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The Global Burial Network of the Early Generation of Chinese Migrant Laborers: Adaptation of Chinese Funerary Traditions in the US in the Late 19th and Mid 20th Centuries

Zhou, Yasong

During the mass migration of Chinese laborers seeking work abroad in the nineteenth century, a global network emerged to provide these far-flung migrant communities with hometown burials back in China after death. Starting soon after the California Gold Rush of the late 1840s, branches of this network appeared in North America, and flourished until network activity was halted during the wars of the mid- twentieth century.

Chinese funerary traditions were carried to different countries and regions by these migrants, and their core cultural connotations were inherited by overseas Chinese for generations. The cultural practices of hometown burial and regular observances at family graves were deeply rooted, and they united migrant communities across status, religious belief, and political position. As these communities adapted to conditions of displacement and migration, brand-new traditions emerged. These traditions could not have been maintained without the solidarity and cooperation of local and international Chinese organizations. In order to fulfill the long-cherished wish of their compatriots, Chinese organizations in North America put aside their prejudices and barriers to form a century-long burial network together. This network is an important part of both Chinese and world heritage, but while individual sites are beginning to be recognized for their historical and cultural values, the values of the network itself as a whole have not been fully appreciated.

In addition to exploring important aspects of the network’s cultural and historical background (the mass migration of Chinese laborers, the roots and modification of Chinese burial traditions, and the development of the network’s early expression in Asia), the author examines more closely the emergence of the network’s North American branches. This includes an investigation of its historical development at five key locations (San Francisco, Victoria, Newfoundland and Labrador, New York, and Boston), and an analysis of the character of that development and of the adaptation of each network branch to a range of different community contexts.

The research methodology is based on content analysis of primary and secondary sources, along with interviews with representatives of Chinese community organizations, the descendants of Chinese migrants, and others, along with comparative analysis of the five locations. On this basis, the author discusses the significance of the burial network as a world cultural heritage, and proposes a more inclusive perspective for building on existing preservation practices and methods.

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More About This Work

Academic Units
Historic Preservation
Thesis Advisors
Neville, Christopher P.
Degree
M.S., Columbia University
Published Here
August 11, 2020