According to Grandma, the Huang family clan had a harmonious and prosperous life in a village in the northwest of Henan Province, on the northern bank of the Yellow River. In the late 1920s, tuberculosis hit the village and Grandpa was one of the first to succumb. It was a bloody death. The family paid a wellknown feng shui master who recommended moving the family cemetery plot outside the village, next to the Yellow River, as a way to stem the outbreak. In those days, there was a popular legend about a big dragon resting under the Yellow River at the very point where it bordered Grandma's village. The feng shui master assured everyone that the spot he had chosen for Grandpa straddled the dragon's back. "The new burial ground will bring luck to our family," Grandma continued. "When I reunite with Grandpa in my next life, a generation cycle will be complete. It's good for all of you."
Grandma repeated the story countless times. We would look at one another and mouth her words as she spoke them. My elder sister would call Grandma a superstitious woman. Even Father agreed and told Grandma not to tell the story again.
At first, my parents ignored Grandma's plea, but she only became more determined. During a chat with a neighbor, she learned a startling fact - burial had been outlawed in our city of Xi'an. The neighbor said that if a city dweller died in the hospital, the doctor wouldn't allow relatives to take the body home. It went to a big icebox in the morgue and then was sent for cremation.
A young man had bribed the morgue keeper and retrieved his mother's body so he could have it buried. He was caught, and the police intercepted the corpse and sent it straight to the crematorium, so he had no time to perform even perfunctory rituals.
Grandma was in a panic. She seldom left our residential complex and was clueless about the changes sweeping China. She got most of her news from neighbors, from my parents and from me. Sometimes, knowing the kind of stories she liked to hear, I would make one up to get her attention, but I didn't dare lie when Grandma asked me about the cremation law. Yet in telling the truth, I scared her. She waited until Mother was outside chatting with her friends and approached Father, who was sipping tea by a coal-burning stove near the front door. She sat down on a chair next to him, had me bring her a basin of hot water so she could soak her tiny bound feet. "Jiu-er," she said, using Father's pet name. "Please don't burn me after I die. Will you promise me that?"
My sister and I were doing our homework under the light of the single bulb that lit the room. The word "burn" caught my attention. I watched Grandma and Father from the corner of my eye.
"I've told you, there is nothing to be afraid of," Father said, sounding a little impatient. "What difference does it make? When we die, our mind and body cease to exist. You won't know or feel anything."
Grandma shook her head; her face was a grimace of horror. "No... I don't want to be tortured in fire after I die," she said.
How would she reunite with her husband in the next life if her body was reduced to ashes? As they talked, Grandma grew more and more agitated, and began stomping her tiny feet, sending the water from the basin splashing across the floor.
Father stood up and grabbed a towel for her to dry her feet and spoke softly, "We'll talk later. Let's not interrupt your grandchildren's homework."
Father found himself in a difficult situation. Initially, he fully intended to follow the regulations - bring Grandma's ashes home, hold a simple ceremony, and then bury the urn next to Grandpa. The practice of burial had been banned since the Communist takeover in 1949 and the government stepped up its crackdown in the mid-1970s. The mandate for cremation carried both practical and ideological reasons - burial wasted land that might otherwise be used for agriculture or buildings. Land for farming was scarce; urban residents were crammed into smaller and smaller dingy apartments. Father saw sense in the policy and tried to reason with Grandma. In the 1960s and 1970s, China faced threats from the Soviet Union and the United States, which then had a heavy military presence in Southeast Asia. To protect China's industry from possible attack by "Soviet Revisionists" and "American Imperialists," the government moved many strategic industries inland. Xi'an was chosen for the manufacture of military equipment and heavy machinery and as the site of universities and scientific research institutions. Within a few years, the city's population exploded to six million (now eight million). As a result, Father said many young people at his company couldn't get married because there was nowhere for them to live. They waited years to be assigned an apartment. In other words, the dead had to make room for the living. And traditional funeral rituals were expensive, and rife with Buddhist and Taoist tradition, which was contrary to Communist ideology.
Reprinted by arrangement with Riverhead, a member of Penguin Group (USA) Inc., from The Little Red Guard: A Family Memoir by Wenguang Huang Copyright © 2012 by Wenguang Huang
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