By Wenyan Lu, published May 2023 by Atlantic Books.
Great-Great-Grandma was dead.
The whole village was touched by an eerie atmosphere, almost a strange relief. It seemed everyone had been secretly waiting for this moment to come.
She was Great-Great-Grandma to everyone in the village. I didn’t know how old she was at the time; we just knew she was alive. I felt a moment of surreptitious excitement and a shameful buzz in my chest since I would earn some money from her timely death.
A young woman in a white linen gown approached me in the cramped kitchen. She was also wearing a white cloth hood. If she walked on the street like this, she would frighten little children to tears.
She read Great-Great-Grandma’s obituary to me while I dabbed powder on my cheeks. Several village chefs and their helpers were preparing food amid much shouting and chopping. I could hardly move. I was surrounded by stacks of large cardboard boxes with ‘FRAGILE: PORCELAIN’ printed on them in thick black letters.
The young woman didn’t look happy, but she didn’t seem too sad either. Then again, I could be wrong. What you saw was not always what was there.
‘Will you really be able to remember her obituary?’ she asked me.
‘I’m just worried. If you make any mistakes, my uncle will be mad at me.’
‘You don’t need to worry. I promise everyone will cry. Trust me.’
‘Let me read it once again. Just to make sure,’ she said. I nodded and she began.
‘Dear Great-Great-Grandma lived an extraordinary life of 106 years. She selflessly devoted herself to the continuity and prosperity of her family. She suffered various hardships during her exceptionally long and enduring life and she did many remarkable things. She had twenty-five grandchildren, sixty-two great-grandchildren and sixteen great- great-grandchildren. More than thirty of her descendants live abroad. She will be remembered dearly by her family and her village. She lived the longest on record in our county, so we shall feel tremendously proud of her. Her heartbreak was that seven of her grandchildren predeceased her. Let us cry for her and keep hope in our hearts for ourselves.’
I took a brief look at myself in the mirror. My face was pale, my eyebrows were painted long and my lips bright red: the perfect image for a traditional funeral cryer. There were several black and red make-up stains on my white gown, but nobody would notice them in their distress. The young woman had helped me to tie the big black cotton bow on the side of my gown. My bun was neat. I tugged some strands of loose hair along my temples and ears to cover my wrinkles. Finally, I pinned a white fabric flower carefully onto my hair.
The young woman handed me a small tea cup. ‘Your hair looks nice,’ she commented.
‘We’ve got a good barber in the village.’ I felt my bun.
‘Your belt is nice. Look at mine.’ Hers was a linen rope, a symbol of bereavement.
‘It doesn’t matter what it looks like. You have to wear it.’
‘You’re right. By the way, you need to eat something. Some rice biscuits?’
‘Thank you. I’ll keep some for the husband. He likes them.’
‘I’ll ask them to pack a box for you. Now, shall we rehearse a bit more? It’s not easy to get all those numbers right.’
‘Twenty-five grandchildren, but seven dead, sixty-two great-grandchildren and sixteen great-great-grandchildren.’
‘And don’t forget: she lived for 106 years.’
The courtyard was spacious but neglected, with weeds growing in the gaps between the chipped stone slabs. The guests were mostly sitting on small stools and benches. Some people were chatting, some were staring at their phones, and some were cracking sunflower seeds between their teeth. There was no sorrow or grief in the air just yet. Most people’s expressions were indifferent. When a relative or friend has lived so long, after their death there is often a sense of detachment amongst the funeral goers.
A suona sounded: the musical instrument of choice for countryside funerals in Northeast China, similar to a trumpet. High-pitched, squeaky and very noisy, like a wolf howling in a gale. It stopped after a minute or so. A tape of slow, heavy music began to play. The crowd fell silent as the coffin was carried into the courtyard from the back gate. It was a redwood coffin with patterns carved onto the lid, wrapped in white silk ribbons.
I watched as the pallbearers slowly lowered the coffin onto a makeshift stage, in the middle of a display of wreaths and baskets of flowers. The stage was a sea of colour.
As soon as the music faded and the pallbearers had retreated, I skipped up onto the stage waving my wide, flared sleeves high into the air. I knelt down in front of the coffin. This was my favourite part of the funeral crying. I felt like a beautiful actress on the stage.
All was silent.
I threw myself onto the ground and began to wail.
‘Oh, Great-Great-Grandma, have you really left us? Have you? The sky is murky and the earth is dark because of your absence. How can you bear to leave us behind? You had a turbulent life in the old society when you were young, but you never complained. In our new socialist society, you recovered from adversity thanks to the party, and you followed Chairman Mao’s appeal to produce as many children as possible for our motherland, seven altogether. Although you were not granted the official title of Heroic Mother by Chairman Mao, what you achieved in increasing the population of a new China was glorious. You are survived by two daughters, eighteen grandchildren and sixty-two great-grandchildren and sixteen great-great-grandchildren. What a feat. Who could ever wish for more in this life?’
I paused. No one was crying.
I took a deep breath, leaned forward and slapped the floor with both palms.
I repeated, ‘Oh, Great-Great-Grandma, have you really left us? Have you? The sky is murky and the earth is dark because of your absence. How can you bear to leave us behind? How?’
I rubbed my eyes. ‘Great-Great-Grandma, are you looking down at us from Heaven? Do you know how much we miss you? How bereft we are? We will remember you dearly. We will remember everything you did for your family and for your country. We are glad you are reunited with Great Great Grandpa in Heaven now. We couldn’t bear to think of you being alone.’
Some of the mourners started to rub their eyes. I slowed down.
‘Great-Great-Grandma, we hope you can see our tears.’
Nearly everyone was crying by now, and I felt pleased and relieved. I deserved the money I was going to be paid.
‘But life must go on. Great-Great-Grandma would now like to see us smile. We can’t be happy for a long, long time, and she knows that. It is true we are mourning her farewell, but we are also celebrating her rare longevity. She brought prosperity and pride to her relatives and to our village. Her family has arranged a banquet to show her the highest respect. We can share stories of our beloved Great-Great-Grandma. By the way, don’t forget to collect your longevity china bowl before you begin eating.’
While everyone was still sniffing, I announced that I would sing some joyful songs to lighten the atmosphere. I didn’t feel comfortable singing joyful songs at funerals, but it was the custom. The farewell belonged to the past. Life had to go on with joy and hope.
After a loud round of applause, I moved swiftly but quietly to the back of the courtyard, from where I could see attendants placing food on large trestle tables.
The aroma of the hot food filled the air. There were no signs of sadness on people’s faces any more. They started staring at the dishes and picking at food with their chopsticks. My stomach rumbled.
I looked around for any familiar faces. The village barber caught my eye. I would tell him people thought my hair was nice when I visited him next time.
The feast after the funeral was called a tofu banquet. The funeral dinner used to be a vegetarian meal with tofu as the main ingredient. Hard or soft, fried, boiled or steamed tofu, made from nutritious soya beans, showed respect for both the dead and the living. In recent years, more and more meat and fish has been added to the funeral meal, but the banquet wouldn’t be complete without tofu. After all, it’s white, the colour of death.
I wouldn’t stay for the tofu banquet, but I would be given some food to take away. Nobody would mind if I stayed, and I would stay if I had known the dead person well. Great-Great-Grandma was much older than me, so I had never had a chance to get to know her properly. I had been fond of her, but she had probably never noticed me.
The young woman handed me a white envelope while people were queuing up for their china bowls. I could feel the stack of cash inside the envelope was thick. Thick enough.
The husband would be pleased.