Friday, May 02, 2008

The Procession

It happened in a certain small town in northern China.

I came out from a tiny lane and turned into a narrow street to be immediately confronted with what looked like a major traffic jam.

The first of a long line of cars had pulled to a halt, causing a considerable number of similar vehicles to be banked up behind it.

On both sides of the street, people were stopping to look, taking a puzzlingly impassive interest in the spectacle.

I walked down the street, alongside the line of

cars, noticing that each had a large hand-drawn number attached to its windshield, and that behind their heavily tinted windows each was totally empty save for the driver.

There were some thirty cars in all, and as I came to the last of them, I could see the reason for this strange procession, for the cars were followed first of all by three golf buggy style contraptions in each of which were eight to ten wailing women, dressed in China’s mourning costume of a long white gown. Every now and then one of them would lift up her veil to check on the crowd’s response, then lower her veil and resume the wailing.

Behind them came the wreath-bearers. These two metre high wreaths, shaped like an inverted spade from a deck of cards, are a real sight: attached to a light wicker frame are hundreds of white flowers serving as a background for other quite colourful embellishments and messages of condolence.

Then came the family and the coffin, followed by another long line of mourners and various groups of musicians.

It was an impressive display, and watching it, I sought to blend in by standing as impassively and unresponsively as the many passers-by, shopkeepers and shoppers along the street.

I mentioned that I had seen a funeral to a Chinese friend later that night.

Her response surprised me.

“I hate that man,” she said.

It was an unusual confidence to be taken into.

She claimed that he was a local high official, and that in defiance of local regulations, his family had spent a lot of money to hire cars and professional mourners in order to put on a public display of his wealth and importance.

“What a huge waste all those empty cars were,” she complained.

“The family will be fined, but they can afford it,” she said.

She went on to say that it was quite likely that public money had been used to arrange the funeral procession, and that if such was the case, then it was simply corruption.

She said that she had also seen the procession, and that local people around her, in their particular dialect, had been quietly expressing their anger and distaste.

The incident added to my understanding of changes occurring in today’s China.

Corruption occurs and ordinary people resent it. The top leadership opposes it and punishes major offenders. But they cannot stop people pushing the boundaries and getting away with what they can.

Sitting here typing this, I see again a field of poor northern dirt, a farmer’s family and a skinny donkey attached to a small plough. Off to one side of the field stand a few simple conical mounds of dirt that represent the final resting place for members of this family.

A simple life, honest work and a modest death….

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