Ancestor or money worship?

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 19 April, 2005, 12:00am
UPDATED : Tuesday, 19 April, 2005, 12:00am

Conspicuous consumption has become the single most encompassing and dominant feature of life in China, so much so that it now dominates even death. The recent Ching Ming festival, when families sweep the graves of their relatives and ancestors, became more like a luxury-goods spending spree.

Traditionally, Chinese burn paper money for their departed loved ones to give them spending power in the afterlife. Now, people are also burning paper models of luxury villas, cars and even concubines - the three symbols of success in China today.

Of course, the successful entrepreneur or official can have more than one concubine in death as well as life. They come in different sizes and prices. For 20 yuan, you get a pretty, youthful woman, but without the long, sexy legs or elegant hairstyle of those priced at 60 yuan. The disparity leaves widows with the dilemma of choosing the quality of their deceased husband's sex life.

Just as in real life, family members can also purchase luxury villas and cars so that the dead patriarch can keep his concubines separate, which serves a variety of purposes, as shown in Zhang Yimou's classic movie, Raise the Red Lantern.

In fact, these paper offerings have become a thriving industry, revealing more about the new social psychology of China as well as the entrepreneurial spirit which has made the nation the most thriving economy in the world today.

Property developers who see the Beijing and Shanghai markets as bubbles about to burst have shifted from investing in apartments and villas for the living, to housing for the dead. Whether it is in the form of Buddhist pagodas or Roman bathhouses, money is moving into luxury accommodation for the ashes of ancestors. Many feature air conditioning and offer a variety of services for the dead - which can be sustained as long as the surviving relatives pay for them.

The economics of such investments will titillate venture capitalists, as they offer an appealing return. As one Chinese developer explained: 'It's a great business. China has limited land resources which are now being tightly controlled by the central government.

'At the same time, it has the world's largest population, and everyone has to die. Now that people are rich, they want to honour their dead relatives, especially as people treat each other so badly during life; in death at least you can do something nice. As developers, we get more units per square metre for boxes for their ashes than for the living. Therefore, we get a better return on the bank loans. We can also charge a management fee, which surviving relatives must pay for the remainder of their lives.'

The business of death is taking a cultural toll, too. Throughout China's massive property boom, the destruction of traditional homes has meant that magnificent Ming- and Qing-era stone carvings have surfaced on the underground antique-dealer circuit. Now, with the carcass picked clean, overseas buyers are left with two choices: imitations made from pressed glass which look like stone, or real stone carvings from grave entrances, many of which are not that old. Raiding the Lost Ark is one thing; ripping up your grandparents' graves is quite another. However, in the cash-only ethics of 21st century China, luxuries for the living are more important than old stones for the dead.

So far, however, these examples of crass commercialism have yet to penetrate China's most isolated areas. On the burial altar of Mount Kailash, in western Tibet, pilgrims lie down for a moment to stare at the white pyramid mountain, wishing for their soul to find this place after they die. Here, bodies of the dead are offered to white eagles. 'Imagine being hungry and someone gives you a piece of bread,' said one local. 'You will be very happy. We leave our bodies for the eagles; it serves as a last act of kindness.'

Laurence Brahm is a political economist and lawyer based in Beijing