During Spring Festival I went to my best friend Color’s house. His hometown is in a small town, located near Wenzhou, and most of the holiday was spent in his grandparents village, a teeny, tiny place that has one street running through the middle and where everyone is related. Surrounded by mountains and rice fields, it is one of the most peaceful places I have ever been in China. It’s also one of those places that is filled mainly with old people and small children, the middle generation having gone to big cities to find work. But during Spring Festival everyone comes back and celebrates so the place was filled with people of all ages.
One morning I woke up to the sounds of a marching band playing, When the Saints Go Marching In. Color runs into my room to look out the window and I ask him what it was for. “Is there a parade?” I asked. “Is this a Spring Festival thing?”
“No,” he said. “It’s for a funeral.”
The night before I was hanging out with Color’s mom and I asked her what the plans for the next day were. During Spring Festival you usually spend all the time with the family. But she surprised me and said that she and her husband had other plans. A woman died and they had to see the body off.
In my mind I was thinking of a sort of Jewish Shiva style mourning period where you go to the families home, talk to the relatives, eat food. Boy was I ever wrong. When Color and I arrived at his grandparents village there was a festival type atmosphere. There was a giant food tent serving hundreds of people lunch, these giant white decorations and colorful paper flowers, and dozens of bands from smartly dressed marching bands in matching military-style uniforms to old men in leather jackets playing traditional instruments. And of course fireworks. Lots and lots of fireworks.
Color’s grandparents have the last house in the village and are on a slight hill so from their front steps I got a view of everything that was going on. More bands kept marching by their house, and more and more decorations arrived. Also, because I was the lone laowai, or foreigner, everyone was interested in me and it kept Color busy explaining who I was and why I was there. (Most assumed I was married to either Color or another boy in the village, ha ha.)
At one point Color said they were going to line up, and march to her tomb. Would I like to participate? Hell yeah!
“There are two rules,” he said. “No smiling, you should look sad, and no pictures.”
I failed on both accounts.
Color ran off and got the gear we needed. He came back with some cloth for me, one piece while, one piece red. He had a blue and red piece. He explained that I was to keep the red hidden in my pocket, and that I had to tie the white cloth around my arm. He had a blue cloth signifying his familial relationship to the dead woman. Though he wasn’t directly related, everyone in this village is from the same family and therefore he’s classified as a grandchild of sorts. Those of us common folk wore white.
Then we lined up on the street. We were in the middle of the parade and I was given a big thing of paper flowers to carry while Color had one of the large white decorations. In the front of the parade was a truck with what looked like a rocket launcher on the back. It shot off these giant, booming fireworks. Next came the guys who lit off firecrackers every so often. Then came the flag bearers carrying red flags with the family name on it written in traditional Chinese characters. Then came a marching band, then some people carrying decorations and then another marching band, and more decorations and so on. The parade had hundreds of participants and stretched for about half a mile. The noise was insane as every band was playing different songs, at their own pace and fireworks going off and just the general noise of hundreds of people moving.
We walked by mountain streams, and family homes and finally we ended up on a small path that winded through the rice patties. The weather wasn’t great, overcast and drizzly, but it was one of the most beautiful walks I have ever taken. We passed by huge water buffalo that looked at us curiously, farmers taking care of their rice and even a family of ducks torn between eating and trying to get away from the noisy humans.
We finally arrived at the tomb, built into the side of a mountain, and we walked, single filed up a small muddy path. The giant stone tomb had steps running up the side, but they had been long overgrown in vines and bramble making walking up the steps a bit dangerous. But as we were near the beginning of the parade we had to walk almost to the top and unceremoniously drop our decorations around the grave. Color said they will just stay there, slowly rotting, and eventually disintegrate.
As we waited at the tomb more and more people arrived. The dead woman’s family came all wearing white (mostly lab coats and towels) and some unique decorations were carried up including a red chair with her picture on it. Nobody was wailing or beating their breasts or anything, and everyone seemed to be calm. Color said the woman had died earlier but they waited for spring festival, when the whole family would be back, to hold her funeral.
Then at some unseen (to me) moment everyone took off their white cloth and put on the red one. A middle aged woman pulled the red cloth from out of my pocket and tied it on my arm for me, pulling off the white. White is the color of death in China (not black) so she would follow those of us wearing white. If you wear white back home she’ll follow you home and haunt you, so you have to wear red to trick her.
Then we just left. No speeches, no ceremony. The bands stopped playing and we all just walked back to the village. That was it, the excitement was over.
Color said that because the woman was old, and had a successful life, she had such a big funeral. If it was a young person, or a child, the funeral wouldn’t have been such a big procession with such a festive atmosphere. But because she lived a long time her death was considered a success and her life should be celebrated, not mourned. I liked that.
I have to say that after living here for almost 4 years this was one of the coolest, most interesting (and unexpected) things I have ever done. I mean, participate in a funeral in a tiny village in rural southern China?! Who could have ever guessed.