China Is Cracking Down On Funeral ‘Entertainers’

By Heather Ramsey on Saturday, September 19, 2015
beautiful young woman performing pole dance
“Death opens unknown doors. It is most grand to die.” —John Masefield

In A Nutshell

In Taiwan and China, funerals may start off as sad occasions and then pivot into a rollicking good time. Some families hire professional mourners who are paid to give the eulogy, sing tortured songs of lament, and engage in professional wailing. Then they change tone and entertain the crowd with happy songs and skits. However, some rural communities like to spice it up a bit with live funeral strippers, supposedly for spiritual reasons. But the government has vowed to stop funeral stripping, with some professional mourners recently fined as much as $11,000 and detained for 15 days.

The Whole Bushel

In Taiwan and China, funerals may start off as sad occasions and then pivot into a rollicking good time. Of course, the tone and style of mourning depends on where you live, with the rural areas tending to be more entertaining and more controversial. Some of these ceremonies have even become illegal.

When loved ones die in China, some families will hire professional mourners who are paid to give the eulogy, sing tortured songs of lament, and engage in professional wailing. Although it’s an ancient profession, the wailers aren’t particularly respected in society. Many of them have been laid off from their jobs, and this is a way to pick up extra income. It’s an extremely competitive market.

Although customs vary, historical records show that wailing first became a part of funeral services when Emperor Wu of Han ruled and were quite common during the Northern and Southern Dynasties. Wailing was largely snuffed out during the Cultural Revolution but has returned in recent decades.

The wailers often wear elaborate makeup and costumes and tailor their performance to the wishes of the deceased’s family. After the professional mourner delivers the eulogy, she wails a song to sad music, creating a sorrowful atmosphere that allows the family an emotional release through tears. Rural folk do more wailing than city dwellers. Sometimes, the professional wailer will crawl around on the ground as she cries and howls.

When the wailing segment is completed, the fun begins. The professional mourners change tone and entertain the crowd with happy songs and skits. Sometimes, they even perform operas and magic acts. Of course, those are the tame acts. Some rural communities like to spice it up a bit with live funeral strippers.

These girls are the real deal. They wear miniskirts that barely cover their unmentionables and low-cut shimmering tops (or sometimes only bras), making it easy for bereaved men to touch them for tips after the formal part of the entertainment ends. The shows can include lights, pounding music, and real fireworks as the girls pole dance or even do a striptease for the bereaved, who include both adults and children. Some locals have criticized stripping, unable to understand the religious aspect of this for the mourners, and so the nudity portion of some of these shows has gone underground. The risk of arrest may have something to do with that, too.

This is considered to be a part of folk religion in some parts of China. The showgirls, or “professional mourners,” may perform on “electric flower cars” (EFCs), which are special trucks that can be converted into stages, complete with sound equipment and lighting. EFCs make it possible to travel to rural areas, and they’re probably helpful when making a quick getaway. Some funeral strippers make as much as $1,000 a performance.

“The groups attract crowds to our events and they perform for the gods and the spirits to seek blessings,” explained Chen Chung-hsien, an official at Wu Fu Temple, in an interview. “They have become part of our religion and folk culture.”

However, South Carolina anthropologist Marc L. Moskowitz, who studied these practices when making a related documentary, says that these performances are associated with lower gods. The higher gods have morals, but the lower gods have the same evil desires as humans. When someone prays for help with an immoral habit like prostitution or gambling, they seek out the lower gods. According to Moskowitz, this type of entertainment is for the working classes and people with less education. The more affluent, educated classes tend to look down on it.

The reasons people give for hiring EFC performers often stress the spiritual aspects. The bereaved wants to distract old ghosts so that their newly departed relative won’t get harassed. Some want to please the lower gods. Others say that the deceased enjoyed this kind of partying when they were alive, so why not give them the same kind of send-off? The common denominator is that these events have to be “hot and noisy.”

But the police are cracking down. In February 2015, they arrested professional mourners who were doing striptease acts at funerals in Hebei and Jiangsu provinces. One man was fined over $11,000 and detained for 15 days. Some of the people who put the shows together have been charged with “organizing obscene performances.”

The Chinese government is serious about extinguishing the hottest acts. “This type of illegal operation disrupts order of the cultural market in the countryside and corrupts social morals and manners,” said the Ministry of Culture in a statement in April 2015. The state newspaper, Global News, has also run critical articles. The government has vowed to coordinate with police to end this custom.

Show Me The Proof

News.com.au: Strippers pole-dance to appease the dead
io9.com: Taiwan’s funeral strippers dance for a dead crowd
NPR: China’s Latest Target: Funeral Strippers
Danwei: Performing at funerals: professional mourners in Chongqing and Chengdu