AAS Annual Meeting

China and Inner Asia Session 122

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Session 122: Death and Its Histories in Late Imperial and Early Republican China - Sponsored by the Society for Qing Studies

Organizer: Daniel Asen, Rutgers University, USA

Chair: Janet M. Theiss, University of Utah, USA

Discussant: Janet M. Theiss, University of Utah, USA

While death is universal to the human condition, it is also rooted in particular social and cultural histories and known through specific bodies of knowledge and modes of representation. This panel seeks a deeper understanding of the multiple sites and media through which the living encountered the dead in late imperial and early Republican China and their diverse engagements with and constructions of social order and disorder. Michelle King's paper explores the ways that diverging treatments of infanticide in Chinese morality tales and the writings of Western missionaries negotiated questions of victimhood and agency. Quinn Javers uses cases drawn from the rich sources of the Baxian archive to explore the gender, economic, and social contexts which informed non-elites' paths to suicide. Daniel Asen examines the politics of knowledge underlying the ways that local officials, yamen personnel, and literati authors of forensic treatises encountered the dead body as forensic evidence. Pierre Fuller focuses on the diverse responses to the specter of mass starvation in north China in 1920-21 to explore conceptions of victimhood and the legacy of late Qing humanitarian action. These papers explore the diverse ways that elites and non-elites in the late Qing and early Republican social landscape encountered, responded to, and mobilized the dead. This panel is sponsored by the Society for Qing Studies. Note: We are applying for a back-to-back session with the panel, “The Social Life of Dead Bodies: Cases from late Qing through Cold War China and Taiwan,” which shares common themes.

Infant Corpses and Vengeful Spirits: Cultural Representations of Infanticide in Nineteenth Century China
Michelle T. King, University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill, USA

This paper will compare different representations of victims of infanticide taken from a range of nineteenth century Chinese and Western sources. While late imperial burial societies provided coffins or other assistance for the proper ritual burial of adults, short shrift was given to infant burial. Following Zhu Xi’s normative prescriptions for family burials, children under the age of three months “were not to be cried over” and discarded or buried in only a rudimentary fashion. The frequency of encountering abandoned infant corpses was for nineteenth century Westerners in China one of the most vivid proofs of infanticide. The visual representation of infant corpses was always a prominent feature in Western writings. Chinese sources, on the other hand, paid little attention to the status of the infant’s physical body or its visual representation. Instead, they most frequently represented victims of infanticide as disembodied voices or vengeful spirits. This discrepancy underlines the varied purpose of each textual genre and its intended audience. Western visual representations emphasized the helplessness of Chinese infants, eliciting disgust at Chinese barbarity and awakening humanitarian compassion. Chinese morality tales, on the other hand, were intended as a warning to the living, and accorded a certain measure of power to the vengeful spirits of unwanted daughters.

A Social History of Suicide: Ba county, Sichuan, 1890-1900
Quinn D. Javers, University of California, Davis, USA

Today more than 300,000 people take their own lives each year in the People’s Republic of China, with women accounting for more than half these deaths, but what did suicide look like in the late Qing? This paper employs a sample of cases from the ming’an (命案) category of the Baxian archive to consider relatively mundane instances of self-death and construct a social history of suicide in the last decade of the nineteenth century. These local court cases present a window into the social worlds of the late Qing from the perspective of the county court, the court of first instance in the Qing judiciary and lowest rung of imperial bureaucracy, and add spit, dirt and blood to the field’s understanding of life in the late nineteenth century. The paper interrogates two important "sites" of suicide: the family and the economy. Within each of these sites, one encounters nearly archetypical stories of conflict and failure. We see the young wife struggle to create her uterine family, and we see men burdened with the weight of debt. While this project examines suicide from a gendered perspective, including both female and male deaths, the paper also pushes beyond gender to better understand the larger social context of suicide. All of these deaths, and the court records they generated, illuminate social life and it discontents in the late Qing and highlight non-elite's "everyday" reactions to the ongoing immiseration of the late nineteenth century.

Dead bodies and the politics of technical knowledge in Qing inquests
Daniel Asen, Rutgers University, USA

Decomposition was a problem for Qing officials who performed forensic examinations. Wounds became indistinct. Relatives used ambiguities to lodge false accusations. The yamen functionaries, called wuzuo, who inspected the body could be corrupt or incompetent. In a legal system requiring review and possible appeal of capital cases, decomposed and skeletonized corpses routinely became crucial evidence. This paper uses this pressing forensic problem to explore the ways that officials, wuzuo, and literati authors of forensic treatises negotiated the politics of technical knowledge in their encounter with the dead. Forensic and administrative works such as the Washing Away of Wrongs contained prescriptions for examining decomposed bodies and skeletal remains. While these observational skills were available to supervising officials and locally distributable via integration into judicial procedure, distinctions in forensic skill emerged when long decomposed remains had to be examined during review or appeal. In these instances, officials encountered shortages of skilled examiners and attempted to procure suitable wuzuo from neighboring counties and even provinces. In commentaries and case collections, examination of such remains became a site at which authors like Xu Lian asserted the relevance and authority of literati knowledge in forensics. But while providing magistrates with the knowledge necessary to supervise wuzuo, these authors unabashedly appropriated the valuable insights of "old wuzuo" with experience in examinations. Exploring these dynamics of knowledge production and circulation can tell us much about how the dead body emerged as an object of legal, medical, and forensic knowledge, and the politics of knowledge surrounding it.

Bodies in the Streets: Responses to the Threat of Mass Starvation in the Early Republic
Pierre Fuller, University of Manchester, United Kingdom

When refugee corpses began appearing in Beijing alleyways in 1920, north China faced the prospect of death on a scale unseen since the horrific 1870s famine: upwards of thirty million people pushed to starvation by drought-induced dearth across five provinces. But "just" 500,000 people would perish before the rains of 1921, a humanitarian feat that has been overwhelmingly credited in the literature to missionaries and joint native and foreign "international" societies drawing funds from as far away as Manila and New York. Famine had struck, no less, during the intense intellectual soul-searching of the May Fourth era and, in contrast with the late Qing stress on female victims (what Kathyrn Edgerton-Tarpley has called the "feminization of famine" in the 1870s), the favored depiction of victims in 1920 relief advertisements and political cartoons was the famished male, suggestive of a passive and impotent Chinese state in the face of foreign interventions and a comatose cultural inheritance. But Republican news dailies and gazetteers record considerable relief activity in 1920-21 operating along parallel social channels to those of China’s emergent cosmopolitan citizenry, from county and prefectural-level relief societies to military men acting in official and charitable capacities in what were surprisingly coordinated warlord regimes; native-place associations; and relief along Buddhist monastic networks. Shedding light on this unsung relief activity reveals surprising diversity to civic mobilization in this period of political and cultural transition–that is, continuities amid ruptures, Qing-era humanitarian legacies that continued to inform social actors well into the Republic.