See all those languages up there? We translate Global Voices stories to make the world's citizen media available to everyone.

Learn more about Lingua Translation  »

Defying the Government, Chinese Families Resurrect Graves

Scores of families have fought back against a controversial campaign in China's central Henan province to raze millions of graves for farmland and resurrected their ancestors’ resting places during the Lunar New Year.

In the latest pushback against the government's plans to free up land, local residents throughout the province restored about half of the dug-up graves, or about one million [zh], throughout February 2013, according to a local news report.

The campaign, put forward by a communist party leader in Henan in the spring of 2012 and touted by supporters as a smart use of land, has touched a nerve in a country where respect for ancestors runs deep.

Especially in the city of Zhoukou, where authorities have reportedly demolished more than two million graves, the campaign sparked public outrage over what many consider as a slap in the face of tradition. Rich in history, Zhoukou is considered one of the oldest cities in China, and the grave-clearing program was suspended there in November 2012 after more than 100 scholars signed a petition in protest.

But the campaign continues in other parts of the province. During the Lunar New Year, local families openly defied the government's warnings that their efforts to restore the flattened plots were in vain, Zhou Keluo wrote [zh] on the popular Chinese microblogging site Sina Weibo:

这二天不断接到周口网友发给我的关于平坟事情,在除夕和初一传统上坟祭祖日,去年被强行平坟的老百姓们陆续将祖坟重新拢起,现在当地政府在各村广播里讲必须马上再平掉,否则罚款500-1000元不等,强行掘出。

I kept receiving updates from Zhoukou netizens about the grave-razing campaign. On the eve of Lunar New Year and first day of the New Year, local residents began to rebuild their ancestors’ graves. However, local governments keep warning the villagers over loudspeakers that they must dig up the graves again or else they will be slapped with a fine of 500-1000 yuan [79-159 US dollars] and the government will forcibly dig up the grave.

Some critics of the campaign have claimed that the land being reaped isn't even viable for agriculture. Weibo user Zhou Keluo (@赵克罗), who has been following the development of the grave-clearing campaign, called [zh] the endeavor a ploy to seize land not for farming, but for property development:

所谓"平坟复耕"仅是幌子,换取土地指标高价卖给开发商和搞所谓产业集聚区,进行真正的圈地运动,用老百姓的祖坟染红某些官员的顶子而已。周口市平坟运动若成功,河南其他地市必效之,河南平坟运动若成功,必波及全国。因背后巨大的经济和政治利益,地方官员必将前仆后继效之!百姓怎么办?

The so-called “grave clearing for agriculture” is just an excuse to get the land and sell it to developers for industrial purposes. The movement is de facto land encirclement. They use the graves of people's ancestors to decorate their hats. If the grave digging movement in Zhoukou city is successful, other cities in Henan will follow. Once it is successful in Henan, the movement will be extended to the whole country. There are huge economic and political interests involved and local government officials will be motivated to do so. What can people do?

A group of young people from the Henan province channeled their frustration over the campaign into song. In a YouTube video below published on November 20, 2012, they parody the viral hit “Gangnam Style” dressed as zombies:

The altered lyrics explain that opposition to the campaign not only stems from folk belief, but also from the deep social divide in China that separates the powerful, who live in luxurious houses, from the powerless, who do not have a place to live while alive nor a place to rest when dead:

Photos showing how villagers in Henan province re-erecting their ancestors' graves.   From Weibo user @记者崔永利

Photos showing how villagers in Henan province rebuild their ancestors’ graves. From Weibo user @记者崔永利

幾千年清明節上墳是咱傳統文化
拍拍屁股平墳祖宗全部失去了家
挪到公墓開始水泥占地永久化
平墳復耕,騙鬼去吧
伏羲傻了嘿
你拿著鐵鍁開著推土機快傻了嘿
自己平獎一百別人平你就傻了嘿
講未來講科學霸王硬上弓傻了嘿
伏羲 傻眼了嘿
我不是老子,我不是女媧,我沒宮殿,我有國家。
那平等太遠,那幸福太假,因為平墳,心如刀紮。
誰為了私欲拼命平平平平 挖挖挖挖挖挖挖挖挖挖挖挖
我怕平墳style 哦~~~
平墳style 我 我 我 我 我 我怕平墳style 哦~~~
平墳style 我 我 我 我 我 我怕平墳style
哎~~~~活著蝸居 我 我 我 我 我 我怕平墳style
哎~~~~死了沒家 我 我 我 我 我 我怕平墳style

For thousands of year, we have visited our ancestors’ graves. This is our tradition.
You wipe your ass, dig up our ancestors’ graves, and they are homeless.
They are moved to the public cemetery. Then you cover the land with cement and take away the land forever.
Dig up the graves for agriculture, not a soul will believe this.
Fu Xi [the creator of humankind in Chinese legend] is stunned.
You use shovels to dig, move in the bulldozers, Fu Xi is stunned.
Dig up your own grave with 100 yuan reward, or else others will dig it up for you, Fu Xi is stunned.
Talk about the future and science, act like a tyrant, Fu Xi is stunned.
Fu Xi is stunned.
I am not Laozi, I am not Nuwa, I don't have palace, I have country.
Too far from equality, happiness is fake. Destroying the graves is destroying our hearts.
Who would dig up a grave for greed?
I am scared of dig-grave style.
op-op-op-op dig-grave style.
op-op-op-op dig-grave style.
Live in snail house when we are alive. I am scared of dig-grave style.
Homeless when we die. I am scared of dig-grave style.

太昊伏羲陵十三陵他們墳頭最大
你的祖宗我的祖宗都是螻蟻爬蚱
生也難養死也難孝做兒女愧對爹媽
我心破碎 淚如雨下
伏羲傻了嘿
你網上罵街網下裝孫子快撒了嘿
叫你平你就平不平可不成撒了嘿
不折騰怎麽能行閑的蛋疼撒了嘿
伏羲 傻眼了嘿
我沒有烏紗,我沒有綠卡,我沒權利,我有國家。
那公墓太多,那空間太狹,永失耕地,誰是傻瓜。
沒事找事才能混的更好我擦我擦我擦擦擦擦擦擦擦擦擦擦
我怕平墳style 哦~~~
平墳style 我 我 我 我 我 我怕平墳style 哦~~~
平墳style 我 我 我 我 我 我怕平墳style
哎~~~~活著蝸居 我 我 我 我 我 我怕平墳style
哎~~~~死了沒家 我 我 我 我 我 我怕平墳style

Their [the officials] graves are even bigger than Fu Xi's tomb and Ming Dynasty tombs.
Their ancestors and our ancestors were the same kind.
When they are alive, we can't give them a good life. When they die, we can't pay our piety. We can't face our parents.
My heart is broken and tears keep falling down.
Fu Xi is stunned.
I am official, I don't have green card, I have no rights, I have a country.
So many souls in the public graveyard, so little space. Lost our land forever. Who became the fool?
Creating trouble out of nothing, that's the way to survive.
I am scared of dig-grave style.
op-op-op-op dig-grave style.
op-op-op-op dig-grave style.
Live in snail house when we are alive. I am scared of dig-grave style.
Homeless when we die. I am scared of dig-grave style.

Whether or not the campaign continues forward, the whole matter has become a public relations nightmare for the government, public affairs commentator Huang Quanwang pointed out:

周口市政府已经处于一个尴尬的境地,到底圆起的坟墓是否再次被推倒?如果继续推倒平掉,恐怕缺乏上头文件的支持,更不得民心,恐防激发早已对峙的民意,从而引发社会冲突;如果不推倒,保持原状,先前平坟的工夫白费,显然又是决策失误的典型案例。

Zhoukou city government is now in a very embarrassing situation. Should it dig up the erected graves again? If they insist to dig up the graves, they will probably need another set of approval documents and will definitely generate more confrontation and social conflict. If they give up on digging up the graves, all their efforts will be rendered useless and the whole campaign another typical policy mistake.

Receive great stories from around the world directly in your inbox.

Sign up to receive the best of Global Voices
* = required field
Email Frequency



No thanks, show me the site