Destruction of New Taipei's Xindian Cemetery Risks Catastrophic Cultural Loss

Destruction of New Taipei's Xindian Cemetery Risks Catastrophic Cultural Loss
James X Morris
What you need to know

The first half of the cemetery was unceremoniously buried in 2016, now the battle is on to rescue and preserve what remains.

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In Xindian District, a coalition of academics, historians, and residents are attempting to bring awareness to the destruction of heritage sites that often occurs as city officials push for development.

Xindian First Public Cemetery (新店區第一公墓) sits in an enviable location, historically chosen for its good feng shui properties. The site is now slated for industrialization in the near future – half of the tombs have already been removed and destroyed.

At the crux of the issue is the loss of historical tombs, some dating back to the Taipei basin’s opening to Han settlement under the Qianlong Emperor (1735-1796). Local academics such as Professors David Blundell and Lin Ching-chih (林敬智), affiliated with nearby National Chengchi University, have spent the better part of the past three years working closely with local residents who are affiliated with the Xindian Historical Society, such as Mr. Gao Bao-tang (高寶堂) and Mr. Cat Shih Chi-yang (施其陽) in an effort to prevent the destruction of these imperial-era tombstones, and somehow possibly conserve them in-situ with the natural environment for study.

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James X. Morris
An example of the craftsmanship evident on the tombstones of Xindian First Public Cemetery.

Xindian residents have complained to the New Taipei City government about the loss of continuity for their families. Gao Bao-tang is a descendant of the Gao clan, one of the pioneering families to settle the southern areas of the Taipei basin where Xindian is located. He is one of the local residents beating the drum to move his community into action. Mr. Gao said, “Walking into the Xindian Cemetery is like walking into Taiwan’s history. Destroying it means that subsequent generations of grandchildren have no way to understand the history of their ancestors – it is a travesty!” Many of his ancestors and distant relatives are buried in the cemetery.

Cat Shih echoes Gao: “Although cultural assets preservation is developing, tombstones are still considered unacceptable. Many local literary and historical workers fail to find them valuable.”

Dr. Oliver Streiter, a professor at National Kaohsiung University who makes frequent visits to Xindian in an effort to collect the information from the tombstones before they are destroyed, has been working on the Xindian project since 2015. To him, Xindian First Public Cemetery represents a treasure trove of cultural and historical information that is overlooked. “The ensemble of grave sites is Taiwan's largest, most comprehensive and most accessible cultural heritage site, which documents history, migration, culture, politics, and languages through artistic means in harmony with local material, tradition and landscape.”

Dr. Streiter operates the Thakbong Project, a digital online database of tombstones from across Southeast and East Asia. “When brought into relation with the larger set of grave sites in Penghu, Jinmen, Fujian, Japan and Southeast Asia, these grave sites reflect the role that Taiwan has played in Asia throughout the last 400 years.”

While history books are often written by the winners, tombstones are time capsules of social undercurrents.

Inscriptions on tombstones reflect more than just information about the deceased. They incorporate a system of inscriptions based on Daoist numerology that express information about surviving descendants and the political climate at the time of carving. While history books are often written by the winners, tombstones are time capsules of social undercurrents. Dr. Streiter’s research has found that Taiwanese tombstones are often inscribed in manners which attempt to subvert colonizing political systems such as the early Qing, early Japanese and early KMT authorities. Pulling this information out of Xindian’s stones, it adds a greater grassroots context to Taiwan’s history. The trick, of course, is to get to the stones before the bulldozers do.

In the early months of 2016, half of the Xindian cemetery was demolished and the preservation team’s efforts were less than fruitful. Heavy land-moving equipment crushed most of the stones, many of which were then buried on site. A handful of stones representing a sample of the cemetery’s history dating back nearly 300 years were salvaged, however inquiries to the city administration by residents and the media resulted in the quick removal of the cache of stones to an undisclosed location. The academic team from National Chengchi University reached out to the local Xindian Historical Society and discovered that they were also attempting to preserve the cemetery, which is the final resting place of many of the ancestors of the Historical Society’s members.

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James X. Morris
Historical Society members and cultural researchers mingle at the Xindian First Public Cemetery.

Eventually work was halted on the first half of the cemetery removal project, and in the summer of 2016 cultural researchers, historians, and descendants of those buried in the cemetery met with the New Taipei City Mortuary Department in Banqiao to petition for the site’s preservation. The result of the meeting was that all parties agreed these tombstones were an important part of the heritage of northern Taiwan but the next steps were inconclusive.

For more than a year the Xindian cemetery sat untouched while the preservationists combed the site flagging important stones for rescue, holding workshops, and organizing conferences at Academia Sinica in Taipei. The core members of the coalition are Taiwanese, with cultural researchers from the United States and Germany. Their work has sparked interest from people in the United Kingdom, France, India, Mexico, Lithuania, Sri Lanka, Malaysia and Indonesia, all whom have visited the site.

Taiwan has a unique heritage that is at risk of destruction. The tombstones represent encoded historical and genealogical data, and many have ornate artwork. What makes them so special is that they are among the oldest surviving artifacts from Han Chinese settlers in the region.

These important artifacts can be found relatively easily and viewed for free. Their relevance is not just important for academics and family members, but for the identity of Taiwan.

Tombstones dating back to the Qing Dynasty are incredibly rare, particularly in China where Mao Zedong’s cultural revolution destroyed most vestiges of earlier traditions. In these tombstones Taiwan has a brilliant treasure – a vast museum of local history open for anyone to admire the craftsmanship and legacy of Taiwan’s earlier generations.

Western countries have taken advantage of their ancient cemeteries as tourist attractions and use them to solidify a sense of local identity and express local culture. Tombstones in northern Taiwan are no less significant, and could be an important stop for tour groups. Stones dating back hundreds of years give Taiwan a sense of belonging in history and give a social context to a place, forming a backbone for Taiwanese identity. Tombs and tombstones are among Taiwan’s few truly old authentic constructions.

Dr. Streiter laments, “The fact that many of these sites have been badly managed, in contrast to sites in Japan and Southeast Asia, should not lead to their destruction, but to better management.” Referring to Taiwan touting its attractions, food, night markets, and scenery, without preserving its historical artifacts, he adds, “A place without a grave site is a carnival on a heap of mud arbitrariness in ketchup and soy sauce.”

Cat Shih is cautiously optimistic that tombstone preservation will soon become more widely accepted. “This movement is a new beginning, but at least it has gradually emerged in importance and a group of people are willing to work hard for preservation. I do not know what will happen in the future. I only know that at this stage we can do something about it instead of turning a blind eye as people have done in the past.”

The back half of the Xindian cemetery is slated for demolition in early 2018. The New Taipei City Mortuary Department has allowed a grace period for researchers to conduct surveys and provide tours. This is likely the last time to see this invaluable source of Taiwanese history before it is destroyed forever.

The preservation team has established a bilingual Facebook group, “Xindian Cemetery Heritage / 搶救新店的墓園” where announcements and inquiries can be made. Xindian First Public Cemetery is located on Baogao Road (寶高路) in Xindian District, New Taipei City.

Read Next: The Spirit of Taking: Chinese Tomb Raiders Learn from Online Archaeologists

ENL Editor: Morley J Weston

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