everyone in the studio is convinced that you are the capitalist sprout.”

Some more general insults that can be used in a variety of circumstances are these:

  • “You rice worms have no ears!” (This is helpful if you are the leader of an orchestra, band, choir, or other musical ensemble.)
  • “She is seriously corrupted, like a stone in a manure pit—smelly and hard!”
  • A fly only parks on a cracked egg.
  • “You pig-shit-head, you louse-won’t-touch corpse, you have disappointed and dishonored me.”
  • “Spoiled rice shoot, pig ass, mating worm”
  • “A mother of a fart.”

Sometimes a person will insult you first, and you have to be able to respond appropriately. Here is an example from Red Azalea of an exchange between two women who hate each other

  • Lu said, “Comrade Secretary, I think you’ve got spiritual termites in the house of your mind.”

“Yeah?” Yan looked at Lu sideways. “You know where I got those termites? From you. You’ve got termites fully packed in your head. You have no clean beams or studs in the house of your mind. They were eaten up a long time ago. And now your termites are hungry, they are climbing out from your eyes, earholes, noseholes and asshole to eat up other people’s houses.”

It is generally a good idea to use a termite metaphor at least once a day, especially if said termite lodges in human body orifices.

I think that is enough for today’s lesson in Chinese culture. I would love to hear back from my readers, especially if they can practice using some of these phrases and concepts in their own sentences and paragraphs. Practice makes perfect! –Minnesota Couch Warmer, aka The Blogger


Part 1 of Minnesota Couch Warmer’s Guide to China: Common Expressions


Lisa See
Lisa See


Chinese Lessons: Part I

I will be travelling to China later this summer. To prepare, I have stocked up on books about China. I am currently reading two of them:

  • China Wakes: The Struggle for the Soul of a rising Power by Nicholas Kristof and Sheryl Wudunn
  • Flower Net by Lisa See, a detective novel set in the U.S. and China.

**Both of these books were published in the 1990s. I do not know to what extent their information is out-of-date.**

From both of these books, I am learning some key terms and sayings that shed some light on Chinese history and culture. Although one book is non-fiction and the other fiction, the two works reinforce each other with the terms and themes they introduce.

Overview        I have learned so far that I am a foreign devil who should be careful not to bang dakuan anybody, lest I get a reputation for being porcelain with scars. I can expect Chinese people to be polite and hospitable to me, but I should not expect to learn anything about them beyond superficial niceties. I haven’t a clue where my laojia is, which only reinforces my barbarian status. I have no guanxi in China, which is a nation of reinzhi, so I should be particularly careful to sweep the snow in front of my own doorstep and to not bother about the frost on my neighbor’s roof. I know that the roof beam that sticks out is the first to rot, so I won’t stick my nose where it doesn’t belong. Otherwise, the God of Thunder will smash my tofu hide into a pancake!

If that is not enough information for you, here is a brief guide to some common terms and sayings.


Every Chinese person is governed by a “triangle” instituted by the Communists::

  • the dangan, the secret personal file, which is kept by local police stations and work units. This file contains a record of political mistakes (such as criticizing the government) and errors in behavior (such as fornication). This information follows a person throughout their lifetime, keeping him from getting a job, being promoted or moving from province to province.
  • the danwei or work unit, which provides employment, housing, and medical care.
  • The hukou or residency permit, which essentially keeps people from moving away from the areas in which they were born.

When a Chinese person meets another Chinese person, he/she needs to know his laojia, his “ancestral home,” where his family came from—meaning the village of his ancestors. (Kristof and Wudun 38) For Americans, knowing one’s ancestral home is considered a mildly interesting, but essentially useless piece of information. For me, at least, a person’s laojia matters not a jot. In China, it is absolutely essential information.

Guanxi = relatives or friends in high places who could help/protect one. Having guanzi is essential for success. My sources tell me China is corrupt on a mind-boggling level, and without connections, one is doomed.

China is governed by Renzhi (rule by individuals), rather than Fazhi (rule of law). Sure, there are laws on the books, but they seem almost irrelevant. The rulers (from the top of the hierarchy all the way down) seem to do whatever they want.

On Foreigners:

  • Non-Chinese people are “foreign devils,” if not barbarians, and are all potentially dangerous.
  • Chinese people are instructed to not to say what they think around foreign devils. “Don’t show anger or irritation. Be humble and careful and gracious. . . Draw them in. Let them think they have a connection to you, that they owe you, that they should never cause you any embarrassment. This is how we have treated outsiders for centuries” (See 52).
  • Sheryl Wudunn, a Chinese-American journalist, was called jiayangguizi, afake foreign devil. (Apparently, her Chinese heritage prevents her from being a “real” foreign devil.)

Being porcelain with scars = being a loose woman.

Bang dakuan = to pick a person up (in the sexual sense.)

Quotations and Common Sayings

“Be sure to prevent any contact between the barbarians [non-Chinese people] and the population.” –Emperor Qianglong, October 11, 1793, ordering the authorities to keep foreign visitors from talking to Chinese (Indicating the long tradition of China keeping itself isolated from the outside world.)

“Those who use the past to criticize the present should be put to death, together with their relatives.” –Li Si, Chinese prime minister in the third century B.C. (58) (Perhaps a bit brutal?)

So much in China followed the principle leigong da doufu, the God of Thunder smashes the tofu.” In other words, the powerful crush the weak. (Kristoff and Wudun 5)

Seeing is easy, learning is hard. –Chinese proverb (taken from Insight Guides: China)

Government policy was neijin, waisong, meaning “tranquility on the surface and repression on the inside” (Kristoff and Wudun 24).

Lu fen dan, biaomian guang: it’s shiny on the outside, just like donkey droppings. (Said of false facades)

The Chinese imperial tradition recognized no place for individual rights. Everyone tried to blend in according to the social norms; otherwise the authorities would qiangda chutou naio, “shoot the bird that flies in front of the flocks.” (K and W 280)

The culture of silence derives in part from the traditional Chinese emphasis on keeping one’s head down. A popular saying reminds people that “the roof beam that sticks out is the first to rot” (K and W 254).

Sweep the snow in front of your own doorstep, and do not bother about the frost on your neighbor’s roof. (In other words, mind your own business.)


I am American rather than Chinese, so you, my dear readers, do not have to mind your own business.  If you are knowledgeable about China and you find this information wrong-headed, please let me know.  Feel free to enlighten me on other aspects of China you think I should know about!