- Scythe and the City: A Social History of Death in Shanghai by Christian Henriot
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Based on extensive archival research, Christian Henriot's groundbreaking book Scythe and the City: A Social History of Death in Shanghai offers an original perspective on the subject of death—a previously overlooked aspect by which Shanghai modernity deems to be re-defined. Henriot meticulously investigates the relation between the ordinary Chinese and death in the city of Shanghai during the semicolonial, Republican, and early socialist eras. The elaborated chapters examine the urban history of death by focusing not only on the temporal and spatial development of funeral practices and death management in the modern period of Shanghai but also on sociopolitical meaning of ordinary death of the underprivileged "social nobodies" in the city of migration against the backdrop of war and revolution. It is in this context that death as a provocative medium through which the question of Shanghai modernity is challenged. As the author himself states, "From the relative laissez-faire posture of the late Qing to the prescriptive regulations of the Communist regime, the dead body became a central object of concern and a constant source of tension between state and society" (p. 6). For Henriot, a century of death (1865-1965) therefore becomes a key to understanding the evolving tension-charged relations between tradition and modernity, and between state authorities and the nameless masses in a distinctively modernizing Chinese metropolis.
What is established as a focal point in the book directly relates to Henriot's initial research interests in the forms and expressions of death in a major urban setting. As a renowned scholar who specializes in Shanghai Studies, Henriot again delves into the lives and mortality of the marginalized social groups. This time, he searches for answers to the questions as to how Shanghai became a city of an inconceivable scythe that cut short the lives and hopes of its migrants and laborers under the tumultuous circumstances as well as what was behind the glaring neon lights of the Shanghai modern that rendered sociopolitical paradoxes embedded in the unknown lives and undiscovered stories. Henriot sees death as the final and ultimate evidence of the paradoxical vice of modernity. He states that, excluding war violence and suicides, ordinary deaths caused by poverty, epidemic, and public health embody both civic progress and institutional failure as well as both urban advancement and social inequity.
While exploring how the dead were treated by the living in Shanghai, Henriot is aware of the controversy and delicacy of the topic of death in Chinese culture. He reminds the readers that customs and beliefs such as "ensuring all dead were accounted for" (p. 362) can be traced back to Confucianism and other popular religions in China. The intellectual soul searching is firmly grounded in the carefully researched historiography structured in the book. Introducing Shanghai as a port city forced open to foreign trade and industry in the mid-nineteenth century to the readers, [End Page 367] Henriot recognizes the particular spatial, administrative, and judicial separations within the city that gave rise to uniquely different funeral practices and death management before the 1949 socialist revolution. He argues that social organizations played a quintessential role in managing death especially in the walled Chinese city, including benevolent societies and native-place associations such as guilds and corporations for the sojourners. Meanwhile, the Chinese state authorities established a longstanding managerial interest in and relation with the dead population in the city during the studied century. The Nationalist government, for example, intended to redefine urban death practices in the 1920s and 1930s only to encounter a new devastating historical circumstance overwhelmed by the accumulation of the dead bodies during wartime between the late 1930s and 1940s.
The role of foreign concessions (i.e., the International Settlement) in this case became that of host to a huge "refugee coffin" population. Henriot points out that the ontological meaning of properly returning home upon death in traditional...