A funeral worth all the paper it was made of China reawakes to new money for old customs

INSIDE THE bubble of wealth that fills central Peking, Starbucks coffee houses and McDonald's restaurants litter the street corners. On the skyscraper-lined avenues, pricey mountain bikes compete for space with increasingly upmarket sedans.

But whatever development economists say about the trickle-down effect, there's been precious little trickling of wealth into the countryside surrounding China's capital.

In the village of Protecting the Tombs, only half an hour by car from the nearest Starbucks, peasant farmers still wear cloth shoes and faded Mao-style cotton jackets. Their courtyard homes are sparsely furnished, and a telephone - let alone the Internet connections that are the talk of the city - remains a new-fangled concept.

So if you want to catch up on what's going down, the only place to head for is the village store. The gloomy interior with its scattering of vegetables too bruised for city markets may not look too promising, but the rounded and greying shopkeeper, Mrs Wang, is the font of all local gossip.

When I ventured in, well- prepared for a rant on the desperately low market prices for agricultural produce this year, no one paid me the slightest attention - and this in a village where my blonde hair normally brings star billing in seconds.

With the lowered voices emanating from the huddle of elderly women on the steps of the store, it was clear that far bigger things were afoot. I eventually sloped off empty-handed for a walk through the decaying Ming dynasty concubine tombs that give the village its name.

Shortly before dusk the blowing of reedy pipes and the slow beat of drums had me running back, and into an ornate funeral procession that had started its painfully slow progress at the house in the centre of the village.

Now this was no ordinary village funeral procession - at the front was a full-sized paper horse complete with bridle, leading an equally enormous paper carriage.

Dozens of mourners dressed in white followed, taking a faltering step each time the man holding up the horse pushed it into a slow-motion canter to the left. I'd only ever seen such processions on films depicting China before the Communist Revolution in 1949, and judging by the gawping faces of villagers jostling for a view, I was not alone.

Before Mao Tse-tung came to power, relatives of the rich and important often had paper representations of their prized possessions (including the odd Model T Ford) and employed crowds of professional funeral-goers to beat their breasts at lengthy ceremonies.

But how did an 82-year-old farmer from the village of Protecting the Tombs with a few fruit trees to his name get such a grand farewell?

As darkness fell, and the plaintive procession made slow progress over the concrete floodway towards Mrs Wang's shop, she filled me in on the details that had had half the village gossiping all morning.

The horse, carriage, drummers and mourners came as a job lot from a township north of the mountains, and cost a shocking 1,200 yuan. As that is about half the annual income of a villager, the thrifty elder generation were up in arms at the extravagance, and desperate to know who had paid.

In the end, one of the dead man's grandchildren waiting tables in Peking appeared to have footed the bill. So, even though there are no obvious trappings of wealth in the village of Protecting the Tombs, that old trickle- down effect has reached at least one household.

Maybe we'll be seeing more of the paper horse and carriage in the future.