An odd custom: New York Times' shallow coverage of Chinese policeman's funeral

Religious "ghosts" pop in and out of the New York Times' coverage of the funeral of Wenjian Liu, one of two police officers killed by ambush in New York on Dec. 20. Although Chinese people have lived in New York since at least the mid-18th century, the Times seems puzzled on how and how much to add.

Some of the reporting reads almost like one of those travelogues from a couple of generations ago, head-scratching over "those" peoples' odd customs. Here's some stuff from the advance story -- which, yes, uses the word "customs":

Officer Liu will be honored at a funeral home with Buddhist monks praying. Mourners will burn ceremonial paper money and objects in front of his photograph — riches, according to Chinese custom, for the afterlife.

Later, the Times adds some dabs with the help of Hugh Mo, a Chinese former deputy police commissioner.

At a traditional Chinese funeral, mourners wail and sob throughout. Some fall prostrate on the ground. Many attendees pay their respects and leave, rather than staying for the full service. Eulogies are not usually given.
“The Catholic funeral is a celebration,” Mr. Mo said. “The person is going to a better place, the person is going to be seeing St. Peter. A Chinese funeral is not a celebration, it is a mourning.”
While Officer Ramos’s wife appeared “courageous and dignified in the face of such great loss,” containing her emotions during her husband’s funeral on Saturday, Mr. Mo said, “if you look at a typical Chinese funeral, that is not the way to behave."

Right. It's an exotic Chinese custom to wail and show expansive grief at a funeral. No other ethnic groups ever do that.

The actual coverage is likewise timid about the religion angle. It has a lot about the cold rain and the officers "marching in unison, their white-gloved hands swinging in metronomic rhythm." The religious stuff? Most of that was planned for a "Chinese ceremony led by Buddhist monks." The most we get is in the last of the 22 paragraphs:

In another room, Chinese mourners performed a typical ritual, folding pieces of paper known as joss into shapes resembling gold ingots. Uniformed police officers fed the joss into a roaring fireplace next to an altar that held burning incense and a photo of Officer Liu, toward which many bowed three times.

This time, no source is named, and the newspaper offers no further explanation. Some obvious questions: "Where did that come from? Is it really Buddhist? And BTW, which monk is officiating? May I talk to him?"

The Times follows suit in one of the final stories on the funeral. It's big on the blue bows on trees and telephone poles, and on the "choreography of bagpipes and motorcycles, pallbearers and helicopter flyover."

The article says that Liu's family carried incense to the cemetery; "by Chinese tradition, it embodies the spirit of the deceased and stays lit during the entire trip. The family then stuck the incense in the ground at the grave site." It adds that Liu’s father "praised his son for loyalty to the family, a dedication in keeping with Confucian practice, calling him 'a filial piety son.' "

Wait a minute. We've been talking Buddhism all this time. How did "Confucian practice" enter into it? And why didn't anyone at the Times wonder?

If the Liu family wouldn't talk, about some Buddhist leader or scholar? It's easy to find someone through directories like this one. There's even a museum in New York dedicated to Chinese-Americans.

There are Buddhists and there are Buddhists, you know. Even in China, traditions vary, including Ch'an (meditative), Pure Land (devotional) and Tibetan (centered on the authority of the Lamas). The Web has some decent introductions to Chinese Buddhism, such as and China Highlights, even Encyclopedia Britannica. They could help reporters ask better questions.

Chinese also tend to blend Buddhism with facets of Taoism and Confucianism. That would likely explain why Liu's father chose to speak of him in Confucian terms.

The Times could have also gone to Hunter College right in Manhattan, home to Professor Peter Kwong, who has written several books about Chinatown. In fact, one of its reporters did: Kwong is one of the sources for a Saturday story on the rise of Asians in the New York Police Department.

That story is long and sophisticated. It details the percentage of Chinese and other Asians in the NYPD. It notes a communication gap between Chinese officers, who usually speak Mandarin, and most New York Chinese, who speak the Fuzhou dialect. And it says that Chinese-Americans are suspicious of public servants, even Chinese police.

Now, why couldn't we get that level of understanding in the funeral coverage?

"The fact that Officer Liu’s burial will include both sets of customs is proof of how diverse the city’s police ranks have become," the Times advance story says. Evidently, that diversity is in short supply in the newsroom itself. And curiosity seems to have ebbed with the newspaper's recent staff layoffs.

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