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June 12, 2008 in The China Beat


Copyright June 12, 2008 Don Sutton. Used by permission.


Disasters like the great Sichuan earthquake expose not only mass suffering but also the imperative of proper treatment of the dead. Long before the founding of the People’s Republic in 1949, governments in China had concerned themselves with such matters. Today, ranking only behind the weighty practical matters of rescue, flood prevention, and caring for the injured and homeless, sensitivity to mourning is a key measure of the government’s performance, one complicated by ethnic diversity, rural/urban differences, and the government’s own commitment to reform those practices it regards as superstitions.

For all the simplification of death rituals, a strong Chinese belief persists that survivors have to repay obligations incurred in life. The party state has not always done right by the dead. For the sake of party authority and social harmony the regime did little to commemorate the ordinary victims of the famine years of 1960-61 or the Cultural Revolution (1966-69). And it did nothing at all to honor those who died during the military suppression of the Tiananmen Square democracy movement of 1989—aside from some soldiers, that is, who lost their lives. But in the earthquake crisis China’s leaders have generally been more sensitive.

The most elementary obligation, not of course uniquely Chinese, is to identify the dead and dispose of them properly: rural Chinese still widely practice burial, despite the government propaganda for cremation. Since the quake, the government has resorted to advance DNA testing for those mass burials that have been hastened to prevent epidemic disease, though many bodies in remote towns and villages still lie under the ruins.