Published: January 2010

Chinese Afterlife

Chinese afterlife

Restless Spirits

In China, ancient human sacrifice has given way to modern tomb-tending ceremonies, but the dead still make demands.

By Peter Hessler
Photograph by Ira Block

In the village of Spring Valley, people rarely spoke of the dead, and they didn't like to reminisce. "This place was always so poor," villagers said if I asked about the old days, and then they fell silent. They had few old photographs and only a handful of written records. The Great Wall stood nearby, but even those impressive ruins didn't inspire much interest. In 2001, I began renting a home in the village, partly because I was curious about the region's history, but soon I realized that glimpses of the past were fleeting. Like most Chinese of the current generation, the villagers focused on today's opportunities: the rising prices for local crops, the construction boom that was bringing new jobs to Beijing, less than two hours away.

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