Funeral in Yangshuo

It’s seven o’clock in the morning. Yangshuo wakes up. Darkness is first replaced by a homogenous gray light, and then the edge of the house opposite begins to show color. From my third floor room I see the colorful light descending down the wall of the house. I also go down, we arrive together to the street. By the time I get to the breakfast place, the whole unpopulated street is flooded with brilliant morning sunshine. In the Uyghur eating-house they just lit a fire in the stove, they prepare the first soup for me.

The port of Yangshuo in the morning

The rhythm of Yangshuo is determined by the big cruisers coming down from Guilin every day among the beautiful karst mountains along the Pearl River. They moor around 2 p.m., releasing hundreds of tourists on the wharf, and the residents of the town have to earn their bread from two until midnight as street vendors, hotel managers or restaurant owners. But the morning is entirely theirs. Tourists are still asleep after Zhang Yimou’s midnight mega-show, or they have already gone back by bus to Guilin the previous evening. This is the time to spend on their own businesses, sweep the street, sit out in front of shops for a chat, arrange goods on the shelves. And hold funerals.

I’m still sitting in the Uyghur restaurant when distant, loud Chinese music sounds in the street. First it seems like the usual melody used by Chinese trash and watering cars: the former to warn you to bring your trash down, the latter to keep away from the sprinklers. But then a rickshaw passes the restaurant with a colorful wreath on the back, and those sitting in it are scattering with both hands the yellow papers, the money of the dead.

After the car, at a reasonable distance, comes the funeral march. First come close relatives in white turbans and white mourning clothes, bearing the image of the deceased. Ater them, the pallbearers. Eight or ten of them are carrying a wooden mechanism, whose structure was apparently devised centuries ago, and it was devised well, because it has not changed since then. The pallbearers’ faces are similarly archaic. When you browse Chinese photo albums from before the great wars, the closeness and strangeness of the faces, their closure in the local culture is very striking. The vicissitudes of the twentieth century loosened the Chinese faces up a great deal, just as on the faces of every other archaic culture. But here, in Yangshuo, in the morning in a tourist town without tourists, on the faces of these pallbearers, the faces of the photographs of a hundred years ago, still intact from European culture, emerge from unknown nooks of the city.

A wreathed white stork emerges from the top of the coffin, wrapped in colored paper, to the sky, as if the soul of the dead has slipped off the ground. I recall, from a whole other culture, the verses of Bulat Okudzhava written on Vladimir Vysotsky’s death:

Белый аист московский на белое небо взлетел,
черный аист московский на черную землю спустился
A white stork of Moscow flew up to the white sky
a black stork of Moscow descended to the black earth.

The march is trailed by three musicians, two men with suona, the Chinese clarinet, and a woman with two drums. They provide the sharp, monotonous mourning melody permeating the whole street, to the rhythm of which the march is advancing to the riverside, and the rickshaw before them spilling the money of the dead. At times, a red petard is blown up before the rickshaw, its smoke covers the march for a few minutes from the people standing in front of the shops and watching them. All are local faces, no foreigners. In the morning, the city lives its own life, and says good-bye to its own dead.

I follow the march, as they pass along the riverfront, across the large covered gallery next to the port, through which in the afternoon you cannot  pass for the crowd of sellers and buyers, but now it is still completely empty. I’m curious whether they will put the coffin on a boat and take it over the river for burial, as many cultures do, but they do not. They pass by the port, and, by leaving the gallery, they start to climb up the narrow mountain path. Those who hitherto followed them, now leave. I do, too, for apparently this is the custom.

Only in the afternoon, riding a rented bike along Yulong River, will I know what happens next. I pass by a small roadside cemetery. It has four or five large, circular stone graves, as if they were big wells. One of them is obviously freshly erected, it is filled with earth, and an empty coffin was recently put on it. Around it, petards, incense, empty bottles.

I go back along the river. The money of the dead and the remains of the petards have already been swept up. Along the route of the funeral march, little red heaps are waiting for being carried away, dust and ash.

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