ZIWEI VILLAGE, China — The Li family wonders how to spend Saturday’s annual Tomb-Sweeping Day. The three Li brothers usually visit their mother’s grave in their rugged village in northeast China, but absent this year is the youngest brother — a passenger aboard the missing Malaysian airliner.
Should they add 34-year-old Li Zhixin to those they should mourn? If so, how would they do that without a grave? And what if he is still alive?
Their state of limbo reflects one of the emotional struggles for the families of Chinese passengers aboard Malaysia Airlines Flight 370. The culture places a strong emphasis on recovering the body of a dead person before closure can properly begin.
Li Zhixin, one of hundreds of thousands of Chinese men who venture abroad each year in search of better wages, was returning home from a disappointing 10-month trip seeking construction work in Singapore when his flight from Kuala Lumpur to Beijing vanished on March 8.
Authorities piecing together scant satellite and radar data believe the jet carrying 239 people, two-thirds of them Chinese, crashed in the Indian Ocean. No trace of the plane has been found despite an intensive, international search.
“You know, you either have the living body or the corpse when accounting for a person,” said his father, Li Zhou’er, 72. “But now we don’t know where he is.”
“There is nothing I can do but shed tears,” he said. “We just want to see the body and bring him home.”
The family home — five plain, adjoining rooms in a row — faces a mud yard opening into a narrow alley on the edge of the village, a three hours’ drive southwest of Beijing. The smell of freshly plowed earth fills the air as expansive wheat fields begin to turn a lush green in the early spring.
Farmers here scratch out a meager existence. Posted in the village and surrounding hamlets are signs advertising agents who arrange work overseas, with the promise of higher wages.
“We don’t know what we are going to tell our mother this year,” said second son, Li Luxin, his brows furrowed as he sat on a plank bed in a Spartan room with a cement floor.
On Tomb-Sweeping Day, families typically visit the ancestral burial plot to clean the graves and present offerings of fruit and burn paper money. Some set off firecrackers for good luck and to drive off evil spirits. Such traditions are strong in rural areas, though they are falling by the wayside as people migrate to the cities.
The Chinese believe the body to be the carrier of one’s soul, said Han Gaonian, a folklorist at Lanzhou-based Northwest Normal University. “If you have the body, then the soul has a place to be,” he said.
Those presumed dead and whose bodies cannot be returned usually get a grave with their clothes buried, Han said.
But there is no ritual of mourning for those whose fates are unknown.
“People still hope they may return alive,” Han said, referring to the passengers on Flight 370. “And in some rural areas, families may hold some ritual of calling back the soul of the missing, alive or dead.”
As the youngest of three sons, Li Zhixin was doted on by his parents and older brothers. But he had to go to work like the rest of them once he turned a teenager, after only six years of school.
He was married by the time he turned 20 and lived with his wife and two children — a 12-year-old daughter and 6-year-old son — in the nearby city of Dingzhou.
Li Zhixin never spoke of any grand ambitions but focused on simply providing for his family, his brother said.
“His wife hardly makes any money, so the family really depends on Zhixin financially,” Li Luxin said. “City living is costly with the children going to school.”
Construction workers in Chinese cities typically earn the equivalent of $700-$800 a month, but they hear tantalizing stories of much better pay in foreign countries where low-skilled laborers are lacking. Hundreds of thousands go overseas each year, leaving their families behind. At the end of 2013, about 853,000 Chinese laborers were working overseas, according to the Commerce Ministry.
On Flight 370 alone, eight men from the Dingzhou municipal region of 1 million that includes Ziwei village were returning from contract work in Singapore.
Li Zhixin had informed his family he was going to Singapore — his first trip abroad — only after making all the arrangements. He had borrowed about $3,000 to pay an agent who lined up a construction job there, his brother said. Such fees usually include the round-trip ticket.
“He was told he could make as much as 300 yuan ($50) a day,” Li Luxin said.
But he was soon disappointed because there was not enough work, the brother said.
“He regretted going there and told his wife’s brother over the phone that he was often idle with no work and no income,” he said. “Before he came back this time, he said he would never go abroad again because he had made no money this time.”
The father and eldest son, Li Jingxin, traveled to Beijing the day after the plane went missing. But they were frustrated by the lack of information provided by airline officials, and the father returned home a few days later.
“Pigs cherish their piglets, dogs cherish their puppies, and we humans cherish our children,” he said. “There has not been a day that I do not miss my child.”