New book: Scythe and the city

This has been a project in the making for many years. It started out of a short foray into the archives to write a paper about the “suffering body”, those of the combatants in the 1937 Shanghai Battle. The main objective was to dig up and collect visual documents about the scars of war. I failed on that front, but this preliminary exploration opened up a whole new perspective on the history of the city. Dead bodies were not just those of the soldiers or even those of the civilian population struck by war. Death loomed very large and in many ways over the city. No study had ever been made of death in an urban setting in China. This was the beginning of a trail that I followed until I came up with this new book published by Stanford University Press:


This monograph is the first book-length study of death in modern China. It examines what death represented in Chinese urban society and how the Chinese dealt with and managed death in a large urban setting. The manuscript focuses on Shanghai from 1865 to 1965. It is based on extensive archival research, a very thorough use of the press, and of a wide array of materials, including maps and photographs as sources.

The central question the books addresses is: in view of known Chinese practices about death, how did these practices adapt to a modern densely urbanized environment and how did the Chinese managed death in interaction with the role of social organizations and state authorities? The various chapters examine this general question through the systematic study of the institutions and actors involved in the management of death and funeral practices as they existed and evolved in Shanghai over a century. They unveil facets of urban society that have never before been studied or even touched upon.

Death, despite its intrinsic importance in any society and its particular importance in the historical experience of Chinese cities, is basically absent from the whole field of Chinese urban history. This book provides pioneering and original research on this crucial aspect of modern Chinese society and takes the reader through the tumultuous era that redefined radically the relationship of the Chinese with death.


Cite this blog post
Christian Henriot (2016, February 17). New book: Scythe and the city. Blog Virtual Shanghai. Retrieved April 18, 2024, from

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2 Responses

  1. Rem says:

    Hello Mr. Henriot. I remember coming across an article on foreign concession cemeteries on virtualshanghai some time ago. Does this book include more information on such spaces? And I’m curious if your research came across garden design for cemeteries? It is always such an annoyance when trying to plant coniferous evergreens in the public realm in China; it seems that anything remotely coniferous is automatically taboo. (As well taking photos in cemeteries in China – bad luck apparently!) And even plants that are related to “death” are forbidden as well – e.g., Sophora japonica (“Demon Tree”/ “Guilty Chinese Scholar Tree”) and Catalpa ovata (whose wood I was informed is used for coffins); even though in both these particular cases these “poor” trees are actually quite beautiful!

    • Sorry, but I rarely consult comments. My book addresses the issue of cemetery design, but not in detail down to gardn design, flowers and plants. Best way to know… buy the book.

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