Still from a National Geographic video. Yes, that National Geographic.

Video still from a National Geographic Video. Yes, that National Geographic. Who knew?

Picture yourself at a funeral. It’s a somber event filled with mourners. Filled with grief, you look over toward the casket and see a voluptuous young woman grinning seductively as she removes her bra. Great funeral or greatest funeral? Well, if you’re in China or Taiwan, which may or may not be a part of China and we certainly take no stance in cross-strait relations, naked ladies gyrating by the graveside is just part of the mourning process.

In fact, strippers at funerals in the People’s Republic have become so prevalent that the government is cracking down. China’s Ministry of Culture announced recently that it plans to work hand-in-hand with local police to halt the practice of scantily clad ladies shaking what their mama gave them to honor the dead. Over in Taiwan the practice went underground after a ban on full nudity in the 1980s but shows no signs of stopping, especially in the countryside.

It’s a bit of a strange topic. So strange, that of the dozen or so China experts I called, no one was willing to go on the record. We even tried Karl Pilkington. No dice. So what you’re about to read is gleaned from news articles and documentaries about the subject.

While funeral strippers might seem strange to Westerners, it squares up with Chinese cultural traditions regarding the afterlife. In China, it’s not uncommon to bury the family lush with a cache of hooch for afterlife partying. The Chinese burn “hell money” for ghosts who need a little extra scratch beyond the grave. This is how a desire to please one’s ancestors turned into strippers performing in front of the deceased’s wife and grandchildren.

The Chinese have a “go big or go home” attitude about funerals. In fact, they hire mourners (a practice called “kusangren”) to come in and beef up the numbers. Even more traditional and reserved funerals have loud music because a funeral that doesn’t draw a lot of people and create a big racket is considered a bit of a disgrace. Prior to strippers, something called “funeral wailers” were brought in to sing the praises of the dead and pack the seats. Sometime in the late-1800s strippers started to replace this more traditional form of entertainment at funerals.

Strippers at Chinese funerals serve three different groups, all of which are important to the local mindset when it comes to afterlife celebrations. First, there are the deceased themselves. Similar to how a Catholic might pray to Saint Anthony to find his lost car keys, so will a Chinese family member pray to their dead ancestors for favor in areas regarded too mundane for higher gods. The strippers are there to provide entertainment for your lecherous uncle who is now in the ground, which is why they often dance right by the grave.

In addition to the dead, strippers are shaking their tail feathers to amuse “low” gods who are considered to have much the same appetites as us mere mortals. So the local temple god likes a good girlie show as much as the next guy. Not to mention that the local place of worship might like all the cash that comes in when a lot of people pack a funeral.

Which brings us to the last group the strippers are there for: the living. As we mentioned, bigger is better in Chinese funeral culture. And few things are going to pull in the punters quite like a lovely young lass in a schoolgirl outfit she doesn’t plan to wear for very long. The practice is largely a working-class one and thus, is more prevalent in the southern areas of Taiwan and the rural mainland. In an interview with the Taipei Times, documentarian and anthropologist Marc L. Moskowitz notes that the sharpest critics of funeral strippers are educated, urban males, which raises the specter of class snobbery.

There’s an interesting tension between the lurid display of flesh and the overall sexual conservatism of China. And indeed, not everyone is thrilled about the practice. The Chinese do not, as some Westerners do, have the attitude that what happens between consenting adults is fair game. There’s a sense of shared cultural responsibility leading some to believe that naked chicks dancing on the back of a truck in front of very young children has a corrosive impact on society at large. Jiao Wenjie was the first politician in Taiwan to introduce legislation regulating funeral strippers.

On the mainland, the practice is strictly verboten, filed under prostitution as one of the “three vices,” alongside gambling and drug abuse. State-run press is critical of the practice, with the Global Times saying that, “Having exotic performances of this nature at funerals highlights the trappings of modern life in China, whereby vanity and snobbery prevail over traditions.”

Curiously, the practice is more common in China and Taiwan’s rural areas than the big cities; the reason being the all-important need to attract mourners to the funeral. In a big city, it’s far easier to get a big turnout. The promise of strippers in Asia’s hamlets, however, is often the best and most reliable way to pack them in from miles around.

The practice isn’t limited to funerals. Electric Flower Carts, the touring troupes who perform at funerals, also make appearances at temple festivals, civic holidays and even political stump speeches.

Who knew a country with so many people would harbor an obsession with making sure there are so many other people around?