Several months ago I heard a lecture on religion in China by John Lagerway, a world renowned scholar on the topic. One of his comments has stayed with me—that religion is about space and time. I have continued to think about this comment and its application and meaning in different cultural contexts. In my cultural geography class, when we covered the topic of cultural ecology, I often used the example of Andean cultures whose yearly rituals matched the growing cycles, but also involved walking through the ecological zones that were important to their existence—space and time.
I’ve recently read a memoir by Wenguang Huang called The Little Red Guard. In the telling of the story, it is clear that Huang is attempting to come to some understanding of his father and grandmother. The story is about his father, a good communist citizen, and his “obsession” with living up to his commitment to bury his widowed mother next to her husband in a rural village some distance away, against the communist government’s requirement that everyone be cremated. Huang’s grandmother obsesses on this as well, needing to have her body buried in this particular place in order to be re-united with her husband and be recognized. It is the connection to the family line also. Huang tells of his growing up years, when his father spends all his money and attention on ensuring this will happen when his mother dies. A coffin is secretly constructed by several carpenters and for years Huang has to sleep next to it. At another stage, several tailors are paid to make several traditional sets of clothes for the grandmother to be worn on her death. Local officials had to be nurtured because of their potential role in allowing for the use of vehicles for the transportation of the body. Relatives in the village had to be visited and given gifts and money to ensure that nothing happened to the grave site and that all would be well at that end. All of this was done at great risk and sacrifice, in contradiction to everything Huang and his siblings were taught in school and by official government rhetoric. This effort went on for years, as the grandmother lived on.
In the end, Huang’s father died first, and the grandmother was finally buried next to the father. But the family remained unsettled. When finally Huang and his siblings try to bring closure, many years later, they work to move the remains to the village. But in the midst of these efforts, the relatives in the local village sell the right to a developer to build on the burial site of the grandfather. Though an alternative ritual eventually brings some closure, the story continues to haunt me because it illustrates how Communism, no matter how hard it tried, could not stop the religious impulse related to time and space, but capitalism seemed to have no problem obliterating it.