Fairbank Center: Chinese Religions Workshop: Digging up the Chinese Dead: Finding and Theorizing Displacement in Death


Monday, December 7, 2015, 10:00am to 5:00pm


CGIS-S030, 1730 Cambridge Street, Cambridge, MA

Digging up the Chinese Dead: Finding and Theorizing Displacement in Death
Chinese Religions Workshop, December 7, 2015

If care of the dead is firmly tied to social and geographic emplacement in most Chinese societies, it does not necessarily follow that dead bodies are static. Alongside the historical development of rituals, procedures, and networks for moving bodies to their proper places rest legal statutes and moral imprecations attesting to the fear of the exposed or desecrated corpse. Grave removal and rapid shifts in the space allocated the dead has received particular attention in the mass media during recent years, but it has been a periodic feature of Chinese life whenever economic and social dislocation or state-building imperatives rise to the fore. What happens in such moments of extreme change? Can the dead find new sorts of proper places? Have developmental imperatives rendered the dead homeless, or have they spawned ritual innovation? Is concern over the displaced dead simply a metaphor for the problems of the living, or does it raise another set of cosmological and ritual complications altogether? What is the proper scale and framework for understanding such phenomena? This workshop will attempt to shed empirical, methodological, and theoretical light on the often murky topic of displacement in death.

Sessions will group two or three presentations of 30-40 minutes, followed by open discussion. The workshop will end with a wrap-up conversation.

Session 1: 10:00-12:00 

Jeff Snyder-Reinke, College of Idaho
“Bandits, Brothers, Beasts: Uncovering the Dead in Nineteenth Century China."
This presentation is an extended exploration of digging up the dead during the Qing dynasty. Through an examination of legal cases related to the crime of “uncovering graves” (fazhong), this paper explores the uses and abuses of corpses in nineteenth century China.  In particular, it addresses some of the key motivations, actors, and outcomes of disinterment.  It also issues a reminder that although burial served as the dominant mode of emplacing the dead in the late imperial period, proper burial was either unattainable or undesirable for a significant portion of the population.  As a result, one of the most important things we can say about displacing the dead in China is that it often involved no digging at all.

Weiting Guo, Simon Fraser University
"The Battles after Death: Burial Reform and Colonial Modernity in Japanese-ruled Taiwan, 1895-1945.” 
In this presentation, I extend my studies on Qing Taiwan’s “grave destruction” (huifen) to the burial practice under the Japanese colonial rule. As my previous research reveals, grave violation during the Qing time was to great extent “sanctioned” in both social and judicial practice—even though the tomb was perceived as one of the most consecrated sites. The underlying causes include the culture of bone collection re-burial, the land cultivation process, the practice of “stealing other’s geomantic sites,” the paradoxical grave-management structure (grave-managing farmers vandalized the graves they safeguarded), the judicial economy approach of officials, and the epidemic practice of extortion and false accusation. In the current presentation, I intend to see how Taiwanese grave culture encountered colonial modernity and evolved under changing circumstances. Core to my study is how burial practice became a significant arena in which local people developed varied approaches in response to the colonial government’s civilizing projects, including the removal of old communal cemeteries, the introduction of new autopsy procedure, and the reform on burial customs. Despite the mandatory procedures introduced by the colonial government—including the cremation that was used in some occasions as a “punishment” of those who resisted quarantine—, many Taiwanese created their own strategies in order to persevere their burial, re-burial, and geomantic practices. The conflict eventually led to a fierce demonstration in 1928 following the controversies over the city-redistricting and grave-relocation projects. Here, I examine how the image of corpses and the concepts of sanitation were manipulated by both colonial government and the local people. I particularly explore how people strategized their actions in the face of colonial modernity while they also maintained their practical ways of handling the dead.


Lunch: 12:00-1:30


Session 2: 1:30-4:10

Rebecca Nedostup, Brown University
“State Ghosts”
This presentation will continue the workshop’s exploration of the historical transition of the Chinese state from self-styled protector of the displaced dead to agent of displacement. Here I will focus on the late Republican and early postwar periods, examining the projects for which government planners moved graves and bodies, forbade new burials, and attempted to redirect the energies of local customs: primarily schools, factories, and civic monuments. Whether due to contestation or resource shortages, the removal of bodies and the cessation of local funerary practices was often an incomplete or recursive process. Moreover, during these times of hot and cold war, the bodies involved bore the marks of conflict, displacement, and other indicators of bad death. Therefore, what were the repercussions for the social and ritual lives of the state-sponsored spaces that were meant to replace the places for the dead? How did the students and workers, and other members of a purported civic corpus who populated them view the evicted or returning dead? Were these new projects haunted by ghosts of the state’s making? I will draw on such cases as a way of thinking about how our method and theory might further trouble the constructed boundaries between state rationality and social subjectivity.

Ruth E. Toulson, Maryland Institute College of Art
"Forgetting the Dead: Abandoned Corpses, Neglected Niches, and Toppled Graves."
In Singapore, the state has set about the destruction of every cemetery but one. Much of my research so far has focused on families who fight the order to exhume, believing that to destroy a grave will turn their ancestors into ghosts. But what about those who seem not to care at all or who are, at best, ambivalent? For all the literature on the centrality of proper burial to Chinese societies—and hence the horror of forced exhumation— most Singaporean Chinese families do not claim the contents of graves that are about to be cleared, leaving them instead to turned over by the backhoe. And families who do transfer exhumed remains to columbaria niches—niches purchased at considerable expense—rarely visit the columbarium. Further, funeral directors report an increase in the abandoned dead—bodies for whom no one will fund a funeral—and in unclaimed cremated remains. The funeral professionals I work with describe these transformations as recent, interpreting them as a sign of societal decay. Yet, there are multiple historical records of neglecting the dead. Freedman, in research from the 1950s, for example, describes the many dead who “never reach a final grave, their bones being left to lie in the urns which, in great numbers, can be seen to dot the New Territories landscape, at the end of their career being toppled, split and desolate” (1966: 120). What determines whether the dead are abandoned? Such cases also raise larger questions about the nature of ritual transformation: why some ritual practices are abandoned, seemingly without regret, while others are clung to, becoming orthopraxy? My analysis will also focus on theory and method, as it is, after all, far harder to analyze an absence, a decision not to act, not to claim a body, or not to remember the dead.  

Thomas Mullaney, Stanford University
"Sojourning the Chinese Deathscape: How Do We Make Meaning of Ten Million Mobile Corpses?"
This paper is a methodological reflection about the acute challenges of telling stories about very-large-scale phenomenon -- in this case, the relocation of millions of bodies in a very short span of time -- whose meaning takes shape at the deepest, most intimate, and most local levels of family, individual, community. Compounding this complexity is the challenge of telling historically situated stories of contemporary period, before stories have stabilized; stories that are happening diffusely and in highly uncoordinated fashion; and yet ones which unquestionably give rise to a macro-level "shape" that has clear temporal boundaries. The "shape" of this particular phenomenon - the mass relocation of graves in the contemporary period - is critically important, not only because of the phenomenon itself, but also because of the acute theoretical issues it raises for History regarding scale, the micro-macro divide, "case", and narrative.

4:10-4:30: Coffee break

4:30-5:00: Concluding thoughts