Grandfather Shan

Grandfather Shan – A Chinese goodbye

I’ve been having this post on my reminder list over half a year now. Been doubting whether I should write/post about it or not. On the one hand it’s such a personal experience, something I shouldn’tΒ just put on the internet. On the other hand it was such a beautiful and peaceful way of saying goodbye, a piece of culture I fear I (and also the generations that will come after me) will loose because I’m this second generation Wenzhou kid with a fried brain. I don’t want to lose the vivid and strong memory I have of my grandfather, and I don’t want to lose this beautiful experience.

So here it goes. Assuming as well that only 5 people per year will visit my site and flip thru some posts.

Grandfather Shan

Grandfather Shan

The memory to grandfather Shan was and is vivid because he had such a strong character – strong but quiet enough not to be noticed if he didn’t want to. Every year in the summer time I’d go back with my mom to Wenxi, and he’d be there to take care of us. From the moment he would pick us up from the airport, to insisting on taking our suitcases to the 2nd or 3rd floor, to cooking the most organic and healthy dishes, to doing the laundryΒ by hand to cleaning the house – all the 5 floors they had (the house was bought with the intention that each of their kids would have their own floor, with enough room for their families.. somehow my mom and her brothers never made use of that as they’d just cramp on the first 2 floors with 4 families.. probably a habit from the old days where they also managed to be in one bed room while being with the the four of them). This man was everywhere and everything he did was with utmost focus and care. It took me quite a while to realize that I never saw my grandmother do the household chores – and actually him doing more than just the household chores; he’d also take care of my grandmother. He’d bathed her, blow dried her hair, massaged her back at night before going to bed and turned off the light and lock the doors before they’d go to sleep.

While I always thought that this was the “Wenzhou (or nowadays Qingtian) way of being married”, I found out that my grandmother had been ill since a very young age. She’d fallen ill mid thirties (she’s almost 80 now) and never gotten back completely to her normal health – my grandfather had taken over both bringing in the money for his 4 children and his wife, while still being able to be a father to look up to, a husband to love while keeping the house in stellar condition and all mouths fed.

Although my grandparents, my parents and their brothers and sisters had a really rough time during the roaring 60s in China, my grandfather seemed not to be influenced by it too much. He seemed and still is a stoic man, never in a bad mood, always with a grin on his face as if someone just told him a fine joke. And although the worst days were behind him, and his children were more than able to take care of him, he never accepted that and took care of himself and grandmother in his own way. He’d still dry ζ’…εΉ²θœ( a type of dried vegetable, used for Chinese pancakes and OG dishes) on his roof top, mop all 5 floors and cook 3 meals a day for him and grandma Shan.

Grandfather and grandmother Shan

I can see how much of an influence he has had on the upbringing of my mother and her brothers – they’re all hard working, loyal, fair and kind to each other and their friends. They all possess this killer ethic when it comes to hard work, while playing it fair and sharing it with friends and family when possible. The family is so strong – my mom would kill for her brothers, and my uncles carry my mom on their hands. I don’t have one set of parents – I have 3 more “fathers” and “moms” that came with that package.

Just thinking back to 6 months ago – where theyΒ  were all gathered in the same country, the same city, wearing traditional clothing and being sung at by Chinese monks – it just teared me up to see them grief that deeply, and that intense.

My grandfather had a beautiful life, a beautiful family, and I want to believe that up until his last months he didn’t have much to complain about. He had suffered enough while being young, and his children had made up for that long time ago. Only in December 2016, on the 14th, doctors found a little lump in his lungs. Although grandfather Shan had a condition of a olympian, cooked only organic food and drank water brought to him by his friends from the mountains – he still was an avid smoker. That little lump caused his children to panic, research and find the best hospitals, doctors, medicine and treatments in and outside of the country – and brought him on a 11 month journey in and out of hospitals.

11 months after that first observation, my mother and her brothers gathered again in Wenxi to pay their final respects to my grandfather. I knew this day would come, he’d been in the hospital for over 4 months. I just didn’t know that day it wasΒ theΒ day. My mom urged me to take the first train from Shanghai to Qingtian, to help with the transportation of grandfather Shan back to his home. She even called me in the morning but I kept it short as I was agitated because I had to get up at 5AM – somewhere I played stupid and had fought of any bad thoughts. When I arrived, he was gone. He tried to keep awake for my uncle who had to fly in from Austria – but the suffering made it unbearable for the other kids to see, so they decided to take him home. He did arrive home, he and grandmother were together, he had the time to be home one more time and hold hands with his grand-grand-children – when his breathing became really hard, he told my uncle

“Let’s be father and son again in a next life time..”

and then they let him go.

We had a week of mourning which made a a really heavy impression on me – something so beautiful but also so so intense.

When he passed away, the children had dressed my grand father in traditional clothing and put in the living room for the family and friends to say their last goodbyes. The living room was gradually transformed into a mini temple with burning incense and candles and a little altar in front of him – complete with shoes to depict where his spirit was still sitting and preparing to go to the other side.

For 4 days we had nuns come and chant – chant for a smooth transition to the other side, for luck and fortune there, and to fend off any bad spirits that could hamper the crossing to the other side. We burnt yellow paper and gold paper folded into nuggets – he’d need a lot of “money” and “gold” to pay for the journey to the other side, to build up his life there and “to buy cigarettes”.

Chinese funeral - burning paper for afterlife money
Burning paper for afterlife money
Chinese funeral - burning fake money for afterlife real money
Burning fake money for afterlife real money
Chinese funeral - golden nuggets as afterlife assets
Golden nuggets as afterlife assets
Chinese funeral - chanting nuns to guide grandfather Shan to the other side
Chanting nuns to guide grandfather Shan to the other side
Chinese funerals - the sleeves all close family members wear
The sleeves all close family members wear
Chinese funeral - flower garlands as last tributes of respects from friends and family
Flower garlands as last tributes of respects from friends and family
Chinese funeral - alarm clock with constant buddhist prayers
Alarm clock with constant buddhist prayers
Chinese funeral - flowers for grandfather's goodbye
Flowers for grandfather’s goodbye
Chinese funeral - setting up 7 days of darkness
Setting up 7 days of darkness

Β On one side family members and friends built a little office to receive people paying respect and their symbolic amount of money “to support the funeral and the ceremony” – in the old days this was how the community would support each other.

On that same ticketing side, a little mah yong table was set up. During the wake family members and friends would stay awake, and a little mah yong would help during those nights.

Chinese funeral - little office for collecting symbolic money
The little office for collecting symbolic money
Chinese funeral - playing mah yong during the wake
Playing mah yong during the wake
Grandfather Shan's sister and nieces
Grandfather Shan’s sister and nieces
Chinese funeral - accounting

We had a cook and staff come in, but also neigbours and friends come to help – as every day breakfast, lunch and dinner would be served for everyone who would come to pay their respects. The first couple of days we’d had around 30-50 people, but during the last days we wouldn’t have enough tables to seat everyone as we’d be having 150 persons headed crowds. Every meal would be preluded by fireworks – a sort of shout to be seated and eat.

Chinese funeral - designated cook for breakfast, lunch and dinner
Designated cook for breakfast, lunch and dinner
Chinese funeral - baking buns
Neighbors baking morning baos
Chinese funeral - fireworks to indicate breakfast, lunch, dinner and start of ceremonies
Fireworks to indicate breakfast, lunch, dinner and start of ceremonies
Chinese funeral - preparations for lucnh and dinner
Preparations for lunch and dinner
Chinese funeral - preparations for lucnh and dinner
Preparations for lunch and dinner
Chinese funeral - salty fish for dinner
Salty fish for dinner
Chinese funeral - Neighbours helping out
Neighbours helping out

Old friends would come to pay respect – one of them told me a story of grandfather Shan: he’d starting playing mah yong and he loved it so much, he’d joined a mah yong group. For nights they’d gather at his house to play mah yong, while my grandmother would watch tv and get ready to bed. When the group decided to move to another venue for those mah yong nights, my grandfather decided to quit – as it’d be too far from grandmother and

he wouldn’t be able to hear her call for him, if she’d need him.

The group decided to take the plays to opposite of the street, making sure grandfather could still join – throughout the years they changed from locations though, and he eventually gave up: he’d rather wanted to be around grandma.

Chinese funeral - mah yang during wake
Chinese funeral – mah yang during wake

During the days my mom and her brothers were dressed in traditional clothing, and performed traditional dances and songs to pay tribute and respect. These sessions were one of the most intense as they’d take 20-30 minutes and they’d be walking circles around my grandfather with burning incense, with the sole focus of singing for my grandfather.

Chinese funeral - making crowns out of bamboo
Making crowns out of bamboo
Chinese funeral - blue hats for the grandchildren
Chinese funeral – blue hats for the grandchildren

The set up outside - Chinese funeral

During one of the wake nights, I was rummaging thru an old cupboard and found a picture of grandfather’s Shan mom – my great grandmother. I was pleasantly surprised, and emotionally caught of guard: my uncles but especially my mom look identical to her. There are no pictures from my grandfather from when he was young as only the wealthy could afford pictures, and communism set in when he was born. It felt like bumping into a treasure when I saw this

Grandfather Shan's mom - could've been my mom identical twin
Grandfather Shan’s mom – could’ve been my mom identical twin

One memory my mom told me about during the week of mourning was that she was his favorite kid (in a non braggy way) – because she was the oldest and helped him wherever possible in his duties as father and husband. She’d go out for hours hiking mountains to pick the right leaves to use in the stove, look out for her 3 brothers when grandfather was sailing the rivers to transport bamboo (and sometimes to smuggle wood, which was a luxury item back in the days), and prioritze her brothers and mother wherever it was needed. I can still see this back in her character and doings these days – although she has owned a restaurant for more than 30 years, and should actually slow down, she still sees things to improve, chores to take care off and people to help out. Back to the quote where my grandfather told my mom “she was his favorite” – after each ofΒ  his long trips, he’d return back with a little gift only for my mom. Once he brought back a yellow hair band, another time he brought back shiny heels.. my mom told me this with tears in her eyes remembering this so vividly, even I thought for a second I was there during that moment.

Chinese funeral - breakfast at dawn
Friends of my mom and uncles, accompanying them for their wake

On the last day,Β an orchestra gathered to bring grandfather to the crematory. Their music would scare of the bad spirits that could hamper the journey. The more sound, the louder the better and the smoother. Once arrived at the crematory all who had the Chinese star sign of ox, dragon and monkey were not allowed in – as they were compatible with rats (my grandfather’s sign) and bad luck would get to them if they’d come to close “to the other side”. Edgar – an ox – therefore had to wait outside.

After the cremation, we returned home where in the mean time a crowd of 200 villagers, friends, family and acquaintances had gathered. Together with the orchestra and accompanied with fire works, we all walked through my grandparent’s villageΒ  – halting traffic and publicly announcing grandfather’s departure. While we were nearing te mountains that were close to my grandfather’s house, around 150 people dropped off during the walk and only around 50 of us continued into the mountains.

Chinese funeral - at the crematory: mirrors, symbolic twigs and rulers to fight of bad spirits
Mirrors, symbolic twigs and rulers to fight of bad spirits
Chinese funeral - fanfare waiting
Band waiting
Chinese Funeral - lining up to pay last respect
Lining up to pay last respect
Chinese funeral - in traditional clothing through the village
A last walk with grandfather Shan thru town
Chinese funeral - fanfare waiting
The band playing to fight of bad spirits
Chinese funeral - fanfare resting
Resting and practicing band

My grandfather had already “reserved” a spot in the mountains for him and grandmother almost 10 years ago, as the Chinese government started to ban burying people in the mountains. The elder generation still has a right to this. The last ritual was performed by placing my grandfather’s urn in a coffin, and covering these with his favorite clothes that he could wear in the afterlife. There was even a toilet bag to make sure he’d have all the supply for when he was “in transit”.

Chinese funeral - journey into the mountains
Journey into the mountains
Chinese funeral - white garlands to represent the gifts
White garlands to represent the all the gifts of friends an family (their real gifts are not allowed in the mountains)
Chinese funeral - views for Grandpa Shan
Views for Grandpa Shan
Chinese funeral - journey into the mountains
The journey back to the city
Chinese funeral - exhaustion
Exhaustion after a week of mourning..

Upon return from the mountains, male monks were awaiting us in the now de-throned house of my grandparents. As finishing part they chanted the entire night to keep bad spirits out of the house and cleanse it after our week of mourning.

Ingredients for the last ceremonial part - Chinese funderal
Ingredients for the last ceremonial part
Male monks - last part of Chinese ceremony
Male monks – last part of Chinese ceremony (monk #3 couldn’t help to check his phone..)
Male monks - last part of Chinese ceremony
Male monks – last part of Chinese ceremony
Chinese funeral - the last night
An abrupt end to a beautiful and intense week

The day ended abruptly with the monks returning to their mobile phones and men coming to collect the flower arrangements that had just arrived several days before for disposal.This week was so surreal and intense, it was so sad but also so beautiful just to know how much my grandfather was loved and how we did everything we could to make sure he’d have a comfortable afterlife. This makes me want to believe there is one.

Chinese funeral - garbage


Chinese funeral - flowers


I just wanted to make sure that this wouldn’t be forgotten as our generations become more modern and disconnected from such a rich history and culture. I wanted to remember – and maybe also have my future children remember – that we carry a deep history, and that a strong community bond is engrained in our culture, in our thinking and in our doing. Also I wanted to remember and never forget that my grandfather was a good good man, and that he raised good kids. I’m 100% certain he was one of those good men you only come across very rarely.

Bye grandfather Shan. You are loved.

1 Comment

Join the discussion and tell us your opinion.

June 16, 2018 at 3:04 am

Lieve Siem wat een prachtig verhaal en wat fijn dat je dit deelt!
Je laat zoveel gevoel van liefde en respect zien en geeft een mooi beeld van hoe in de chinese cultuur omgegaan wordt met afscheid nemen en de dood.
Heb er tijdens mijn werk veel mee te maken maar desondanks maakte het op mij grote indruk.
Liefs Toos

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