Why a drag queen at a funeral? – Ian Johnson

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Ian Johnson

Strippers are invited at funerals in Taiwan, drag queens in Sichuan. Author Ian Johnson of The Souls of China: The Return of Religion After Mao discusses at ChinaFile how those drag queens are rooted into society.

Ian Johnson:

How about this sociological answer: funerals are a reflection of a person’s status in society. In some parts of Chinese society, status has been achieved through the centuries—whether at a funeral or a fair or a wedding—by having a big raucous party: something renao, or hot and noisy, in Chinese. What’s more renao than a stage full of drag queens belting out songs or wailing for the dead person?

Unprecedented? No. Since the 1980s, many rural Taiwanese have had strippers at their funerals. The dead like to have fun. They liked strippers while alive and so they get strippers after they’ve died—with a hole cut in the coffin so they can peek out at the girls as they doff their clothes. In 2011, the documentary filmmaker Marc L. Moskowitz made the film “Dancing for the Dead” about the phenomenon. He noted that highers-up—like officials over the millennia—were embarrassed about the practice, seeing it as bad publicity for Taiwan, while locals carried it on as, in their views, part of “tradition.”

What tradition? The ethnomusicologist Chiung-Chi Chen wrote about this in a 2006 doctoral thesis, “From the Sublime to the Obscene.” She wrote that half the temple fairs she observed in Taiwan and many funerals included strippers as a kind of super renao catalyst. She posits that ghosts are kinds of hooligans. Hooligans like strippers so ghosts must too. Another idea is that funerals are places where social constraints are loosened and people can do what they usually can’t.

More (including pictures) at ChinaFile.

Ian Johnson is a speaker at the China Speakers Bureau. Do you need him at your meeting or conference? Do get in touch or fill in our speakers’ request form.

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