Hu Xinglian kneels before the corpse of Liang Zhicai and, with one hand on his metal coffin, lets out a piercing wail. However, Hu is not at all grief-stricken — she is a professional mourner.
In parts of China, where rural pre-burial rituals are still observed, mourners known as kusangren are hired to guarantee that a funeral is a spectacle in grief. And the 53-year-old Hu is up to the task.
She comes to work with a full sound system, multicolor spotlights and the six members of her band, The Orchestra of the Star and River of Chongqing. Her job offers a study in contrasts between modern living and tradition in the southwestern province-sized municipality, home to more than 30 million people and a symbol of the rapid urbanization seen across China.
“People in the countryside still show a lot of respect for their dead ancestors,” Hu said.
She has gained a following in the Chongqing area under her stage name, Ding Ding Mao, which means “Dragonfly” in the local dialect.
Her performance for the funeral of Liang, who died aged 70, takes place under a canvas tent mounted on metal poles outside a forest of rundown buildings.
Liang’s coffin is placed in the center of the makeshift altar, with incense sticks burning around it. A fruit basket has been left as an offering to the dead.
Hu quickly questions a few of the mourners, so that she has enough details about Liang’s life to give the impression that she has known him forever.
She and her band eat dinner al fresco with the family — washed down with ample quantities of Sichuan beer. Hu then dons a full white robe — the color of mourning in China.
Friends and neighbors of the dead man sit around the edges of the tent. Some smoke, others chat or make telephone calls. Liang’s relatives kneel around the coffin, their eyes fixed on Hu as her wails reach a fever pitch.
“Why did you leave us so soon? The earth is covered in a black veil for you. The rivers and streams are crying to tell your story — that of an honest man,” Hu sings.
“I shed tears for your children and grandchildren. We’re so sorry we could not keep you here,” she croons between sobs. “This is goodbye, with no return date. The path to the great beyond is arduous, and beset by storms. Take good care of yourself.”
Hu then dances for several minutes, falling to her knees and crawling several times before shaking the hands of the visibly moved family members.
Then, suddenly, the evening turns festive.
Funereal chants are replaced with popular songs and comedy stories. A belly dancer performs, followed by a woman in a leopard-print bustier, black hot pants and fishnet stockings who writhes to a pulsating techno beat.
Lin Shiqing, Liang’s niece, explains that the spectacle should not be seen as a lack of respect for the dead.
“Saying goodbye to the dead is a very important moment, and so the ceremony must be animated and vibrant. If not, the children would be seen poorly by the villagers, who would say they did not respect their elders,” Lin said.
According to the Association for Chinese Funeral Culture, tradition dictates that the children and grandchildren of the dead must express their grief in a noisy manner, and with plenty of tears, before the burial.
“If they don’t cry enough, that would be considered by the neighbors as a lack of filial piety,” the association says on its Web site. So kusangren like Hu are hired to ensure a noisy, impassioned farewell.
Hu says her job is “very difficult, and very trying.”
“You must express sadness and pain for a family that has lost a loved one. You really have to have great control over your emotions,” she says.