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Historian Tom Mullaney leads the Grave Reform in Modern China project, which harnesses humanities scholarship and digital tools to analyze and narrate the story of funeral reform and grave relocation.

In the last 15 years, grave relocation has been taking place in China on a massive scale. To date, some 15 million deceased people’s remains have been moved.

A digital humanities project at Stanford reveals the extent and human impact of this huge yet largely unreported phenomenon.

Led by Stanford historian Tom Mullaney, the Grave Reform in Modern China project harnesses humanities scholarship and data visualization to highlight the process according to two principal focal points.

The first is to use a digital platform to visualize a complex process that, without these tools, it would be difficult to see. The second is to tell the story of that process coherently and accessibly.

“We are making visible both the human level of grave relocation through stories alongside the details concerning when, where and why it is taking place, in order to understand it on a macro level,” said Mullaney, an associate professor of history.

Uniquely, the project creates a complex, nuanced and layered digital map of China that mixes the growing living population with the dead.

According to Mullaney, who works with collaborators in the Center for Spatial and Textual Analysis (CESTA) and the Center for Interdisciplinary Digital Research (CIDR) at Stanford, they are building a platform that is an innovative way of seeing the impact of grave relocation and how it reflects the process of development.

“Our approach allows us to see the augmented narrative of such a process, letting us tell a story of historical development and change through distinct perspectives,” he said.

Launching later in 2016, the map will be an accessible platform to better comprehend the process of grave relocations.

When users come to the site, they will see a two-panel layout. On part of the screen are narratives about grave relocation, which could be stories, articles and essays. In the main area of the screen is the map of China, where users can navigate through all of the data layered on the map according to a variety of filters.

“We are building a set of narratives, each a curated walking tour through the data,” Mullaney said.

“For example, we found out about the grandchildren of a Second World War veteran who discovered through the media that the grave site of their grandfather had been dug up and moved. We can now see the motivation for this relocation as well as how it impacted the family involved.”

For collaborator David McClure, a digital humanities research developer at Stanford University Libraries and CIDR, their approach builds a new map of China.

“The project systematically maps out places where the government is moving grave sites to new locations to make space for different kinds of new development, infrastructure or agricultural land,” McClure said.

Rewriting the map of China

Over the past 30 years, and even more aggressively over the last decade, Chinese government officials and private-sector partners have relocated millions of human remains. The government is simultaneously promoting cremation to reduce the overall number of newly buried Chinese corpses.

The policy is controversial, as it impacts the profoundly personal and intimate questions concerning how a family commemorates a deceased loved one.

While there are many examples of grave relocation throughout history, the scale of the phenomenon in contemporary China is unprecedented.

“This is the second population crisis in China, one that we don’t often think about, but that actually the Chinese state thinks about a great deal. This government policy is transforming China’s graveyards into sites of acute personal, social, political and economic contestation,” Mullaney said.

Among the most striking elements of the mapping is the possibility to see the rise to very large proportions of third- and fourth-tier cities that entirely rewrites and reshapes the map of contemporary China.

The research demonstrates that the majority of the grave relocations are happening on the border between the urban and the rural in these rapidly growing new cities.

“Typically our minds still turn toward the Shanghais, the Beijings, the Chongqings, but we so rarely turn to cities like Liupanshui or Zhanjiang, or a number of other cities where arguably the most profound changes in contemporary China are happening,” Mullaney said.

“As these cities grow, we are seeing a massive migration of the dead as the burial sites are forced to make way,” Mullaney said.

Digital storytelling

Data for the project comes from two main sources.

The first are notices that the government publishes for each relocation that is going to take place. By law, the government is supposed to inform the public of the date, location and reason for the relocation.

If a family member does not respond to the announcement, the grave is treated as untended, meaning that it will be exhumed and the remains potentially cremated and disposed of. The remains might not be reburied, or might be reburied in a way that the family does not want.

Second, the project collects and curates the various media reports, blogs, essays and stories that add different narrative perspectives to the relocations.

“You can see exactly where it is happening, how quickly and why, on a macro scale of millions or on the personal level. Mapping the data allows us to see the human impact of these grave relocations in the broader context of contemporary growth,” Mullaney said.

Striking a balance between classic humanities research and digital platforms, however, is not always easy.

“If we venture too far in one direction we lose the humanity of the story. If we venture too far in the opposite direction, we lose the scale,” he said.

For Mullaney and his team, digital storytelling is a powerful way to oscillate between those two scales to see simultaneously the multiple perspectives that are central to such a complex phenomenon.

“I think we’re putting forward a very exciting possibility for how that can be done,” he said.

Media Contacts

Corrie Goldman, director of humanities communication: (650) 724-8156, corrieg@stanford.edu
Clifton B. Parker, Stanford News Service: (650) 725-0224, cbparker@stanford.edu