Why strippers are invited to entertain both the living and the dead at Chinese funerals
A scantily-clad woman wraps her naked legs around a pole. Her body, clad in nothing but black lingerie, gyrates to the accompanying music. She sensually tosses her hair behind her before her black stiletto heels come to rest on top of a bright red car surrounded by adoring fans, who've come out especially to watch her. If you didn't know any better, you'd be forgiven for believing that you'd somehow stumbled upon a seedy strip club. Yet rather than an unsavoury evening out, it's just another Chinese funeral.
The saying "don't cry because it's over, smile because it happened" pretty much sums up the Chinese's attitude to saying farewell to the dead. For centuries now, strippers have been invited to perform in front of processions of mourners in order to celebrate departed loved ones' lives and send them off with a bang.
What happens at a funeral strip performance varies wildly from one to another. Some involve climbing poles, blasting sound systems and neon-lit stages. Others prefer gas-driven flames, professional musicians and spectacular fireworks. At a few, you'll even find strippers gyrating on top of coffins.
The funeral described above is a particularly special case held in honour of the late Chiayi County Council Speaker Tung Hsiang. After the politician passed away in December 2016, his son decided that rather than be sorrowful, his father's funeral should be "hilarious". Instead of merely welcoming exotic dancers to romp at a private funeral, he arranged for them to perform in the streets, cavorting on top of imported luxury cars surrounded by traditional totems and drums. All in all, it made for a rather accomplished spectacle.
So the question you're probably pondering is, why is this behaviour acceptable, if not expected, in Chinese culture? The honest answer is that, particularly in rural China and Taiwan, it's just tradition.
There are allegedly reports of women stripping at temple events dating back to the late 1800s. In Taiwan, it's said that people traditionally hired professional female wailers to cry and wail at funeral processions and when microphones and speakers were invented, the custom was upgraded to include music and dancers.
However, most accounts acknowledge that funeral exotic dancers only became popular in the late 1970s or early 1980s in Taiwan when the local mafia took a hold of the mortuary business. Combining business interests, the underworld mob apparently began to offer a reduced rate to anyone who booked a stripper through their company. According to various news outlets, they explained themselves by claiming that as well as attracting extra mourners, the strippers would act as gifts to any lower Gods who still enjoyed womanising.
Some affirm that the quality of the deceased's afterlife is dependent on how well attended the funeral was, while others believe that having a lot of people attend a funeral is a mark of prestige. Either way, there's no doubt about the fact that strippers entice a lot of people.
Whatever the real rationale for the extravaganza, since the mafia ingeniously decided to marry death and sex together, the utterly bizarre movement has become convention. These days, it's still massive money with one funeral operator in Henan stating that troupes can charge nearly $1,000 a show.
Yet the peculiar custom is certainly not welcomed by everyone. While many rural Chinese locals accept it as a way of life - or death, so to speak - a large proportion of residents across the country find the practice wholly inappropriate and consider it as something only someone from a working class background would do. It's unsurprisingly they believe it's unseemly seeing as, while it's now apparently illegal to get completely naked, some dancers have been known in the past to remove their underwear in front of young children.
And then there are the authorities, who have made multiple attempts to crack down on funeral strippers after worldwide controversy over “obscene” performances in the east of the country. Their response comes after pictures of the custom have made the rounds in the media over the years. Particularly memorable ones include the 2015 funeral of a man named Mr. Jian, where dancers were photographed straddling the coffins while a large image of the departed looked on from the back of the chapel. At a funeral in Hebei Province, a stripper removed her bra in violation of China’s obscenity law against public nudity and was fined by the government.
Other reported exotic dancing episodes are even more unpalatable. Strippers performed at the funeral of a six-year-old boy in Jiangsu province, as well as at the funeral of a man called Mr. Jong, who was featured in a National Geographic video demanding a hole be cut into his coffin so he could watch the strippers from the afterlife.
Although the practice of funeral stripteases is less common in mainland China, this had not made officials less determined to stamp it out. The Ministry of Culture has put out several responses to the incidents, one of which denounced them as "uncivilised" and proclaimed: "This type of illegal operation disrupts order of the cultural market in the countryside and corrupts social morals and manners."
But, despite the shows being subject to punishments as public officials become more and more riled up, the celebrations, which are said to "appease wandering spirits" and give the deceased "one last hurrah", continue to take place in certain areas. Who knows if they will ever be able to stop the salacious phenomenon. But at the moment, it seems so ingrained into certain parts of society that both the dead and living would be lost without it.
Ultimately, when you get down to it, it seems that erotic strip teasing and gyrating on coffins is one part of their culture the Chinese are unwilling to give up.
Featured illustration by Egarcigu