| EN

The Loss of Cultural Roots: “Subterranean Taiwan” Meets Relocation

On March 14, 2022, the second day of the Xindian Sixth Cemetery relocation, a light rain descended upon the site, halting excavators at work. In Taiwan, cemeteries elicit a Nimby, or not in my backyard, response, and are considered the bane of local development. At the same time, aren’t they also the underground residences of one’s ancestors? Photo courtesy of GÔO Pik-uí
graveyard culturecultural heritageÀm-khennhistory

In Taiwan, bōng-á, or grave, is a term both familiar and distant. In the prevailing burial practices of traditional Taiwan, whether in the fields, mountains, or coastlines, the resting places of our ancestors, in the form of mounds and tombstones, form a common perception of the “grave” in daily life. But due to Han Chinese aversion to topics of “spirits” and “demise,” tombs aren’t talked about as an object nor places we have visited as part of our education, thus bringing a feeling of “familiarity” accompanied by the sense of dissociation.

With the progression of time, through economic development and our changing values towards land, municipal policies of burial site relocation gained momentum after 2016, in which almost every special municipal government proceeded to relocate public burial sites, from New Taipei City’s Xindian First Cemetery, Kaohsiung’s Fu Ding Chin Graveyard, Tainan’s Nan Shan Cemetery, to the ones recently discussed by the public, including Xindian Sixth Cemetery, Taoyuan’s Guishan District First Cemetery, and Taipei’s Liuzhangli Graveyards. These demonstrate a lack of restraint in the government’s penchant for relocation policies, carried out in the name of “removing obstacles to urban growth,” which is regrettably unjust.

Bông-á-poo (Tombs), Museums that Encapsulate Contemporary Culture

June 11, 2018. GÔO Pik-uí in the path of an excavator on the site of Xindian First Cemetery relocation. Photo courtesy of GÔO Pik-uí

I first came upon the preservation of local Taiwanese burial culture during the relocation of one of the oldest burial sites, the Xindian First Cemetery, which was slated for relocation in two phases. In 2017, the first phase had been completed, and as a result, many tombs from the Yongzheng era were lost. We started a movement for the preservation of grave sites during the second phase of relocation. In the process we came across numerous tombs from the Yongzheng and Qianlong eras, coming upon the tombs of families in the Xindian and Dapinglin regions during the period of Qing rule, such as the GAOs, the LIUs, the CHOUs, and the CHIENs. Among the tombs we found finely sculpted main and wing parts of tombstones, revealing the economic status of each clan and the aesthetic tastes of the period. There were also Japanese-era tombs marked with the epithet “most distinguished guest of township drinking festivities,”1 emblematic of the respect given to the esteemed individuals in society. This is the collective heritage of over 200 years since the arrival of the Han immigrants in Xindian during the Qianlong era.

The erection of each tomb highlights the substantial collection of cultural values of a place, and each property reflects the craftsmanship, economic status, familial qualities, and geographical features of a site. From the orientation of the tombs, we can deduce the original topographies of waterways and mountains in the era of low development, which becomes a challenge with modern practices. Also from the contents of the stone sculpting, brick sculpting, decorated brickwork, drawings, and inscriptions on the tomb, one sees the processing techniques and aesthetics of various periods of Taiwan, so the “tomb” is indeed an encapsulated form of contemporary arts and culture or even one of the greatest gifts of cultural heritage to posterity from ancestors.

Tombs take on different appearances depending on location. For example, at Tainan’s Nan Shan Cemetery, one still sees many tombs with elaborate mud relief sculpting, which contrasts with the modestly appointed Àm-khenn (Ankeng) Cemetery of my hometown and speaks for the mud sculptor’s excellent skills. This is also due to southern Tainan’s sand bar geology differing from the sandstone mushan formation of Àm-khenn, which results in a wealth of tombstones from the periods of Qing and Japanese rule finished in polished sandstone pebbles. Thus we see grave sites can vary greatly even on the small island of Taiwan.

Once on a survey of graveyards, a foreign student remarked that if this was another country, the elegant graveyards and histories would be considered worthy of museums. Yet they are being destroyed in Taiwan, and it’s unfathomable why Taiwan doesn’t appreciate its own history.

Local Ancestors Standing in the Way of Local Development: A Clash between Residents

Protecting the graves? There’re no votes in graves—don't pretend you care!

These are the words of a local resident in 2018, when the excavators first moved in on the site of the Xindian First Cemetery.

In advocating for the preservation of graveyard culture, sentiments against preservation were often stirred among the local communities, and episodes like the one above were especially common in urban areas. This is a conflict between residents “above ground” and those “below.” Interestingly, I discovered that those in favor of a wholesale relocation of the grave sites were almost always outsiders who had recently moved in, as opposed to locals who spent their entire lives there. Lifelong residents aren’t as opinionated about relocation, but newer residents who arrived over the last 60 years strongly support the removal of the centuries-old grave sites. This is an absurd situation of “the dove occupying a magpie’s nest.”

Xindian experienced a wave of immigration after the economic boom of the 80s, when migrants from middle and southern Taiwan areas arrived to work in the cities. The lower cost of housing in Xindian was a popular choice among those working in Taipei, and the “new Xindian” residents identify more with their hometowns than Xindian. Therefore, they did not feel emotional attached to graves that had been here for more than a hundred years. With the rise of real estate prices, the grave site was seen as a liability to the resale value of their properties.

Starting in 2021, GÔO Pik-uí brought visitors to the graveyard for a guided tour and site surveys. Photo courtesy of GÔO Pik-uí

In the process of grave site culture preservation and advocacy, opposition often comes from within the community, like a conflict between residents “above ground” and those “below.”

To clear away the graves, the simplest rationale given is “regional development,” which is a universally accepted pretext. Since this speaks to the speculative heart as “profit-bearing” and “a boon to property prices,” especially within an immigrant city and satellite city. The residents’ values towards land have shifted, and when land and houses had pivoted from “hometown” to “dollar values,” the places one lives in are no longer “homes,” but rather commodities promptly traded for monetary gains.

Faced with changing perceptions of the value of land, there is a fundamental difference in identification between the local-born and newly arrived residents. Newer residents inevitably look upon tombs as Nimby, or not in my backyard, facilities which conflict with their financial interests, while to locals they are the homes of their “neighbors” or “ancestors.” Thus, local inhabitants cannot agree with the new residents’ assessment of graves being “urban eyesores.”

“My ancestors were buried here even before you arrived, yet you tell me they stand in the way of development and should be removed?” This is one of the most common rebukes leveled at supporters of grave site relocation, and one of the most heartfelt appeals against runaway grave site relocation from a local gín-á (child).

To the Graveyards without Fear: Recording and Surveying Grave Sites

In 2018 when the movement against the relocation of Xindian First Cemetery failed to achieve its objective, I became devoted to the survey and recording of grave sites, taking Xindian Third Cemetery as a departure point. Due to the dilapidated and overgrown state of the site, the Qing-era tombs and post-WWII mainland Chinese graves were only available for comprehensive survey within a brief timeframe from the week preceding the Qingming Festival and the month that follows. Thus the periods before and after Qingming was jokingly called “the graveyard observation season.” Since the site was marked for wholesale relocation, whatever records we made took place over a preciously short timeline, and it’s no exaggeration to call it “a race against fate.”

When surveying grave sites, one must be careful not to tread on any bulges or empty cavities. But in the roughly handled relocation of Xindian First Cemetery, human bones were left out in the open. Photo courtesy of GÔO Pik-uí

Initially, I surveyed the graves on my own, traversing grave sites with a cellphone and a bottle of water in hand, being careful not to tread on any bulges or empty cavities. Bulges must not be stepped on, because it’s quite likely the resting place of ancestors. The principle in grave site surveys is to never step above the grounds of the remains, and when one must walk around burial grounds, one often whispers “excuse me for passing by,” which is interesting. Because Taiwanese Han culture has developed the practice of “second burials,” in which after a certain number of years after the initial burial of the casket, it will be dug up and opened for “bone collecting,” with remains reinterred at another location. Thus, pits were often left over from the bone collecting, some of which can be up to 2 meters deep. A false step might indeed make one be “in the place of the ancestors.”

It was not until 2021 that I first brought along participants on a study tour of the graves. That’s when physical participation allowed the public to “understand” and “recognize” the graves for themselves. By taking a tour of the grave areas, using individual senses to appreciate the land, conducting ritualistic experiences to dispel inner fears, and faithfully recording one’s findings, participants can now begin to appreciate the “cultural” and “historical” aspects of graves. Finally, through a parting gesture of bowing to the grave site, the initial apprehensiveness is turned into a sense of “deep respect.” Through participating in this activity, a genuine interest in the graves has been aroused, and cultural values and understanding towards “Bông-á-poo” (graveyards) have been established, which is an unprecedented excitement.

Since then, I have embarked on many similar surveys, from one person, two people, to building a following of grave site survey regulars, referring to ourselves jokingly as the “Ancient Tomb Sect,” who in 2022 further launched, in the name of “grave site cultural surveys,” local community empowerment workshops, to break down public misunderstanding of and misconception towards grave sites.

From the initial single-person site surveys to group studies of grave sites, the visits build up a sense of cultural and historical understanding. Photographed is the grave site survey action in 2022. Photo courtesy of GÔO Pik-uí
During grave site surveys, respect arises from an understanding and appreciation of the past. “Grave site cultural survey workshop” participants also pay their respects with a deep bow when they leave, turning an initial fear of the site towards gratitude for the legacies left behind by one’s predecessors. Photo courtesy of GÔO Pik-uí

Understanding Oneself through Grave Sites and Chance Encounters with One’s Ancestor

“It’s truly by the blessing of ancestors that I have found you here,” I said, standing in front of the tomb.

In my four years of grave site surveys, the following encounter has been the most magical and meaningful that has ever occurred.

On a grave site survey expedition in 2021, in a random corner hidden in the grass, perhaps by divine intervention or perhaps through instinct gained from prior experience, a tombstone that seemed special proved indeed to be a precious find. The wing parts of the tombstone were intricately sculpted and carried the inscription “The tomb of Madame LIAO TSENG Shiao of Chiàu-an-koān, deceased June, Shōwa 14 in the sexagenary cycle of sì-mǎo, remembered with this tomb by the second son.” From the inscription, it can be surmised that this is the tomb of a woman of the TEENG family, later married to the LIAO family, with the place name Chiàu-an-koān corresponding to modern-day Zhao’an County. The “mǎo (夘)” in “the sexagenary cycle of sì-mǎo (己卯)” is written in a commonly used alternate form. Sì-mǎo corresponds to the year 1939, which is also listed as the corresponding Japanese year of Shōwa 14, reflecting the period of Japanese rule in Taiwan. Just when I thought this was the extent of my findings, my subsequent studies of Japanese-era census data revealed that the tomb belonged to the a-má (grandmother) of my tsa-bóo-tsóo/tsóo-má (great grandmother), a bona fide kong-má (ancestor). Even though the ancestor is on the mother’s side with a different family name, it still touched me to have a piece of the “puzzle” of the family tree fall into place.

This made me realize that surveying grave site culture is not only a study of the life journeys and progressions of other families but also an exploration of the “self.”

In April 2021, hidden among the many tombs, the author came upon his ancestor’s resting place, revealing connections between bloodlines and the locale. Photo courtesy of GÔO Pik-uí
The handwritten notes of grave site cultural survey participants at Tsiam-suann in 2021. Photo courtesy of GÔO Pik-uí

“Culture” in the end is about the three questions of “who am I?”, “where am I?”, and “why we’re here?” Our ancestors have provided with the information in the form of grave sites. From tombstones, we find out about our family’s origins, how they arrived, and how they have established roots and flourished. These are all important elements of “oneself,” revealed through the stories among grave sites and reconstructed in the connection between the “self” and the land of “Taiwan.”

Grave sites epitomize the breadth of Taiwan’s history for more than a hundred years and are treasure troves belonging to Taiwan’s peoples. “Culture” needs its roots.
graveyard culturecultural heritageÀm-khennhistory
Guest of township drinking festivities: an official title which differs by era. During the Qing Dynasty, it was not an especially high rank, but is only given to highly reputed persons in a region who can effectively resolve local matters. If held by a government official, then it carries the designation “Most distinguished guest” or “Principle guest.” The title may also vary depending on one’s age and reputation. “Most distinguished guest” is ranked highest, thus held in esteem.
Àm-khenn Culture Studio: Àm-khenn is the historical name of modern-day Ankeng or Ankang in Xindian, a village in a valley with its culture, history, and beliefs forged through 200 years of history. The Àm-khenn Culture Studio is founded in Àm-khenn to explore, retrace, and record local historical data and cultural environment, identifying itself as an “Àm-khenner,” promoting the culture of Àm-khenn.
GÔO Pik-uí
Political Provocation in YAO Jui-Chung’s Republic of Cynic
A virtual nation, called the “Republic of Cynic”, recently opened its “Embassy in the R.O.C.”, located at Art Space V (former U.S. Aid Building) at C-LAB, the nation comes with its own emblem, flag, anthem, and even passport.
historyCynicContemporary Art
Recollecting C-LAB: Jointly Recording the Cultural History of a Space
We are initiating the Recollecting C-LAB Project this year. By gathering and compiling information and conducting interviews, we attempt to build an online cultural and historical database of this historic site.
Dream City: Keeping Each Other’s Company Where Accepts Fragility
CHIU shares with us her experience of interning at the Dream City, and how she gradually learned to accompany and support others, while also delivering her own contributions.