Li Guihua (second from right) and her family members mourn her daughter Wang Qi and nephew at the Cave of 10,000 Dead. Photos by Erik Nilsson / China Daily
Three years after a quake struck Sichuan province, keepers of the Cave of 10,000 Dead in Yingxiu town say mourners no longer wail as loudly as they used to. Erik Nilsson and Huang Zhiling report.
Li Guihua stops peeling bills off the stack of funerary money she's dropping into the flames, drops her face into the wad of cash she's clutching and sobs. Her family says the 41-year-old ethnic Tibetan farmer hasn't coped well with the loss of her 11-year-old daughter, Wang Qi, and her nephew of the same age, whom the couple calls their "son? The fourth-grade classmates were among about 400 children who died when Yingxiu Primary School collapsed in the 8.0-magnitude Wenchuan quake on May 12, 2008.
"She cries every time we come here," her husband Wang Weifu, 39, says.
The mother describes her late children between gasps.
"She was shy. He was brave."
The deceased girl's 17-year-old sister, Wang Yong, and 20-year-old cousin, Yang Wei, also return to the Cave of 10,000 Dead, a mass grave in Sichuan province's Yingxiu town in Wenchuan county, to mourn their lost siblings every Qingming (Tomb-Sweeping) Festival, which falls on a day between April 4 and 6 according to the lunar calendar.
"(Wang Qi) was always calm and obedient to the family. She helped wash the dishes," Yang recalls.
"My favorite memory of her is of the day her aunt got married and she put on her aunt's apron to help with the housework. She was so cute."
The family of farmers had driven from their home in Jinquan county in western Sichuan's Aba Tibetan and Qiang autonomous prefecture to join the thousands of mourners at the Yingxiu memorial during this year's Qingming Festival on April 5.
The Cave of 10,000 Dead is a half-hectare of hillside cornfield transformed into a mass grave when soldiers needed to bury about 6,000 bodies - nearly a third of Yingxiu's pre-quake population - to prevent post-disaster epidemics.
With nearly 9 percent of the 8.0-magnitude temblor's confirmed dead, there were simply too many corpses and too little time to lay the bodies to rest in the traditional way. So excavators carved trenches into which the military placed the nameless dead, cocooned in body bags, in clusters according to where they were discovered, then covered them with lye and earth.
It was then festooned with epigraphs, flanked with Tibetan prayer flags and opened as a memorial.
"We don't know where our children are buried," Li says. "They could be anywhere in the slope."
Witnessing such sorrow daily was part of the job for Hu Jianguo during the three years he worked as a keeper of the Cave of 10,000 Dead.
"Every person visiting the cemetery was the saddest person in the world," the 71-year-old says.
"One group came after another. You could hear them wailing before they got to the gate."
He says he often thinks of a weeping young woman who lit three cigarettes and inserted them into the mound like incense sticks.
"She said, 'I've come to see you big brother. We were so close. And I hope we can be brother and sister again if there is an afterlife'."
Hu's former colleague, Ma Fuyang, who retired on September, 2010, says he will always remember an elderly man from Songpan county in the Aba Tibetan autonomous prefecture, whose son died when the Yingxiu power plant collapsed.
"He was so heartsick. He just sat in his house in Songpan, facing the Cave of 10,000 Dead, saying, 'My son, my son, my poor son'," the 67-year-old recalls. "He would return every Qingming Festival."
Much of the mourning is of students. About three quarters of the primary school's students did not survive the disaster.
Hu recalls that Yingxiu Primary School teacher Qing Xiuchun, who had survived being crushed in the classroom's rubble, would often sit silently in the Cave of 10,000 Dead.
He says she and four young children once brought a box of students' lunar New Year cards for the school's deceased headmaster Peng Zewen.
"She told me she just can't cope with how many teachers and students had died," Hu recalls. "She wakes up in the middle of the night, crying."
Ma recalls regular visits by Li Qingyun, an employee of the Wolong Township Rural Credit Cooperative in Wenchuan county. Li frequently mourns his 8-year-old girl and wrote on a tombstone, "The sorrow of my family can never be forgotten".
While Ma can't read the epitaph - he is illiterate - he says he and Hu understand the feeling.
Ma's 12-year-old granddaughter, Ma Hongyue, and Hu's 11-year-old grandson, Hu Zhengjun, also died in the school.
Hu recalls his grandson said several times on the day of the quake, "Grandpa, I really will go", to which the old man replied, "You are so strange".
His grandson was a good boy, who started cooking for the family at age 6, Hu says.
"But his parents didn't like him and would hit him when they were angry," he says. "Now, he's safe from their beatings forever."
Ma's and Hu's replacements - cousins Ma Fulu, 67, and Ma Fulun, 76 - also have grandchildren in the cemetery. Ma Fulu lost an 11-year-old granddaughter and 9-year-old grandson. Ma Fulun lost a 10-year-old granddaughter.
"Sometimes, I feel sad at the thought of my grandchildren," Ma Fulu says, as he wades through a trash pit of red firecracker husks.
His thoughts turn to his surviving relatives when he discovers a pair of blue jeans in a bag.
"Nobody has even worn these," he says, examining them closely. "I wonder if they'd fit someone in my family."
While the previous keepers say they were moved by - and often tried to console - mourners, the new keepers have a different outlook.
"The people who come here are from different counties. We don't know who's who. We don't ask them any questions. They're just too sad, so we don't talk to them," Ma Fulu says.
"People cry every day here. We don't know their stories."
Ma Fulun says he has become numb to the mourners.
"I don't feel sad when I see others cry," Ma Fulun says. "This is my job."
Ma Fuyang, the previous keeper, says there have been moments where it felt crushing.
"I became very depressed seeing so many people crying so much," Ma says.
"I console myself by remembering the days the government, soldiers and people from all walks of life helped us."
He recalls that upon returning to Yingxiu after a 12-day hike from Maoxian county, where he was working as a cook for a home decoration company before the quake, he salvaged some rice and bacon from the rubble to give the soldiers. When the military stood by its tradition of accepting nothing from the people, he took the treats to the firefighters, who also refused.
"I got so angry," Ma says. "I said, 'It's not poisoned. If you think it's poisoned, I'll taste it first'. They had to accept then."
Today, Ma and Hu live among about 800 residents in Yuzixi village, a shantytown that clings to the mountain overlooking the Cave of 10,000 Dead.
His dwelling is a wood-plank structure assembled over two rescue tents. Rain patters on the thatched-bamboo roof, and the pitted earthen floor has been hardened and polished by so many footsteps over the years.
There is no running water, but bare wires twisting like vines around the structure's support beams supply electricity. The lid of an electric cooking pot nods and belches out steam atop a polished stone slab that serves as the counter.
Ma must navigate a path that wriggles down the mountainside and melts into a stew of mud and stones during frequent downpours, passing the Cave of 10,000 Dead, to reach town. On the other side of the memorial is the new 90-square-meter house the government has built for his family, into which he hopes to move soon.
Ma says he often stops by the cemetery between his old and new dwellings.
"These days, fewer people cry so hard," he says.
"With the passing of time, it's hard to be so sad."