For my “Village” project, I wanted to go back to Hong Qiao, a village in Wuhan, central China, for the rice harvesting — but it didn’t happen. Instead, I ended up at a Taoist funeral.
I had gone to a lot of trouble to find out when the harvesting would begin, and the assistant who was working with me spoke Mandarin, Cantonese and a bit of the local dialect, so I thought that I could be pretty certain about being there at the right time. My guide worked in Shenzhen, but Hong Qiao was his hometown and he was anxious to get back to see his father, who had recently become a widower.
The guide organized a berth on the Wuhan train and, funnily enough, even though he had two months notice could only manage at the last minute to get a first-class, luxury, private sleeping berth. When he found out that I was paying the fares, he had cancelled the hard wooden chairs that we would have been sitting on for 16 hours at the crowded end of the train. I was glad he did, for we would have been crushed in with the boxes, bags, peanut shells, numerous children, chain-smoking men and an overflowing toilet.
On the train, the guide described the way the villagers did the harvesting and he made it sound like there were plenty of opportunities for me to get good pictures, so I was rearing to go.
On arriving in Hong Qiao, we immediately went to have lunch in a restaurant; we knew the place must be good because there were official government cars, new and black with opaque windows, parked outside. It was over the meal of skinned frogs and some sort of baked whole birds that the guide casually informed us there would be no harvesting for another week — but he had organized a dinner for some people who had never met foreigners.
As I was sitting and mulling over how much time and energy I had put into getting this trip organized and how the guide had sworn we would be here in the middle of the harvesting season, I suddenly heard a squawk. It turned out to be a trumpet and then drums and firecrackers started banging and then another horn instrument was added to the cacophony of sound. I grabbed my cameras and went to investigate. I was in the middle of a Taoist funeral.
The interpreter asked if we could take photographs and after gaining permission, I went inside the house and shot images of the weeping mourners. Somebody grabbed my arm and took me to the back of the altar, where he showed me an elaborately carved box in the shape of a temple, which contained the cremated remains of the dead man.
I have photographed burial services all over the world, but I still feel uncomfortable about how close I should get. Once I was photographing a Shiite funeral in the Middle East and some of the mourners saw me standing at the back of the crowd. Several of the men came over and propelled me to the front, where I saw the mother of the dead man weeping, wailing and rending her garments. At one stage, she became so distressed that she threw herself into the grave and had to be helped out so the coffin could be lowered down.
In Hong Qiao, I photographed the women weeping and nobody seemed to mind how close I went or what I photographed. The mourners wore a white cloth on their heads and all the men were dressed in the local style, which consisted of white shirts and black, brown or gray slacks with canvas sneakers. The one exception to this dress code was my guide. He was invariably dressed in some rather groovy city clothes — Nike shirt, sneakers and ankle-length shorts, all of which were an outward sign of success. If anything went wrong in Shenzhen and he lost his job, he couldn’t come back to the village because there would be too much loss of face.
The whole time we were in Hong Qiao, we had to keep going to meals to meet local dignitaries, all school friends of the guide who were now the people running the village — the police chief, doctor, teacher and the government official who had the best car in town with his own driver.
After one of these meals, where the men filled the glasses to overflowing with rice wine and toasted each other every few minutes, it was decided that we should go to a karaoke center and continue the celebration of the foreigners in town. Songs were sung with gusto, and the wine was consumed in quantity as extended members of the families came to see their first live foreigners.
I didn’t get my harvest pictures, but I did reap the benefit of the local rituals. Perhaps a more reliable, if less fashionable, guide will yield even better results next time.