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Stanford historian shows millions of relocated gravesites in China in new, interactive website

Tom Mullaney is a professor of Chinese history. He directs Digital Humanities Asia, a program at Stanford focused on East, South, Southeast and Inner/Central Asia.
 

(Image credit: L.A. Cicero)

Stanford historian Tom Mullaney’s interactive website, The Chinese Deathscape: Grave Reform in Modern China, shows the locations of thousands of gravesites that have been relocated in China over the past two decades.

In what is considered to be the largest grave relocation in human history so far, more than 10 million corpses have been exhumed in China over the past two decades to make way for new development projects.

Now, a new digital collaboration led by Stanford historian Tom Mullaney, titled The Chinese Deathscape: Grave Reform in Modern China, has documented the location of the affected gravesites throughout the country and explored what’s driving this journey of the dead.Here,

Stanford News Service interviewed Mullaney about his project.

Mullaney is a professor of Chinese history in the School of Humanities and Sciences. He is the author of The Chinese Typewriter: A History and Coming to Terms with the Nation: Ethnic Classification in Modern China. He also directs Digital Humanities Asia, a program at Stanford focused on East, South, Southeast and Inner/Central Asia.

What are the main takeaways from your research?

Many other cities and countries across the world have relocated old graves in the past, but the magnitude of what has been taking place in China over the past two decades is unparalleled.

I found that the driving force behind these grave relocations has been the rapid development of third- and fourth-tier Chinese cities – cities that, unlike major metropolises like Beijing and Shanghai, few people outside of China have heard of. This development entails new highways, railways, airports, hospitals and primary schools, among other things. But the relocations are also centrally important to the income of local governments across China, who make money from leasing their land. Because there is no private land ownership in China, a central part of local governments’ budgets is money they make on renting their land.

The biggest part of the project has been creating the dataset of gravesites. Can you tell me more about this work?

The dataset we compiled includes thousands of entries and can be downloaded by anyone in the public through the website.

Its creation involved scouring hundreds of Chinese-language local newspapers for every possibly discernable notification about graves. These notifications described the location of the graves in detail. We then also examined news report and any government-issued data that describes completed grave relocations, which included how many graves were moved in order to build a certain structure.

The dataset has several limitations. For example, it is limited to Chinese-language newspaper reports only. We didn’t have the capacity to examine newspapers that published in parts of China where people speak and read in other languages, such as Tibetan.