Atlas Obscura is organizing trips! Join us on an adventure »
Today Only: 50% off Atlas Obscura books and calendars at Barnes & Noble »

Fleeting Wonders: Police Thwart A Chinese Ghost Wedding

A Chinese tomb guardian.

A Chinese tomb guardian. (Photo: Fordmadoxfraud/WikiCommons CC BY-SA 3.0)

Three people in China’s Shanxi province were recently arrested for attempting to dig up a young female corpse, iCrossChina reports. Why did they want a young female corpse? To make up the bridal half of a ghost marriage, of course.

Ghost marriages are a Chinese custom designed to allow families to maintain the patrilineal order and maximize their ties to each other, even through tragedy. In their most basic form, they involve digging up a dead, unmarried woman, holding a ceremony, and reburying her next to her new husband (also dead). 

This has been against the law since 1959, and many have found ways to practice the tradition within legal bounds—using a “flour bride,” for example, which is wheat paste molded to look like a woman and decked out in wedding makeup. But others find there’s no substitute for the real thing, so there remains an underground market for corpses that, in life, were young, unmarried females. Sometimes parents will sell the bodies of their deceased daughters to other families seeking a match for their deceased sons.

In this particular case, the suspects attempted to marry off a corpse that was not theirs to hustle. When the alleged ringleader, a 72-year-old man named Hou, heard of the death of a young woman in a nearby province, he and his accomplices posed as the women’s relatives and negotiated with a buyer. After settling on a sale price of 25,000 yuan (about $3,900), they tried to raid the tomb on Saturday night, but were interrupted by locals and detained by police. 

The Tomb of Emperor Qin Shi Huang, a safe place to be buried in Shaanxi Province.

The Tomb of Emperor Qin Shi Huang, a safe place to be buried in Shaanxi Province. (Photo: Bill Tyne/Flickr)

According to the Guardian, the unmarried-female-corpse black market is booming around Shaanxi and Shanxi provinces thanks to an influx of coal money, which has left “a newly wealthy but superstitious demographic suddenly… able to afford high prices for desirable postmortem mates.” In 2013, four men were sent to jail after they exhumed 10 Shaanxi-area corpses, cleaned them up, doctored their medical records “to boost their prices,” and sold them to the families of dead bachelors. In 2012, one dead woman was sold twice—once by her family, and shortly afterwards by a graverobber. Men have also murdered women for this purpose.

As Atlas Obscura reported earlier this year:

“According to Chinese custom, older sons ought to marry before their younger brothers. If an older brother should die unmarried at a young age, however, there is a solution that keeps the social order intact: ghost marriage. In China, and among the Chinese in Taiwan and Singapore, ghost marriages are performed to address a variety of social and spiritual ills. Chief among these are the desire to placate the restless spirits of those who go to their grave unmarried.”

As for the restless spirits of those whose eternal sleep is interrupted by shovel-wielding thieves—everyone knows they’re more likely to show up in horror stories than rom-coms.

Every day, we track down a fleeting wonder—something amazing that’s only happening right now. Have a tip for us? Tell us about it! Send your temporary miracles to edit@atlasobscura.com.