Feasting with the Dead in the Mountains of China
I visited a remote village in China's Anhui Province to take part in celebrations of the deceased, all of which revolved around massive spreads of delicious, locally sourced food.
The dinner spread at the aunt's house. All photos by the author.
"Move over!" barks the patriarch of the family. He's looking straight at me.
Down a step on the terraced vegetable fields, the entire family looks up at me. There are exactly 28 of them.
They are burning paper money and paper clothes at the base of a grave, and I had accidentally stepped on the place where the coffin had been buried.
I apologize profusely and shuffle over to the side, accidentally ruining a bed of bok choy. Firecrackers pop and whistle just a couple feet over, nearly deafening me.
I'm in the mountains of the Anhui Province of China, in a remote village called Sian. It's 52 miles southeast of the iconic Yellow Mountains (or Huangshan), the inspiration behind the floating mountains in Avatar. Sian is a completely residential village, tucked in the mountainous township of Kengkou, which has its own dialect. Today, it's cloudy with scattered rains.
Locals tell me that Sian has a history that dates back 2,700 years. Only in the last 30 years did it have a road paved up to residences. Before, villagers would have to resort to trekking down dirt paths to reach any sort of civilization. These days, a cement road exists, but it is still extremely thin and a rather treacherous ride up.
I'm here to take part in a celebration of Xudu Chuang's deceased grandmother, who would have been 100 this year. In this part of Anhui, called Huizhou, a birthday party is thrown for the dead every decade until they turn 100 years old. This will be the last big celebration of the grandmother's life. Notably, the party isn't thrown on the dead's actual birthday, but within the span of the Lunar New Year celebrations.
"Wei Bei Shan!" Xudu yells. She's taken a liking to my Chinese name and pronounces it with a thick and loud staccato as she motions for me to come over. There are 15 paper cups at the base of the grave, filled with her late grandmother's favorite foods: red-braised pork, egg, roasted chicken, duck, and some baos. It is believed that the food (and all the paper money and clothes that they are burning) will be transferred to the departed family member in the afterlife. Firecrackers are lit to awaken the spirits. I snap a couple of photos and move away quickly, watching as the rest of the family offers incense to the grave.
I met Xudu two days ago. She's the owner of a hostel called Qingheyue in Hongcun, a town that dates back to the Song Dynasty, just 18 miles southwest of the Yellow Mountains. Think whitewashed walls, dark wood accents, narrow stone streets, and red lanterns that glow at nightfall. The entire city is walled and surrounded by water, as is typical of ancient Chinese cities.
Within an hour of checking into the hostel and chatting with her and her husband, Benyan Miao, I was invited to hang out with their family for a day in the village.
And so here I am, at the grave of Xudu's paternal grandmother. It's a simple stone plaque pushed into the dirt; at this point, a huge heap of ash has accumulated at its base. A seven-foot paper house, a pile of outfits, and heaps of ancestral money are among the burnt offerings.
After the last family member has paid their respects, we head back down to the Chuang residence, leaving the food at the grave for the soul of the deceased matriarch. Everyone knows that the dead can't eat. Eventually, the squirrels will get to the food, and this is a good thing. All things eventually return to nature, the villagers believe.
For the living, a feast is in order. It's a half-hour hike back down slippery, mossy stone steps through the mountainside, which is part vegetable farm, part gravesite.
The Chuang house, built 96 years ago, is still rather medieval. The only toilet is a chamber pot—a wooden box that sits on the side of the master bed. Waste is emptied into a collection hole in the fields and then used for fertilizer. Also, there is no gas in the house; they use fire.
Xudu's aunt works the kitchen. The stove, built with brick, is heated with chopped bamboo and dried sticks from the nearby forest.
An auntie sits by the backside of the stove, tending to the fire. On the other side, another one cooks, tossing chunks of pork belly with ginger. She whips up a feast with fresh frog collected from the nearby river, tofu that was made just this week, and bok choy from the vegetable farm.
Chili peppers are pickled in a porcelain pot and held down by stones picked out from the river. A lot of bamboo shoots are used in the meal; just within walking distance is an entire forest of bamboo. Seasonings include dried fennel, star anise, and spoonfuls of salt.
I wander into the main altar room, where a plate of nuts and candy is laid out on a wooden platter in the middle of the room. This is a traditional setup for when relatives come over for the New Year. Within seconds, a dish of tea eggs is handed to me with a cup of chrysanthemum green tea. Chrysanthemum flowers and green tea leaves are grown, picked, and dried in the village. One of Xudu's uncles sells dried chrysanthemum for a living.
"You have to eat three eggs," Xudu instructs. Because Huizhou District in Anhui was traditionally an impoverished area, hosts would feed their guests an abundance of eggs to fill them up before the actual meal.
But today, the meal is anything but poor. Four sets of nine dishes are served on four tables. Fat pork belly from a local pig is stewed with soy sauce and ginger, while homemade tofu has been fried and paired with taro balls. The frog has been chopped into pieces and quickly sautéed, and bamboo is served with slices of pork. We double-fist cups of soda and tea. The elderly drink shots of baijiu in between drags of cigarettes. Xudu's father, the oldest living patriarch of the family, beams at the sight with pride. This is the largest gathering of the Chuang family he has seen in years, and Xudu tells me that he is in a particularly good spirits today.
"This type of food is really simple to cook," Benyan tells me. "Once the pans are hot, things cook really quickly." And because the pans are cast-iron and built into the stove, they've accumulated quite a bit of seasoning in their many decades of use. Rice is also cooked in this stove; at the bottom of it, a crusty layer of rice, called guoba, forms. It is crisp, scorched, and well-loved, and I watch as family members fight over it with their chopsticks made by—of course—a member of the family.
Xudu and Benyan instruct me to get into the car. The birthday celebration is over and it's time for routine annual visits to ancestors. We head over to another residence, just a mile down, to pay respects to Xudu's maternal side of the family. (Specifically, her mother's adopted mother's grave.) We arrive at an uncle's house; another bowl of tea eggs is offered to me.
The hike to the grave doesn't take all that long, and by early noon the skies have cleared. It's a similar setup; the grave is planted in the midst of terraced vegetable fields. Benyan points out a large stone hole, filled with murky, moldy water.
"Fertilizer for the fields. From the chamber pots," he says, winking.
I look at it, horrified.
In front of us, the family is, once again, burning paper money at the foot of a grave. A patch of bok choy and carrots sits nearby. It was the late grandmother's favorite vegetable patch. She planted it when she was alive, and today her body continues to nourish the fields. And, as grotesque as it sounds, so does the human waste of her descendants. It's a very cyclical place; everything is interlinked.
Back at the house, we wash our muddy shoes in the river and watch as the uncle butchers a live fish for dinner. But I am told that this is not where we're having dinner. There's one more stop to be made: another's aunt house further down the mountain.
We drive down a couple of miles and arrive at another residence. Another batch of tea eggs is handed to me and I obediently gulp down three. By this point, I am quite familiar with the rituals. As dinner is being prepped, Benyan and I wander around the village. We find a beekeeper that sells us ten jars of loquat honey harvested from the hive boxes in his front yard. And we meet a man whose most prized possession is a photograph of himself standing in front of Tiananmen Square. It's clearly Photoshopped and I'm terribly confused.
"Many people in this village have never left town and never will," Benyan explains. "This is the only picture the man has of himself and it will be hung up on his grave."
For dinner, we gulf down more pork belly and bamboo, fresh fish, bowls of rice. Everything is sourced from the land and river.
At one point as we're driving, we see a man walking down alongside the street with a large animal carcass hanging from a stick. He's beaming with pride; it's been a long time since I've seen a smile that wide.
Benyan stops the car.
"A muntjac deer?" he asks the man. Muntjacs are the oldest known deer in existence.
The man nods without breaking his smile. A group of his buddies trail behind him, just as ecstatic.
I stare at the limp deer corpse. It's hanging upside down, feet up. Its eyes are vacant and blank.
Death doesn't seem to bother anyone here. Even as we were making grave visitations, never once was the mood somber. The day was full of festivity, firecrackers, yelling, and laughter. In rural China, death is celebrated.
And the dead deer will surely be cheered, butchered, and cooked into the tastiest of dinners.
Clarissa Wei is currently backpacking to all the provinces in China. She plans on single-handedly eating the entire country. Follow her adventures on Facebook.