Date of Award
Doctor of Philosophy (PhD)
This dissertation began with the reading of numerous Qing-dynasty records pertaining to dead bodies that remained on the ground without proper burial. These bodies were not necessarily the victims of extraordinary events such as wars or natural disasters, but the remains of ordinary people whose families failed to arrange a burial site. A wide range of historical materials recorded the presence of these bodies, such as commentaries and critiques on popular burial customs written by the imperial government and literati elites, and Qing popular tales where these bodies were described as man-hunting zombies (jiangshi 僵屍). These sources demonstrate unburied dead bodies as highly abnormal and deeply problematic, representing a dysfunctional aspect of popular death custom that proliferated in the Qing, particularly in the Jiangnan area. This dissertation observes how, throughout the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, these bodies left on the ground provoked an empire-wide discomfort and discussion pertaining to what must be the proper way of disposing of the dead, which further gave rise to civic movements of managing death and burial in several localities in Jiangnan. The root of the problem was the rapidly changing socioeconomic structure in the Lower Yangzi area during the so-called High Qing period, when the bustling economy of an enormous empire was accompanied by the growing imbalance between population and arable land. The intensifying land competition increasingly deprived the dead of their resting place, as the security of the dead’s resting place depended on the security of the family’s claim to the burial site. As a result, by the eighteenth century, it became a common practice in Jiangnan to leave dead bodies without permanent burial until a good burial site was finally arranged. Often, these bodies ended up not being able to rest in the final resting place, left unburied permanently and lost. Largely conceived of being “homeless,” the victim of popular custom called delayed burial (tingzang 停葬), unburied corpses embodied the economic and social marginality. The Qing response to this problem was two-fold. On the one hand, the Qing government, perceiving unburied dead bodies as an epitome of the decline of family ethics, strove to ideologize this problem and enforce what it perceived as proper burial (anzang 安葬) – that is, burying the dead in earth in a timely manner. In particular, the government and local administrators attempted to standardize the neo-Confucian precept of proper burial in local society as part of their efforts to reform local popular customs. On the other hand, in several localities in Jiangnan, the ideology of proper burial developed into a civic activism of what I call public death management that spread under the leadership of local elites and philanthropists (charities and guilds). Public death management refers to the public initiative of managing death and burial that emerged in the late eighteenth and nineteenth centuries relying on the mobilization of public funds and expansion of death-related services, including public cemeteries and other public facilities – such as coffin homes – that helped people dispose of the body properly. Public death services offered by public charities and guild organizations both continued and revised the imperial ideology of proper burial. Just like the imperial government, civic actors in Jiangnan did acknowledge unburied dead bodies as a sign of social dysfunction and were committed to fix this problem. Meanwhile, there were certain gaps between the imperial ideological definition of proper burial and what actually occurred in local society. If the former was about bringing the dead back to the framework of ancestor worship – and therefore reviving family ethics – the latter focused more on securing and protecting collective physical spaces for the community’s dead. Thus, the civic notion of proper burial developed into a more public sense of responsibility for the welfare of the dead. In late nineteenth-century Shanghai, public cemeteries and coffin homes became an imperative part of urban life to the point that residents of Shanghai fought to protect these facilities against the encroachment of foreign imperial powers. These instances of controversies over public cemeteries, and the Chinese attempts to preserve the collective home for the dead, reveal how public death management creatively transformed the ideology of proper burial into an urban civic-oriented understanding of the relationship between the living and the dead.
Chair and Committee
Lori Watt, Corinna Treitel, Daniel Bornstein, Robert Hegel,
Suh, Joohee, "The Afterlife of Corpses: A Social History of Unburied Dead Bodies in Qing China (1644-1911)" (2019). Arts & Sciences Electronic Theses and Dissertations. 1951.