Being dead renders one immune to most forms of social pressure, but it would seem the Chinese desire to see single people wed transcends even the mortal coil.
Such is the foundation of minghun (冥婚), or ghost weddings, which involve at least one dead person, possibly two. Today they are entirely illegal, but that hasn’t squashed the practice, which even in some rural parts of the country can result in grave-robbing and clandestine ceremonies organized by families who fear their single dead sons will lead a lonely afterlife.
Although the origins of ghost marriage are shrouded in mystery, the Records of the Three Kingdoms, which was published in the third century, tells the tale of Cao Chong, son of the infamous warmonger Cao Cao, who in 208 died at the tender age of 13. Having died so young, his relatives scrambled to find him a wife, settling on a deceased daughter in the Zhen clan. They were buried together (along with a raft of titles for the boy, including Chief Cavalry Commandant) in the hope that even if they didn’t know each other in life they would get along in the afterlife.
One paper on the subject, published in 2008, put the earliest date of a ghost wedding in 1700 BCE, peaking in the Tang Dynasty (618 – 907). Another report from Henan Normal University traces back a specific first mention to a king of the Shang Dynasty (1600 BCE – 1046 BCE).
Chinese history has long been peppered with beliefs relating to ancestor worship, infused with the idea that the dead continue to live on in the netherworld. It is often up to people left in this world to ensure the needs of their dead relatives are met, which can range from material possessions as tacky as iPhones, to a partner to spend their death with.
One theory about the origins of the practice comes from Dutch Sinologist and demonologist Jan Jakob Maria de Groot, who in 1892 wrote that it was a natural evolution from earlier practices of sacrificing the still-living wives of dead husbands so they could be together in the afterlife. He said that by allowing women to live out their natural lives, “little sophistry was needed to convince the people that, by thus modifying the human immolations, the interests of the dead would be but little affected.”
He was essentially referring to a brutal form of xunzang (殉葬), or burial sacrifice, a practice which dates back as far as the Chinese dynasties themselves. Visitors to Anyang in Henan Province can still visit sites believed to be around 3,500 years old, containing the skeletons of slaves beheaded to serve their Shang Dynasty monarch in the afterlife.
But given the frequent occurrences of sacrifices for the dead throughout Chinese history, it’s perhaps unsurprising that a filial belief system resting upon the idea that the dead still have needs would embrace the concept of ghost marriage.
The practice of ghost marriage has varied from place to place throughout Chinese history and even in Chinese communities beyond the borders of the Chinese mainland. A 1979 Oxford University anthropology paper describes the mainland traditions as being somewhat different to those of Singapore, Hong Kong and Taiwan. On the mainland, they basically involved burying the bodies together, however in other locations the ghost of the dead child was believed to have manifested in some way, effectively badgering the relatives into finding a match.
Specifically in Taiwan, the gender emphasis was rather different than what is seen in Chinese mainland today. “There, it is always the dead girl who initiates the marriage, and she is always married to a living man. The man is free to marry again, or if he is already married, the ghost becomes his retrospective first wife.”
“In other areas, in all cases I have come across, both parties are dead, and the wedding can be initiated by either of them appearing in a dream to a parent or relative. The exception to this is when one party of an engaged couple has died and is then married by the survivor,” anthropologist Diana Martin wrote.
She also described a ceremony told to her by a middle-aged man, Hong Kong native Mr. Ho. “The boy and the girl at the wedding were both represented by wooden ancestral tablets inscribed with their names. The boy’s tablet was carried into the main room first, then the girl’s. Both were made to bow to the ancestral altar. The tablets were then put on the altar and worshipped on festival days along with all the other ancestors.” The paper mentions that there were no more dream appearances, and the two families then considered themselves related to one another.
Indeed, families play a central role in ghost marriages; De Groot noted as much over a hundred years ago. “Such posthumous marriages are peculiarly interesting as showing that the almost unlimited power of parents in choosing wives or husbands for their children does not cease to exist even when the latter have been removed to the Realms of Death, so that in fact children are there subject to the will of their parents,” he wrote.“They further prove how faint the line of demarcation between the living and the dead is in China, even if it exists at all.”
“Dead When Wed” is a story from our next issue, “Military”, coming out next week. To continue reading, become a subscriber and receive the full magazine. Alternatively, you can purchase the digital version from the iTunes Store.