Wednesday, December 21, 2011

Good Mourning! The Professional Mourner, or Ku Sang Ren

Recent video footage of North Korean citizens weeping uncontrollably in the frigid streets of Pyongyang got me thinking: Are these people really brainwashed enough to care that the star of Team America: World Police is dead? Or did someone put them up to it?

Answer: Who knows? But, there is an ancient practice that originated in China, (therefore it probably spread to North Korea) of hiring people to mourn at funerals, since it looks better if tons of people are going to miss you after you kick it.

The word for this in Chinese is 哭丧人 (kū​ sāng rén), literally "a person (人) that cries (哭) and mourns (.)"

In case you were wondering, the late dictator Kim Jong-Il's Chinese name is 金正日 (JīnZhèngrì, literally "Proper Sun"), and his son, the young, pudgy prodigy Kim Jong-Eun, who has been named Supreme Leader (or as his friends call him, the "Royale with Cheese") is 恩 (JīnZhèng​'ēn, literally "Proper Kindness".)

"Kim" is one of the most common Korean names (like my stuffed toy raccoon, Mr. Kim, who was made in Korea), and along with Park and Lee they account for almost half of Korean surnames (if you believe Wikipedia).

I digress, as usual. According to my research, in parts of China, namely Sichuan Province, some enterprising unemployed people are digging up this moldy tradition of professional mourning and making a killing as tears-for-hire.

One of these geniuses is 52-year-old Hu Xinglian,(胡 兴莲 Hú​ Xīng​lián), known by her stage name, Jingle Cat Dragonfly. If that sounds weird, it is.

She goes by "Dingding Mao" (叮叮猫 dīng​ dīng ​māo), which means Jingle Cat, but in the Chongqing dialect, that means "dragonfly" (qīngtíng).

Apparently the practice of paying for mourners began in the time of Emperor Wu of the Han Dynasty (汉武帝 Hàn​ Wǔ​dì)​  (141-87 BC). During the Cultural Revolution it was seen as part of the "poisonous influence of Feudalism," (封建流毒 fēng​jiàn ​liú​dú) and was suppressed. After China's reform and opening up, (放, gǎi kāi fàng) in the late 1970s, the practice came back to life, and people like Hu have started to cash in on it.
The article I read describes a typical funereal gig for Hu. After finding out a little about the deceased, Hu reads the eulogy with a sad voice, and calls out the person's name between sobs. She may also call out "Mother!" or "Father!" in order to move the crowd. Which is odd since she is not related to the dead person. Sometimes she will kneel before the casket, or even crawl on the floor, wailing after the person's soul, begging it not to leave so soon (see picture). 
She makes between 200-800 yuan per session ($25-$100), and in the seven years she has been doing this for a living, she's served about 4,000 people. Although, she said does not actually cry at the funerals, she just fakes it. (If you replace "cry" and " funeral" with other words, this paragraph could be talking about another "ancient profession!") 

It is unclear if she was hired as a consultant for Kim Jong-Il's Million Man Funeral, but the tradition apparently lives on in North Korea. However those mourners probably did not get paid, unless you consider not being executed a form of currency.
But it's not all doom and gloom for a professional mourner! Hu is also in a band and they play at weddings, too.


Susan Moger said...

This is full of bon mots [that's bon mots in English] and interesting lore. Did you see prof. mourners at the funeral you took part in in Beijing? The beard looks good (this comment is related to another post on another of your blogs)!

Siew Gin Mills said...

I've seen those mourners at my grandma's funeral. But i think the ones i saw were free ones. Kinda friends of family. They come, wail, get everybody crying and then turn around like nothing happened.. "hey, how's it going?". The amazing thing was, nobody had a clue what they were saying but it sure got the tear ducts going! I remember asking my mom, "WHO ARE THOSE PEOPLE??"