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Open Access Publications from the University of California

The Sovereignty of the War Dead: Martyrs, Memorials, and the Makings of Modern China, 1912-1949

  • Author(s): Vu, Linh Dam
  • Advisor(s): Yeh, Wen-hsin
  • et al.

The anti-imperial uprisings, the warlord power struggle, the War of Resistance, and the Chinese Civil War took twenty to thirty million lives. Half of the casualties were civilian. Republican China, not unlike the Union government during the American Civil War and the European states during the First World War, began to manage the war dead. My dissertation, titled “The Sovereignty of the War Dead: Martyrs, Memorials, and the Makings of Modern China, 1912-1949,” examines Republican China’s effort to collect, commemorate, and compensate military and civilian dead in the first half of the twentieth century. I analyze how various government policies, such as the construction of martyrs’ shrines in every county, the tracking of casualties by locality, the compilation of martyrs’ biographies, and the distribution of gratuities to families of the war dead, contributed to the processes of state-building and nation-making in China and shaped China’s social and cultural institutions in most profound ways. The toppling of the Manchu ruling class and the Confucian-educated elites did not lead to the construction of China as a nation of equal citizens. Republican China instead developed new political hierarchies through the promulgation of different regulations for compensating revolutionary predecessors, Party members, servicemembers, and bureaucrats, and their families exclusively. Conflicts of the unprecedented scale prompted the Nationalist state to extend its constituency by broadening the criteria for martyrdom to include civilians and pledging to provide for qualified bereaved family members. In exchange for recognition and compensation, family members had to demonstrate not only their allegiance to the party-state, but also their compliance to the moral codes prescribed by the state. As for the dead, their spirits dwelled in government-mandated Loyal Martyrs’ Shrines (zhonglie ci), where the living performed a combination of traditional and modern rituals to memorialize their untimely departure.

My dissertation advances our understanding of violence in the modern age. In twentieth-century China, conflicts were viewed as rational political choices, inevitable in the modern age, and inseparable from human experience, laying the rhetorical ground for further violence. Examining the changes in compensation and commemoration law from the 1910s to 1940s, I demonstrate that two processes – the bureaucratization of death (the construction of deaths with numbers and formulaic narratives) and the civilianization of war (increased presence of civilians in war as victims, supporters and penetrators) – contributed to the routinization of violence in postwar China. Political struggles from the 1950s to the present testify to how wars of earlier decades have normalized death in the cultural, social, and economic realms. Furthermore, I propose that the dead have sovereignty as their oft-perceived formidable power in the afterlife necessitates that political, social, and cultural institutions develop the means to control the way by which they are remembered. The sheer number of the dead, the eerie specter of their wronged souls, and the multiplicity of their memorialized identities upset the core of human existence.

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