Henry James and Chinese Ghost Marriages

Posted by Aspasia Stephanou on April 15, 2011 in Blog tagged with ,

Recently, I became aware of the ancient tradition of Chinese ghost marriages, where dead boys or girls are married to other dead or real living people. In an article in The Standard newspaper 7 July 2007 entitled “The Return of the Corpse Bride”, Steven Riber reports about “[t]he disturbing revival of an ancient tradition of marrying off dead bachelors”. He explains that,

A less well-known practice happens when a son dies unmarried. His parents will sometimes procure the body of a dead woman – preferably recently deceased – to be his wife in the next life. A “marriage” ceremony is then held for the two corpses and the “bride” is placed in the same grave as her “husband.”(The Standard, China’s Business Newspaper).

Although  Communist China tried to ban the  old superstition there has been a revival of this practice after 1970 and is still, although rarely,  practiced today. However such a revival is not without economic benefits. As Ribet notes,

The resurgent custom has spawned underground exchanges. Networks of middlemen now make a livelihood acting as go-betweens; between bereaved parents at one end of the supply chain, and funeral parlors, mortuaries or body snatchers at the other. A dead woman’s value on the new market depends on her state of decay and the presence of any injuries. Physical beauty is also important, as well as her age and passing and the manner of her death. On March 7, the Shaanxi newspaper Huashang Bao reported that demand for corpse brides from neighboring Shanxi was pushing up prices. A top quality piece of “wet” (eg newly dead) merchandise that sold for a several thousand yuan a few years ago, it said, was now going for as much as 30,00040,000 yuan (HK$30,800-$41,000).

Henry James’s short story “Maud-Evelyn” (1900) reminds me a lot of the Chinese ghost marriages. The parents of the dead Maud Evelyn, the Dedricks, desire to marry their dead daughter with Marmaduke, a bachelor who falls in love with the dead daughter. In the story and in Chinese ghost marriages the spirit and memory of the dead girl is preserved and cherished by being married to a man. In the story, memory is vampiric, a consuming and draining force that leads the young Marmaduke and the Dedricks to their demise. Mr and Mrs Dedrick live for their dead daughter Maud-Evelyn and welcome Marmaduke in their company initiating him to their daughter’s past and infecting him with memories of her. The parents demonstrate “extraordinary fidelity” towards the memory of their daughter, a memory which has become a “real religion” (chapter 4). They want their dead daughter to have everything and that includes an engagement with Marmaduke. After satisfying and fulfilling the parents’ desire for marrying Marmaduke with their daughter and after “Maud-Evelyn had all her young happiness”, the parents and Marmaduke finally can mourn for the already dead Maud-Evelyn. It is after this that Mrs Dedrick appears to be “failing, steadily weakening”. Mrs Dedrick and her husband die and with the loss of the “family” Marmaduke wastes away and dies. The story conjures up ideas of love after death, immortality of memory and the power of the mind over the body. Memory is vampiric and remembering equates to blood. By not forgetting, Marmaduke and the parents give their life to feed a dead past. Displacing blood for remembering the past, the story creates a family based on absence and in Marmaduke’s case, imaginary loss. Only when they fulfil their obsession and only when the vampiric memory of Maud-Evelyn has been finally fed, can the family die. Wasting away, the body has given life to a vampire memory.  This absence of  the real living Maud Evelyn and necrophilic desire for the other keeps the family alive and consumes the subjects when it is finally fulfilled. It is possible that Henry James heard of this ancient Chinese tradition which dates from the Zhou dynasty (1122-256BC). But sometimes reality is stranger than fiction…

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