Belly Dancing For The Dead: A Day With China's Top Mourner

Jun 26, 2013
Originally published on June 27, 2013 10:39 am

File under "one of the oddest jobs ever": professional mourner. China's funeral rituals date back 2,000 years to the Han dynasty, but were banned during the Cultural Revolution as superstition. Now these funeral rituals have become an income source to a select few who stage funeral extravaganzas, marrying ancient Chinese traditions with modern entertainment.

We need a proper mourner because young people don't know how to cry anymore. - Xu Xinwei, whose family hired a professional mourner for her uncle's funeral

"Our entry into the world is splendidly dramatic, so our exit from this world also needs to be spectacular," says Hu Xinglian, who is known professionally as Dingding, or Dragonfly, Mao — a reference to the two high ponytails that bounce above her ears.

One of the top professional mourners in the southwestern city of Chongqing, Mao is famous for her kusang, which literally means crying and shouting. She became a mourner more than a decade ago after she lost her job as a department store clerk in downsizing and was casting around for new employment.

Now her fame is such that she has been ferried in a Mercedes-Benz 600 miles to Changzhi in Shanxi province to take part in funeral rites.

"A big part is saying the last goodbye to the dead person. We need to show our feelings for others to see, and to display the filial piety of the offspring," she says. "Some people can't cry. So I use my heart to sing this song to represent the loss of the younger generation."

An Ancient Ritual Amid Skyscrapers

On arrival at a funeral in Chongqing, she applies her make-up in a car; she's traveling with her troupe of six other actors and musicians.

Hu Xinglian, known professionally as Dingding Mao, has been a mourner-for-hire for more than 10 years after being laid off from her position as a sales clerk in a department store.
Louisa Lim / NPR

Outside, a man dressed in red and yellow robes is chanting and burning paper money to the accompaniment of traditional instruments. He looks like a monk, albeit one in a rather showy costume, though it turns out he, too, is an actor, though not from Mao's troupe.

A huge community meal is underway, as is tradition, cooked in a tent erected outside a housing complex, dwarfed by modern, six-story apartment blocks. Down the road, skyscrapers are going up. The funeral is transplanting old traditions into the middle of a modern Chinese community.

As the mourners take their places at the 10 tables, loaded down with dishes of chili-laden food, a small child defecates on the ground just feet away.

"We need a proper mourner because young people don't know how to cry anymore," explains Xu Xinwei, niece of the deceased man, Zhang Tujin. He was 67 years old and died of heart failure. A hardscrabble farmer, Zhang was hauling sacks of potatoes right up until the day before his death.

Now, his family sits at one table, wearing white — the color of mourning in China — sackcloth on their heads.

"We paid for a whole package for the funeral service," explains his daughter, Zhang Yingshu. "Because he worked hard his entire life, we definitely need to remember him."

As the meal winds down, people start to move into a large tent that has been erected especially for the occasion. They pull up green plastic stools and wait, the mood building to the kind of expectant tension in a big-screen cinema before the start of the latest blockbuster movie.

A Final, Dramatic And Tearful Farewell

As the ceremony starts, the strains of "The Internationale" ring out, and Zhang Tujin's family walks slowly forward to stand around his coffin. Now dressed in white satin, Dingding Mao begins her eulogy, her face serious despite her incongruous bouncy ponytails.

Dingding Mao and the family of the deceased kneel in front of the coffin.
Louisa Lim / NPR

To a backing track of soaring angelic voices, she speaks, her voice choked with sobs.

"He was a good man, a good husband, a good father, a good grandfather," Mao says. "He has gone now. He has left this world full of love."

As she continues, the music builds, and she falls to her hands and knees. Colored lights flash around her, as she crawls toward the coffin, wailing.

"You were like a tall tree sheltering your kids from the wind and rain," she moans. "We never thought you'd leave so soon."

People are sniveling and wiping their eyes, while the family members are weeping uncontrollably. Some of the smaller children in the audience are watching wide-eyed, their hands over their ears.

"Father!" Mao shrieks, as the music reaches a crescendo. "What will mother do? You and mother had been in love for decades. Now you have left and are not coming back."

Many of the mourners are beginning to weep now, especially an old man sitting by the speakers, overcome by emotion and the deafening volume of the wailing.

Belly Dancing, Disco Lights For The Dead

As the music reaches its crashing crescendo, a man dressed in white appears from nowhere and falls to his knees beside Dingding Mao, who is by now lying facedown on the floor. Her voice quavering, they begin to sing a duet together, as papers like those that are burned to remember the dead are tossed into the air around them like confetti. She directs the family to bow three times to the casket, which they do, tears running down their cheeks.

And then suddenly, it's over, and a young woman from the troupe is belly dancing in front of the coffin. She is wearing a pink midriff-baring top, whose ornaments jangle as she gyrates her bare stomach. The audience is stunned into silence, by this act and the follow-up, a Tibetan-themed song that Mao sings, wearing Tibetan clothing and dancing hip-hop-type moves.

With its flashing strobe lighting, karaoke eulogies, musical duets and belly dancing, this is a funeral like no other. But as we take our leave, a steady stream of people is still heading toward the tent to watch. Inside, the mood has lifted, like sunshine after rain, and people are wiping away their tears and smiling.

The family is happy; they wanted a proper send-off for their father, and this bizarre hybrid of ancient tradition fused with modern elements feels somehow fitting for modern-day China.

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Let's go to China, where professional mourners have been communicating sadness at funerals for centuries. They were banned for a time by the Communists during the upheaval of the Cultural Revolution.

So when NPR's Beijing correspondent Louisa Lim read about one of China's most famous professional mourners, she thought it would make an interesting story about the re-emergence of traditional practices. She was in for a surprise. Here's her postcard from a modern funeral with Chinese characteristics.


LOUISA LIM, BYLINE: This is the sound of a funeral in China. I'm on the outskirts of the city of Chongqing, and I'm about to meet someone whose job is to go to funerals.

DINGDING MAO: (Foreign language spoken)

LIM: Dingding Mao is famous for her performance at funerals, her weeping and wailing, and her hair which she wears in two high bunches. Our entry into this world is splendidly dramatic, she says, so our exit from this world also needs to be spectacular. She's here to represent the children of the deceased. Her crying shows their piety.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: (Singing in foreign language)


LIM: In the background, a man in red and yellow robes is burning paper money, while musicians play traditional instruments. At first, I take him to be a monk. But it turns out he's an actor, but not one of Dingding Mao's troupe of seven.

So, as normal, they're cooking a big meal for the whole community, and they've set up a tent and they're cooking it outside. But at the same time, it's happening really in the backyard of a housing complex. There are all these six-story blocks of apartments beside me, and I can see skyscrapers going up just down the road. It's really transplanting old traditions right into modern China.

XU XINWEI: (Foreign language spoken)

LIM: We need a proper mourner because young people don't know how to cry anymore, explains Xu Xinwei. It's her uncle's funeral.


LIM: As with everything else in China, the funeral starts with food, and there's a big communal meal out here. There's about 10 tables, each of them have about 10 dishes on them each, and they all look really spicy, and it looks incredibly good.

ZHANG YINGSHU: (Foreign language spoken)

LIM: Zhang Yingshu is the daughter of the dead man, Zhang Tujin. He was 67 years old, and died of heart failure. He was a farmer who worked hard his whole life, she says, even hauling sacks of potatoes the day before he died. We need to give him a proper send-off, she says, wiping away her tears as she tucks into her food.

So the funeral is about to begin, and everybody has pulled up green plastic stools and is sitting there really expectantly waiting. The mood is kind of like the mood before a big blockbuster film is about to start.


LIM: To the strains of "The Internationale," Zhang Tujin's family walks forward to stand around his coffin. On their heads, they wear white sackcloth - the color of mourning in China.

MAO: (Foreign language spoken)

LIM: Dingding Mao begins the eulogy. She's dressed in white satin. Her face is serious, despite her incongruous ponytails bouncing above her ears. He was a good man, she says, a good husband, a good father, a good grandfather. He has gone now. He has left this world full of love.

MAO: (Foreign language spoken)

LIM: Dingding Mao is now on her hands and knees, crawling towards the coffin, colored lights flashing above her. You were like a tall tree sheltering your kids from the wind and rain, she moans, lying facedown on the floor.

MAO: (Foreign language spoken)

LIM: We never thought you'd leave so soon. People are weeping all round me now.

MAO: (Foreign language spoken)


LIM: And then suddenly, it's over, and a young woman from the troupe is belly-dancing in front of the coffin. The mood is utterly transformed; people are wiping away their tears, and smiling. It feels kind of like sunshine after a storm.

Well, I have never been to a funeral like this before. There's strobe lighting, there's karaoke eulogies, there's belly dancing. But you know what? The crowd is loving it. There's a huge stream of people that are coming to attend the funeral. And the family is feeling that their loved one is being remembered in the right way. And that's what counts.

Louisa Lim, NPR News, Chongqing.

MONTAGNE: The sounds of professional mourners, only on MORNING EDITION from NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.