Corpses are central to the history of modern China, and in particular, to the country's recent experience of giddy economic growth and social transformation. Facing urgent questions of sustainable economic development, many authorities have come to regard land burial as a traditional practice that can no longer be permitted by the state. For others with less magnanimous concerns, the exhumation of the dead has amounted to little more than ruthless land grabs by real estate developers and their political patrons.

The history of grave relocation is complex, as evidenced by the myriad motives for digging up and moving human remains: such as to make space for dam and hydroelectric projects, highways, schools, railway lines, or coal mining operations. Corpses have also been moved for the purposes of real estate development and tourism. In a peculiar irony, some have been moved in order to free up space for other corpses: that is, for the purpose of building new and “modern” cemeteries to receive the cremated remains of corpses once buried in other parts of the country.

The temporal dimensions of grave relocation are similarly complex. By exploring just a single fifteen-year period, one finds remarkable differences, both in the number bodies being relocated in any given moment, and in the geographic distribution of relocation activities. Readers are invited, for instance, to explore just how much the pace and geographic span of grave relocations change over the years 2000, 2001, 2002, 2003, 2004, 2005, 2006, 2007, 2008, 2009, 2010, 2011, 2012, 2013, and 2014.

Evicting the dead has a long history in China. Considering just the early modern and modern periods, one finds a complex history of grave relocation during the Qing dynasty (1644–1911), and a similarly complex history of corpse removal during the twentieth century--notably, in major Chinese metropoles, such as early twentieth-century Shanghai. Throughout this history, the dead have been central to the politics of the living. The past fifteen years have taken these politics to new levels, witnessing the exhumation and relocation of over ten million corpses by our most conservative estimates. The contemporary period has not only been the most intensive period of grave relocation in Chinese history, but also globally.

In this digital volume, three historians of China—Jeffrey Snyder-Reinke, Christian Henriot, and Thomas S. Mullaney—chart out the history of China’s rapidly shifting deathscape. The essays unfold within a custom-designed “augmented narrative” platform, built by David McClure and his colleagues at Stanford University.

Each essay grapples with a different dimension of grave relocation and burial reform in China over the past three centuries: from the phenomenon of “baby towers” in the Lower Yangzi region of late imperial China, examined by Snyder-Reinke; to the histories of death in the city of Shanghai, examined by Henriot; and finally into the history of grave relocation during the contemporary period, examined by Mullaney, when both its scale and tempo increased dramatically. Rounding off these historical analyses, a colophon by platform developers David McClure and Glen Worthey speaks to new reading methodologies emerging from a format in which text and map move in concert to advance historical argumentation.

The subjects addressed in these essays vary widely, mirroring the complexity of the historical phenomena themselves. In no way, therefore, does this volume claim to cover the history of grave relocation in all its many facets. Together, however, the essays in this volume do make one collective argument that we hope our readers will take to heart: To understand China, one needs to pay as close attention to the history of the dead as to the history of the living.


Source of image at the top of this essay: Raised graves outside of Tianjin city, ca. 1895. Wikimedia Commons.