March 27, 2017 - 12:00pm

March 27, 2017 - 12:00pm

Class of '54 Room, Van Pelt-Dietrich Library

A War Between the Living and the Dead: On Grave Relocation in Contemporary China

Tom Mullaney (Stanford University)

Over the past three decades, the blistering pace of China’s economic development has transformed the country’s graveyards into sites of acute contestation. Confronted with some of the world’s highest population densities, and eager to bring new land under development, authorities and entrepreneurs have turned their eyes covetously upon once hallowed ground. Not unlike its better-known counterpart, the one-child policy, funeral reform (binzang gaige) has emerged as a controversial initiative crafted in response to China’s other population crisis – the growing population of the dead. Drawing upon findings from the Chinese Deathscape digital humanities project at Stanford University, this paper charts out the history of grave relocation and its implications of our understanding of twentieth-century China. With the exhumation of at least ten million graves over the past decade alone, and the simultaneous promotion of cremation, the scale of Chinese funeral reform dwarfs in size and scope any known counterpart in history. The eviction of the dead has a long history in China, extending into the late imperial and Republican periods, and yet with the spectacular expulsion of corpses in recent years, a new era in our timeline has been inaugurated – a stunning example of which was the 2012 relocation of 2.5 million bodies in Zhoukou city in less than six months. It is no longer the disadvantageously located corpse alone that poses a problem to the living, but the materiality and presence of dead bodies per se.

Tom Mullaney


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