A ring of gangsters who traded in the bodies of women they murdered, selling them as brides to keep dead bachelors happy in the afterlife, has been arrested in China.
The arrests have exposed a trade that places a higher value on women when they are dead than when they are alive.
Yang Dongyan, 35, was arrested on January 4 in Sha’anxi province as he played cards with his children. In his prison cell, Mr Yang showed little remorse for committing two murders. He told the Legal Daily: “I just wanted to make money. It’s a quick way to make money. I was arrested too soon otherwise I had planned to do this business a few more times.”
Two accomplices, Liu Shengbao and Hui Haibao, were also arrested, as was Li Longsheng, a self-styled undertaker who traded the bodies to bereaved families.
Zhang Yanjun, chief of police in Yanchuan county, said: “It’s lucky that the case was cleared up in time or we don’t know how many women would have been killed by them. These people thought they had found a short cut to wealth.” Instead, they face the death penalty.
The men preyed on the superstitions of ill-educated farmers eager to ensure that a dead son was happy in the afterlife. It is not uncommon in rural parts of China for a family to seek out the body of a woman who has died to be buried alongside their son after the performance of a marriage ceremony for the deceased pair.
Ancestor worship is a tradition that runs through many aspects of Chinese life. One of the main Chinese festivals is Tomb Sweeping Day, when families visit graves of their forebears to clean them and burn incense. The spirit is believed to live on in the afterlife and at funerals families burn offerings of paper money and models of houses, cars and other little luxuries that the dead may need.
Mr Yang chanced upon the trade in dead bodies when he paid 12,000 yuan (£800) for a mentally handicapped woman whose family hoped to marry her off for a price. The trade in women as wives is a common practice in rural China and a woman may be sold several times by intermediaries before meeting her eventual husband.
Mr Yang arranged for the woman to stay in a guesthouse in Yanchuan county where Mr Liu offered him £666 for her. Mr Yang refused, until Mr Liu told him that the woman would be worth much more dead than alive. The next morning the two men set out across the Yellow River to meet “Old Li” in Xixian County, Shanxi province. Old Li agreed to buy the woman’s body for £1,050 and to complete the deal late at night on the Yanshuiguan bridge.
The next day Mr Yang killed the woman and took her body by taxi to the bridge where Mr Li was waiting and handed over £1,000 for her. For his part in the deal, Mr Liu received £300 and Mr Yang came away with a loss of £200 after his expenses.
Back at the guesthouse, Mr Yang told an old acquaintance, Mr Hui, that he had found an easy way to make money. The two men agreed to go into the body business together. Last November they sought out a prostitute they knew in nearby Yan’an — the city where Chairman Mao began his Communist revolution — but she threw them out after they said that they could not afford to pay her £20. They returned the next morning and killed her.
On December 3 they completed a similar body handover with Mr Li on the bridge. This time they made only £530 because the buyer was unhappy with the quality of the body and, after costs, Mr Yang and his two friends each earned £100 on that deal.
Old Li had made a name for himself in Xixian county by selling clothes to outfit the dead and by handing out cards that offered to help families in need of a spirit marriage. They want young and good-looking dead brides for their sons and regard the family of the girl as “in-laws”. Police discovered that Mr Li paid between £530 and £660 for a body and sold it on for as much as £2,300.
# Traditional Chinese belief holds that the living must tend to the wants and needs of dead relatives, who exist in an afterlife
# The tradition manifests itself in the burning of fake money or paper models of luxury goods
# It is believed by some that an unmarried life is incomplete, leading to the practice of minghun — burying single sons with recently dead young women to provide them with a wife in the afterlife
# Parents of a dead daughter often regard the money received in selling her for minghun as recompense for the dowry that they did not receive in her lifetime, while also posthumously elevating their child’s place in a patriarchal society
# Communist authorities tried to ban the practice, which datesfrom the Zhou dynasty (1122-256BC). It was also forbidden in the Book of Rites, texts that describe religious practices from the eighth to the fifth century BC
# Minghun survives mainly in the poor rural north, particularly in the remote plateau on the upper reaches of the Yellow River