Ahead of the annual Tomb Sweeping Day yesterday, the Lis were unsure how to spend the holiday, since the disappearance of Li Zhixin aboard Malaysia Airlines Flight MH370 meant the three Li brothers could not go visit their mother’s grave in the northeast Chinese village of Ziwei as they usually did.
Should they add the 34-year-old to those they should mourn? If so, how would they do that without a grave? And what if their youngest brother is still alive?
The Lis’ state of limbo reflects one of the emotional struggles for the families of Chinese passengers aboard the missing jetliner, since their culture places a strong emphasis on recovering the body of a dead person before closure can properly begin.
Li Zhixin is one of hundreds of thousands of Chinese men who venture abroad each year in search of better wages. He was returning home from a disappointing 10-month trip seeking construction work in Singapore when his flight from Kuala Lumpur to Beijing vanished on March 8.
Authorities piecing together scant satellite and radar data believe the jet carrying 239 people — two-thirds of them Chinese — crashed in the Indian Ocean. No trace of the plane has been found despite an intensive, international search.
“You know, you either have the living body or the corpse when accounting for a person, but now we don’t know where he is,” said Li Zhixin’s 72-year-old father, Li Zhouer. “There is nothing I can do but shed tears. We just want to see the body and bring him home.”
The Li home comprises five plain, adjoining rooms facing a mud yard opening into a narrow alley on the edge of Ziwei Village, three hours’ drive southwest of Beijing.
Farmers in Ziewei eke out a meager existence, making the signs advertising agents who arrange high-paying work overseas that are posted around the village and surrounding hamlets all the more attractive.
“We don’t know what we are going to tell our mother this year,” said the middle brother, Li Luxin, his brows furrowed as he sat on a plank bed in a Spartan roo.
On Tomb Sweeping Day, families typically visit the ancestral burial plot to clean the graves, present offerings of fruit and burn paper money. Some set off firecrackers for good luck and to drive off evil spirits. Such traditions are strong in rural areas, though they are fading as people migrate to the cities.
Many Chinese believe the body to be the carrier of one’s soul, said Han Gaonian, a folklorist at the Lanzhou-based Northwest Normal University.
“If you have the body, then the soul has a place to be,” he said, adding that those presumed dead and whose bodies cannot be returned usually get a grave with their clothes buried.
However, there is no ritual of mourning for those whose fates are unknown.
“People still hope they may return alive,” Han said, referring to the passengers on Flight 370. “And in some rural areas, families may hold some ritual of calling back the soul of the missing, alive or dead.”
As the youngest of three sons, Li Zhixin was doted on by his parents and older brothers, but he had to go to work like the rest of them once he turned a teenager, after only six years of school.
He was married by the time he turned 20 and lives with his wife and two children — a 12-year-old daughter and six-year-old son — in the nearby city of Dingzhou.
Li Zhixin never spoke of any grand ambitions, but focused on providing for his family, his brothers said.
“His wife hardly makes any money, so the family really depends on Zhixin financially,” Li Luxin said. “City living is costly with the children going to school.”
Construction workers in Chinese cities typically earn the equivalent of US$700 to US$800 a month, but tantalizing stories of much better pay in foreign countries where low-skilled laborers are lacking drive hundreds of thousands to leave their families behind and go abroad each year.
At the end of last year, about 853,000 Chinese were working overseas, according to the Chinese Ministry of Commerce.
On Flight 370, eight men from the Dingzhou municipal region of 1 million that includes Ziwei were returning from contract work in Singapore.
Li Zhixin only informed his family he was going on his first trip abroad to Singapore after making all the arrangements, which included borrowing about US$3,000 to pay an agent who lined up a construction job in the city-state, Li Luxin said.
“He was told he could make as much as 300 yuan [US$50] a day,” but was soon disappointed because there was not enough work, Li Luxin said.
“He regretted going there and told his wife’s brother over the phone that he was often idle with no work and no income,” Li Luxin said. “Before he came back this time, he said he would never go abroad again because he had made no money this time.”
Li Zhixin’s father traveled to Beijing with his eldest brother, Li Jingxin, the day after the plane went missing, but they were frustrated by the lack of information provided by airline officials and Li Zhou’er returned home a few days later.
“Pigs cherish their piglets, dogs cherish their puppies and we humans cherish our children,” Li Zhou’er said. “There has not been a day that I do not miss my child.”