Written By: Liang Yaoxiang and Huang Pei’dan
Mr. Lin, one of the directors of Tuo Jiang Subdistrict Office and in charge of civil affairs, expressed his frustration with the continued construction in protected areas. “Those graves on the Sangpu mountains are driving us crazy,” said Lin. “Regulations have been made, but whether people will follow them is another story — especially the villagers.”Nongmin Road, a road between the Sangpu Shan and Shantou University, is a narrow track running at the foot of the mountains. As Chen Zhongzhi, a man with a small shack on the road, recalls, every Qingming Festival, it’s crowded with cars as people visit their ancestors’ graves on the mountain. He has been farming at the foot of the mountain for more than twenty years, and he frequently sees people building graves on the mountain. “This whole mountain is available for building graves. If you are a resident of the nearby area, and you find it suitable, you can build a grave here,” said Chen.
And a deeper concept of resting in peace influences the custom. In a published paper reflecting on these rituals, the author Chen Qishen stated that there is a concept underlying all the funeral and interment rituals — the notion of “Ru Tu Wei An”. In other words, according to Chinese traditions, the deceased can only rest in peace when they are buried in the ground; because of the long tradition of this notion, burial in the ground is prevalent in Shantou. According to statistics shown on the website of Shantou Civil Affairs Bureau, as of 1997, there were about 500,000 graves in Shantou — taking up more than ten square kilometers of land. From 1992 to 1997, 56,800 new graves were built in the city. In 1997, a new regulation requiring cremation came into effect — in part to protect land resources.
An announcement made by the Shantou Civil Affairs Bureau in 2001 specifically mentioned the act of Hui Lin Zao Fen, namely to destroy a patch of forest to build graves, was against the law. It was said to be “strictly prohibited,” and that the graves would be demolished and removed once they were found out. According to Chen Yu, the section member of Tuo Jiang subdistrict office, the Sangpu mountains are publicly owned land. Therefore, it is not allowed to build any permanent structures, including graves, on it, he said.
To protect the mountain from being damaged by the building of graves, a group of administrative law enforcement officials called the “Detachment of Funeral and Interment Reform” will go on patrol on the mountain twice a week. If any grave-building is discovered by these officials, the offenders will be stopped and asked to replant trees, said Mr. Lin, the Subdistrict Office director. In addition to that, the whole mountain area has been divided into different divisions, each administered by different neighborhood committees; these committees are responsible for hiring people to patrol in their divisions everyday to ensure that no new graves are being built, according to Mr. Lin. What’s more, according to Xu Zhenshi, the geography expert working for the Land Use Management Section of Shantou Bureau of Geology, the Bureau of Geology of Guangdong Province will take aerial photos of the whole province twice a year, and these photos will be used to spot illegal uses of land.
However, doubts exist over whether those regulations and enforcement of them work effectively in practice. “Those leaders are also locals, how could they possibly remove the others’ ancestors’ graves? Even they themselves want their ancestors to be buried in graves on the mountain,”said Lin Jun, a student of Shantou University Medical College and also a resident of Tuopu who has a long-standing interest in the Sangpu mountains. “To be honest, there are only two types of people will be buried in a cemetery: Christians and the poor.”
A number of historical factors complicate who controls land like the Sangpu Shan area, and how the land there is used. According to Chen Yu, the local official, the ownership of the land on there was quite blurry in the past. Many of the villagers thought that the land belonged to their villages, and therefore it was perfectly reasonable for them to build graves on the mountain. What’s more, the long history of this practice was also thought to justify the practice itself. “We have been doing that for hundreds of years. All of our ancestors are buried on the mountain. Now, how could you say those are publicly owned lands — and then stop us from doing that anymore?” said Wu Chufen, the Tuopu village resident.