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LIU, Huwy-min Lucia. 2023. Governing Death, Making Persons: The New Chinese Way of Death. Ithaca: Cornell University Press.

Hongxin Fang
p. 81-82

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1Influenced by American anthropology in a broad sense and corresponding to anthropological research on contemporary China more precisely, Huwy-min Lucia Liu initially expected that the trend of funeral rituals in China after reform and opening up would be individualisation and religious revival. However, after observing dozens of funerals in Shanghai around 2010, Liu found that wasn’t the case. With memorial meetings as the main component of the rituals, contemporary Chinese funerals still had strong traces of state influence, maintaining a subtle continuation with the Mao era. On the other hand, although there was almost no tendency towards individualisation under the current ritual framework, emotional and religious elements had firmly settled in it. Liu’s Governing Death, Making Persons: The New Chinese Way of Death is an ethnography that tells how such changes have occurred. Based on detailed and in-depth ethnographic descriptions, this book challenges the academic imagination of contemporary Chinese death rituals and explores the subjects these death rituals have created in contemporary China.

2This book is organised into two parts, each corresponding to different “subjects”: practitioners in the funeral industry in the first part, and consumers, i.e., bereaved families, in the second. The first part is further divided into three chapters. Chapter One uses a lot of material from the Library of the Chinese Funeral and Interment Profession in Shanghai. It describes the so-called civil governance of funerals adopted by the Chinese government after 1949. As Liu tells it, the state nationalised existing funeral institutions and introduced several funeral reforms – including the promotion of cremation, which reached its peak during the Cultural Revolution – with the aim of eliminating horizontal relationships such as family, interpersonal, and religious ties, and creating civil subjects linked to the state directly and vertically.

3Chapter Two proceeds from the historical archives to Liu’s ethnographic timeline, discussing the transformation of funeral parlours into profit-oriented service institutions after reform and opening up. What seems most ironic to Liu is that the market-oriented reforms created a huge income disparity within the funeral parlour workforce, allowing the grassroots to protest by using pre-reform methods such as “big character posters” (dazibao 大字報), which Liu argues formed the working-class subjectivity.

4The protagonists in the next chapter are the ones who best fit the expected image of self-managed market subjects, i.e., the private funeral brokers outside the funeral parlours. They are mainly rural migrants in a transient form of employment with semilegal status. Navigating between state policies, funeral parlours, and bereaved families, they operate under fragile conditions fraught with risk. Perhaps precisely because of this precarious situation, they are driven to become self-managed market subjects, carving out emotional and religious spaces for contemporary Shanghai funerals within official ceremonies. Liu’s binary distinction between precariousness (an economic concept with political consequences) and fragility (a political concept with economic consequences) is noteworthy, deepening our understanding of disadvantage groups in different contexts.

5The second part turns to the form and process of the funeral ritual itself and is divided into four chapters. Chapter Four mainly refutes the inference that market-oriented reforms will encourage bereaved families to become market subjects pursuing individualised funerals. Chapter Five finally delves into the ethnographic description of the process of death ritual. The memorial meeting, which is thought to be an invention of the Chinese Communist Party during the revolutionary era, was used for postmortem rehabilitation after the Cultural Revolution. Once discouraged by the state, it has become a common template for death ceremonies for Shanghai citizens. Following Liu’s meticulous, objective (and somewhat defamiliarised) documentation, we get a sense of presence about the memorial meeting and the whole ceremony. Through the speech-acts of work-unit representatives and participants in the ceremony, the deceased is constructed as a model socialist citizen at the memorial meeting. However, Liu cautions us that this idealised socialist discourse clashes with the ongoing process of marketisation. Liu believes that these moments of dissonance offer an opportunity for those present to reflect on the coexistence of socialist ideals and market economy realities, thus shaping contemporary subjects.

6Chapter Six continues this ethnographic tone and further describes the religious practices beyond the standardised memorial meetings. Liu refers to these practices as “additions,” encompassing the “folk customs” (fengsu xiguan 風俗習慣) that are favoured by most citizens and more formal Buddhist practices. Significantly, through affect, banquets, and flower baskets, Liu argues that participants form relational subjects divergent from the socialist subjects.

7Drawing upon this ethnographic material, Liu engages in a theoretical dialogue, particularly with Joel Robbins’s theory of value pluralism. Robbins maintains that a ritual can maximise the realisation of a specific value without negating others. Liu argues, however, that such a theory of value pluralism implicitly assumes a hierarchy of values. Contrary to this, the funerals she observed in Shanghai exhibit a different pattern. Here, diverse values such as socialism, Confucian relationalism, and Buddhism coexist tacitly and non-interferingly, fostering pluralistic subjectivity. This argument resonates with Gregory Bateson’s discussion of ritual (1955) cited in the introduction to Liu’s book, where he asserts that “ritual is a type of cognitive framing that provides ‘a spatial and temporal bonding of a set of interactive messages’” (p. 10). In Chapter Seven, Liu introduces the funeral of a Protestant, where the promotion of “true self” disrupts the pluralistic framework of the ritual and the pluralistic subjectivity participating in it. Protestant rituals, in fact, mirror the singular-value ideals of socialism.

8In this solid ethnography, Liu provides valuable material on how contemporary Chinese death rituals are conducted, significantly enriching our understanding of contemporary Chinese society. However, I think the book may also have some limitations. Firstly, Liu seems overly preoccupied by the cognitive framing (borrowing Bateson’s terminology) of mainstream American anthropology – such as the binary opposition between state-vertical and social-relational, individualisation, marketisation and neoliberalism, religious revival, plural values, etc. Problematisation based on her rich ethnographic material might lead to a more complex and nuanced understanding of contemporary China. For instance, the transformation of the funeral industry may reflect how the state is imagined by diverse social actors and infiltrates their daily lives, rather than being a top-down monolithic entity. Secondly, although the book title mentions “making persons” and Liu repeatedly discusses the construction of subjects, the examination of rituals often occurs in isolation. The inclusion of longitudinal case studies that would delve into the ordinary lives of families around death might have deepened our understanding of how the citizens of contemporary Shanghai – a city that boasts of being the most civilised and modernised in China – forge their understanding of life and subjectivity through death. This book is recommended for readers interested in social changes in China, particularly how death rituals are shaped by state governance and marketisation.

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Bibliography

BATESON, Gregory. 1955. Steps to an Ecology of Mind. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

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References

Bibliographical reference

Hongxin Fang, LIU, Huwy-min Lucia. 2023. Governing Death, Making Persons: The New Chinese Way of Death. Ithaca: Cornell University Press.China Perspectives, 137 | 2024, 81-82.

Electronic reference

Hongxin Fang, LIU, Huwy-min Lucia. 2023. Governing Death, Making Persons: The New Chinese Way of Death. Ithaca: Cornell University Press.China Perspectives [Online], 137 | 2024, Online since 01 June 2024, connection on 20 July 2024. URL: http://journals.openedition.org/chinaperspectives/16860; DOI: https://doi.org/10.4000/11y7q

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About the author

Hongxin Fang

Hongxin Fang is Lecturer at the Department of Sociology, East China University of Science and Technology, 130 Meilong Road, Shanghai, China (ftyangzidane@163.com).

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Copyright

The text and other elements (illustrations, imported files) are “All rights reserved”, unless otherwise stated.

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