British Journal of Chinese Studies

dragon mural beijing 2018 copyright Gerda Wielander
Vol 12 No 1 (2022)
Articles

Between Fear and Respect: Vocabulary and Meanings of the Dead Body in Urban China from the Late Qing to the Early Republican Era

Bobby Chun Tam
University of Warwick
Image showing Chinese temple and people bearing a coffin
Published January 23, 2022
How to Cite
Tam, B. (2022). Between Fear and Respect: Vocabulary and Meanings of the Dead Body in Urban China from the Late Qing to the Early Republican Era. British Journal of Chinese Studies, 12(1), 20-39. https://doi.org/10.51661/bjocs.v12i1.144

Abstract

This article explores the meanings and emotions attached to dead bodies in urban China during the late Qing and early Republican periods, through studying the vocabulary for the dead body. A range of words - shi, qu, ti - were used to denote corpses in the Late Imperial period. These words, with their different connotations, reflected how the corpse always held emotional and spiritual influences over the living, either by arousing a negative emotion of fear, or by bringing a positive meaning of respect. During the late Qing and early Republican era, political revolution, medical development and religious influences imposed new meanings on dead bodies in urban China. Words for dead bodies were reconfigured to adapt to such new meanings. Traditional notions of fear attached to corpses had to be mitigated to pave the way for post-mortem medical study. The new vocabulary did not use invented scientific terms that objectified bodies, but rather incorporated reconfigurations of old words that connoted respect. This reflected a continuity in the meanings and emotions attached to corpses. Dead bodies in the Republican period were sanctified and respected through new ways, as they were incorporated into the narrative of nationalism. The ongoing relationship of the living with the dead was therefore never erased, but continuously reinvented against the backdrop of modernisation.

Image: Funeral of Sun Yat-sen in 1929

Keywords
  • Late Qing,
  • dead bodies,
  • vocabulary,
  • Early Republican era,
  • fear,
  • respect,
  • sacrality
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