Scythe and the City
A Social History of Death in Shanghai
Christian Henriot


Contents and Abstracts
chapter abstract

The introduction offers various paths on the study of death in China and Europe, while it also sets the stage for the study of death in Shanghai proper.

1 Scythe and the City: The Measure of Death
chapter abstract

This chapter is an attempt to take the measure of death in the city through the reconstruction of demographic series and a study of the causes of death. It establishes not just the quantitative parameters of death in the city. It also unveils the dramatic condition in which most urbanites lived, their lives and hopes cut short by disease, malnutrition, work conditions, and so on. The chapter demonstrates Shanghai was a gigantic whirlpool that drew its vitality from the masses of migrants that moved into the city.

2 Guilds, Charities, and the Community Management of Death
chapter abstract

The second chapter examines the role of community organizations, especially the guilds and charities, in the management of death in the city. Up to the 1920s, before the emergence of commercial funeral companies, community organizations were the sole social actors that took care of the disposal of dead bodies. This chapter also studies the earlier forms of regulation by the imperial administration and the foreign municipal authorities.

3 Funeral Companies and the Commoditization of the Dead Body
chapter abstract

. This chapter takes up the new trend commercial funeral companies set in motion from the mid-1920s, when an American company established the first funeral parlor, to the extraordinary boom during the Sino-Japanese War and its problematic legacy, a full-blown ghost city in the midst of Shanghai, in the postwar and early Communist period.

4 A Final Resting Place: From Burial Grounds to Modern Cemeteries
chapter abstract

Due to the particular political and spatial configuration of the city, the space devoted to the final resting place was sharply divided and fragmented. This chapter focuses on the process of transformation of Chinese burial grounds and the rise of modern cemeteries in the twentieth century. It examines the role of private companies in the light of the official prescriptions from the state and the inability of local municipal authorities to respond adequately to social demand.

5 Foreign Cemeteries and the Colonial Space of Death
chapter abstract

This chapter addresses the specific issue of the colonial space of death that private individuals and communities, but mostly the two foreign municipal councils, created through the establishment and management of cemeteries reserved to foreigners, with only very few exceptions. In pre-1949 Shanghai, foreign cemeteries established a trail of permanent and temporary burial grounds in the core urban area.

6 Invisible Deaths, Silent Deaths
chapter abstract

This chapter examines the issue of the invisible deaths, those of the most destitute, especially infants and children, whose bodies ended up in back alleys, vacant land, almost everywhere in the city. This was the most gruesome aspect of death as despite its unthinkable magnitude it dissolved under a veil of social invisibility.

7 Funerals and the Price of Death
chapter abstract

Death had a price. From the performance of funeral rituals, to funeral apparels, and to funeral processions, death (re)created a complete hierarchy in even sharper lines than among the living. Funerals were a central rite of passage in which families invested considerable amounts of money, as much as they could afford, sometimes beyond their means. This chapter provides keys to situate the importance of funeral ceremonies in Chinese death culture and to establish the parameters of inclusion/exclusion of various social groups. It also examines the fundamental issue of the price of death and the economy of death in Shanghai.

8 The Cremated Body: From Social Curse to Political Rule
chapter abstract

Earth burial was the fundamental way of disposing of the dead. Yet other forms emerged, for example, cremation. This chapter is devoted to the introduction of cremation in Shanghai and its slow diffusion until the war made it a compulsory measure to dispose of the unclaimed bodies of the poor. The image of cremation as a curse goes a long way to explain the strong resistance of the population and the cautious approach the authorities took, even after 1950, in promoting it. Yet, by the Cultural Revolution, this had become a standard practice.

9 The Management of Death under Socialism
chapter abstract

All through the late imperial and Republican period, customs and practices changed along with the emergence of new funeral organizations and the effect of official regulation. Yet the core set of beliefs and practices evolved slowly until the new Communist regime challenged the whole death culture. The final chapter examines the measures through which the CCP took over the control of all organizations involved in the management of death and reorganized drastically the funeral social landscape.