Theory and Society

, Volume 42, Issue 5, pp 509–542 | Cite as

For whom the bell tolls: state-society relations and the Sichuan earthquake mourning in China



In the wake of the devastating Sichuan earthquake in 2008, the Chinese state, for the first time in the history of the People’s Republic, held a nationwide mourning rite for ordinary disaster victims. Why did this “mourning for the ordinary” emerge in the wake of the Sichuan earthquake but not previous massive disasters? Moreover, the Chinese state tried to demonstrate through the mourning that the state respected ordinary people’s lives and dignity. But this moral-political message contradicted the state’s normal repressive practice. The contradiction was salient when the state forbade the parents of child victims, who died of school collapse, to mourn their children at anniversaries of the earthquake. What can account for this contradiction? Drawing on the state-society relations perspective, I argue that the emergence of “mourning for the ordinary” can be explained by some important changes in structural state-society relations in China in the 2000s, such as the rapidly developing civil society with moral consciousness and the more adaptive authoritarian Chinese state with concern about its moral legitimacy. These changes were strengthened in the situational dynamics in 2008, which led to the state’s acceptance of a mourning proposal from the public sphere. The mourning did not occur in previous disasters because those structural factors were absent or weak and the situational dynamics were different. The state suppressed parents’ mourning and outside activists’ alternative mourning because the state’s concern with stability overrode its moral legitimation, particularly in the changing political context after the Beijing Olympics, and, meanwhile, the civil society was unable to resist the state’s repression. This study theorizes an important but understudied mourning genre, “mourning for the ordinary,” and introduces the state-society perspective into public ritual study.


Mourning Ritual State-society relations China 



Different versions of this article were presented at the Michigan Social Theory Conference and the Northwestern Culture and Society Workshop. For helpful comments, many thanks to Howard Brick, Chas Camic, Peter Carroll, Gary Alan Fine, Kazuya Fukuoka, Wendy Griswold, and Dingxin Zhao. The project is funded by a research grant from the Association for Asian Studies (the China and Inner Asia Council) and the Ethnographic Research Fellowship from the Department of Sociology at Northwestern University.


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© Springer Science+Business Media Dordrecht 2013

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Department of Global & Sociocultural StudiesFlorida International UniversityMiamiUSA

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