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Dead Man Returns from His Grave

16 April 2007

30-year old Chinese man Tang Jiangshan (唐江山) has been seen as a legend for past twenty-four years in some part of Hainan Province (海南省), the second largest island of China in the southern tip of the country, but it is until quite recently his legendary story becomes widely known in other parts of China. The reason for him becoming a legend is not due to the way in which he lives but the fashion in which he died. We say he died, because he is alive now – he died long before he was born.

When he was about 3, that is year 1979, just 3 years out of the ten-year Cultural Revolution chaos, he started to show sign of his linguistic talent: he not only spoke his mother tongue fluently but could tell tales in another dialect that he had never been exposed to.

Little Boy Tang Jiangshan

But what set him miles apart from any other child genius is the highly creative nature of his tale that would make any fantasy novelist or new age guru look pale in comparison. “Back then in September 1967,” the three-year old would begin in a reflective tone, referring to a time at the fanatic height of the Revolution, 3x3 years prior to the formation of his current being, “I was village Youth League secretary and militia leader, and my name was Chen Mingdao (陳明道) and my dad is called Dandie (三爹). One day we eight guys went out to buy diesel fuel for village rice-mill machine, we were ambushed by a gang from a neighbouring village, and I was stabbed in the back of my head and the left side of my tummy, and hit in the back by a bullet. I died.”

Nobody took his story seriously even though he indeed bears a distinctive mark in his belly ever since he was born that resembles a scar from gunshot wound. It’s just a birthmark with an ugly-than-usual appearance, he was told. But the little boy kept spinning his old yarn for the next 3 years until he was 6. After numerous failed attempts at persuading his father to bring him to visit Sandie, he was fed up. The self-claimed former militia leader developed a new fighting strategy: he began hunger strike. This self-harming approach has helped many great men and women in history to secure a victory in their battle, and when little Tang gave it a try, the success was equally dazzling. His daddy gave in.

It was only a 160-kilometre journey from their Mill-Not Village (不磨村 - think the irony in the name of the village) in Gancheng Township (感城镇) of East City (东方市) to Sandie’s Yellow Jade Village (黄玉村) in Dan County (儋县). The trip was at a brisk pace and proceeded smoothly until they reached North Gate River (北门江) near the Yellow Jade. Tang junior suddenly seemed to be gripped by terror and begged Tang senior to find a boat to ferry them across the waterway as fast as possible. “I was killed here,” the little boy asserted.

When the father and the son finally arrived at the village, they created quite a spectacle. The boy went to call an old man Sandie and told him he was his dead son. That poor man was utterly unprepared for a shock like this. His dead son returned, bringing with him a man who is the dad of his son – imagine! In Sandie’s memory Chen Mingdao was a 20 year-old fully grown-up man, tall and strong, now being face to face with this mini replica, he was confused, very confused. So the boy went on to identify the bed he once slept and the items he once used to convince the old man he was not an impostor. Finally he found his memorial tablet (牌位) in the family shrine and asked Sandie to throw it away. “I’m no longer a spirit, I’m a human again,” he announced proudly.

Eventually Sandie cuddled the son who returned form the grave, and cried. And the son cried more. And the son’s dad Tang senior also cried. When the villages heard two men and a boy cry, they went to investigate, and all cried.

While crying, the little boy spotted among the crowd a thirty-some woman and said she was his girlfriend in his past life. The woman indeed was, but now she had grown old enough to be his mother, so she kept nodding and kept weeping. What an extraordinary reunion, all thought to themselves and all said to one another, so everyone cried a bit louder and longer.

Chen Mingdao's girlfriend and Tang Jiangshan

Ever since the sudden death of his only son, Sandie also lost his grieving wife and was reduced to a lonely figure surviving on the charity of the villagers. But from that day on, his life changed. Tang returned to visit him frequently, sometimes with the rest of the Tang family, sometimes on his own, later, sometimes with his wife and, still later, sometimes with his kids. Together, with the help of the relatives and villagers at the Yellow Jade, Tang and his family took a good care of Sandie’s physical and financial needs, until 19 years later, in 1998, the old man past away. In his final moment, his born-again son was by his bedside.

Tang Jiangshan today

It is a couplet composed by the villagers of the Yellow Jade, paying tribute to Chen Mingdao’s extraordinary devotion to the welfare of his poor father which they believe is the reason for him being able to remember his past life so clearly after he is reincarnated, supposedly, as Tang Jiangshan.

Tang family today: Tang senior and his wife, Tang and his wife, Tang's kids

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