Sunday, May 24, 2009

Sovereign Earth

I bought a new camera this weekend, for my upcoming fieldwork trip to China (stay tuned for China-blogging!), and I need to learn to use it fast. As an exercise in figuring it out, I biked over to the Chinese cemetery in my neighborhood and spent an hour wandering among the graves. We live in a valley, and the cemetery climbs up a hill in the back of the valley, culminating in an elaborate tomb complex at the summit:


It's only when you reach this summit and turn around, however, that you realize why the cemetery is situated where it is. The highest point in the cemetery commands a view of the valley in which the city is perfectly framed between two mountain ridges, extending seaward like enclosing arms:


In other words, the feng shui of the site is unmatched. The land where this cemetery stands was identified by a geomancer in 1852 as a nexus of "dragon veins" or energy channels in the landscape, and purchased gradually by the local Chinese community at his behest. It is he who is buried in the elaborate white tomb at the top of the hill. It is the sort of position that would once have been reserved for an apical ancestor, the founder of a lineage; it's not clear whether the geomancer left any descendants, but his role in the identification of the site and the subsequent founding of the cemetery makes him the effective founder of the community which is represented by the graves. Communal Qingmingjie (grave-sweeping day) rituals are held at his tomb every year on behalf of the whole community.

Like all cemeteries, this one is full of ordinary tragedies: the loss of a parent in old age, the death of a soldier in wartime. Here is the double grave of a mother who died at 33, one day after giving birth to a baby girl, named in her memory, who lived two weeks.


Not knowing any of the people buried here, what's more interesting to me is the way in which the individual graves, and the cemetery taken as a whole, paint a picture of the immigrant Chinese experience. A cemetery is fairly overdetermined as a focus of community identity in the Chinese diaspora: regardless of the extent to which issues of filial piety actually governed family relations in the "old country," descent, family origin, and the responsibility to care for the graves of one's ancestors all become signs of Chineseness when one has left one's native soil behind. Early immigrants sometimes wanted to be returned to China for burial after their deaths, but not all were able to; and one sign of the growing permanence of the Chinese community here was no doubt the purchase of the land where this cemetery is now located.

The connection with soil is made explicit in some of the larger family grave sites, which have a small altar behind and to the east of the main burial complex:


This is dedicated to "Sovereign Earth" (后土), a very ancient and unpersonified deity of the earth. It's interesting that these altars are not dedicated to the more popular "Earth Lord" (土地公 or 土地神), who is a tutelary deity of earth, anthropomorphic and usually quite literally personified (the "Lord" in "Earth Lord" is a feudal rank of nobility, like "Duke"), but also understood to be tied to a particular place. I wonder if it was felt that you couldn't bring your local earth god with you when you emigrated; perhaps you had to appeal to a much older and much more universal earth deity.

At the foot of the hill there's a life-sized statue that I first took to be Confucius, who, while he is not much worshipped in the PRC today, is the patron saint of the Chinese diaspora, particularly of the upwardly mobile Chinese diaspora, in many places around the world. The sword should have been a dead giveaway; ironically, it was not Confucius, but the First Emperor of Qin (Qin Shihuangdi), in an image whose sculpted face in particular was strongly influenced by the terra-cotta armies with which the emperor was buried:


I forgot to check the plaque which dates the statue, but it can only have been made after 1974 when the terra-cotta warriors were discovered (and likely after 1976 or so, when the discovery began to be publicized). The First Emperor was a notable tyrant and Legalist, infamous for the harshness of his punishments and the degree of control his government exerted on his citizens. He was also the first ruler to unite all China proper (at the time, the territories occupied by Chinese-speaking peoples; not as large an area as the modern PRC), and so he has been admired by some as a great unifier. Mao Zedong was one of those who admired him for this. The 2002 Zhang Yimou film "Hero" reflects a resurgent admiration for this aspect of Qin Shihuangdi's persona, but the film has been criticized for what is perceived as a totalitarian slant, as it justifies the sacrifice of the individual for the good of society. As a symbol of Chinese identity in the diaspora, Qin Shihuangdi is less literary than Confucius, and considerably less pacifist. He embodies the martial (武) aspect of Chinese civilization, by contrast with Confucius, who embodies the civil or literary (文) aspect; but truth be told, there are many historical figures who could serve in his place, any one of whom would be a less belligerent martial symbol, including the third-century general Guan Yu (關羽), eventually deified as Guan Gong ("Lord Guan"), the god of war and commerce. One wonders what it says about the current historical moment that the First Emperor stands here instead of someone else.

The gravestones that I saw today dated largely from after World War I, which was about the time that management of the cemetery was systematized and organized under a Chinese community association. Earlier, and largely unmarked, burials were at this point collected and reinterred in a columbarium near the summit of the hill.

People who died in the 1920s and 1930s had not infrequently been born in the mid-nineteenth century, and as a result had lived through the fall of the Qing dynasty and the founding of the Republic of China. Most of these were born in China, but some were born locally. Either way, their ancestral village is often marked on their gravestone along with birth and death dates.


Mrs. Chung, nee Lu, is here recorded as a person of Bailongjia village, in Longshui (county?), San Wui (Xinhui) district, Guangdong province; but it's not entirely clear where she was actually born. One's ancestral home is not necessarily the same as one's birthplace: a friend of mine, Taiwan-born, is a member of the Taiyuan Wang clan, though he has never been to Taiyuan (in central Shanxi province) and his ancestors have lived in south China for centuries.

Unexpectedly, my epigraphic skills came in handy here, even though I normally use them on inscriptions from 1500 years or more ago. But some of the same obscure terms are in use here. The main inscription reads 民國顯妣張門羅氏太君之墓, or "The tomb of Grand Lady Lu (Luo) of the Chung (Zhang) family, an exemplary (deceased) matriarch of the Republic of China." The term 妣, which I've translated as "(deceased) matriarch," is an obscure character used to describe a mother after her death. There are similar terms for a deceased father (考) which also crop up on these stones. These aren't commonly used characters, and the terms are rarely if ever used in spoken language. But their use here is probably part of the sense of a need for "correct" usage on something as permanent as a tombstone (although there are other eccentricities of usage that I'll describe below). What I'd like to know, instead, is why she's described as belonging to "the Republic of China." On the surface, it would seem like simply an indication that she came from China; but she was born under the Qing, and died after the ROC was driven out of the mainland and reconstituted itself on Taiwan. Perhaps this is a case of local Chinese aligning themselves with the ROC as the legitimate government of China (and drawing a distinction between themselves and the PRC on the mainland).

Another thing to notice about Mrs. Chung is that no first name is recorded for her. Her name is "Chung Lo Shee," but "Lo Shee" isn't a personal name - it means "nee Lo (Luo)." This might be a case of a daughter not being given a formal personal name (another woman whose grave I saw had the personal name 七妹, "Seventh Daughter"), but it's just as likely that Mrs. Chung had a personal name, and it just wasn't considered appropriate to record it here. This is similar to the usage in formal family genealogy books - wives who "marry in" to the family are recorded, if they are recorded at all, according to their family name only (as "nee Something"). Some family genealogies do leave the women out.

Interestingly, some women's gravestones observe this convention in the Chinese inscription, but give the woman's personal name in the English. Here's an example:


Mrs. Nip has a personal name, Sun Yung, which is totally absent from the Chinese inscription. It's relatively late, dating to the 1980s, but some older stones were also carved in this same way, in a kind of intersection of the English and Chinese conventions. Having a foot in both worlds is, of course, one of the hallmarks of being an immigrant.

Most of the names on the tombstones here are transliterated according to the native dialect of the family who put them up: Nip, Chung, Yap, Lau, Kwock and so on. This is not remarkable except if you learned Chinese in the last twenty or thirty years, with the increasing hegemony of Mandarin that has followed on the growth of the People's Republic of China (where it is the official dialect) and its adoption in other areas of the diaspora, especially Singapore. To me, the families listed above are Nie, Zhang, Ye, Liu, and Guo; and it's interesting to see how the names change in different dialects (here mostly various Wu dialects, related to Hokkien and Taiwanese, and Yue dialects, related to Cantonese). Here's one exception:


According to his tombstone, Mr. Li was an official of the local ROC consulate; so it's not too surprising that he pronounced his name in Mandarin. He also transliterated it in Wade-Giles, the late nineteenth-century system that was used in mainland China before 1949, and is still used in the ROC on Taiwan. Although the divide between Wade-Giles and pinyin (the Mainland Chinese system used under the PRC) is less and less politicized these days, to the extent that (I hear) you see pinyin in Taiwan sometimes, in 1957 it must have been a fairly intentional statement of affiliation to insist on Mandarin transliterated in Wade-Giles. In Pinyin, he would have been Li Jiaxiang, which looks somewhat differently. I saw only one pinyin tombstone on my walk today:


This handsome black granite stone belongs to the Liang family, but I wonder how long they have been calling themselves the Liangs (as opposed to the Leongs, which is the Cantonese pronunciation). Both the Liangs, who were fortunate enough to lead long lives, were born in the last years of the Qing dynasty, in a family whose roots were in Zhongshan prefecture of Guangdong Province, much like those of many other families buried in this cemetery (and like Sun Yat-sen, for whom the prefecture was renamed in the early twentieth century). They were born, in fact, more than forty years before the pinyin which is now used to transliterate their names was devised, and in a family whose native dialect was certainly not Mandarin. And any time before the last decade or so, the use of pinyin would have been a pretty distinct political statement of affiliation (even just symbolic affiliation) to the PRC.

I wonder if what we see here is the result of the current generation returning to their "roots" and learning Chinese in school, where one inevitably begins with Mandarin, even if there is the opportunity to learn Cantonese as a "variant" dialect later on. There are a couple of nonstandard details here that suggest a certain unfamiliarity with transliteration conventions: Liang Song Bai would conventionally be "Liang Songbai" and could well be "Liang Songbo" - "bo" being an alternate pronunciation of the final character, and, of the two, the one more likely to be used in a Mandarin personal name. Similarly, Mrs. Liang's name in Chinese is actually Cai Jinshan, not Cai Jinxian (and there are no hyphens used in pinyin). I'm quibbling, of course - the Liangs can and should spell their names however they want to - but the sudden appearance of pinyin, however nonstandard, suggests the way in which Mandarin, transliterated with pinyin, has ceased to be a mark of Communist backwardness and has become the most modern-looking of the transliteration systems.

Other variations in inscriptions also suggest the way in which memory changes things, especially as China recedes into the past with the passing of time. This is a fairly typical grave from the cemetery:


On the right is the tombstone of Mr. Fong Koon Yick (Fang Guanyi), who died in 1937, and was outlived by 43 years by his wife, who passed away in 1980. When she died, her children (no doubt) erected the marble stone on the left to both their parents, and incorporated their father's original stone into the enclosure of the plot. But if you look more closely, you'll notice that the second character of the father's name (Koon, or Guan) is written differently on the original tombstone and on the later monument. Both characters are pronounced the same, but the meaning is different. The older tombstone also has Mr. Fong's style-name (zi), which was Jiehong (and here I have to apologize to him and his family for not knowing the correct Wu or Yue pronunciation which he no doubt used). I suspect that relatively few immigrants after the first generation had a style-name, which is a kind of formal name used in particular social situations among the Chinese literati. Here's a close-up of Mr. Fong's original tombstone:


It gives his family's place of origin, his names in full (and he is listed as 顯考, "exemplary deceased patriarch") and his date of death, but not his date of birth. The differences between it and the newer stone (which has both birth and death dates, but no information on the place of origin of the family) are interesting.

Several stones contained characters I was unable to read, much to my surprise (because I read obscure and ancient funerary inscriptions as part of my work, I don't expect to be stumped by a 20th century graveyard). Here's an example:


Two women who were married into the Leong family (perhaps two wives of the same man?), nee Au (Ou) and nee Wong (Wang), are commemorated here, with the dates of their deaths. The problem is that the years of their deaths, at the tops of the two outermost columns, are given in some kind of shorthand that I didn't recognize. Looking at other, similar gravestones, it was obvious that they were four-digit years according to the Western calendar (note that they all start with a vertical stroke, for 1); but I had never seen this system before. It turns out that these are called Suzhou numerals, and they are the last survival of a positional numbering system that predates the abacus, which used rods on a counting board for calculation. It enabled Chinese mathematicians to do advanced calculations (especially once they figured out how to use zero). So according to this gravestone, nee Au died in 1912, and nee Wong died in 1917. Seems hard on Mr. Leong.

A fuller study of the stones in the graveyard could be a really interesting portrait of the Chinese community. There are other Chinese cemeteries; how is this one different from those? Where are more recent Chinese immigrants (especially the post-1976 wave of Mandarin-speakers from Taiwan and the mainland) buried? It's not really my field, but it could be an interesting story, given how much I was able to see in just an hour spent schlepping around the place.


Tommy said...

Here outside the world of scholarship texts written for us literate non-pros enrich life. Some stuff I get without it being popularized, like Ferguson's "Pity of War." Some stuff is accessible, but worthless, like Foucault.

Anyway, this post is just a wonderful illumination of something about some of my brothers and sisters on the blue planet, and it is delightful to read and see.

Judy said...

How do I get in touch with you SEB to discuss Chinese cemeteries?

SEB said...

Judy: As I commented in a response to your earlier comment on my blog, you have not made your Blogger profile public, so I can't view it, and linking it here does not help me get in touch with you. Otherwise I would have e-mailed you much earlier. However, while I do not wish to post my e-mail on this blog, you can certainly figure out what state I live in by reading my entries. Since you know I teach Chinese art history at the state university, it should then be very easy to locate my e-mail address, which, as I am a public servant, is a matter of public record. I look forward to hearing from you.

Judy Lam Maxwell said...

Dear SEB,

I have no blogger profile and am not really interested in signing up for one at this point. I understand that you don't want to post your e-mail address, but I gave you my personal e-mail ... I'm only interested in discussing Chinese cemeteries with you, nothing nefarious. I really don't have the time to investigate and figure out where you work and how to find your e-mail address, so we'll just leave things here.

SEB said...

Judy: In fact, you have never left me your e-mail address. If you had, I would have contacted you immediately. The link that is visible to me in my blog links to a Blogger profile which is private. I think that when you put in your e-mail address in order to leave a comment, you thought you were giving it to me, but you were actually creating a Blogger profile (which by default remains private - you'd have to make it public if you wanted others to be able to see it). As a result, I have never received your private e-mail address. I have Googled you online, now that I know your full name, and have not been able to identify your e-mail address. Can you give me any clues? Otherwise I think we are at a stalemate. I am honestly not trying to be difficult here; I cannot see your private e-mail address on any of the comments you have left.