Issue 179, Winter 2006
Have you ever seen someone walk a corpse?
Yes. In the early 1950s, the new Communist government sent a work team to launch the land reform movement, which took land from the rich and gave it to the poor. The work team categorized people according to their wealth and beliefs. Rich landowners and Nationalists were deemed enemies of the people, and many were tortured or executed if they couldn’t first escape into the mountains or pay off the triads to protect them. Since three generations of my family had been in the feng shui business, we were considered practitioners of superstition, and I wasn’t allowed to participate in the land redistribution activities. I had nothing to do, and one dark and overcast afternoon I was strolling along the village road when a bulky, black object suddenly passed me, sending a chill down my spine. The thing was covered with a huge inky-colored robe. The bottom hem of the robe was splattered with mud, and from time to time a leather shoe poked out below. The footsteps were heavy and made a repetitive, thudding noise, like someone knocking the ground with a block of wood. Just then, my friend Piggy scurried up to me and whispered in my ear, That’s a corpse.
Piggy’s words spooked me, and I ran around in front of the robe. A man was there, walking a few paces ahead of the corpse, wearing a beige vest and carrying a basket filled with fake paper money. In his other hand, he held a white paper lantern. Every few minutes, he would reach into the basket, grab some money, and toss it high in the air. You know the ritual, don’t you? It’s called “buying your way into the other world.” People in the countryside still believe that the fake money is used to bribe the corpse’s guardian ghosts so they don’t block the road to heaven.
So people used to think the world of the dead was equally corrupt. But why the lantern in broad daylight?
To light the way to heaven. And the white lantern, the fake money, and the black robe helped create an atmosphere of mourning. The lantern also served a practical purpose—but let me finish my story. Piggy and I decided to keep following the corpse walker. The corpse looked a head taller than an ordinary person and wore a big straw hat. Beneath the hat was a white paper mask—one of those sad-looking masks like they wear in operas. The guy at the front would chant, Yo ho, yo ho, and strangely enough the corpse would cooperate just like a well-trained soldier. He followed the guide with great precision. For example, when the guide and the corpse were climbing some stone steps on the street, the guide said, Yo ho, yo ho, steps ahead. The corpse paused for a second, then moved up the stairway, step by step, with its body tilting back stiffly. Piggy and I followed the pair for about four miles, all the way to a small inn on a quiet side street. While the corpse waited at the entrance, the guide walked into the lobby, tapped on the counter, and said in a low voice, The god of happiness is here.