Among the 84 cases, some involved the commission of multiple crimes (Table 2A). More than 60% (66.7% and 61.9%) of these cases involved the stealing and trading of corpses. About one-tenth (9.5%) involved murder, attempted murder, or bodily harm. Five cases (6%) were related to tomb robbery. It is worth mentioning that two cases (2.4%) involved the kidnap of women and four cases (4.8%) involved the abuse of power or bribery of office-bearers working in institutions concerned (e.g. hospitals). The fact that only 84 cases were convicted in court over a 15-year period suggests this crime is either a very rare phenomenon or the chances of being arrested and prosecuted are extremely low.
Number of Criminals Involved
In 29 cases (34.5%), only one criminal was involved, and two criminals were involved in about one-quarter (27.4%) of the cases. Another one-fifth of cases involved three to four criminals (10.7% each). Some criminal gangs were quite large, involving five people or more (16.8%). The average number of criminals per case was 2.7 (Table 2B).
Number of Recidivists
About half of the 84 cases (48.8%) were committed by recidivists who had previously committed similar or multiple crimes related to ghost marriages (Table 2C). If a crime was committed by a group of criminals in any single case, we considered the case as committed by a “recidivist” when at least one of the criminals was recidivist.
Corpses and Victims
The 84 criminal cases involved 250 corpses (98.4%) and four living persons (1.6%) who were victims of the crime (Table 3). Corpses are defined in the present study as the body of the dead, regardless of whether they are intact, including the remaining bones and bone ashes of the dead if they have been buried for a long time. Victims are defined as those living persons who are victimised for ghost marriages but exclude those victimised because of other causes.
In terms of gender, the majority of the corpses were female (90.6%), and all four victims (100%) were female (Table 3). To a certain extent, this reflects that the crimes committed were gender-specific, indicating the existence of a ghost bride market. This finding echoes the report in an ethnographic study which found that “the female corpse is a merchandise now. Usually, the buyer is a male and the female corpse is for sale” (Liu, 2009:54).
Characteristics of Corpses and Victims
It is extremely difficult to determine the characteristics of corpses because these individuals are dead. However, in a limited number of cases, we were able to identify some characteristics of 37 corpses and 4 victims. Close to half (48.6%) were newly buried corpses, which were buried within a period of 6 months before the crime was committed. About a quarter of the corpses’ (27%) graves or residences were in the same neighbourhood as the criminal’s residence. For instance, they lived in the same or the next village. Seven corpses (18.9%) were relatives of criminals. All four living persons who were victimised lacked the ability to protect themselves, such as children or the mentally retarded (Table 4).
Locations of Demand and Supply
Of the 84 cases, 83 mentioned the provinces where the crimes were committed, and 67 cases mentioned where the corpses were required for ghost marriages. Based on this information, we can construct the demand and supply sides for the corpses or victims for the arrangement of ghost marriages. On the demand side, the provinces with the highest demand for corpses were Shanxi and Shaanxi (40% and 31.4%, respectively; see Table 5). Situated in the region between Central and Northern China, these provinces are neighbouring each other (see red circle in Fig. 1), suggesting that a culture of ghost marriage has been established in this region.
On the supply side, the provinces with the highest supply of corpses were also Shanxi and Shaanxi (32.6% and 24.4%, respectively), followed by Henan (18.6%). Shanxi and Shaanxi topped both supply and demand lists. In terms of GDP, these two provinces were the poorest ethnic Han provinces. Although Inner Mongolia and Ningxia are also poor, they are ethnic minority-run self-autonomous regions. They are not ethnic-Han dominated, and thus the culture of ghost marriages may not be implanted into the culture of the ethnic minority groups.
Another observation is that quite a large number of crimes (18.6%) were committed in Henan; however, this area did not have a high demand for corpses, probably because Henan is a highly populated province that neighbours Shanxi and Shaanxi, the two provinces with a high demand for corpses (Table 5).
Locations of Buyers
When we investigated the specific locations of buyers, we found that approximately two-thirds came from villages (62.5%) (Table 6).
Prices of Corpses and Victims
Matching for the dead used to be free, but it costs more now than matching the living, ranging from several thousand to ten thousand RMB due to the lack of supply (Liu, 2009). Overall, our data reveal that the prices differ greatly among the corpses, ranging from RMB1,125 to RMB135,000, with an average price of RMB23,913. For living persons, the prices ranged from RMB14,000 to RMB70,000, with an average price of RMB 26,333 (Table 7). Interestingly, the fact that the average price for a living person is approximately the same as for a corpse suggests that perhaps majority of consumers may not favour living persons as this involves a highly serious crime: murder. As reported by Liu (2009), in the ghost bride market, the prices of the goods (corpses) are also dependent on age, whether they are dried or wet goods, and body type, such as wounds, intact or missing parts, or being in a state of decomposition. Among the 254 corpses and victims, 22% were resold by one buyer to another buyer (Table 8), indicating that they were treated as a commodity in the business market.
Case Study 1
To clarify the criminal business network of the ghost bride market, the GWC case is used as an illustration. As reported by Liu (2009), on 14 November 2006, a family in Nanzhuang Village spent RMB14,000 (see Fig. 2) for a ghost bride for a companion burial for their 53-year old son, GWC, who died from a car accident. The incident became involved in the case of serial killing. The killer, MUR, was a farmer. Between March and December of 2006, in order to sell corpses, MUR killed six individuals. The ghost bride of the GWC family was the fourth victim. This case exposed the market for ghost brides and a long supply chain. In this case, the ghost bride is the fourth place in the chain as the body had been resold twice.
The ghost bride was eventually delivered to the GWC family by GM1 for RMB14,000. Once GM1 heard that GWC family was looking for a ghost bride, GM1 was initially planning to sell the “dried good” (a body that is long dead, likely stolen from a grave) to the GWC family for RMB5,000 but the family declined, because it would be unfitting for their child. GM1 agreed to continue searching and to deliver a corpse by the day of the burial. GM1 got a “wet good” (fresh corpse) from another matchmaker, GM2, for RMB8,500 and managed to deliver it on time. GM2 bought the “good” from MUR, the killer, for RMB3,700. The person that connected GM1 with the GWC family was their nephew, NN, who received RMB1,000 from GM1 in return, as a referral fee (Fig. 2).
As reported by Liu (2009), MUR has been in the upstream portion of the “ghost bride” chain for the past 10 years. The ghost brides that he initially provided came from grave robberies. In 2006, MUR strangled a mentally handicapped female in the woods around the outskirts of the village by luring her with food. He brought the body home in a bag and buried it under a dog ranch in the dark. The other murder cases were committed in similar ways. Moreover, the ghost matchmakers originally worked as normal matchmakers, but after they discovered the new market for “ghost brides”, they changed occupations (Liu, 2009). As shown in Fig. 2, ghost matchmakers are situated at the central nodes of the criminal business networks. For instance, GM1 and GM2, utilising their social capital gained from the market, found the required “ghost bride” provider and the buyer.
Case Study 2
The crime occurred in a family in Shaanxi Province, which had adopted a baby girl many years ago. In 2013, the victim’s (i.e. the girl’s) mother asked her uncle to help her find a partner. The victim was aged 19 years at the time and was physically and mentally handicapped. The victim’s uncle asked matchmaker 1 to help him, but was unsuccessful. Matchmaker 1 asked matchmaker 2, who asked matchmaker 3 to help the victim get married. Matchmaker 3 asked leaders 1 and 2 for help. Leader 2 asked matchmaker 4 for help. At the same time, a family in Shanxi Province wanted their deceased son to ghost-marry and contacted matchmaker 4. The family indicated that wanted to offer RMB60,000 for the ghost marriage. Leaders 1 and 2, matchmakers 2, 3, and 4 all worked together to plan the ghost marriage.
Matchmaker 4 explained that the deceased’s family wanted a “dead body from the morgue” with an ID card, and a death certificate or other authorisation documents. Leader 1 approached a local hospital to make a fake death certificate and leader 2 was asked to raise money for the transaction (Fig. 3). He managed to raise RMB30,000 from various sources. Leader 1, and matchmakers 1 and 2 brought the victim’s identity documents to the hospital. Matchmaker 1 lied saying that she was the victim’s grandmother, and bribed hospital worker 1 and a doctor, so that the doctor would issue the death certificate. Hospital worker 1 told the doctor that his friend’s son had passed away and that he needed a death certificate. Leader 1 went to the doctor to give the victim’s identity documents and lied that he was the victim’s family member, and that the victim had passed away and needed a death certificate. The doctor did not check whether leader 1 was telling the truth and just issued the requested death certificate. For ease of work, hospital worker 2 stamped and authenticated the death certificate without checking. Both hospital worker 1 and the doctor received RMB1,000 as a service fee.
Matchmaker 3 prepared a transaction agreement for the ghost marriage. Leaders 1 and 2 and matchmakers 1 and 2 visited the victim’s family in Shaanxi Province. The victim’s uncle received RMB30,000 from the criminals and gave RMB20,000 to the victim’s parents, and RMB10,000 to the criminals as an agent fee. The victim’s father signed the agreement, implying that all involved parties agreed on the wedding. The victim was taken away by the criminals to the hospital in Shaanxi Province (Fig. 3). On the way, leader 1, assisted by matchmaker 2, unsuccessfully attempted to kill the victim. Leader 2 and matchmaker 1 simply did not participate in the killing. When the criminals arrived at the hospital, they wanted to place the victim temporarily in the morgue but hospital worker 1 refused. The criminals continued onward to meet the deceased’s family in Shanxi Province for the ghost marriage, but they were caught and arrested on the way. They were found guilty of various offences and were sentenced in court as shown in Table 9. The following is a reflective summary of their roles in the ghost marriage.
Leaders 1 and 2 received the most severe punishment, indicating that they were the mastermind and linchpin of the entire crime operation, respectively. They had intimate understanding of what they had to do to complete the ghost marriage. Based on the swiftness of the initial hospital visit, it is likely that they harnessed fraud and bribery as the main tactics to commit their crime. Their use of bribery and providing convincing actors in their fraudulent act highlights their knowledge of playing the game. However, leader 1’s failed murder attempt and leader 2’s insistence not to participate in the murder show that they likely did not have much experience committing violent crime.
Matchmakers 1 and 2 were specialised in arranging ghost brides. As matchmaker 1 enlisted the help of matchmaker 2, it is likely that they had a mutual understanding around operating their agency. Based on their role in the hospital visit operation, it is clear that they were willing to go to any lengths to commit the crime, even if it was fraudulent. Matchmaker 2’s willingness to help murder the victim exacerbated his motivation for the monetary gain they were to receive for a successful job. The duration of their sentence, which was comparatively longer than that of the other matchmakers involved reflects their criminality.
The initial communication between matchmakers 3 and 4 and the two leaders shows the existence of social capital among them. The two matchmakers limited their participation in the operation only to the legitimate side, suggesting their unwillingness to be involved in the crime. This was confirmed by their non-participation during the transfer of victims. However, the punishments they received demonstrate their sense of naivety in the risk faced by the ghost bride market.
The victim’s parents’ role in the crime is reflective of their desperate need for money and inability to take care of the handicapped victim anymore. The fact that the victim’s mother asked her uncle to organise a courtship for the victim suggests that he had large social capital and connections with local people. That the victim’s family knew that they would be selling their daughter, who was alive, into a ghost marriage solidifies the idea that ghost marriages survive in conservative areas of rural China.
The hospital workers were able to issue an official death certificate without authenticating the identity or the death of the deceased. This highlights the bureaucracy and corruptibility prevailing in the hospital system. Though they received the bribe and falsified the documents, the fact that their criminal sanctions were waived by the authorities exhibits tolerance of such misbehaviour in the medical field.