Of corpsely chaos and necropolitical order: or, who really ruled the roost in 1730s China?

ANU China Seminar Series


Helen Dunstan


Room 1.04, Coombs Extension Building (8), Fellows Road, ANU


Thursday, 25 July, 2013 - 16:00 to 17:30

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This talk is inspired by Jack Birns’s haunting photographs of employees of Chinese burial charities collecting child corpses in the foreign concession areas of Shanghai in the 1940s. However, it is more a contribution to the socio-political history of China’s late premodern era. The key question that it asks (a little whimsically) is this. Who really ruled the roost in eighteenth-century China: the emperor and his top men, the all-surviving Chinese gentry, or the disorderly corpses who successfully defied all the bureaucracy’s attempts to banish them from the streets and moats of some of China’s leading capitals of cultural refinement? The talk uses a sceptical reading of two directives and one proclamation by a governor-general of three lower-Yangzi provinces in the 1730s to launch an inquiry into the diverse reasons for non-burial of corpses and the means by which the emperor’s lieutenants sought to combat it. In part a study of two Chinese burial charities founded in the 1730s, the paper also scrutinizes the micro-interactions between local society and those sent from Beijing to govern it. Which ultimately proved the strongest force: law, snobbery, or Chinese beliefs about the polluting power of corpses?

About the Speaker

Helen Dunstan (a graduate of Oxford, Cambridge and, more recently, the Australian Catholic University) reports that she is supposed to be writing a book on provincial finance in eighteenth-century China in order to correct one or two errors in her book State or Merchant? Political Economy and Political Process in 1740s China. However, the present exigencies of employment in the Australian higher education sector have deflected her energies into writing shorter studies on more obviously engaging topics, such as prisons and corpses.

After the Seminar

To allow for informal discussion, the seminar will be followed by drinks at the Fellows Bar at University House and a dinner beginning at 6:30pm with the guest speaker at the Red Chilli Restaurant. All are welcome, though due to budget limitations, participants will need to pay for their own drinks and food.

As reservations must be made at the restaurant, please RSVP by noon on the day before the seminar to Jasmine jasmine.lin@anu.edu.au if you are interested in attending dinner. There is no need to RSVP for drinks.

Download the flyer (PDF, 328.62KB)

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