Chinese edition of Scythe and the City

The Shanghai Academy of Social Sciences Press are about to release the Chinese edition — 镰刀与城市. 以上海为例的死亡社会史研究 — of Scythe and the city (Stanford University Press, 2016). The arduous work of translation was done by Liu Zhe, one of my former students, who now teaches at the Shanghai International School.

The publisher asked me to write a preface for the Chinese edition. You will find the English version of this preface below.


Preface to the Chinese edition

Why does it matter for historians to study death? Death is very much present in historical research. Historians study the past and, except when they examine the more recent period, they mostly deal with social actors that have disappeared for good. Fundamentally, historians deal with the dead all the time. They also make frequent encounters with death since historical works are replete with events – wars, riots, murders, assassinations, executions, suicides, diseases, epidemics, hunger, etc. – that litter the historical field with dead bodies. But these are embodied deaths, concrete individuals or collective deaths. It is not about death per se, namely how a society historically constructs its perceptions and representations of death and how it disposes of the dead.

Many readers may think that death is not a likable topic. Indeed, death evokes disturbing moments, such as when someone close passes away, but above all it represents for anyone both uncertainty and inevitability. Death is an intrinsic part of the human condition, a destiny that neither science, nor religion can change, but that both have contributed to assuage, each in its own way, by improving health and increasing our longevity or by providing the soul with sets of beliefs on the meaning of life and death. Scythe and the city does not address such abstracts notions. It explores death as a social experience, as the expression of how Chinese urban society organized itself to manage the relentless and increasing flow of the dead in everyday life.

Death is not just about individuals. It is about how society as a whole defines the concepts, rules and rituals – the rites of passage to the netherworld – that frame individual beliefs and procure standards for the disposal of the dead. Chinese culture presents a case of a very rich repertoire of practices rooted in the distant past. These practices have adhered to an unwavering base line (e.g., earth burial), while at the same time allowing for multiple adaptations across space (regional variations) and time (from late Qing to early 1960s). In the case of Shanghai, the city was a concentrate of people from all over China and from all over the world with no less than 52 recorded nationalities in 1935. As a result, Shanghai was host to a wide range of creeds that each came with its own set of funeral rites and often dedicated burial grounds.

What this book seeks to address is the meaning of death in modern Chinese urban society. It takes Shanghai as its observation ground and it documents what death meant for individuals, for private and public institutions, and even for business over a century. Although funeral practices and customs must have changed in the countryside, it is in cities, especially in a large metropolis like Shanghai, that the sheer number of deaths resulting from a large population inevitably called for specific forms of organization and for social and cultural adaptations. The wealth of documentation available makes Shanghai an exceptional vantage point to observe  these changes.

When I wrote this book a few years back, there was as yet no study of death as an object of historical inquiry in Chinese. This did not come as a complete surprise because my own study of death in Shanghai had shown how much Chinese society had devised elaborate social scripts – gestures, rites, formulas, etc. – to keep death at a distance, to protect the living from being affected, or worse, taken by death. There is a particular sensitivity toward death in modern Chinese urban society that even to this day contributes to making it something better left untouched. As I searched for references in Chinese on this topic to write this preface, I came to the realization that Chinese historians have not yet ventured into this terrain. My search came to naught and I hope that the publication of this book in Chinese will trigger a new interest in this topic. The history of death in China deserves its Philippe Aries.

When the manuscript was completed, I was not sure what title to adopt. My hesitation was not just about what would best encapsulate the content of the book. It was about the intellectual roots of how I had come to this topic. In the introduction, I discuss the process that led me from the study of visual documents as historical sources to the study of death in Shanghai. It was a combination of chance and opportunity. Of course, my work on the period of the Sino-Japanese war had already taken me close to the issue of death in the city. War struck Shanghai several times in the late 1920s and in the 1930s. In 1937, the Japanese army launched a devastating attack on the city, with a massive loss of lives among soldiers, but also among civilians. But somehow, the exceptional character and the magnitude of these deaths somehow obscured the more prosaic deaths of common people. The rich archives inherited from the past municipal authorities and civic organizations (guilds, charities), however, told a very different story. It was a genuine intellectual awakening.

My initial temptation was to title the book Death in Shanghai. It was a plain and simple title, yet one that resonated deeply with a vision of death in the city that I had gained from literature and cinema. As I walked through the grim historical materials, images from Luchino Visconti’s magnificent movie, Death in Venice, flashed through my mind. I have seen the movie many times since its initial release in 1971. Visconti’s film takes place in a city gripped by a cholera epidemic, a disease that also struck very harshly several times in the history of modern Shanghai. My fascination for Death in Venice, however, had deeper roots. The movie resonated with a novel I read at about the same time, Albert Camus’ The Plague, a book that has left a deep imprint on me to this day. It is also a story inspired by a brutal cholera epidemic in Algier’s Oran. Both the novel and the movie convey a sense of the powerlessness of individuals to change their destiny in the face of disease and epidemics. This was also the stark fate that large numbers of individuals in Shanghai met, which periods of crisis, especially war, took to dehumanizing proportions. Yet, even in peace time, scores of common people died in silence, with little or no resources, especially children, and with no hope of a decent burial.

In modern Shanghai, ordinary people only had a limited control about their condition. When it came to death, a majority depended on the organizations — charities, guilds — that provided support for proper, albeit rudimentary burial. Only a small segment of local society could afford the services of funeral shops and later commercial companies to organize the more elaborate ceremonies and display of status that distinguished the funerals of the elites. Among the poor, epidemics or war acted like a magnified sword that cut lives by the thousands. For them, death meant complete powerlessness and dispossession of the body. They were whisked away from the city and buried in remote anonymous burial grounds. It is this image of massively sacrificed lives, of people dying in silence and indifference, that eventually convinced me to return to the classical imagery of death in European culture, the scythe, a peasant’s tool used for harvesting cereals, but also the most evocative symbol of death in action. Scythe is not a symbol that strikes a chord in Chinese culture, but I assumed that the readers would still understand the allusion to Sex and the City that inspired the final title of the book.

It is of course a privilege to see this book come out in Chinese as I hope it will engage with academics, historians, and students in China. I wish to thank the 上海社会科学出版社 for accepting to publish Scythe and the city in China.

A special thank goes to my former student, Liu Zhe, for taking up the arduous task of translating the manuscript into Chinese. He did a beautiful work of translation.

Finally, through the years when I was conducting research on this social history of death in Shanghai, I was blessed to have Professor Ma Jun, an eminent historian (Shanghai Academy of Social Sciences), as well as many of my students, Jiang Jie, Liu Zhe, Zhao Weiqing, Xu Chong as inspiring and dedicated « archives companions ».

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