Posted by Joel Martinsen on Friday, July 23, 2010 at 8:13 PM
"Dragonfly" Hu Xinglian, a professional wailer in Chonqging
A fascinating feature story in The Beijing News earlier this week took a look at the careers of professional wailers, performers paid to present the eulogy at a funeral and lament the deceased through anguished songs.
Cell Phone (手机), a TV drama that premiered earlier this year, featured a character named Lu Zhixin who worked as a wailer. Catering to the public’s curiosity about the profession, newspapers in Chongqing and Chengdu tracked down some local wailers. The report in The Beijing News pulls together the stories of several of those individuals to present an overview of the funeral performance industry.
The Joys and Sorrows of a Professional Mournerby Chen Ningyi / TBN
One can make a decent amount of money being a proxy mourner. The profession recently came to the attention of the public through the character Lu Zhixin, a professional wailer, in the popular TV adaptation of Cell Phone.
Wailers actually belong to an ancient profession that now keeps a low profile thanks to its singular characteristics. In Chongqing and Chengdu, wailers and their special bands have, over the course of more than a decade, developed into a professional, competitive market.
Studies show that wailers are predominantly laid-off workers. To support themselves, they rely on weeping and melancholy songs for their income. They and their bands believe that, like everyone else, they are engaging in a profession and performing a job.
Hu Xinglian’s hair is tied into pigtails pointing up in opposite directions.
Her stage name means “Dragonfly” in the Chongqing dialect (), and the two pigtails, which resemble dragonfly wings, are her trademark. She ties them up at every “performance.”
She is fifty-two years old, and she is a professional wailer.
Wailing is an ancient funeral custom. Texts show that dirges began to be used in ceremonies during the time of Emperor Wu of Han and became commonplace during the Northern and Southern Dynasties. Customs varied across ethnicities and regions. During the Cultural Revolution, wailing was viewed a pernicious feudal poison and went silent. In the reform era, it was revived in a number of areas.
All of this history is unknown to Hu. However, she does not dodge the nature of her profession. To her, wailing is a “performance,” and only a good performance will be recognized.
According to reports in the local media, Hu Xinglian () is known as one of the ten great wailers of Chongqing. She has been interviewed by Singapore TV and other media.
Today, Hu is not only a wailer. She is also a bandleader.
The band is unusual in that it mainly performs at weddings and funerals, and sometimes does commercial performances in between. They say that well-established bands in Chongqing have between four and ten members. Short-handed, and the singer also plays an instrument, but when they have the numbers, there will be members on keyboards, drums, a trumpet, and a saxophone.
The bands are organized relatively loosely. When there is a performance, they are called together. Things are similar with “actors.”
In Chongqing, people call funeral performances “singing the banban” (; banban is the colloquial name for open-air mourning halls in Chongqing), which lends the industry its name ( ). Hu Xinglian has been in the industry for fourteen years and has been a professional wailer for seven.
In her rough estimation, Chongqing has nearly 2,000 similar bands, and practically all of them have a wailer.
On the evening of July 7, a funeral is being held for an old man in a small neighborhood in the village of Baiyun in Jiangbei District, Chongqing. At around 7 pm, Hu Xinglian and her band arrive at the mourning hall.
Before the ceremony begins, she asks the family of the deceased about the situation. She must do this every time.
Hu arranges her pigtails and then beings putting on her makeup. She believes that makeup shows respect to the bereaved family.
She says that wailers usually put on some makeup and wear white mourning clothes. Some of them are more elaborate, with white stage costumes and “jeweled” headdresses.
At around 7:30, Hu calls the family of the deceased into the mourning hall and begins to read the eulogy.
There is a formula to the eulogy that is adapted to the particular circumstances of the deceased. Most of these say how hard-working and beloved the deceased was, and how much they loved their children.
Hu Xinglian (via City Life)
The eulogy requires a sorrowful tone and a rhythmic cadence. As Hu reads, she sometimes howls “dad” or “mom.” And then the bereaved begin to cry as they kneel before the coffin.
After the eulogy comes the wailing, a song sung in a crying voice to the accompaniment of mournful music. Hu says that the purpose of this part is mainly to create a melancholy atmosphere which will allow the family to release their sadness through tears.
Because of the special status of the deceased at this particular funeral, the family members have requested that the wailing portion be eliminated.
Hu says that more time is devoted to wailing in the countryside. In video recordings, Hu can be seen howling, weeping with her eyes covered, and at times crawling on the ground in front of the coffin in an display of sorrow. At some funerals, she crawls for several meters as she weeps.
This never fails to move the mourners. As she wails, the family of the deceased sob, and some of them weep uncontrollably.
After the wailing is done, the second part of the funeral performance begins. Hu says that a funeral performance is usually sad in the beginning and happy at the end. Once sorrow has been released through tears, then the bereaved can temporarily forget their sorrow through skits and songs.
This segment was once the domain of the suona, drum, and Sichuan opera, but now it has developed into songs, skits, and even magic acts.
In Hu’s experience, in the countryside the second segment often involves a major traditional opera, but this is seldom seen in the city.
On this occasion, at the family’s request, she has cancelled the skits and just has a few singers sing songs.
Shortly after this segment begins, family members begin to leave. Hu and her band sing a few songs and then end their performance: “If the bereaved think it’s important, we will too. If they don’t care, we won’t care either.”
Before the July 7 funeral begins, the family pays Hu Xinglian, who puts the money away and continues her preparations. Hu says that fees usually run between 200 and 800 RMB (US$30-118) per performance.
Tonight the fee is 200 RMB. Taking out 70 RMB for the agency leaves the six members of the band with 130 RMB.
The agency fee is given to the wreath shop. Hu explains that as the industry has grown, shops selling funeral products, which engage the families of the deceased directly, have become middlemen for the bands. And as bands have become more numerous, wreath shops have developed into one-stop providers of all funeral-related services. The band is just one link in the shop’s comprehensive service chain.
Most of Hu’s business these days comes from the wreath shop.
In addition to the fee they charge for their performance, wailers receive gratuities. In Chongqing, once the wailing ceremony has concluded, the bereaved will pick up the wailer and hand over a bouquet that contains some money. In Chengdu, they put small red envelopes beside the wailer as the wailing is in progress.
Hu says that tips vary widely, from a few yuan to several hundred.
Zhu Yili, a digital video enthusiast in Chongqing who spent nearly three years shooting the documentary Professional Wailers (), explained that most wailers make around seven or eight hundred RMB a month.
When the funeral performance concludes on the evening of July 7, it is time for the spectators to request songs. Hu changes into a floral dress and sings and dances with the performers on stage, to occasional cheers from the audience.
This segment is a money-maker for the band: it costs 20 RMB to request a song.
In Chongqing, bands reportedly rely on requests for most of their income. Bands in Chengdu rely more on performance fees. According to Zhang Jian (张建), who started a band in Shuangliu County, Chengdu, a performance costs a few thousand RMB, and depending on the band’s skill and reputation, it could top 10,000.
Zhang and his wife Jin Guorong (金国荣) started the band together. His wife is the wailer, known in the Chendgu dialect as the chuichuir (). He says they make around 2,000 RMB a month.
That evening, Hu Xinglian’s band makes 700 RMB on song requests. Every member gets 110 RMB, and after expenses, she is left with 130.
It is already late when Hu Xinglian returns home. She collapses on the sofa and lies there motionless.
She says that the performance is draining to both mind and body. When she wails, she says, “My hands and feed twitch, my heart aches, and my eyes go dim.” Wailing has more lasting effects, too: Hu says that her hands have gone numb from time to time over the past year.
However, she is used to this sort of performance. According to her own count, she has wailed for more than 4,000 people. She no longer sheds tears when she wails, but lets her voice and expression do the work instead.
Typically, wailers will bring to mind their own experiences to make themselves cry. Professional wailer Jin Guorong says that the first time she performed she was scared of not being able to cry, but when she thought of how she was in the profession despite being afraid of dead people, and how difficult it had been to go into business for herself, she wept hysterically.
Hu Xinglian gathers her emotions together before she wails to look for something in the deceased’s story that resonates with her and connects to details of her own life. When she can’t cry, she will adopt a sobbing tone in her voice.
Hu says that for a wailer, sobbing, covering the face, and kneeling on the ground are all techniques to increase the effect of the performance.
She discovered this set of techniques after she entered the industry.
She used to be a shop assistant at a department store. She divorced in 1995 and had to take care of her college-aged son and her ailing parents. Her monthly income was less than 300 yuan. She worked as a sales clerk during the day, and at night she waited tables at a restaurant.
“I was usually pretty active, and I liked singing and dancing.” Hu says that on one occasion, a colleague had her sing at a funeral. She sang three songs and made 20 RMB.
That 20 RMB aroused her interest. She said to the band leader, “If you think I’ll work out, get in touch.” Then she began a second job as a singer.
She recalls that she was terrified the first time she performed. That night, her head was filled with mournful music and she did not sleep a wink. She had never attended a funeral before.
Zhu Yili explains that most of the people in this profession are laid-off workers.
Comparatively, the way that Zhang Jian and Jin Guorong got into the industry in Shuangliu Country, Chengdu, is a little more unusual.
In 1997, when their father died, they asked a band to perform. The MC rubbed his feet as he did the eulogy, something Zhang found intolerable. A band member told him that a performance could bring in 500 RMB, after expenses. Zhang and his wife had monthly salaries of just 200 RMB each, which they were not issued from time to time.
They decided to start a band of their own. At the time, the local Sichuan opera troupe had disbanded and the actors were selling breakfast or shining shoes on the street. Zhang found a few of them to join their band.
In Chongqing, Hu Xinglian was laid off in 2003, at which point she entered the funeral performance industry full-time as a professional wailer. “I had no other choice. It was the only thing I could do.”
Hu Xinglian has special wailer’s clothes of her own design. For the past few years, her costume has changed significantly.
She says that she has tried many new things since she started wailing. She has designed wailing clothing that copies costumes from TV dramas, and has created wailing songs by adding her own words to excerpts from traditional operas.
She hopes that people will remember her, and hopes that more people will request her.
Her first performance, in 2003, left a lasting impression. “I added some extra moves, like kneeling down.” The bereaved family was touched, and for her first performance, Hu received a tip of 50 RMB.
Bands also remember her: “That gets more of them to request me to perform.”
Many wailers refuse to sing “Weeping for Dad” (哭爹), even if the family offers them a thousand RMB or more, because that song is sung with the wailer taking the deceased as a father. Hu sings it. She says that she does not mind the stigma: “If it’s shameful, then why are you hiring us to do it?”
“Wailing is one item on the program of the entire performance. Since the band has accepted the money, we will work conscientiously, whether or not there’s a tip given.” Hu feels that wailers ought to respect the work they do.
Peng Ying (), a 31-year-old Chengdu woman who has been in the business for more than a decade, said that wailing ought to be filled with emotion. She feels that some young practitioners do not respect the profession but are only there to complete a task and make money.
Peng entered the funeral performance field at the age of fifteen. Her family was not well-off, so when she graduated from junior high, her parents sent her to study the profession as an apprentice.
Jin Guorong and her band perform at a funeral
Today, most wailers do not accept apprentices, because each apprentice represents an additional competitor. Jin Guorong says that theirs is not a stable line of work.
She says that to cut down on costs, bands ask wailers to sing and to act in skits in addition to wailing.
Peng says that wailers have to have multiple skills in order to make money. Otherwise, they cannot support themselves.
Roles have to be changed quickly. Weeping is necessary during the wailing portion, but afterward they have to pull themselves together and enter another mode of performance, which might be a comic skit. “From tears to laughter, just like face-changing in a Sichuan opera.”
The bands do funerals in the evenings, but during the day they sometimes take on weddings. Most of them do their best not to let people know that they are wailers.
Hu says that because of the transitions between such high-intensity work, wailers are liable to make mistakes. For example, if the line “Would the new couple please enter the mourning hall” is let slip at a wedding, that mistake would mean the forfeiture of the fee, and a beating as well.
She has made similar mistakes, but has ultimately been able to force the sorrowful words to become joyful words, “muddling through by acting ignorant.”
Apart from wailing, Hu has also learned a number of other parts in the band. She has been a singer, MC, skit actor, and has even occasionally filled in as the drummer.
After she achieved fame in the industry, people came to ask for her specifically. She says that Shanxi Province is the farthest she has been hired to wail. Four Mercedes came to pick her up.
For many years, Hu Xinglian lived alone with only a pet dog as company.
She says that the hardest thing was the loneliness after going home. All she wanted to do every day was to tire herself out so that by the time she came home she would fall asleep immediately.
She felt she owed a debt to her son and strove to make money in an attempt to make it up to him on a financial level. He now runs a performing arts company and she is able to provide some financial assistance.
She has been divorced for fifteen or sixteen years. She remarried once, but her son fought with that man so she divorced again.
Zhu Yili says that when he was filming his documentary, he found that Hu Xinglian’s neighbors had practically no interaction with her at all. Hu used to live in an old home with a courtyard, and colleagues and acquaintances lived in the surrounding area. But no one had any interaction with her.
Hu says that she frequently sees people looking at her strangely, with “an expression that follows you from afar. Even though they don’t say anything, you can still feel it.”
In 2006, a television station invited her to appear on a chat show. A guest said that she was making money off the dead, that she had abandoned her integrity for cash, and that she was disseminating feudal customs.
She was extremely embarrassed at the time, and does not like to remember it.
Zhang Jian and Jin Guorong say that in their industry, resentment is hard to avoid. When they get together, friends who come over to greet them will frequently find some excuse to leave immediately. “I know that they don’t want to sit near us.”
Reportedly, women make up the majority of wailers, and their husbands are usually in the same profession. Peng Ying says, “Few people find an outsider. This way, work is more convenient, and it minimizes some of the hassles.”
“People look down on us, but we don’t look down on ourselves,” says Jin Guorong. “When we perform, we call each other by respectful titles. For example, the MC will say, ‘Let’s invite Teacher so-and-so to perform the next item on the program’.”
There is mutual support among people in the profession. In 2002, the funeral performance industry in Chongqing held a gathering of more than a hundred musicians to commemorate a saxophonist who died in a car crash. Many of the people who came did not know the deceased. Most of the musicians were laid-off workers.
However, Hu Xinglian feels that so long as the bereaved approve, and so long as she can make money to support her family, she figures she is a success. “Nothing else matters.”
Hu Xinglian’s mother, who has coronary disease, has depended upon her for support for many years. Her mother says that Hu’s work is not easy. When she goes out, people sometimes praise Hu’s singing, and she feels proud.
Hu and her son are not on particularly good terms. She feels he does not understand her or respect her. She complains that he never comes to see her. She worries that there will be no one to look after her when she gets old.
Her son is a little offended. He says that he does in fact understand the difficulty of his mother’s job. He thinks she has a poor temper, and perhaps she has seen too many disrespectful children during her long time in that line of work, something that has led to her worries.
Jin Guorong, the professional wailer from Chengdu, does not have those worries. She says that her fifteen-year-old daughter understands her. When she wails, her daughter cries alongside her if she is present, and she knows that her mother does not have it easy.
In 2008, Hu Xinglian bought a 90 square meter apartment and had her mother move in with her.
Zhu Yili says that Hu is one of the top wailers, and that her fame and media attention (she cuts out clippings and adds them to the first page of her program listing as promotional material) sometimes can bring her 10,000 RMB a month.
But Hu says that her income is less than that, just 5,000-6,000 RMB. She says that she cannot afford old-age insurance and cannot meet medical insurance payments.
Hu worries about the future. She thinks that the market is becoming more and more difficult to navigate.
The funeral performance industry reportedly started to take off in Chongqing and Sichuan around 1995. In 1992, the city of Chongqing imposed a ban on fireworks, which left funerals lacking an important “ceremonial feel” and led indirectly to the rise of funeral performances. According to Chongqing media, the industry had nearly 100,000 practitioners at its height.
By 2002, Chongqing issued the Regulations on Management of Funeral Services, which did not permit bands to perform within the urban area. Urban funerals could be held in funeral halls (, or “Halls of Comfort”) that were set up in each administrative district.
Hu says that this had a huge effect on the profession and led to the breakup of many bands. Subsequently, the industry was pushed to the margins, at the edge of the city or in rural towns and villages. In 2004, Hu considered partnering with a funeral hall, so she took the documentary and relevant media reports with her to offer her services. She would have to put up a 120,000 deposit, which she was unable to, “so I had to give up.”
Hu says that she once did 30 performances a month, but now does only 20.
She and Jin Guorong both face pressure from a contracting market that is receiving a continued influx of able new singers and dancers.
They both say that they have thought about switching professions, but they do not know what else they can do apart from carrying on.
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Pallavi Aiyar's Chinese Whiskers: Pallavi Aiyar's first novel, Chinese Whiskers, a modern fable set in contemporary Beijing, will be published in January 2011. Aiyar currently lives in Brussels where she writes about Europe for the Business Standard. Below she gives permissions for an excerpt.
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