What you need to know
Activists are making a case to the city government why these cemeteries are valuable heritage resources through their survey.
The value of graveyards is often overlooked, but a group of volunteers in Xindian, New Taipei, has been pushing the government to recognize their significance as heritage resources. Four years ago, their protests managed to the policy of graveyard removal.
Since 2022, New Taipei City heritage activist Wu Bo-wei (吳柏瑋) has been organizing a team of volunteers in Xindian to survey the remaining heritage cemeteries. By copying the inscriptions, logging the positions and directions of the tombs, and recording the heritage data present at each grave, he hopes to make a case to the city government why they are valuable heritage resources.
“I hope that the people of Taiwan can recognize the importance and connotations of burial culture, and also hope that through citizen participation, the publicity of that culture can be reflected,” he told the News Lens.
Wu had been one of the activists who attempted to save Xindian’s First Public Cemetery in 2018, but the effort ultimately failed. The city government said that the research done by the activists was not thorough enough. The city’s own Cultural Affairs Department did little to support the preservation effort.
“Progress is worrying,” he said, speaking about his current efforts. “Our investigation is moving more slowly than the government.”
But over the past several years the momentum for activists has built up, particularly after the notorious destruction of a series of other sites across Taiwan.
The loss of Taiwan’s heritage cemeteries is a unique twenty-first century crisis. The city governments see these cemeteries as underperforming land, and, needing to generate revenue, award development contracts.
In 2019, the destruction of the old cemetery in Lukang (鹿港), Changhua County, one of the oldest trade ports on the island, virtually overnight, brought substantial attention to the crisis. The burial grounds at Kaohsiung’s Fudingjin (覆鼎金) Cemetery were demolished a year earlier. And today the enormous Nanshan Cemetery in Taiwan’s oldest city, Tainan, is also slated for demolition. There, heritage advocacy groups managed to delay the destruction with a two-year moratorium imposed, pending further research.
Heritage enthusiasts and environmental activists believe many of Taiwan’s largest burial sites represent untapped centuries-old historical and heritage value, important not only for academia but potentially for the tourism industry and the legitimacy of its governments. Tombs dating from the earliest period of Chinese settlement to the present are loaded with inscriptions and artwork, demographic information, and data that present a grassroots perspective of Taiwan’s history.
With their ecosystems located in the middle of urban and urbanizing environments, these cemeteries offer unique opportunities for city residents to enjoy green spaces and give relief to the native species that are under ever-increasing pressure.
Touring Xindian’s Third Public Cemetery
I joined Wu and a group of about ten other survey volunteers on the morning of Wednesday, May 18, at the Third Public Cemetery (新店區第三公墓) in the Ankeng community of Xidian District.
After going over the itinerary, we walked down a narrow lane, past a garbage sorting facility, a chicken and duck pen belonging to a farm set in the margins of the cemetery, and many piles of discarded refuse and building materials.
With earth compass application on their phones, the surveyors logged the directional data of each tomb in the vast cemetery. One team had brought a traditional luopan compass, the kind used by professional geomancers (feng shui masters) to observe what cosmological readings the tombstones revealed. The members of this team included doctoral students Lin Yuh-chem (林育辰) and Chen Yan-hong (陳彥宏). Both were studying numerology, the branch of Chinese religious beliefs that deals with numbers and forecasting.
There are several different schools of feng shui geomancy, Lin said, so they will take their readings to an expert geomancer who will consult them on what their data means.
“If this can be properly organized, it will be a very important knowledge database for numerology research!” Chen explained to me in a later chat.
By collecting directional data and cross-referencing it with geomantic properties, a more complete understanding of the individuals interred in the cemetery can be understood. Tombs are arranged in auspicious directions, sometimes aligned with the terrain. At other times the alignment corresponds with biographical information of the person buried at the site, which explains how Taiwan’s graveyards are grassroots heritage resources.
Remembering the way New Taipei City criticized the documentation of Xindian’s First Public Cemetery in 2018, Wu does not want a repeat of the past. He wants to make sure that the documentations are detailed in order to push back against any nay-saying or inertia from the Cultural Affairs Department.
He told me that there were some interesting tombs in this cemetery, including that of a Qing Dynasty officer and an important paleontologist from the Republic of China era. But before showing me those, he brought me to the tomb belonging to a grandmother of his family lineage. It dates to the Japanese colonial period in Taiwan (1895-1945), circa 1939.
“Her stone carvings are quite exquisite locally,” he said, “because Ankeng was mainly engaged in farming at that time.” The intricate carvings indicate that a significant amount of money went into the production of her tomb, at a time when most of the community were historically engaged in farming.
Many of Wu’s ancestors are buried in Xindian’s Third Public Cemetery.
He pointed to the bricks used in the construction of the tomb assemblage. They bear the capital letters “TR” in a diamond, the trademark of the Taiwan Renga Company, a Japanese-period industrial kiln firm that made many of the island’s bricks during that time. “It is quite a good brick building material,” Wu added.
Before he could show me the other tombs of interest, we were called over to another corner of the cemetery where a farmer, working in an adjacent garden, had hailed some of the surveyors to see a tombstone that was lying among his vegetables and bamboo groves outside of the cemetery grounds that dated to 1868, during the reign of the Tongzhi Emperor (1862-1874) of the late Qing Dynasty.
At many of Taiwan’s oldest graveyards, many tombs were erroneously-placed outside of the cemetery bounds. Historically, early Han Chinese settlers buried their dead atop pasture lands that were too hilly and uneven for cultivating crops. Many old records indicate that the original names for many cemeteries included the term niupu (牛埔), meaning cattle pastures. The Japanese colonial authorities would eventually mark out and classify the sites as cemetery lands, but some of the tombs didn’t make it into the survey.
Walking through the cemetery, Wu pointed to me the small tomb constructed for a prominent geologist and paleontologist of the Republic of China, Ma Ting-ying (馬廷英) and his wife Ono Chizuruko (小野千鶴子).
While professor Ma’s former residence in Taipei is listed as a cultural asset, his tomb is not, reflecting the government’s ignorance of its value.
We continued up the track that runs through the cemetery, past a small pack of hesitant but harmless dogs, and through a Christian section where the tombstones all featured crucifixes. Many of Taiwan’s largest cemeteries have a Christian section, and these often feature a different sense of landscaping, often curated or organized in a manner that feels more like a park or public garden.
We continue down a slope on the graveyard’s eastern side. Here, Ｗu showed me the tomb of the Qing Dynasty officer Lin De-jun (林德俊).
“He is the highest official in Ankeng,” Bo-wei said. Written on the gravestone is his official rank and class: wupinxian (五品衔), meaning fifth-level official and baozong (把縂), a lower-level army officer position from the mid-Qing period. The characters dingmao (丁卯) indicated that the tomb was constructed in either 1807 or 1867.
I asked Wu if this Qing officer’s tomb is at least protected under any heritage laws. He shook his head and answered “No.”
Here in this cemetery, the grassroots narratives of Ankeng, its changing demographics, its place in history, and its heritage are on full display. Similar to an archaeologist digging through the strata to find different layers of history, a walk along the paths of Xindian’s Third Public Cemetery shows the subtle changes of tombs motifs that build up into distinct periods of history.
This is why the tombs are important for study and preservation, explains Yang Da-kuan (楊大寬), one of the volunteers surveying the tombs. He feels a need to research “the normal people” of Taiwan because the emperors, the rich people, and prominent figures in the history books are not actually representative of the real Taiwan.
The focus for historians should be on the collective stories of Taiwan’s average people, he explained. “Taiwan’s history is theirs.”
Yang lives in Banqiao District, several kilometers away, but came to Xindian for this survey because he recognizes the value of all of Taiwan’s graves.
“You can see the grave to understand this region, where people come from. If you’re in Ankeng it’s this, they come from Anxi, in Fujian. If you go to another area you can see some people come from Canton, Zhejiang, or Jiangsu.”
The need for greater awareness
Many people in Taiwan shy away from talking about cemeteries because of their association with death.. But at the same time, the tradition of ancestor veneration is strong. In early April, many people travel to ancestral gravesites to sweep the tombs.
“I think that many times the public is too ignorant of their own cultural connotations,” said Chen Yan-hong, one of the doctoral students studying the tombs. “The general public can only see the chaotic and seemingly disorganized tombs.”
Chen believes the chaotic manner in which many tombs are arranged combined with a general lack of understanding leads to a stigmatization of cemeteries. But he thinks they present a set of worldviews that show “the subtle interaction between cosmology and the fortune of the Chinese [settlers], life and death, and ghosts and gods.”
“Because the Han Chinese still have fear and anxiety about death,” Chen added, “the general public is reluctant to go to the cemetery except for Qingming Festival or farewell ceremonies. Not like the cemeteries next to European churches, which are beautiful parks.”
For much of the year, Taiwan’s burial spaces are ignored and avoided. They are often overgrown with weeds, but become natural green spaces for wild flora to grow and wildlife to live, creating a miniature ecosystem with its own annual rhythm.
Considered messy, spooky, or eyesores, cemeteries reflect the history of the community. A sense of loss always seems to arise once they have been destroyed and factories are built in their place.
Public awareness is integral to the protection of cemeteries. In many cases, by the time heritage stakeholders learned what was about to be lost, it was too late to stop the process of destruction.
In a 2018 meeting with representatives from New Taipei City’s Mortuary Office (under the Department of Civil Affairs), preservationists of Xindian’s now-lost First Public Cemetery learned that New Taipei had plans to remove every public cemetery in the city, nearly 200 in total.
The machinery is already in motion. Activists know that being as proactive as possible is their only chance to stop a catastrophic heritage loss.
The survey project
The early surveys of Xindian’s Third Public Cemetery and the nearby Sixth Public Cemetery are part of the plan to demand the government reevaluate cemeteries as national heritage. A success in New Taipei may help raise a general appreciation for these heritage resources across the country.
Wu said more and more volunteers are becoming involved in hands-on preservation. It indicates a growing appreciation for heritage cemeteries, which will make advocating for their preservation easier in the future.
Yang is frustrated by the city government’s double-standard about their graves.“Everyone says ‘we will protect the zhonghua culture, but they destroy it,” he says. Zhonghua (中華) is a term referencing ethnic Chinese culture.
He said the Kuomingtang-run city government often claimed that they would ‘connect with mainland China,’ but they also want to destroy these things that tell us we have a connection with Mainland China.”
The KMT seeks closer economic ties with China, but is destroying the cultural connections. “We feel very confused,” Yang said.
The group of volunteers continued their research in the area’s cemeteries until the end of May.
Activists are also learning from the experience of Tainan’s Nanshan Cemetery, whose demolition has been successfully delayed.
In New Taipei, Wu is aware of the uphill fight to stop the destruction, but the volunteers and the slowly changing attitudes toward heritage cemeteries are a reassuring sign.
TNL Editor: Bryan Chou, Nicholas Haggerty (@thenewslensintl)
If you enjoyed this article and want to receive more story updates in your news feed, please be sure to follow our Facebook.