Story

China: Life After Death

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He Quangui, a former gold miner, died on August 1 from complications related to silicosis, an irreversible but preventable disease he contracted from years of working in the mines. Image by Sim Chi Yin.

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“Right after he died, every night I dreamt of him. I saw him. I was washing his hair. I was helping him take a pee. I was piggy-backing him. Sometimes he asks me for money to play cards. Sometimes we speak, sometimes we don’t. For the past month, I haven’t seen him as much...“When he was still alive, since last year or so, I had a recurring dream. He and I would be out strolling together happily. We’d walk and walk and then in the end it would be just me walking by myself. And I could not find him no matter how I tried.“One time, I rode my motorbike to go bring him back. I said, ‘Guazi, let’s go home.’ He answered me. But when I got home I was alone on my bike. Another time, I dreamt I phoned him and there was no answer. I called again and I could no longer get through…”—Mi Shixiu, wife of the late gold miner He Quangui. Image by Sim Chi Yin. China, 2015.

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“There’s an old belief here: In the netherworld, the dead person will keep walking until he’s very thirsty and hungry. There’s an old lady at the end of the walk, selling porridge. The porridge, once eaten, will make you forget everything about the world, your life before death, all your loved ones.“[My husband] always said to me, ‘no matter how hungry and thirsty I am, I will not eat or drink that porridge. Otherwise, I won’t be able to remember you.’“I made him promise that he wouldn’t drink or eat it. But thinking about it now, in that place, I think it would not be up to him…”—Mi Shixiu. Image by Sim Chi Yin. China, 2015.

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“I wonder if he knows that you are here today. I think you must feel very uncomfortable being here today. Usually when you come he’s here to talk to you, joke with you. He’s especially happy when you come to visit. He’s not here today. If he was talking to you now, for sure you’d be uncomfortable and your head would feel like it’s bursting...“Previously, he said to me he wanted to reincarnate as my child, so that he could come back and repay me. I took such good care of him. I can say that without regret. I really looked after him well. The one regret I have is that I never got to buy him good clothes, to let him dress well when he died. He only had lousy old clothes to take with him…“He went too fast. Every time I’m sad, I have pain here [points to the middle of her chest].”—Mi Shixiu. Image by Sim Chi Yin. China, 2015.

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“In his final months, we always slept with a red light on. Now I sleep with either the big fluorescent light on, or the TV on. Otherwise, I can’t sleep at all. When [our son] Jinbo is home from school, we sleep together in the bed. He sleeps on the side where his father used to. I sleep on my usual side of the bed.“Only twice I have felt scared, when Jinbo was not here. One time, I felt like He was quietly sleeping behind me. Another time, I felt that he was pressing the top of my head and shoulders.”—Mi Shixiu. Image by Sim Chi Yin. China, 2015.

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“I haven’t thrown out that chair—his chair—and his cushion. And his medicines… It’s like I worry he might still want to take his medicines. As long as I don’t throw them out, it’s as if he’s still around…“I burnt some of his X-rays during the prayers we did every seven days after his death—so that, with them, he can go get medical help in the other world.”—Mi Shixiu. Image by Sim Chi Yin. China, 2015.

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“There’s no relief in my father’s death, even though he had been sick for so long. There’s only a void. I used to be able to talk to him about everything. He used to solve problems for me…“My father has just died. Of course I feel uncomfortable accepting another man in our family. If my mother insists on marrying that man, I will call him ‘uncle’ and never ‘dad.’“It poured very heavily that night of my father’s wake. I think my dad didn’t go away well in death. He had a hard life right till the end.”—He Jinbo, 20, son of He Quangui. Image by Sim Chi Yin. China, 2015.

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"t was so sudden. He looked well after coming back from the hospital. It was only four days after we got back. He ate a big bowl of rice for our regular lunch around 4 or 5 pm. It was a very hot day. He wanted to take a nap. He was not comfortable lying down so he sat up. He asked me to tie his usual blanket with a piece of string so that it could be used, bundled, as his backrest. I lay down for a nap too, my feet to his side. He tickled me and played with me. Then in resting, he suddenly sat up and then fell on his left side and I could not wake him up again.”—Mi Shixiu. Image by Sim Chi Yin. China, 2015.

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“I was so reliant on him. I didn’t have to use my mind for anything. Now I have to, and I find that actually I can handle a lot of things. Previously I’d ask him everything, even when I’d go to the market, he’d plan everything nicely for me, what to buy, how much to spend. Now, even if I can’t cope, I simply have to.“He kept telling me when he was alive: when I’m not here anymore just imagine that I’ve gone away to earn money for our family.“But how could I? It’s different. If he had just gone away to work, we’d have something to look forward to…”—Mi Shixiu. Image by Sim Chi Yin. China, 2015.

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“When he died, we couldn’t find enough able-bodied men in our courtyard and neighborhood to carry his coffin uphill. We needed 30 men. Because all the men in our courtyard are either dead or ill from silicosis, we hired men from outside; we paid them each with a 50-renminbi red packet, two packs of cigarettes, and a pair of Liberation brand shoes.”—Mi Shixiu. Image by Sim Chi Yin. China, 2015.

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“When he was alive, he always asked me to find someone else who could be good to me after his death…"There are more than 10 men who have expressed interest in me, chatting with me online or coming to the house to visit. I’m considering one. But first I want him to go for a medical checkup to be sure he doesn’t have silicosis. Even if it’s very mild silicosis, I won’t accept it. Otherwise I will go mad.”—Mi Shixiu. Image by Sim Chi Yin. China, 2015.

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“I am thinking of remarrying because I have no other choice. My elderly father-in-law, already 79, has been in poorer and poorer health. I can’t manage looking after him myself. I am also not in good health myself, and we need to have an income-earner. My son is still in school and is not married yet; we’ll need to prepare a house for him so that he can get a wife. I have no other choice…“If I was 50, I wouldn’t look for a new husband. I would just look after Jinbo’s children, but I’m not 50…“It’s not that I will forget him soon. We had been married for 20 years. How can I possibly forget him?”—Mi Shixiu. Image by Sim Chi Yin. China, 2015.

The night after gold miner He Quangui died, it rained so hard water crushed the tents sheltering villagers and friends who had come to mourn him.

“Maybe that was his way of showing his displeasure that we were holding a big, traditional funeral for him despite his clear instructions not to spend too much money,” his wife, Mi Shixiu, says.

Whatever the skies were trying to say, He’s family have mourned him every seven days, for seven times since his death, as is the custom in their area of Shaanxi province.

On November 8, they marked his 100-day death anniversary—sometimes believed to be the moment the spirit of the dead departs and when the living try to move on. I was there with the family for a simple ceremony at He’s unmarked grave, on a hillside a short hike up from their home in the remote mountains of southern Shaanxi. His son Jinbo, 20, carried up on a tray three bowls of rice and three dishes, offered his father incense and firecrackers, and bowed before his grave. I burned some paper money for the man I had documented and befriended over the past four years, as he deteriorated in his decade-long fight against silicosis.

He was one of an estimated 6 million workers in China who have some form of pneumoconiosis, the country’s most prevalent occupational disease. Workers who blast rock get the illness when the dust lodged in their lungs from years earlier causes the organ to harden, decreasing their capacity to breathe. While not terminal, the disease kills many migrant workers in China who have poor social, financial, and legal safety nets.

He, who was 42 when he died, was featured on ChinaFile previously, in a video open letter he delivered to Chinese president Xi Jinping, speaking in his local accent, as one Shaanxi man to another.

His story, and that of his loving family, was published as a photo essay in international and Chinese outlets just a few months before his death, bringing in donations of cash as well as a wheelchair with which He was able leave the house for a “walk” twice.

Over the years, I had visited the family and the gold mines about a dozen times. He had learned to use a smart phone and often sent me messages and pictures. Recently, he had mastered taking selfies and started sending those too. On my latest visit, the family was still in mourning but also dealing with the harsh realities of rural life. I recorded some of the thoughts and emotions expressed by his wife and son which moved me deeply.