ZILING CHEN discusses her original research into the tradition of funeral mourners in China.

Professional wailers, or funeral mourners, are performers paid to present the eulogy at a funeral and lament the deceased through weeping and singing. Surprisingly, this seemingly out-of-no-where career has a history dating back 2000 years to the Han dynasty and is deeply rooted in traditional Chinese culture. On one hand, wailers still play a dominant role in Chinese funerals, but on the other, they are socially and culturally marginalized because whenever they work, they are exposed to death: China’s biggest taboo. They are excluded from attending merry events such as marriages, festival celebrations, and sometimes even family dinners. In this article, I will talk about what wailers do during services and argue that despite being threatened by social stigma and being once rallied against by the government, their persistence indicates they fulfill a deeper function: social service accords with mainstream philosophical and religious values, and catharsis via ritual performance.

Courtesy of Ziling Chen

Wailers have developed a professional routine of service. During funerals, wailers always wear white, just like the rest of the mourning family. Most wailers act as proxy children or parents of the dead during their performance, as if they were sending off their family members. They will often start the eulogy by howling “dad” or “mom,” and then kneel or kowtow in front of the coffin as children do. The eulogy is written specifically to recall the life paths of the dead, and praise their personalities, accomplishments, devotions to families, and contributions to communities. According to my interviews with professional mourners in Ningbo, the most frequently honored were the dead’s devotion to their families and their resilience through difficult times in their lives. In addition to being specially written for each funeral, eulogies also have a rhythmic cadence spicing up the performance.

Courtesy of Ziling Chen

The most important part of their jobs, wailing, comes during and after the eulogy, and must abide by specific rules. Three “golden standards” are followed according to the wailers I interviewed in Ningbo to be recognized as a great wail. First of all, tears must be present. While tears in many ways do not indicate authentic sorrow, they still function as the most direct medium for expressing sadness in daily life. Though everyone knows this is a performance, people still expect sincerity out of this forced grievance, just like audiences’ expectations of a play. Second, the crying should not interfere with other parts of the funeral. While conveying emotions is important, wailers are also there to organize funerals and cue for procedures. Especially since funerals serve to accrue mian zi (面子), the recognition of an individual’s or household’s social status and prestige by others, wailers must make sure they honor the dead through eulogies and dignify the whole family through other parts of rituals. The best wailers present themselves as the most wretched, meanwhile, staying the calmest at heart, making sure all pieces of information are delivered, emotions are communicated to an appropriate degree, and nothing is out of control. Third, you must move people with your wail. Just like other actors, wailers seek to reach the deepest part of souls by arousing emotions. My interviewee, Mrs. Mao, is especially proud of her ability to “move people to cry” and create a melancholy atmosphere at almost every funeral she worked in. 

Courtesy of Ziling Chen

As mentioned before, wailer as a profession has every reason to die out. This job requires not only talent and effort to be recognized as good, but an ability to tolerate social stigma against people who work with or around death in Chinese society. Practitioners are ostracized, deliberately not invited to happy occasions because people believe they will infect them with their unluck. Mrs. Mao, like many other wailers, has grown accustomed to the prejudice. She admitted, “Now I pretend I don’t know there’s a wedding going on, even of my friend’s children’s weddings, so I don’t make them look bad by putting them in a dilemma.” Historically, wailing has also been labeled as superstition and during the Cultural Revolution, it was strictly forbidden to practice. Yet due to the critical nature of the social service wailers provides and their performative effectiveness, they have outlasted the Cultural Revolution.

Courtesy of Ziling Chen

Wailers demonstrate a crucial social service ability in the context of traditional Chinese moral codes. Funerals in Chinese culture do not end the relationship between the living and the dead. Instead, they mark “an exchange relationship in which the living fulfill obligations to the deceased, often repaying them for their support and love while alive” (Watson 1988, 13; Ahern 1973; Cole 1998). In fact, both Buddhism and Confucianism, two central religious philosophies, emphasize the importance of “filial obligation” (xiao 孝). Confucian filial piety means a moral person should follow the teaching of the elders, obey their commands, and honor them no matter what. When the elders are deceased, one must remember how parents have devoted themselves to their progeny; people are thus obligated to hold the ceremonial duty to “care for the dead” and repay their devotion through a decent funeral. Similarly, in Buddhist moral teaching, the practice of filial piety is the chief good karma because children are paying back their debts to their parents. This doctrine has prevailed over thousands of years and is now in accord with the Chinese instinct to follow xiao and the orthodoxy of ritual practices to hire a wailer. This wailer then fulfills the filial duty of caring and honoring the deceased by acclaiming them through eulogy and expressing unreserved sorrow for their departure. Moreover, wailers highlight the fact that devotion between parents and children is mutual by serving as a medium between the living and the deceased. At the end of wailings, wailers turn to give peaceful condolence in which grief is no longer the theme. Instead, wailers communicate to and from the dead, confirming that the soul of the dead will bless the living to have health, wealth, and success. It is the last devotion of those who have died to their families, which quenches the sorrow of the living and turns their attention to the promising futures blessed by the dead.

Courtesy of Ziling Chen

As a performer myself, I find wailings to be a potent reminder of the healing power of performance. While the living can be completely occupied by their sense of loss, sorrow becomes a heavy stone that is stuck in their hearts, blocking all channels of relief. This is why “numb” can sometimes better describe a condition of loss than sadness does. At this time, wailers’ public display of vulnerability and intentional exaggeration of emotions turns people’s internal agony into an external tangible entity. When the content of pain is revealed through words of eulogy and wailing, people realize it is something outside of them, thus finding the ability to face it, care for it, and ease it. Performances help people release emotions by making the emotions palpable so that people can pump them through an outlet, which is crying together with wailers in the case of funerals. Moreover, wailers help soothe the process of accepting the death of loved ones by bidding farewell repetitively in the eulogy. According to my documentation of wailers’ use of words in their eulogy, one of the top words used is “goodbye.” Through the farewells, people are engaging in the last interactions with the dead, making the withdrawal of the dead from their lives feel less abrupt. In other words, people learn to accept the demise of their loved ones by saying goodbye again and again. As performers, wailers are not just there to present themselves, but to actively engage with the audiences. In doing so, they provide closure by guiding people imperceptibly toward their healing journeys.


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Ziling Chen can be reached at cocochen2357@gmail.com. Ziling is a Chinese high-school student in the US, a film/play director, an actor, a theater boundary-breaker, and the founder of the Youth Theater. Her narratives fight reductive representation, interrogate social taboos, and offer new takes on traditional practices via film/theater-based encounters.