Reflections from 一 to 龠

Introducing the Chinese Graves Project: A New Digital Humanities Initiative at Stanford University

Introducing the Chinese Graves Project: A New Digital Humanities Initiative at Stanford University

I’m proud to announce the Chinese Graves Project, a digital humanities initiative based at Stanford that will build and harness an interactive spatial and textual analysis platform to examine the phenomenon of grave relocation in modern China, a campaign that has led to the exhumation and reburial of 10 million corpses in the past decade alone, and has transformed China’s graveyards into sites of acute personal, social, political, and economic contestation.


Further Details

In April 2013, an estimated 520 million people paid visits to cemeteries throughout China during the traditional festival of Qingming, referred to as “Tomb Sweeping Day” in English. Here relatives commemorate ancestors by cleaning gravesites and making offerings to the deceased through the burning of ceremonial paper money.

In recent decades, the blistering pace of China’s economic development and population growth has transformed the country’s graveyards into sites of acute personal, social, political, and economic contestation. Confronted with some of the world’s highest population densities, and eager to bring new land under development, local authorities and entrepreneurs have turned their eyes covetously upon this once hallowed ground. Not unlike its better known counterpart, the “one-child policy,” funeral reform (binzang gaige 殡葬改革) is a controversial governmental initiative crafted in response to China’s population crisis. Over the past thirty years, government at all levels has ventured to rationalize the spatial distribution of human remains and to reduce the overall number of land burials by promoting cremation. Facing urgent questions of sustainable economic development and, above all, real estate tax income and food supply, many authorities see land burial as a traditional practice that can no longer feasibly be permitted. For others with less magnanimous concerns, funeral reform initiatives have amounted to little more than ruthless land grabs by real estate developers and their political patrons.

With at least 10 million graves exhumed over the past decade by our most conservative estimates, the sheer scale of China’s funeral reform program dwarfs in size and scope any known grave relocation efforts, past or present, in the rest of the world. Local relocation efforts range from the modest to the immense, from the 500 bodies relocated in 2014 in Chuzhou county (Anhui), to the 2.5 million bodies exhumed and relocated in 2012 in Zhoukou city (Henan). These actions in Zhoukou in particular prompted a storm of local protest and media coverage – including a homemade satire-cum-protest Gangnam-style music video in which teenage performers in chalky white face paint and darkened eyes danced along to the refrain “I fear ‘grave flattening style’ (wo pa pingfen style 我怕平坟Style). The video went viral on Youku.

If China’s one-child policy has targeted domains of formidable power and intimacy – birth, the reproductive body, and descent – burial reform has targeted the no less potent realms of death, the body after life, and ancestry. To understand contemporary China, we must set our eyes on the grave as well as the cradle. Based at Stanford University, the Chinese Graves Project will build and harness an interactive spatial and textual analysis platform to examine the phenomenon of grave relocation in modern China, a campaign that has led to the exhumation and reburial of 10 million corpses in the past decade alone, and has transformed China’s graveyards into sites of acute personal, social, political, and economic contestation.

More details to come, so please stay tuned…

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