One of many moving scenes in his brilliant Platform (Zhantai 站台, 2000) comes when the illiterate Sanming, desperate for a job, turns up to work at a coal mine for a daily wage of 10 kuai. His friend reads out for him the brief, shocking, contract he has to sign, opening:
Contract of life and death: 1) Life and death are a matter of fate, prosperity depends on Heaven. I am willing to work in Gaojiazhuang mine. Management accepts no blame for accidents.
Just that opening phrase Life and death are a matter of fate, prosperity depends on Heaven resounds with the peasant mindset, if less so with modern law. The contract, and Sanming’s uncomprehending acceptance of it, are at once convincing and tragicomic.
Shanxi province, apart from its fine household Daoists, is also notable for its mining accidents. From my book on neighbouring Shaanbei:
Back in the county-town, returning to our hostel one evening, we switch on the TV to find a documentary about coal-mining accidents, which are reported nightly. There are some rather fine investigative programmes on TV these days, and the main theme of this one is how the response of the village Communist Party leadership to the disaster, rather than considering improving safety measures, has been to give funds to construct a new village temple in the hope of divine protection. OK, in this case the programme happens to fit into an agenda of rationalism against superstition, a view we sometimes feel inclined to challenge, but tonight I can only go along with the presenter’s lament.
Only later did I put together further pieces of a grisly jigsaw. Under the tradition of posthumous marriage (minghun), revived in northwest China, within five years after the death of an unmarried male over the age of 15 sui, a suitable dead unmarried female is found. Indeed, shawm bands often perform, and a Daoist may officiate. The unnatural deaths of many men in unregulated mines were bad enough, but newspaper reports in 2007 revealed that women (often disabled, or from poorer provinces) were being murdered to cater for this market.