Xizhou, Dali : A Parade of Funeral Mourners

Dali Travel Blog

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Bright colours. Sad times. The procession of a Chinese Muslim fineral is about to begin.

Apparently it’s Monday.  Boy I can’t remember the last time I woke up and knew for sure what day of the week it was.  I didn’t today.  But apparently it’s Monday.  I’m told.  Apparently I’m in Dali.  Although there was some haziness; some uncertainty on this particular point for a minute or three this morning too when I awake and realise my night bus had reached its terminus some while ago.

After a Lonely Planet wild goose chase for cheap guesthouses that have either since been knocked down or elevated their prices to the stratosphere I gratefully dump my bags in the Friends Guesthouse.  I have met Anna.  A vivacious, smart, well travelled Danish girl who speaks perfect English with an American accent.

Waiting to commence. Women kneel, keen & wail.
  Apparently it’s Monday.  This means there’s the grand weekly market at the little village of Shangguan that sits on the far north westerly shore of Lake Erhai.  The very sizeable body of water that both the ’New’ and ’Old’ cities of Dali rest beside, fringed by mountains visible in all directions. 

We catch the local bus to Shangguan ( 7RMB/ $1) but unfortunately there’s a drizzle and rain this morning which keeps the needy traders hunched under canvas and tarpaulins and kills off any charm or enjoyment that would otherwise have been derived from this market scene.  We get back on a bus to the much touted ’Ancient’ town of Xizhou that rests between Dali and Shangguan.

Yes, the ’Ancient’ town of Xizhou.

  Probably my first experience of what will become a common observational theme; a common experience in China.  That of the ’Ancient’.  The new ’ancient’.  The ‘ancient’ as modern.  One of probably many well-meaning but arguably failed or misfired attempts to recapture the essence of the architectural, the traditional ’authentic’ China of centuries and Millennia past.  Re-crafted and recreated rather lazily for the vast milieu of the expanding nouveau riche populace of this nation’s well-moneyed indigenous tourists.  Breeze blocks, granite and concrete.  I guess some of them have never known any different.  And some of them sad to say, and possibly against their will (or not)  partook in the cultural self-disembowelment of Mao’s ’Cultural Revolution’ in the ’60s, the reason why so relatively little of China’s ancient heritage still stands today.
'Sorrow under Shroud'

The main heart of the principle Xizhou sprawl (of three town settlements separated by bands of agricultural farming and cropping lands as you head the several kilometres to the lake side) has large, expensive looking plastic and laminate promotional signs and banners proclaiming the upcoming beauties of ’Ancient Xizhou’.  Still under construction.  Airbrushed or Photo Shopped images of what the finished article will look like when fully, finally rendered in painted concrete and neon street lights.  Like those shopping mall/ hotel investor prospector illustrations around construction sites in urban centres.  “Coming to a neighbourhood near you soon oh tourists!”.     

Okay it’s not quite that bad.

Prayer? Incantation? Koranic verse?
  I’m being a little harsh.  But nevertheless.  Anna and I though experience quite an incredible moment of the real life, the heart pulse of the community of Xizhou today.  As we enter onto one of the towns main streets a long line of people are making some preparations.  Women to one side of a crowd.  Men to the other.  A second group of women clutch the four corners of a large number of bright carpets and raise them from the street floor.  It’s difficult for Anna and I to decipher what we are witnessing initially.  There is chatter and noise… and wailing.  As our ears and eyes focus harder, our cameras begin to grow a little shy; a little bashful as the sounds of sadness begin to assert themselves from within the group.
  Anna’s got the situation clocked.  We have arrived at the beginning of a funeral.  A Chinese Muslim funeral procession. 

The men stoop to gather up the coffin.  It is crafted of wood, tapering and conical and painted a bright red.  Looking like the chassis of certain 1920s race cars.  The coffin is put on a platform then covered with a decorated metal canopy housing and lifted on to the shoulders of eight or so pallbearers.  Wooden yokes rest on straining shoulders.  An eruption of noise.  Gun fire?  No, many tens of tens of loud Chinese fire crackers set off at the head of the procession that now begins.  Long ribbons of cotton sheeting, twisted into a rope splay out from the front of the coffin-housing and are clutched by male friends and family who walk ahead of the deceased.

The coffin housing is carried through the streets.
  Behind, the female relations and friends follow, a trail of tears and keening and wailing in the wake of their beloved’s final earthly journey through the streets of Xizhou.  Their heads covered almost entirely with white muslin shawls tied about them.  Respectful and to conceal their suffering and sadness.

Every few hundred yards the coffin housing is set down on wooden supports.  Everyone stops.  The women, one lady in particular ( the mother? The wife?  We cannot tell.) , howl the name of the deceased until their vocal chords must be nearly wrenched asunder.  “Amaaaaaaaar!”.  “Amaaaaaaaaaaaaar!”.  “AMAAAAAR!”.  Selected people from the procession at these points of rest read from parchment scrolls.

  Incantations?  Prayers?  Koranic verse?  Other people hurry around.  Locals who watch from the street sides and their shop fronts offer up drinks (beer/ orange juice/ tea) to all comers, and silver trays of snacks, delicacies and sweets.  “Thank you very much!“.  Bubble gum amongst other things?!  Any manner of offerings of kindness. 

To bring you into the picture too, Anna and I have long been accepted into the funeral procession at this point.  At first curious outsiders.  Observers.  The men particularly have drawn us along, made it clear we are in no way ‘invading’ or violating a private moment with our presence.  Even with our photography which they positively encourage.

  Seriously!  They call me forward to take close up photos of the coffin of their lost friend (but I decline, too bashful) and offer us free reign to record, what for us is such a unique moment.  This is why there are photos for this entry that I would never normally deem to have taken, and I offer this as an explication of the, at first, seemingly impolite and too intimate nature of a few of these photos.

A great roar of fire crackers lifts to the sky again.  Anna and I jump at the noise.  They are fired to chase away; to keep evil spirits back from the coffin of the deceased.  This now is lifted once more onto the shoulders of men and further carried through the streets.  The nearby, uniquely heart-rending noise of feminine sorrow accompanies me through the passage of alleys as I walk besides the parade of funeral mourners.

  At the periodic pauses cigarettes from boxes and trays are passed around and smoked with great liberality.  Part of the ceremony?  A great smoke screen also to prevent the advance of evil and malice?  Either way these are offered to; essentially forced with great smiles and generosity upon me.  There’s nothing I can say or motion to affect non-acceptance of these gifts.  They wish me to partake.  I can’t smoke though.  So I soon end up with on fag behind my right ear, one (lit) behind my left ear and another tucked up my sleeve.  I am so moved by their acceptance; their drawing of us into their private moment that I feel near-compelled to smoke to please them.  To honour their kindness and the deceased.
The guy who helps carry the coffin and then foists sweets, drinks and cigarettes on Anna and I every 5 mins or so.
  But I can’t.  I can’t help it.  After a life time of never having touched a cigarette to my lips I have to ‘fess up; I’m a hopeless case.  I’m addicted to not smoking. 

Also I am implored, laughingly, unbelievably to become one of the pallbearers and to help carry the coffin through the streets.  An honour too far though.  And one I am understandably nervous about.  At an average six inches shoulder height shorter than the rest of the bearers my capacity to upset the coffin housing and its sanctified cargo into the streets is far too great for me to risk.  That’s one anecdote I do not wish to collect to relate here on the pages of TB.

At the eventual end of the funeral.  The brightly coloured carpets whose purpose - as with so much else - remains unclear to Anna and I are rolled away.

  The women disentangle themselves from their white muslin head wraps and start to head back into town.  The men, bearing the coffin carry on, disappear to the west of the town.  Presumably to a burial ground.

Wow.  Quite a moment.  Quite something to witness.  And to become a part of.  On the one hand Anna and I can’t believe our luck.  But then our private thoughts draw back, because Luck and Death are not to be associated of course.  Still.  Something so far removed from our own western European experiences of grieving, loss and funerary ritual and ceremony has been witnessed.  Colour and noise and fanfare.  Jocularity and good humour and generosity from the men.  A celebration accompanied by the intense hum of sorrow; punctuated by great wailing displays of the very real pain of open spiritual and emotional wounds inflicted by loss.

Funerary carpets are put away for another time.
  Wounds on public display.

Things back home, for the most part are so much more restrained.  Suffering in silence.  Suffering with a stiff upper lip.  No pomp and little ceremony in modern England today.  A small, mostly silent gathering of friends and family.  Quiet contemplation laced with stifled sobs and sniffs.  A room.  A coffin.  A curtain.  Some flowers.  Some music.  Do we have faith?  Or do we not?  And does it matter anymore.  A Prayer or two for those who need.  A son reads a well-meaning, pretentious eulogy for the deceased.  A sister a heartfelt poem.  A mother sits and sobs, though stoic as ever, and wonders how she managed to outlive both a son and a daughter-in-law.

  A daughter stands, in a dress of great light and airiness to elevate our spirits and remind us in her radiance of what beauty has been crafted and remains, and shines on into the future.  These things are all far away now.

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Bright colours.  Sad times.  The p…
Bright colours. Sad times. The …
Waiting to commence.  Women kneel,…
Waiting to commence. Women kneel…
Sorrow under Shroud
'Sorrow under Shroud'
Prayer?  Incantation?  Koranic ver…
Prayer? Incantation? Koranic ve…
The coffin housing is carried thro…
The coffin housing is carried thr…
The guy who helps carry the coffin…
The guy who helps carry the coffi…
Funerary carpets are put away for …
Funerary carpets are put away for…
Farmer in the crop fields of Xizho…
Farmer in the crop fields of Xizh…
Xizhou farmer cuts his crops.
Xizhou farmer cuts his crops.
A street in the much less populate…
A street in the much less populat…
Mother and Child in Ruins.
Mother and Child in Ruins.
The shore of lake Erhai.
The shore of lake Erhai.
Mary Poppins of the Rice Paddies…
'Mary Poppins of the Rice Paddies…
The Three Pagodas seen from afar.
The 'Three Pagodas' seen from afar.
The main of the Three Pagodas, a…
The main of the 'Three Pagodas', …
West Gate wall of Old Town of Dali.
West Gate wall of Old Town of Dali.
The South Gate of Dali, Old Town b…
The South Gate of Dali, Old Town …
photo by: Stevie_Wes