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?)

Random Stuff I’ve Learned by Reading Too Many Novels: Bear Bile


Products Made from Bear Bile

In Lisa See’s novel Flower Net, attorney-detective team David Stark and Liu Hulan surmise that the murders they are investigating are related to Chinese organized crime—more specifically, to a triad called the Rising Phoenix.   They get a break in their case when they arrest a Rising Phoenix courier for smuggling contraband into the United States. This illegal substance is highly sought after and worth a great deal of money on the black market.

Is it heroin? No. This substance is more valuable than heroin: it is bear bile. According to a character in See’s novel, “Dried bear bile salts sell for anywhere between two hundred and fifty to seven hundred dollars a gram compared to three hundred dollars for heroin” (178).

Bear bile, I learned, is a substance that has long been used in Chinese medicine. According to website of The Journal of Chinese Medicine, bear bile has

“traditionally been used in Chinese medicine to, i. clear heat from the Heart and Liver and stop spasms (for example childhood convulsions, epilepsy, eclampsia, delirium following extensive burning etc.); ii. clear heat and resolve toxicity (for example sores, carbuncles etc.); iii. clear and drain Liver heat and benefit the eyes (for example severely red, painful and swollen eyes etc.); iv. clear heat and eliminate childhood nutritional impairment.”

Westerners who scoff at traditional Chinese medicine might be interested to know that modern, western researchers have found that bear bile “contains the greatest amounts of ursodeoxycholic acid (UDCA) of any species of mammal. UDCA is known to modify cholesterol absorption and excretion and is used in the treatment of gall stones, biliary cirrhosis, and liver cancers.” (Journal of Chinese Medicine.)

In other words, the bile has proven medical value. Unfortunately, the extracting the bile from bears causes them enormous pain. Furthermore, the bears are kept in tiny cages their entire lives. These cages are so small the bears can never even stand or sit up, much less move around. To put it simply: the process of obtaining bear bile is extraordinarily cruel to the animals. Because of the cruelty of the practice and because there are now synthetic forms of ursodeoxycholic acid available, there is a growing movement in China to stop the practice, as the New York Times reported about a year ago:


Mu Chen/European Pressphoto Agency

Caged bears awaiting bile extraction

Importing and exporting the bile is already illegal. This of course does not stop people who are motivated by the profits of trade.

Although the traffic in bear bile makes for a riveting detective novel, the practice is sickening. I hope the burgeoning animal rights movement in China gains momentum and puts an end to this practice soon.

 Works Cited

“Asiatic Black Bear.  Use in Traditional Medicine.”  website of the Journal of Chinese Medicine.

Jacobs, Andrew. “Folk Remedy Extracted From Captive Bears Stirs Furor in China.”  New York Times.  May 21, 2013

See, Lisa.  Flower Net.  New York: Random House, 2008.

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!

WWW.Wednesdays: What are you reading?

The blog “Should Be Reading” started a series called http://www.Wednesdays.


To play along, just answer the following three (3) questions…

• What are you currently reading?
• What did you recently finish reading?
• What do you think you’ll read next

Here are my answers for May 21, 2014.

What are you currently reading?

Two books, both on China.

  • One is nonfiction, a reportial  on China by husband-wife journalist team Nicholas Kristof and Sheryl Wudunn  called China Wakes: The Struggle for the Soul of a Rising Power. I am almost half-way through. I know so little about China that I cannot comment on how accurate it is.  It is already 20 years old, so I would suspect it is at least somewhat outdated.   However, it is highly readable, engaging, and informative–especially for a reader (like me) whose knowledge of contemporary China is hazy at best.  Some of the reviewers said they focused too much on the sensational rather than the ordinary.  That may be true, but perhaps that is to be expected from journalists.  In any case, I love it so far and would recommend it to others interested in China.
  • A mystery novel set in China called Flower Net by Lisa See.  Lisa See is Chinese-American (as is Sheryl Wudunn, by the way).  This is the first of her “Red Princess” novels which feature American attorney David Stark and Chinese detective Liu Hulan.  I have a soft spot for mystery novels set in foreign countries, so I am really enjoying it.   See is obviously writing for people who know little about China.  She often inserts comments into the narrative like “Chinese people are quite reticent so….”    On the one hand, this seems intrusive, but on the other hand, I find cultural insights informative.    There is actually quite a bit of overlap of themes between China Wakes and Flower Net.


What did you recently finish reading?

Her by Christa Parravani.  I did a post on this book last week.

What do you think you’ll read next?

Not sure.  I have so many books piled up, begging me to read them!  But maybe this one:

How Children Succeed: Grit, Curiosity and the Hidden Power of Character by Paul Tough. I heard an interview with him on NPR. He tries to answer the question of why some children succeed while others fail. He believes much of it has to do with character rather than with IQ or other cognitive traits.

What about you?  What have you read recently?