China wailing market of the day, a continuing series

by on September 16, 2008 at 7:29 am in Music | Permalink

I entered the mourning profession at the age of twelve.  My teacher forced me to practice the basic suona tunes, as well as to learn how to wail and chant.  Having a solid foundation in the basics enables a performer to improvise with ease, and to produce an earth-shattering effect.  Our wailing sounds more authentic than that of the children or relatives of the deceased.

Most people who have lost their family members burst into tears and begin wailing upon seeing the body of the deceased.  But their wailing doesn’t last.  Soon they are overcome with grief.  When grief reaches into their hearts, they either suffer from shock or pass out.  But for us, once we get into the mood, we control our emotions and improvise with great ease.  We can wail as long as is requested.  If it’s a grand funeral and the money is good, we do lots of improvisation to please the host.

"How long can you wail?  What was your record?"

Two days and two nights…Voices are our capital and we know how to protect them…

…Frankly speaking, the hired mourners are the ones who can stick to the very end.

That is from Liao Yiwu’s excellent The Corpse Walker: Real-Life Stories, China from the Bottom Up.  Here is a previous installment in the series.  Here is an out of date book, by comedian Eddie Cantor.  Here is a photo:


1 Anonymous September 16, 2008 at 8:10 am

It’s a cross-cultural phenomenon:

The Irish Funeral Cry (the Ullaloo, Keeners and Keening at Irish Funerals)

(From The Dublin Penny Journal, Volume 1, Number 31, January 26, 1833)

2 nyongesa September 16, 2008 at 10:06 am

Fantastic post,

No African funeral is complete without professional wailers, there is a real art to it, and keeping a sense of balance is important, early on real family and friends should not be “out-wailed” as they will feel their grief is not given it’s relative due, but once the shock stage sets in the pro’s go to town…prostration and flailing of limbs is a definite crowd pleaser, and I once witnessed genuine family members make a full blown wail-off against the pro’s, with impressive results for all.

The results are a very dramatic day, with distant relatives and guests assuming the deceased had had an considerable impact on many people given the extent of the emotional energy being released. pro’s generally are not invited…it would be tacky. But once there they must be paid, otherwise the wailing can become really disruptive. One side effect of pro’s is that being practiced in the arts, they are usually get the crowd going and that gives everyone a chance to have a good cathartic bawl going, before all the singing and dancing brings the grand finale to a conclusion.

Given Africa’s death rate, funerals are a constant on the calendar, and like weddings, they are competitive social signaling mechanism. One of the seminal experiences of my life was the funeral of a very powerful tribal chieftain. A four day affair, better than cats, Disney land and LSD, all rolled into one.

3 Anonymous September 16, 2008 at 11:59 am

There was some rich guy in Taiwan who arranged for a stripper to perform at his funeral (can anyone find the link?). As long as you’re going to have over-the-top questionably-appropriate displays, that sure beats wailing.

There was also some Western guy who stipulated that his heirs had to fly in once a year for a big expensive party in honor, for ten years after his death.

4 improbable September 16, 2008 at 1:07 pm

I was going to bring up Africa but I see nyongesa beat me to it.

I was also going to recommend a novel called “Ways of Dying” by Zakes Mda, which is about a professional mourner, in South Africa.

5 nyongesa September 17, 2008 at 3:14 am

At sep 16th,

That is essentially how it works, like all things traditional in Africa, the social code is very inclusive, such that professional funeral crashers are an expected staple, whether the family likes it or not, to the extent that evicting them, is considered in poor taste by non family attendee’s, after all how are they to make their living.

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