History 297: 19th-Century Urban Chinese Death Ritual Literature Review

19th-Century Chinese Death Ritual Literature Review Update

Prompt 6: Post a progress report on your literature review. How has your bibliography developed? Where are you with your reading of sources? What are your reading strategies when approaching a large number of texts, and how do you keep your writing effective?

My literature review topic is on death ritual and funerary practices in nineteenth-century China, with a focus on death as an issue of urban management. In writing my literature review, I find that the pacing of the course syllabus is helping me stay organized.

The main work that I am focussing on with my literature review is Scythe and the City, published in 2016 by Modern Chinese Historian Christian Henriot. This book is one of the first historical texts on the subject, with a focus on the logistics and numbers surrounding death, rather than the social and behavioral aspects of death as previously studied by anthropologists.

The topics of death and mourning have always interested me, so this project will certainly not be one that I struggle to focus on. I recall that my first exposure to the study of death and mourning was during my senior year in high school, where students were expected to write a ten-page research paper on the topic of their choosing. (Some students went on to use portions of their research papers in their college essays, however, I had long since turned in all college materials by the time my paper was completed. I actually only applied to Mary Washington.) I wrote this paper on mourning attire and rituals in Victorian England, attempting to answer the very basic and already-answered question exploring the way in which mourning attire reflected the resurgence of conservative values in Victorian society.

Since then, I have always attempted to make death a part of my work in history.

As of today, I have submitted the second edition of my annotated bibliography, presented my topic for review, and began brainstorming a thesis and introductory paragraph for my eight-page literature review.

My annotated bibliography contains ten sources, six of which are books, and four of which are scholarly articles. When I began my bibliography, the first work that I included was Scythe and the City, as it is the most pertinent to my research. I found a variety of other sources from Henriot’s work, the most useful of which were placed in his introduction. I took the advice of my history professors and librarians and searched through the footnotes and bibliography of my main work in order to search for more sources.

Before searching for additional sources, I made sure to write the annotations for each source, in order to provide a sort of framework for myself. While I had not yet obtained a solid, unchanging direction for my project, I wanted to make sure that the sources I was selecting had some similarities in usefulness. There are many works available on the issue of death as a social matter in China, as well as many sources that pertain to the burial practices of Chinese immigrants in the United States, however, I used these sources only sparingly.

In reading my sources, I made sure to read the majority of Scythe and the City first, as it is my most pertinent source. When obtaining information for the remainder of my sources, I often searched for book reviews on JSTOR and other databases to gain an understanding of the main points of the work, and how the work was received by other historians. I have been finding this method extremely beneficial when working with less relevant sources, as I gain just enough information to add context to my literature review and understand the variety of historical and anthropological research that has been done in my topic.

Since scholarly articles generally do not encompass many pages, I found it best to just read the majority of relevant articles in their entirety.

When writing my annotations, I struggled at first to keep annotations concise. This was partially due to the fact that I was reading many works while writing my annotations, and had not yet synthesized the main points of the work for myself. Rather than writing my annotations to show the relevancy of a work to a reader, I was attempting to show the relevancy of a work to myself. 

I soon realized that the method mentioned above was not constructive. My annotations were rambling, often taking up more than a page per work. This dilemma was more prominently evident in the first draft of my annotated bibliography than the second. To fix this issue, I had to focus myself. I answered only the questions set for on the 297 Annotated Bibliography guidelines and wrote down additional information on a Word document for my personal use only. With this method, I can use the Word document when writing my eight-page review, and not overwhelm anyone who may be perusing my annotated bibliography.

I find that the best way to keep writing effectively is to follow a formula, and the best formulas are generally those set forth either by a syllabus or other sort of class or department-specific guideline.

Today, I presented my four-minute (and six seconds) topic overview in class. I found that this presentation was a helpful aspect of the project, as it forced me to synthesize the relevancy of my topic into a few quick points. I am happy with my own presentation, however, after perusing the reviews from my peers, I realized that I did not spend much time discussing the questions that my main work has raised. Scythe and City attempts to combine secondary Western anthropological sources with primary Chinese sources on matters of death ritual and funerary practices, in order to achieve a historical study of the logistics and numbers surrounding death. The work raises questions regarding Western influence in China, which was just blossoming in the nineteenth-century, especially in urban areas such as Shanghai, and seeks to explore differences between Western and Chinese record-keeping in such unique matters that combine spirituality with urban management.

I have not yet reached an exact conclusion with my work. I aim to explore the way in which perspectives of Western historians and anthropologists converge on matters of death, and how such perspectives support or clash with any existing Chinese perspectives. One difficulty that my literature review topic presents is that my main source, while wholly engaging, is the first of its kind. There are books and articles that have inspired Henriot’s work, and even similar articles he has written in the past, however, his work was largely inspired by the lack of historical, record-based writings on the topic of death ritual and funerary practices in nineteenth-century China.

I plan to begin working on my thesis statement and introductory paragraph soon.

Overall, I am pleased with my work and excited to delve deeper in my topic until I reach a solid final product.

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