Businesses on the mainland that help people sweep their relatives' graves during the annual Ching Ming festival have come under a media spotlight, and sparked controversy over the commercialisation of filial piety.
A search for 'agent for grave-sweeping' on Taobao.com, the mainland's largest e-commerce retailer, produced about 300 results yesterday from dozens of shops across the mainland, mostly in first- and second-tier cities including Beijing, Shanghai, Tianjin, Guangzhou and Shenzhen.
This year's Ching Ming festival falls today.
The basic service costs about 300 yuan (HK$370) to 700 yuan and lasts 20 to 30 minutes. It includes burning incense and paper money, presenting fruits and cakes, bowing, reading tributes, cleaning off dust and trimming weeds, with photos and video of these acts available as proof.
For extra money, a special service is offered that includes kneeling and crying in front of tombs, burning paper cut-outs of 'servants' and presenting liquor. One online shop said crying costs at least 300 yuan, with an extra 300 yuan for every 10 additional minutes. Three kowtows cost 100 yuan from one provider.
Commerce impinging on a traditional family ceremony has horrified some internet users, who say fake tears are disrespectful. Yet most business owners defend their trade, saying it meets a new and rising demand for such services among people who wish to pay tribute to their dead family members but live in faraway cities or overseas and cannot return to sweep graves themselves.
One shop owner in Shenzhen who declined to be named said on Monday he had received only about a dozen requests for his services in the previous three days. Transaction records on Taobao also confirmed very few deals had been made online. But others say business is good.
A group of university students in Wuhan, Hubei province, saw the annual festival as a business opportunity after hearing about similar grave-sweeping services last year.
On top of their 466-yuan fee for a basic service, they also offered an upgraded 120-minute ceremony for 3,466 yuan, involving a host and nine male university students dressed in suits and black leather shoes.
Three customers bought the service, and the students said they had received dozens of phone inquiries about it.
'Some people interested in our service have been hesitant to book because they still have a problem with such services,' one of the students said.
They even offered a 7,466-yuan 'five-star' ceremony that includes two hosts and 18 male university students, all taller than 1.7 metres. They had not yet sold this package.
Four providers contacted by the South China Morning Post said they didn't offer crying services due to a lack of demand. One staff member at a Tianjin company that provides funeral services said they didn't offer crying as it distorted the formal service with superstitious elements.
A People's Daily website poll said that about 53 per cent of people opposed these types of services. One internet user said it was inappropriate to put a price on filial respect.
Professor Xia Xueluan, a sociologist at Peking University, said the marketing of emotions was not unusual in a highly commercialised society, but he derided such for-profit services, saying they are 'actually worse than a no-show'.
'Paying for crying in front of tombs is just a formality ... which carries no meaning,' he said.