Dying Socialist in Capitalist Shanghai


Huwy-min Lucia Liu

PhD defended at: 

Boston University



This dissertation describes how and why contemporary urban Shanghainese are primarily commemorated in death as model socialist citizens despite the rise of individualism, the resurgence of religion, and current government opposition to socialist civil funerals since market reforms initiated in 1978. The study draws evidence from archival materials, interviews, and participant observation fieldwork between June 2010 and January 2012 (including attendance at over 75 funerals). I show that the Chinese Communist Party’s original funeral reforms, especially the promotion of socialist funerals, aimed at eliminating religious, affective, and relational ideas of self through the removal of “superstitious” materials, ritualized and externalized grief and mourning, and all horizontal ties among its citizens. The goal of funeral governance was to produce undifferentiated socialist subject-citizens directly tied to the party-state. After the end of the Cultural Revolution (1966-1976), the state began to discourage socialist funerals, while marketizing all state funeral parlours. These governmental changes created internal contradictions within funeral governance because state funeral practitioners not only had to continue to govern the public representation of citizen-subjects (civil governance), but also now had to do so in a way that generated economic profits for the Shanghai government (market governance). Consequently, Shanghai state funeral parlours began to pursue more profitable “personalized” funerals commemorating the deceased as secular and non-political individuals.

However, despite such moves, the socialist funeral has instead continued to become the dominant form of commemoration. The dissertation argues that when death became a profit-making business, the government lost its moral capacity to dominate the subject formation of the dead in public. Shanghai people saw state parlours' efforts to promote personalized funerals as simply another instance of profiteering. “Dying socialist” became a critique of the neoliberal regime, momentarily de-naturalizing the capitalist reality of Shanghai life. Meanwhile, the rise of semi-legal private funeral brokers mediating between the bereaved and state funeral parlours further pushed death into a moral vacuum. Simultaneously, these brokers also provided a new platform for the inclusion of a variety of new and “reinvented” material offerings that brought with them new religious and associational ideas of self into socialist civil funerals. The dissertation ends by considering two new forms of socialist funerals—popular religious/Buddhist and Protestant versions—and their respective mechanisms for accommodating contradicting ideas of self. The former seeks to add representations of additional ideas of self alongside the socialist one, while the latter seeks to supplant the socialist self with an entirely different narrative. The first is pluralist and accommodative. The second is revolutionary, striving for a singular Protestant subjectivity to replace the old socialist one.