AAS Annual Meeting

China and Inner Asia Session 78

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Session 78: The Social Life of Dead Bodies: Cases from late Qing through Cold War China and Taiwan

Organizer: Caroline Reeves, Fairbank Center for Chinese Studies, USA

Much like the living, corpses—as individuals and as groups—must be physically and epistemologically managed to fit into structures of social meaning. What happens to dead bodies as meanings evolve, are intentionally manipulated, or in extraordinary circumstances? This panel looks at the treatment of dead bodies, particularly the war dead, and uncovers corpses as social signifiers and social actors during extended periods of community upheaval. We examine how the conditions of disruption changed modes of performance involving the dead, engendering ingenuity in technology and the manipulation of ritual forms. We focus on the mid-19th century onward, when the broadening scale and nature of warfare, the expansion of the state and the rise of nationalism, and the intersection of new, international philanthropies with older forms of charity and ritual pacification affected the treatment and conception of war dead. By emphasizing the context of public performance, the panel seeks to treat corpses as meaningful participants in the greater polity. Chang-hui Chi addresses the Cult of Patriotic Generals and public discourse on ghosts in Cold War Jinmen; Rebecca Nedostup offers a social geography of graves in Zijinshan; Caroline Reeves analyzes the Chinese Red Cross Burial Corps and changing perceptions of imperatives to bury the dead; and Chuck Wooldridge investigates the ritual treatment of corpses in post-Taiping Nanjing. Discussion will draw from the audience, focusing on members of the panel “Death and its histories in late imperial and early Republican China” organized by Daniel Asen, which we propose to follow in back-to-back sessions.

Rituals of the Dead in Post-Taiping Nanjing
Chuck Wooldridge, Lehman College, CUNY, USA

Among the many dilemmas facing administrators of Nanjing following the Taiping War (1850-1864), one of the most complex was the treatment of thousands of corpses around the city. In addition to practical concerns of collecting, classifying, and burying the dead, there was also a problem of ritual. Qing statutes made officials responsible for a variety of ritual matters, but there was no explicit procedure for local officials to handle funerals or burial. This paper examines the treatment of the dead at three sites: the former Great Encampment of Jiangnan, where two Qing armies had been wiped out, the enormous Altar to Orphaned Souls (Li tan), and the Shine of Loyalty and Righteousness (Zhongyi ci). In each place, officials improvised different ritual solutions to the unprecedented scale of the problem. Taking on the administration of the dead had consequences for the living as well. The post-Taiping period saw a reformulation of what it meant to be a subject of the dynasty.

Grave Concerns: The Chinese Red Cross Burial Corps and new Philanthropic Initiatives in Early Republican China
Caroline Reeves, Fairbank Center for Chinese Studies, USA

As JaHyun Kim Haboush wrote , “Discarded dead bodies signify the total breakdown of order, the failure of that fundamental requirement of civilized life—that the living should tend to their own dead.” (“Dead Bodies in the Postwar discourse of identity in 17th-Century Korea,” Journal of Asian Studies 62.2:415-442.) In early-twentieth-century China , major social and political upheavals meant that the “discarded dead” became a phenomenon too large to be ignored, especially by a population newly awakened to the need to impose meaning –or at least some physical order—on the chaos of widespread mortality and the actual bodies of the body politic. During the 1911 Revolution and the early Republican period, the Chinese Red Cross Society, an indigenous philanthropic association with international ties, stepped in to care for some of the unclaimed corpses strewn around China’s unintended battlefields. This hybrid Society appropriated an age-old Chinese imperative to bury the dead, rescripting it to connote a new range of meanings. This paper looks at how the Society created a nationally active Burial Corps that straddled two worlds—the “traditional” and the “modern”—implementing new technologies to achieve its goal of honorably disposing of China’s exposed dead.

Sun Yat-sen and the Ghosts of Nanjing: A Geography
Rebecca Nedostup, Brown University, USA

The Sun Yat-sen Mausoleum (Zhongshan ling) stands out among China’s modern monuments not simply because it has straddled national regimes – likewise attracting ascribed meanings from ostensible political enemies – but because its late Republican leader is surrounded by a cohort of acknowledged and unacknowledged dead unusual in its complexity. This paper situates Sun’s tomb and its surroundings in Nanjing’s Zijinshan not simply in political or ritual contexts, but in a history of place, explored on three levels. Most obviously, the tomb embodied the Republic, a claim that nonetheless was contested from the very beginning. The tomb could also embody a broader “China” – a narrative and memory that became even more useful after 1949. Yet the tomb has always been a part of Nanjing – a curiously neglected third plane of social geography. Not only was Sun’s interment meant to eclipse that of his imperial neighbor, Ming Taizu, but the construction, reconstruction and forgetting of the surrounding monuments, graves and shrines has produced a continual editing of Nanjing’s traumas, from the Taiping Rebellion through twentieth century wars, This process has intertwined with another one that overwrites (with varying success) the more quotidian aspects of Nanjing’s social life, demonstrated most starkly in the appropriation of private and semi-public lands for national monuments. Thus the ultimate aim of this study is to ask of this site whether the “carefully crafted public secret is not the most significant monument imaginable” (Michael Taussig, “Walter Benjamin’s Grave: A Profane Illumination.”)

Ghosts of the Cold War on Jinmen
Chang-hui Chi, National Quemoy University, Taiwan (R.O.C.)

On October 25, 1950 the Battle of Guningtou broke out in Jinmen. Chinese Communist troops landed at Jinmen following their victory in mainland China with the aim of liberating Jinmen and then taking over Taiwan. The Communist troops, due to insufficient support, eventually surrendered to the Nationalist Army. After this battle, several small shrines were built in Jinmen to honor the soldiers that had been killed. Such shrines are known locally as aiguo jiangju miao (Patriotic General Temples). By the time martial law was lifted in 1992, as many as 42 patriotic general temples had been constructed in Jinmen to enshrine a soldier’s spirit. Local communities preferred enshrining to exorcism as a solution to being troubled by ghosts. This paper regards the patriotic general temples located throughout Jinmen as a relay point in the construction of collective memory of war. Jinmen folk memories of the Cold War have composed a public discourse creating a cult around unknown soldiers. The creation of a cult and the deification of patriotic generals are a means for local people to come to terms with the impact of the Cold War. Through the transformation mechanism of rituals, patriotic generals have gone from being wandering lonely ghosts to familial protectors similar to ancestors. The patriotic general cult is a way for Jinmen people, who have been living on the brink of war, to make sense of the drastic changes in their daily world.