Arriving at my destination, I disembarked and set about my day. This passing exchange stayed with me, however, for the remainder of the visit and beyond. Why were these graves moved? What involvement did the families of the deceased have in this process? How did they feel about it? Where else in China was this happening? At what scale? How does one move a grave?

These and many other questions have taken nearly ten years to answer, drawing me into a history that extends far beyond any one locale in China. Indeed, the scale of this history proved shocking to me, in terms of its sheer scope and intensity: With at least ten million graves exhumed over the past decade alone, China’s grave relocation campaign dwarfs in size and scope any known grave relocation effort, past or present, in the rest of the world. In the process, it has touched the lives of millions of families across the country and across the global diaspora.[1]

To grasp the immensity of Chinese grave relocation is no simple feat. At one end of the spectrum, a number of highly visible relocation initiatives account for tens and hundreds of thousands of exhumed graves each. Because of the controversies they engendered, these relocations are relatively well documented in the Chinese press. At the other end of the spectrum, some smaller-scale relocations have sparked major controversies as well, even though they involved the exhumation of sometimes only a single corpse. Between these two, well-documented extremes, however, resides a vast array of sparsely documented relocation initiatives—thousands of county-, township-, and village-level initiatives that, while surfacing only rarely in Chinese media, account for the majority of the millions of corpses that have been relocated in China during the contemporary period.

In the first part of this essay, we will consider the highly visible instances of Chinese grave relocation, both large and small. In the second part, we will then move on to an examination of what might be termed the “undocumented migration” of the dead.

The Visible Extremes of Chinese Grave Relocation

Controversy in Zhoukou

The largest and most controversial grave relocation in contemporary China took place in 2012 in Henan Province, in the greater municipal area of Zhoukou City. In the span of less than nine months, 2.5 million corpses were exhumed and relocated as part of the “digging graves for farmland” campaign (平坟复耕 pingfen fugeng).[2] This translates into a rate of just under four hundred corpses exhumed and relocated every hour—or one corpse every ten seconds.

Supported by municipal and Chinese Communist Party leadership, as well as the Zhoukou Bureau of Land Resources (周口市国土资源局 Zhoukoushi guotu ziyuanju), the sweeping initiative was first outlined in a document entitled “Opinions Regarding Advancing Funeral Reforms” (关于进一步推进殡葬改革的实施意见 Guanyu jinyibu tuijin binzanggaige de shishiyijian).[3] City and party officials estimated that the greater Zhoukou municipal region encompassed a total of 3.5 million graves, collectively occupying fifty thousand mu of land, or roughly thirteen square miles (thirty-three square kilometers). To help facilitate relocation, the city would pay for the cost of cremation at a level of six hundred RMB per grave, and would oversee the construction of 3,130 “environmentally friendly” cemeteries. All of this would be designed to overcome what was increasingly referred to as “conflicts between the living and the dead over land resources.”[4]

At the earliest stages of the Zhoukou initiative, the epicenter was Shangshui County 商水县, located to the south and west of Zhoukou City.[5] In Zhuji Village 朱集村, Lianji Township 练集镇, 1,043 graves were exhumed and relocated, reportedly without incident.[6] However, in May 2012, Guo Kui 郭岿, Chinese Communist Party (CCP) secretary of Daliu Village 大刘村 in Chengguan Township 城关乡, displayed his loyalty by exhuming eleven of his own family graves in the area. Guo’s actions were designed both to signal the launch of the grave relocation program and to help neutralize growing criticism of the project. In the same village of Daliu, for example, the resident Wang Ling 王玲 was forced to exhume and relocate the body of her late husband Su Fusheng 苏富生, who had passed away but a few weeks earlier, even before she had been able to undertake the traditional practice of “second-week grieving” (二七 erqi).

The initial phase of the Zhoukou campaign involved the relocation of more than twenty thousand graves in twenty-eight separate villages. Scandal soon befell the initiative, however, when in October 2012 the daughter-in-law and son-in-law of seventy-year-old CCP member Zhang Fang 张方 perished when a tombstone collapsed during the family’s hastened efforts to dig up the family’s graves.[7] The village of Hetao 河套村 in Fugou County 扶沟县 of Zhoukou soon found itself in the national media spotlight, with attention growing around the intensity and velocity of the initiative, as well as the steep incentive and punishment structure put in place. Whereas the first fifteen townships to complete the campaign goal would receive rewards ranging thirty to one hundred thousand RMB, townships unable to fulfill their grave relocation quotas by the scheduled deadline would incur penalties of one hundred RMB per grave, along with negative media exposure and punishments for local party cadres—all of which contributed to the fatal haste of Zhang and his family members.[8]

Other controversies soon broke out over the unequal treatment of elite and non-elite members of local society. Villagers in Chenkou Village 陈口村, located in Shicaoji Township 石槽集乡 of Shenqiu County 沈丘县, reported that the former Zhoukou city councilor and vice-mayor had chosen the sites of their own ancestral graves as the locations of newly constructed public cemeteries—thereby excusing themselves of the responsibility of exhuming and relocating their own ancestors. Villagers in nearby Zhengying 郑营村 reported similar activities involving their own village officials.[9]

Critical voices grew louder when it came to light how such newly “grave-free” lands were being used. Rather than recovering land for agricultural production, as advertised in the slogan of “digging graves for farmland,” the government of Shangshui had reportedly petitioned provincial government authorities for permission to allocate a portion of the recovered land to the expansion of the county’s industrial district (产业聚集区 chanye jujiqu)—a lucrative venture which suggested a profit-seeking motive behind the initiative.[10]

With Zhoukou’s initiative entering its sixth month, municipal leaders released a report that offered local citizens—and the nation at large—perhaps the first glimpse of the sheer scale of the program: 2.46 million bodies relocated in the space of just a few short months, with a cremation rate of a perfect one hundred percent.[11]

Accolades from provincial and even national leaders followed. On November 7, 2012, the vice-governor of Henan Province Wang Tie 王铁 awarded the Zhoukou municipal government three million RMB as an expression of support for the city’s model work in funeral reforms.[12] The following day, the head of the National Bureau of Civic Affairs Yu Jianliang 俞建良 visited Zhoukou and offered further praise for the city’s preparation and execution of the campaign.[13]

At the same time, however, media coverage of Zhoukou’s campaign struck altogether different chords with the national viewing public. On screen were shown scores of villagers, scouring through the countryside, using both manual farm implements and mechanized backhoes to dig up coffins and bodies. In one sequence, a late-middle-age man was seen perched atop a partially shattered grave monument, his sledgehammer caught in mid-descent. For any Chinese viewer of a certain age, images such as these would undoubtedly have invoked memories of Mao-era mass mobilization campaigns, and perhaps more specifically, parallel images from the Smash the Four Olds campaign of the early Cultural Revolution (1966—1976) (Figures 1 and 2).

Figure 1. News footage of Zhoukou grave relocation campaign. Kan Dongfang Morning Show November 23, 2012.

Figure 2. Propaganda poster from Cultural Revolution-era Smash the Four Olds campaign. Scatter the old world, build a new world. Ca. 1967. (BG D29/184 (IISH collection)).

For younger generations, the Zhoukou campaign triggered different kinds of conversation, commentary, and debate framed within different webs of cultural reference. In particular, some late-teenage, college-age, and early-career-age men and women began to identify with the depressing fate of the evicted corpse, a fate that reminded them of their own inability to find stable, affordable housing close to their schools, places of work, or sites of leisure.

From this vantage point, the living and the dead were not so much in competition with one another for resources, but part of the same precarious economic reality in which risk, uncertainty, and instability were increasingly normalized as simply a part of everyday life. In particular, members of China’s so-called “ant tribes” (蚁族 yizu)—university students who, despite being enrolled at some of the most prestigious institutions of higher education in China, encounter a cost of living so difficult to bear that they are forced to live in cramped, crowded living quarters, sometimes in poverty-level conditions—have much more in common with corpses than they do with their parents’ generation. Like the evicted corpse, they are constantly being pushed out of the cities, into ever-distant, urban peripheries.

These sentiments were given a voice in a homemade satire-cum-protest music video, patterned after the wildly popular music video “Gangnam Style” by South Korean pop artist Psy. In the video, young men and women 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) (with the phrase “Wo pa” / “I fear,” deftly rhyming with the “Oppa” / “I/older brother” of the Korean original). The video went viral on Youku, one of China’s main video-sharing platforms (Figure 3).

Figure 3. “I fear ‘grave flattening style’” music video.

In the wake of rising local resentment against the campaign, and growing attention by the local and national media, the PRC State Council intervened on November 16, 2012, releasing a modification of Regulations on Funeral and Interment Control (殡葬管理条例 Binzang guanli tiaoli) known simply as Decree No. 628 (国务院第628号令 Guowuyuan di 628 haoling). According to the decree, local governments would no longer be legally permitted to forcibly remove graves without securing the agreement and compliance of local citizens. With this, the State Council endeavored to place a moratorium on Zhoukou’s campaign.[14]

State intervention was not sufficient to bring an immediate end to the program, however. One week later, on November 23, high-level local officials in Zhoukou convened and decided to persist in the “digging graves for farmland” campaign.[15] By this point in the campaign, an estimated 80 percent of all the graves in Zhoukou had been exhumed, cremated, and relocated, and they were clearly eager to see the program through to its final denouement. The decision to continue, however, was met with vociferous condemnations in Chinese news and social media circles. Op-ed pieces appeared expressing disbelief over Zhoukou’s decision to continue its grave-digging campaign.[16] Tsinghua University scholar Xu Zhangrun 许章润, Peking University scholar Zhang Qianfan 张千帆, and twenty-six other academics issued a statement condemning the campaign for damaging Chinese traditions and injuring the feelings of Chinese citizens.[17] Renmin University professor Zheng Fengtian 郑风田, speaking as part of the College of Agriculture and Rural Development (农业与农村发展学院 Nongye yu nongcun fazhan xueyuan), also released a statement denouncing the Zhoukou campaign, accusing the municipality of trying to profit from the “recovered” agricultural land.[18]

Ultimately, the Zhoukou campaign came to end, but not before it had, by most measures, completed its original objective. The region had been all but purged of the dead.

The Politics of Moving a Single Body

The grave relocation program in Zhoukou was, without question, the most sweeping in contemporary China. We should not assume, however, that the level of controversy generated by a relocation was in some simple or direct way proportional to the total number of graves being moved. Some of the most controversial and media-prolific events involved the relocation of single graves.

One way the relocation of a single grave could achieve national attention was when the grave in question stood in the way of larger economic and political logics. These were individual graves that stood in the pathway of large-scale railway development, highway development, and municipal construction plans. In Shanxi Province, for example, real estate developers in Taiyuan were forced to carry out construction of a new high-rise apartment complex around a grave that family members were unwilling to relocate. Like their more widely known “nail house” counterparts—domiciles that homeowners refused to sell or abandon when approached by developers or state officials—hold-out gravesites, or “nail graves,” have commanded significant media attention and generated rich and often fascinating cascades on Weibo, the massive Chinese microcast platform often compared to Twitter.

A more dramatic example comes from China’s South-North water diversion program, the immense terraforming project designed to port water to the country’s relatively arid, but highly populated north. In May 2012, a film crew from CCTV followed a government cadre in Hubei Province, in the area of Shiyan, as he interviewed and attempted to persuade a local villager who remained unwilling to relocate an ancestral gravesite standing in the path of a water diversion pipeline.[19] His face appeared weathered, holding a cigarette deep in the purse of his fingers, and posing somewhat defiantly for the camera. That grave will be moved “over my dead body,” his statement read along the bottom edge of the screen (Figure 4).

Figure 4. May 2012 CCTV Feature on Grave Relocation in Hubei

The scene moved in and out of this villager’s modest home, steadily folding into the story a wider cast of characters (construction officials, workers, and other members of the local community) and narrative scales (the local, regional, and finally national). In the culmination of the on-camera conversation, the local village representative moved through a series of realizations and statements, each met with the encouragement and approval of the government representative to his side. “When the state has to, so do you.” Ultimately, the broadcast arrived at the conclusion that, while it remained an imperative for the graves in the pathway of the South-North water diversion project to be relocated, the primary point of contention was not relocation itself—but of grave relocation reimbursement levels that remained too low.

Another way individual grave relocations garnered national media attention was through the historical memory of the specific bodies in question. A profound, historical charisma surrounds, for example, the graves of veterans of the Long March (1934-35), the Eight-Year War of Resistance Against Japan (1937-45), and the Chinese Civil War (1945-49). In Fall 2010, the grandson of deceased General Feng Zhanhai (冯占海 1899-1963), known as “Jilin’s No.1 War of Resistance Hero” (吉林抗战第一人 Jilin Kangzhan di’yiren) expressed outrage to reporters after discovering online that his grandfather’s grave was being demolished.[20] On October 8, 2010, a Chinese netizen uploaded a video showing Feng’s grave being dug up, with the lid of the coffin open to the sky.[21] The land around his body, it was soon discovered, had been purchased by the Jilin Hanxing Corporation (吉林瀚星集团 Jilin Hanxing jintuan) for the purposes of constructing a golf course.[22]

Undocumented Migration (of the Dead)

The phenomenon of grave relocation in contemporary China forms a wide and complex spectrum, with the stories of Zhoukou and General Feng Zhanhai representing only two extremes. The greater part of this spectrum encompasses hundreds if not thousands of less-well-known, local-level initiatives that together account for the majority of China’s millions of relocated corpses in recent years. The larger story of grave relocation is a fragmented one, involving the exhumation of perhaps 5 graves in one locale, 20,000 in another, 400 in still another, and so forth. As compared to the examples outlined in the preceding section, these relocations constituted what might be termed the “undocumented migration” of the dead in contemporary China.

In order to capture this part of the historical spectrum, a team of researchers and I dedicated approximately six years to developing the first-ever geodatabase of grave relocations in contemporary China, compiling thousands of scattered records into a unified dataset.[23] It is important to note briefly how this preliminary database was constructed, and what opportunities are available for the future.

When official Chinese state regulations are observed, grave relocations follow a standard protocol. First, authorities publish an obligatory “Notice of Grave Relocation” (qianfen qishi 迁坟启事 or qianfen tongzhi 迁坟通知) in the local press, as in a notice from 2010 pertaining to the relocation of a collection of graves located in Liupanshui, Guizhou (Figure 5).

Figure 5. Grave relocation notice. Liupanshui Daily (Liupanshui ribao) Feb 1 2010.

The grave relocation notice typically specifies the affected areas, the process by which families can receive (often inadequate) reimbursement for the expenses of relocation, and the deadline by which such claims must be filed. Because the notices are published in local-level media outlets, and are directed toward local readers, the locations of affected gravesites are described in precise terms, yet in phrasings that often depend on firsthand knowledge of the areas in question. For example, a Grave relocation notice might list the affected area using the following description: “All graves in the area south up to the intersection of X and Y road, north to the reservoir, east up until the overpass, and west until the highway.”[24] To understand which reservoir, overpass, or highway is being referred to, one needs local-level familiarity.

Owing to these local notifications, baseline documentary evidence of China’s funeral reform program is ample, widely available, and yet scattered among thousands of local media outlets. A vast and significant archive—containing rich data in which the fuller picture of China’s funeral reform movement is preserved—has simply been waiting to be constituted.[25]

The Contemporary Chinese Deathscape

As the database began to take shape, and in particular as datapoints began to be mapped in space, patterns began to emerge that were suggestive of profound transformations in contemporary China’s economy, society, and territoriality—patterns that would have been difficult (and perhaps impossible) to detect had I focused exclusively on the better-documented, more extreme examples of relocation outlined above (an approach that would not have required the building of a database, but merely the compilation of easily available media accounts and related materials).

Spatial Logics of the Chinese Deathscape

One such pattern pertains to what can be thought of as the spatial logics of China’s contemporary deathscape—and, in particular, the relationship between the Chinese deathscape and contemporary economic development. When analyzed collectively, it became clear that grave relocations serve as barometers that indicate, not merely the growth and expansion of population centers in a general sense, but also the more precise directionality of such expansions into periurban and rural areas. Insofar as grave relocations have often constituted a first wave of preparation for construction projects, real estate development, and more—that is, the exhumation of corpses have been undertaken as preparation for subsequent construction efforts—they help us understand the spatial logics according to which administrators and local party authorities have laid the groundwork for Chinese developmentalism at the local level.

In the region surrounding Yichang in western Hubei Province, for example, a local-level grave relocation initiative in the town of Wujia sat right at the cusp separating zones of higher and lower population density, auguring this population center’s coming extension in a southeasterly direction along the river.

In Jiangsu Province, as well, a scatter plot of local-level grave relocation initiatives foretold the coming leap of the population-dense greater Changzhou area over the Yangzi River into the northern-bank areas of Dongxing, Xinqiao, and Shengci, among others.

One of the most dramatic examples of this phenomenon is found in the province of Zhejiang, in the area southeast of Yiwu. Here a veritable belt of grave relocations extended along the southeastern front of population density, from the northernmost town of Wancang, where 37 bodies were removed; through Shanghu (210 bodies); Yaochuan (31 bodies); Anwen (187 bodies); Shenze (416 bodies); and finally the southernmost town of Xinwo (69 bodies). Whereas the number of relocations in each of these six towns was modest when considered in isolation—ranging from thirty to a maximum of just over four hundred—when viewed together the constellation of these relocations offers a clear snapshot of the directionality and temporality of population movement in the region. As broached earlier, the history of the dead in contemporary China is inseparable from the history of living, if we understand the scale at which to conduct our analyses.

The same phenomenon can be observed in the area surrounding Changde, where the township of Wuling was the site of 1,300 relocations in 2010—once again at the cusp of lower and higher population density areas, alerting us to specific ways the greater area of Changde was preparing to expand.

Economic Logics of the Chinese Deathscape

A second vital dimension of the contemporary Chinese deathscape relates to the emergent economic logics that have taken shape during the process of relocation. Whereas we might be squeamish about speaking of human remains using the language of “economies” and “resources,” it is precisely the calculated sterility of such vocabulary that alerts us to the charged, profoundly sensitive, dual nature of the relocation of graves in China. To insist upon humanizing the corpse, or to resist viewing grave relocation in aggregate forms that thereby privilege the logic of the state, is counterintuitively to lose site of the clinical and, for many, terrifying logics in which the human story of grave relocation is unavoidably situated.

More specifically, human remains in contemporary China have become a profoundly lucrative, if peculiar, kind of semi-natural resource: a resource that, like others, must be excavated to unleash its value; a resource that, like other territorially embedded ones, concentrates unevenly across space; a resource that, like gemstones or perhaps archaeological artifacts, derives its worth socially and historically rather than through direct utility or application; and yet a resource that, unlike all of these other examples, occupies the boundary between two radically different systems of value—one which theorizes it in the abstract as a kind of “anti-resource” whose only assignable value is premised upon its removal; and another (or, in fact, multiple others) which reject such economic abstractions and insist upon its singularity and intense, personal significance. From one perspective, regions “populated” by the dead are potential goldmines, but only after these corpses have been removed. From another perspective, a grave holds a loved one, a family member, or a beloved historical figure whose “value” is inherent.

To understand the value of a corpse in contemporary China, one must consider the tortuous chain of capitalization through which it travels. The most intensely lucrative phase is found in the beginning, with a state- and private-led development project initiating grave relocation in a given area. In the Hangu District 汉沽 of the city of Tianjin 天津市, for example, 37,801 corpses were relocated in 2006 with the goal of reallocating nearly ten thousand mu of land (6.7 square kilometers) for development use.[26] Since Hangu had become a focus of intensive foreign direct investment and a site where a number of Fortune 500 companies had already constructed facilities, and had been lauded as “China’s most investable industrial district for chemical and fossil fuels” (中国石油和化学工业最具投资价值园区 Zhongguo shiyou he huaxue gongye zuijutouzijiazhiyuanqu), local officials and entrepreneurs were undoubtedly willing to provide modest reimbursements for the relocation of graves—typically payments of anywhere from four hundred RMB at the low end to two thousand RMB at the highest—in order to inject the newly acquired territory into China’s red-hot industrial real estate market.

The same profit incentives have motivated real estate developers throughout the country. In March 2012, a luxury residential and commercial development project in Fengyuan Township 灃源镇 of Sangzhi County 桑植县 in the province of Henan required the relocation of approximately three hundred graves identified as covering an area of thirty-two mu of land, or just over twenty-one thousand square meters.[27] Under the moniker of “Sangzhi Story” (桑植故事 Sangzhi gushi), and breaking ground in June of the same year, some 234 residential units would soon be installed, each commanding prices of 2,733 RMB per square meter, on average[28]—or approximately 164 thousand RMB per unit, if based upon the average Chinese home size of sixty square meters.

If we calculate the territorial extent of these three hundred graves, based on the twenty-one thousand square meters that their removal was said to have liberated, we arrive at the figure of just over seventy square meters per grave. This, of course, is not to say that each grave was extremely large, but rather that through the particular way these graves were “scattered” (分散 fensan), as they were often described, they collectively commanded a disproportionately large span of territory. Once migrated into the economic calculus of luxury development, the value of each individual human corpse was thus profound—perhaps as much as two hundred thousand RMB per corpse, per year, when considering the value of the land that could be made available through its eviction.[29]

The economic lifecycle of the relocated corpse did not end with this initial exhumation and relocation. The next phase of the capitalization process took shape in the destinations of the relocated corpses, whether within privately run cemeteries in the region, or in unofficial, negotiated spaces in the hinterland. In the former case, the cost of renting land in privately run cemeteries could prove profoundly expensive for relatives and equivalently lucrative for private cemetery operators. In 2006, due to the planned development of Hedong Industrial District (河东工业园区 Hedong gongyeyuanqu) in Nanfeng County 南丰县, Jiangxi Province, more than a thousand graves were dug up.[30] Tensions ensued, however, when it was discovered that Jihe Cemetery (吉鹤陵园 Jihe lingyuan), one of the few cemeteries in the area capable of housing the newly displaced cremated remains, was both a privately run firm, and reportedly used aggressive sales tactics to secure expensive plot rental agreements.[31] Similar controversy surrounded Changshengling Cemetery (常胜岭墓园 Changshengling muyuan), one of the few designated resettlement areas for more than ten thousand relocated bodies from the Xiangsihu New District 相思湖新区 Xiangsihu xinqu in the Xixiangtang district 西乡塘区 of Nanning.[32]

In areas where cemeteries are unavailable or prohibitively expensive, relatives and community members of the migratory dead have often found themselves in asymmetric negotiations with local villagers offering sanctuary for their relocated graves in return for rental fees. Beginning in August 2010, government officials of the Du’an Yaozu Autonomous County (都安瑶族自治县) decreed that some 540 graves in areas around the Chengjiang River 澄江河 would need to be relocated to enable the development of “Hedong New District” (河东新区 Hedong xinqu). Each grave owner was to be reimbursed 1,800 RMB to cover the cost of relocation, as well as a land-use compensation fee at a rate of 56,782 RMB per mu.[33] Due to the absence of nearby cemeteries, however, villagers had little choice but to rebury family members on the landholdings of distant relatives in remote areas, or to negotiate lease agreements with rural mountain-dwellers at a cost of four to six thousand RMB per five-year period.[34]

With reburial complete, the capitalization chain of grave relocation continues further. Following the relocation of the corpse, often in locations far away from one’s hometown, family members have little choice but to rely upon third parties to oversee and keep up the new grave sites—paying so-called “service fees” assessed on a monthly or yearly basis. In 2008, a subset of Nanjing residents was required to move family graves located in the way of a new railway station. Upon attempting to relocate these graves, one Mr. Zhang encountered local villagers who had been looking after the grave for a fee, and who thus regarded the forthcoming relocation as a loss of income. Before permitting the graves to be exhumed and moved to in Huangjinshan Public Cemetery (黄金山公墓 Huangjinshan gongmu), villagers reportedly requested 1,500 RMB in “service fees” (劳务费 laowufei) and cartons of upscale cigarettes, to offset future losses.[35]

Still other intermediaries form part of this grave relocation economy. Fengshui or geomancy masters have been central to the grave relocation process, being in possession of the spiritual expertise to advise family members precisely when and under what conditions their family member should be relocated (so as to avoid misfortune and the wrath of the spiritual world). In a decidedly less spiritual direction, the Chinese deathscape has become a site on endemic corruption—something hardly surprising when accounting for the lucrative economy of death in the contemporary period.[36]


A final example returns us full circle, to the highway in Dunhuang and to the moment that first inspired this essay and this volume. In my examination of the relocated graves of Dunhuang, I would l learn that the area in the vicinity of the Mogao Caves UNESCO World Heritage Site (世界文化遗产敦煌莫高窟 Shijiewenhuayichan Dunhuang Mogaoku) had been the focus of grave relocations as early as 2006, a year prior to my visit.[37] With graves running alongside Foyemiaowan Road (佛爷庙湾路 Foye miaowanlu) and elsewhere, municipal planners considered them “aesthetically unpleasant,” and unbefitting a globally renowned tourist destination.

The municipal government of Dunhuang issued the Series of Regulations to Preserve the Mogao Caves (甘肃敦煌莫高窟保护条例 Gansu Dunhuang Mogaku baohutiaoli), upon the basis of which approximately two thousand graves in the area were required to be moved—some to nearby destinations, into spatially rationalized plots, and some more distantly, to newly created cemeteries in the region. With a deadline of April 20, 2006, reimbursements of five hundred RMB per grave would be afforded families to cover the cost of exhumation. What is more, local officials reportedly initiated a series of consciousness-raising campaigns, circulating news about the new regulations through music and art performances and sketch comedy (小品 xiaopin).

Grave relocations of a similar nature were undertaken in nine villages surrounding China’s northern city of Xi’an, once the capital of China’s Western Zhou, Qin, Western Han, Sui and Tang dynasties. In villages such as Sanqiao, Wuyi, and Cheliu, the motivations behind relocation were also not that of agricultural reclamation, nor the construction of luxury apartments, but rather to buttress China’s application process for world heritage site status for the Han dynasty Chang’an city wall (汉长安城 HanChang’an cheng). As in Dunhuang, the logic of heritage and memory pitted remarkably different scales against one another: the heritage of the family and the individual, against the heritage of the nation and the civilization as a whole.

Here, then, we encounter one final logic of the contemporary Chinese deathscape, and one that serves as a fitting conclusion for this study: the pitting of the afterlives of the recently dead against those of the distant past. Because of the ever-diminishing amount of land in China that is available for the dead to occupy, the “recent dead” associated with unknown families have little or no chance of winning out in an increasingly acute competition with the graves and ruins whose significance is assigned civilizational importance. More than ever before, perhaps, the preservation of civilizational historical memory overrides that of the local and of the recent past.

Not unlike its better-known counterpart, the one-child policy, grave relocation and funeral reform (binzang gaige 殡葬改革) are profoundly controversial initiatives crafted in response to China’s population crisis—in this case, the population of the dead rather than the living.[38] State and party authorities in concert with developers have ventured to redraw the map of the Chinese deathscape: to rationalize the spatial distribution of human remains, reduce land burial, and promote cremation, all in an attempt to overcome what has been referred to as “conflicts between the living and the dead over land resources.” In this great purge of the dead, China has ventured to become a hyper-alive state, wherein only the bare minimum of territorial resources would be afforded to the dead. It is no longer simply the disadvantageously located corpse that is understood to pose a problem to livelihood and to the living, but the very materiality and presence of dead bodies per se. If, then, 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.


Source of image at the top of this essay: “The Dead Edge Out the Living” 死人挤活人, by Jiang Fan 江帆. NIH/U.S. National Library of Medicine.

The author wishes to thank the many scholars whose critical feedback was invaluable during the writing and revision of this piece. In particular, I wish to express my heartfelt gratitude to Ruth Toulson, Rebecca Nedostup, Peter Carroll, Nicole Barnes, Rob Weller, Michael Puett, Huwy-min Lucia Liu, Weiting Guo, James Evans, Roshanna Sylvester, Li Jin, Tom Foster, and of course, my fellow contributors, Christian Henriot, Jeff Snyder-Reinke, David McClure, and Glen Worthey, among many others. I am also indebted to the editors at Stanford University Press— including Alan Harvey, Friederike Sundaram, and Jasmine Mulliken—for helping to see this project through to completion. I had the good fortune to be able to workshop this piece at a number of conferences and invited talks, and I am deeply grateful to everyone who attended and for all the constructive criticism I received. My thanks go to colleagues at the University of Pennsylvania, Boston College, Harvard University, UC Berkeley, and Depaul University. This volume was made possible through extensive, long-term support from the Stanford University Center for Spatial and Textual Analysis, the Stanford Center for Interdisciplinary Digital Research, and the Stanford Humanities Center, among others. Lastly and most importantly, I am deeply indebted to the tremendously talented group of Stanford University undergraduates and graduate students whose contributions to this project have been vital from the very beginning. A complete list of students and supporters can be found in the “People” page.

[1] The literature on death, burial, and the sociopolitical lives of human remains in other parts of the world is both rich and fascinating. See, for example, Katherine Verdery, The Political Lives of Dead Bodies (New York: Columbia University Press, 1999); Sarah Tarlow, Bereavement and Commemoration: An Archaeology of Mortality (Hoboken, NJ: Wiley-Blackwell, 1999); Robert Pogue Harrison, The Dominion of the Dead (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2003); Natacha Aveline-Dubach, ed., Invisible Population: The Place of the Dead in East Asian Megacities (Lanham, MD: Lexington Books, 2012); and the award-winning recent work by Thomas M. Laqueur, The Work of the Dead: A Cultural History of Mortal Remains (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2015). For groundbreaking work on China, see Andrew B. Kipnis, “Governing the Souls of Chinese Modernity,” Hau: Journal of Ethnographic Theory 7, no. 2 (2017): 217-238; Elizabeth Kenworthy Teather, "The Case of the Disorderly Graves: Contemporary Deathscapes in Guangzhou," Social and Cultural Geography 2, no. 2 (2001): 185-202; and Zahra Newby and Ruth Toulson, ed., The Materiality of Mourning: Cross-disciplinary Perspectives (New York: Routledge, 2018). Readers are also encouraged to keep an eye out for forthcoming work by Ruth Toulson and Rebecca Nedostup.

[2] Fu Xiaowei, “Societal Knowledge Disputes Found in Zhoukou’s Funeral Reform Campaign[周口平坟中的社会知识分歧],” Changjiang ribao, November 27, 2012; “Zhoukou Funeral Reforms Challenge ‘Beautify China’ Political Campaign[周口平坟复耕考验美丽中国],” Qiaobao, November 24, 2012.

[3] Key party and state officials at this time included Kong Xuemei 孔雪梅, a civil servant from the Zhoukou Bureau of Land Resources, who refuted such accusations; Liu Guolian 刘国连, vice-mayor of Zhoukou; and Xu Guang 徐光, party secretary of the Zhoukou City Committee.

[4] “Zhoukou, Henan Initiates Large-Scale Funeral Reform Campaign, Relocates 2 Million+ Graves [河南周口开展大规模平坟复耕 迁坟200多万座],” Tengxun xinwen, November 4, 2012.

[5] “Account of Zhoukou’s Funeral Reforms [周口平坟复耕记],” Shandong kejibao, December 3, 2012.

[6] Ba Fuqiang, “In Zhuji Village, Shangshui County, Officials Solve Funeral Reform Issues with ‘Harmonious’ Solutions [商水县朱集村:和协破解平坟复耕难题],” Henan ribao nongcunban, August 8, 2012.

[7] Meng Xiangchao, “Proof of Grave Digging Required for Officials to Go to Work in Fugou County, Zhoukou [周口扶沟县干部上班凭平坟证明],” Xinjingbao, November 23, 2012. The name of the daughter-in-law was Luo Junli 罗军丽 and the son-in-law He Hongting 何洪庭.

[8] Ibid.

[9] “Zhoukou Funeral Reform Campaign Also Differentiates between Government Officials and Civilians [周口平坟也官民有别],” Jinan shibao, November 27, 2012.

[10] Ye Biao, “Account of Zhoukou’s Funeral Reforms [周口平坟复耕记],” Nanfang zhoumo, November 22, 2012.

[11] “Zhoukou Uses Farmland for Graves after Grave Relocation, Charges Owners Fees for Resettlement [周口平坟后又圈占耕地建公墓 向迁坟户收墓穴费],” Wangyi xinwen, December 5, 2012; Funeral reform progress from the Zhoukou government (周口市殡葬改革工作简报 Zhoukoushi binzanggaige gongzuo jianbao)

[12] Meng Xiangchao, “Proof of Grave Digging Required for Officials to Go to Work in Fugou County, Zhoukou.”

[13] Ibid.

[14] Ibid.; Ye, “Account of Zhoukou’s Funeral Reforms”; Wang Xinghe, “Biggest Failure in Zhoukou’s Funeral Reforms Was to Skip Court Jurisdictions [周口平坟跳过法院是程序败笔],” Jiancha ribao, November 23, 2012.

[15] “Zhoukou Funeral Reform Campaign Also Differentiates between Government Officials and Civilians,” Jinan shibao, November 27, 2012; “Zhoukou’s Funeral Reforms Accused of Forcefully Increasing Land for Business-Use, Local Officials Refuse to Respond; Villagers Confirm That Officials Built Public Cemeteries around Own Ancestral Graves [周口平坟被指为增加商业用地当地无回应,另有村民证实厅官祖坟圈入公墓],” Lanzhou chenbao, November 27, 2012.

[16] Zhang Liwei, “Local Funeral Reforms Should Not Be Violently Executed [地方平坟运动不应过于粗暴],” Shiji jingji baodao, November 27, 2012.

[17] Ye, “Account of Zhoukou’s Funeral Reforms.”

[18] Meng, “Proof of Grave Digging Required for Officials to Go to Work in Fugou County, Zhoukou”; Yang Yi, “Changsha Resident’s Ancestral Grave Removed Without Consent, Grave Digger Claims It Was for Road Construction [长沙市民未被告知祖坟被迁走 挖墓者称迁坟是为修路],” Fazhi wang, April 1, 2013.

[19] 走基层: 南水北调. 移民搬迁拆房难迁坟更难, May 31, 2012, broadcast.

[20] “Feng Zhanhai, a Famed Soldier from the Sino-Japanese War Faces Destruction of His Grave Descendants: Property Developers Should’ve At Least Told Us about Grave Relocation [抗日名将冯占海墓碑被推倒 家属:开发商至少应该通知我们迁坟],” Dushi shibao, October 9, 2010.

[21] Wang Jing, “Netizen Uploads Video Showing Army General’s Grave Being Destroyed, Reporter Finds On-Site Worker Who Claimed It Was a Mistake during Grave Relocation [有网友公布将军墓被毁视屏,记者碾转找到当时施工的工人得知—— 工人迁坟时 误挖将军墓],” Chengshi wanbao, October 9, 2010.

[22] Being acutely aware of the power of the small numbers, state administrators and real estate developers have themselves attempted to co-opt this power in order to neutralize it. See, for example, Gao Jian, “388 Martyrs’ Graves Will Be Relocated to Shengshuiyu [388座零散烈士墓将统迁圣水峪],” Beijing xinwen, November 4, 2013; and Hu Wenfeng, “772 Martyrs’ Graves in Lai’an County Find ‘New Home’ [来安772座零散烈士墓迁“新家”],” Zhongan zaixian, April 1, 2012.

[23] The author wishes to express special thanks to Karl Grossner, Chuan Xu, Mona Huang, Grace Geng, Xingguo Chen, Celena Allen, and Matt Bryant.

[24] The typical time limit is thirty days, but shorter ones occasionally appear. A January 2007 notice in Nanning City read: “If no one has responded within three days of this notice, the grave will be considered abandoned and we will contact the relevant bureau to take care of it.” It is not uncommon for people who do not read the newspaper on the day a notification is posted to learn of what has happened after the fact, perhaps when visiting the cemetery only to find the grave of a loved one missing.

[25] Owing to the precise, repetitive vocabulary that surrounds grave relocation—featuring rare terms such as “grave flattening” (平坟)—there was a chance that such relocation notices would have been eminently suited for natural language processing (NLP), web scraping, and machine learning techniques. This was an avenue that the team explored, but ultimately did not pursue. The original thinking was: having reached a critical mass of entries in the initial, data entry-based database of grave relocations, the scaled-up phase of the project could then transition to automated processes to sift through tens of millions of characters of data and extract relevant materials at significantly higher speeds. It is also worth noting that the terminology of relocation has morphed considerably over the past twenty years as well, which presents yet another challenge in our ongoing effort to locate, document, and analyze low-profile cases. Whereas the early years of the campaign centered on terms such as “grave relocation” (qianfen) and “grave flattening” (pingfen), a proliferation of euphemisms has swollen the discourse. Neologisms include “zero-grave-ification” (wufenhua), “grave rationalization” (zhengfen), “greening” (lühua), campaigns against “visual pollution” (视觉污染 shijue wuran), and more. In addition to presenting challenges, however, iterations in terminology also offer rich and profound interpretive potential, insofar as they themselves reflect efforts by entrepreneurs and state-party administrators to respond flexibility to the shifting politics of the campaign.

[26] “Thirty Thousand Graves Relocated in Exchange for Approximately Ten Thousand Mu of Land [迁坟三万座腾地近万亩],” Zhongguo huanjingbao, February 24, 2006.

[27] Tang Guanhua, “Report on Grave Relocation Complaints Related to the ‘Sangzhi County Story’ Project Development [“桑植故事”项目迁坟选址信访事项的情况调查],” Sangzhixian fengyuanzhen renminzhengfu wang, March 19, 2012.

[28] Real Estate Price Information for “Sangzhi Story.”.

[29] When contemplating the scale of profit from relocating graves, the motives of local state officials and developers become more readily comprehensible. So, too, does the intensity of local responses, as in the case of the “Sangzhi Story” itself. On March 14, a discussion between locals and officials ended in violence, with altercations between local citizens and representatives of the township.

[30] “Nanfeng, Jiangxi Forces Relocation of More Than a Thousand Graves [江西南丰强制迁坟一千余座],” Sohu, October 31, 2010.

[31] Ibid. The government offered grave owners only eight hundred RMB in grave relocation compensation, and no compensation for eminent domain usage of the land itself.

[32] Jia Jingwei, “Designated Grave Resettlement Location Accused of Being a For-Profit Business, Nanning ‘Changshengling Cemetery’ Deemed Illegal [迁坟安置点被指对外经营 南宁常胜岭墓园乃非法],” Guangxi xinwenwang, April 16, 2012.

[33] Tang Yuke, “Du’an County Relocated Graves Find Difficulties in ‘Resettlement’ [都安540座迁坟遭遇落户难],” Hechi wang, December 21, 2011.

[34] Ibid.

[35] Zeng Hao and Yang Jing, “Villagers Earn up to 100,000 RMB Per Family From ‘Grave Relocation Service Fees’” [“迁坟劳务费”村民一户能赚10万], Dongfang weibao, March 5, 2008.

[36] Dong Wanyu, “Grave Owners Scam Grave Relocation Compensation Fees at Huangjinshan Public Cemetery [有人骗领黄金山迁坟补偿款],” Yangzi wanbao, March 21, 2008; Zhao Wen, “Village CCP Secretary Scams Millions of RMB as ‘Grave Relocation Fees’ [图文:村支书冒领迁坟款敛财百万元],” Chutian jinbao, September 9, 2010; Zhao Wen, “Village CCP Secretary Scams Millions of RMB as ‘Grave Relocation Fees’ [村支书冒领迁坟款敛财百万元],” Chutian jinbao, September 9, 2010; Luo Jianan and Liu Taijin, “Xijian County Village Director Jailed for Pocketing Grave Relocation Compensation Fees [侵占迁坟补偿款新建县一村主任获刑],” Jiangxi fazhibao, March 17, 2010.

[37] Zhang Weixian, “Citizens Respond Positively to Grave Relocation Campaign, Bring Life Back to Dunhuang’s Mogao Caves [市民响应号召迁坟 敦煌莫高窟保护区焕生机]” Zhongguo wenwubao, March 31, 2006.

[38] Susan Greenhalgh, Just One Child: Science and Policy in Deng’s China (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2008).