Funeral stripping is a decades-old 'religious practice' in Taiwan

Funeral stripping is a decades-old 'religious practice' in Taiwan

Earlier this week China launched a crackdown on the bizarre practice of families that hire strippers for funerals, reportedly in order to entice more mourners to come and pay their respects.


Key points:

  • Funeral stripping is related to a broader Chinese concept know as "renao", meaning "hot and noisy"
  • It's well known in Taiwan, marking the influence the country has on China
  • Researcher says behind the stripping there's actually "a really tight community"

But while it is a relatively recent trend and controversial phenomenon in China, it is apparently a decades-old and well-established practice in other places in Asia, like Taiwan.

"It's become part of institutionalised religious practice in Taiwan," University of Southern Carolina anthropologist Marc L Moskowitz told ABC News.

Several years back, Mr Moscowitz filmed a 2011 documentary on the bizarre folk tradition, called Dancing for the Dead: Funeral Strippers in Taiwan.

"It really hit public notice in Taiwan in 1980, long before any events in mainland China had been noticed," he said.

"I think it's part of a larger steer of influence Taiwan's had on China including pop music, fashion, food and karaoke and religion."

But compared to rural China's foray into funeral strippers, the practice is big business in Taiwan.

The dancers there perform on top of so-called Electric Flower Cars — trucks that act as stages, and form part of the funeral procession.

One procession in the city of Chiayi last year brought traffic to a standstill, when 50 women dancing on poles mounted to Jeeps rolled through town for the funeral of a local politician, the BBC reported at the time.

'Hot and noisy' funerals

Mr Moscowitz said the reasoning behind the hiring of strippers at funerals — the desire to draw bigger crowds — is related to a broader Chinese concept called "renao", meaning "hot and noisy".

In the West, the atmosphere at rock concerts is a good comparison.

"This is the idea that any public event should have a hustle-and-bustle to it to be noteworthy," Professor Moskowitz said.

"In Chinese culture, everything connects to that — if you go to a beach, you want loud speakers, you want a lot of people around for it to be fun.

"Drawing a crowd gives the event a feeling of being noteworthy; more people show up, which shows respect for the dead."

While experts quoted in state media related the practice to "fertility worship", Mr Moscowitz said while that is definitely in the mix, it's not necessarily front of mind for participants in the proceedings.

"My understanding is that it's more people like me — professors of anthropology — who are trying to get into some of the more interesting nuances of the symbols of that behaviour," Professor Moskowitz said.

Taiwan 'fairly tolerant' of funeral strippers

China is trying to shore up efforts to end the practice across 19 rural cities, spanning four provinces, but Taiwan has taken a more moderate approach.

"They've tried to limit full nudity, they've tried to limit it taking place in the middle of the larger urban centres, but they've been fairly tolerant of the practice in rural communities," Professor Moskowitz said.

"I think in China, maybe the government is a little bit more comfortable with monitoring its citizens' activities. It might see itself more as a father figure, it's trying to instil a sense of morality into its populace."

The fact that the practice appears to have originated in Taiwan may also be concerning for Chinese authorities.

"Maybe in China, there is a recognition that this is coming form Taiwan, so it's seen as something that wasn't central to Chinese thought in tradition," Professor Moskowitz said.

"Whereas in Taiwan, I think part of the reaction has been, 'wow, this is something that has come up naturally in our own religious tradition'; it's part of Taiwanese identity, to that degree.

"There's so much going on beyond the stripping, there's fabulous singing and dancing and humour … they're a really tight community that people maybe look down on a little bit."