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

Abstract

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.

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Notes

  1. 1.

    Even when Geertz uses historical methods to examine state rituals in Negara (1980), his ultimate purpose is to illustrate a political theory about symbolic features of state power rather than to explain historical variants.

  2. 2.

    The concept of “structure” here refers to relatively stable patterns of both power configuration of resources and cultural schema (Sewell 1992). Thus, structures of the state and society include not only those aspects that are usually seen as “structure”—scale and density of state and societal organizations, inter-organizational links, etc.—but also its ideational aspect, such as the state’s dominant ideology and the prevalent moral-political ideas in the civil society. This conceptualization is also consistent with political theories about regime types, which include ideology as one of the most important dimensions (Linz 2000; Linz and Stepan 1996), and theories about civil society, which emphasize political-moral ideas (Cohen and Arato 1992; Alexander 2006) and cultural codes in non-Western civil society (Lo and Fan 2010).

  3. 3.

    Sociologists of disaster have already reached a consensus that disaster is a social phenomenon and rooted in the social structure and reflects the processes of social change (R. W. Perry 2006). In other words, no disaster is “natural.” But public perceptions still make a distinction between “natural” and “man-made” disasters, attributing the former to power of the nature and the latter to human actions.

  4. 4.

    Interview with RYF, June 12, 2009.

  5. 5.

    “Zhong Zhuwen” is name suspected to stand for “zhongyang zhuzhibu wenjian” (the Organization Department’s document), who usually uses The Peoples Daily editorials to send messages to lower level cadres.

  6. 6.

    Interview with G, April 15, 2009, in Shanghai.

  7. 7.

    In 1990, the National Flag Law was introduced. Article 14 states that “when unfortunate events or serious natural disasters happen and lead to extraordinarily heavy casualties, national flags may be lowered to half-staff to mourn.” The law was part of the ideological movement after the Tiananmen incident in 1989, aiming to propagate patriotism to defend against “Western capitalist countries’ conspiracy of peaceful evolution.”

  8. 8.

    Wenchuan earthquake, named after its epicenter county, is another name for the Sichuan earthquake.

  9. 9.

    I searched both native and English language sources, including major newspapers, legislature records, and government documents, but could not find any particular reason for the Peruvian government’s decision. A Peruvian expert suggests that the decision could be a result of two aspects of Peruvian politics. First, since Peru is prone to major earthquakes, holding mourning for foreign victims has become a symbolic practice of international solidarity with countries that experience major natural disasters. National mourning days have been held not only for the Chinese but also for victims of other disasters, such as the Haiti and Chile earthquakes in 2010. Second, Chinese are the biggest immigrant community in Peru, and the two countries have had strong cultural and economic connections. Therefore, it is understandable that the government uses this mourning to show its concern with and respect for the Chinese (personal communication with Dr. Ricardo Gonzalez).

  10. 10.

    My request for an interview with the State Council did not get any response. My interviewee G, a prestigious intellectual with many contacts within the state system, told me that CCTV, China’s official central television, attempted to interview the State Council about the decision process when they were making a documentary about the earthquake. But their request was rejected too. I searched other sources and did not find any clue. This silence was quite typical because information about the state’s decision-making process was not usually revealed to the public even when the decision was not politically sensitive. Core official media outlets, such as the People’s Daily and Xinhua News Agency, did not have any reports or comments about the mourning proposal until the decision was officially announced. Only one day after Peru reportedly decided to hold a national mourning day for the Chinese victims, the Chinese government quickly decided on holding the mourning, starting on May 19. The announcement was made in late afternoon on May 18. Many local governments were obviously unprepared and had to call emergency meetings to arrange the ritual practices, such as informing schools and government bureaus to lower flags. This silence and the hastiness suggest that it is unlikely that the Chinese state already had had a conscious plan.

  11. 11.

    Interview with SN, August 3, 2009.

  12. 12.

    Since the majority of attendees were college students and young professionals, I contacted two informants working for the Education Bureau of Shanghai and a university, respectively. They confirmed that it was impossible for either the Education Bureau or the university to organize the events. As one said, the government had “an instinctive” caution about collective gathering and therefore would not encourage it (March 23, 2009, field notes).

  13. 13.

    On the second and third mourning days, no sirens wailed, and a voice transmitted through the public-address system in Tiananmen Square politely requested the people who gathered in the square to leave in an orderly manner (Clip C-6 and C-7). The crowd left the square but marched on to the nearby streets, and the police did not restrain them except to keep the line in order.

  14. 14.

    Two of my interviews and numerous netizens took pictures of the mourning in Tianfu Square, but only very few of them put Mao’s stature in the picture. Most of them depicted people’s tears, message cards, and flowers.

  15. 15.

    Xiongqi, a local Sichuan slogan originally intended for soccer cheering, means “Go! Go!,” “Stay strong.”

  16. 16.

    A search of reports in major newspapers and agencies (The New York Times, Washington Post, Associated Press, Financial Times) from June 1 to October 31, 1998, yields 106 results (with key terms “China” and “flood”). A search with key terms “China” and “earthquake” in the same media outlets from May 12 to October 11, 2008 yields 1,259 results. (Source: LexisNexis Academic)

  17. 17.

    http://www.2008xianzhang.info/english.htm

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Acknowledgments

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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Xu, B. For whom the bell tolls: state-society relations and the Sichuan earthquake mourning in China. Theor Soc 42, 509–542 (2013). https://doi.org/10.1007/s11186-013-9200-5

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Keywords

  • Mourning
  • Ritual
  • State-society relations
  • China