The Immortals

I lost my proud Poplar and you your Willow,
Poplar and Willow soar to the Ninth Heaven.
Wu Gang, asked what he can give,
Serves them a laurel wine.

The lonely moon goddess spreads her ample sleeves
To dance for these loyal souls in infinite space.
Earth suddenly reports the tiger subdued,
Tears of joy pour forth falling as mighty rain.

The Immortals, Longhua Martyrs Memorial

The Immortals, Longhua Martyrs Memorial

This is The Immortals, Mao Zedong’s song of mourning for his second wife, Yang Kaihui, as well as a note of consolation to Li Shuyi, a comrade who had lost her husband. Both were killed in the civil war between the Communists and the Nationalists that would, some 19 years after Kaihui’s death, deliver Mao to power. It sits, inscribed in deep, gold-leaf painted grooves, on a slab of reddish-pink marble in front of Dancing For The Loyal Souls, the centrepiece sculpture of the Longhua Martyrs Memorial in Shanghai’s south-west. The characters are a perfect recreation of the helmsman’s languid, flowing scrawl. At the tablet’s base lies a bouquet of vivid pink roses. They are plastic.

The memorial is built around the grounds of a former Kuomintang prison camp, where hundreds of communists were executed during the 1920s and 1930s. Bursting imperiously from the turf all over the huge green expanse are great Soviet-style sculptures paying extravagant, grandiose tribute – stern faced men with great boulders of muscle struggling against their skin, industrious, prosaically dressed women and triumphant, celebratory children, all stare unblinking at the future they supposedly gave their lives for.

But if the rules of the park (which demand, among other things, “sombre and respectful conduct”) combined with the sheer scale and drama of the monuments are supposed to inspire awe (and I must confess needing to take a bigger breath than normal when first confronted with the cataclysm of Martyrs of May 30, the banner image for this article) you would not know by the behaviour of the locals. Elderly members of one group laugh and smoke and play cards, children chase one another and squeal, while teenagers lounge and sleepily check their mobile phones. With his index finger, a young boy traces the characters on the memorial wall while his family giggles at his faltering attempts to read. A few of the martyrs’ graves do have flowers on them, but the only ones that have not long since met their own demise are the imperishable phonies at the base of The Immortals. People come here primarily to use the space as a park, or perhaps out of touristic curiosity.

The memorial wall, Longhua Martyrs Memorial.

The memorial wall, Longhua Martyrs Memorial

No one, it seems, comes here to mourn.

Lying as it does on the fringe of the city, the memorial is one of the few places where the noise of Shanghai’s 24 million citizens is dimmed, receding behind the piercing trill of crickets that fill the trees that line the immaculately maintained gardens. It’s also one of the only places in this skyscraper-packed metropolis where you get a strong sense that you are in a nation that is, or ever has been, communist.

“No vulgar or superstitious behaviour” is another of Longhua’s rules – a significant one, given the conditions that early communism imposed. From 1949, religious observance, Confucianism and ‘superstition’ were cracked down upon, and the churches, temples, mosques and synagogues were closed and in some cases desecrated. The graveyards were exhumed and converted into factories, stadiums and parks.

One such example is another cemetery, Jinga’an, a low-key patch of greenery shadowed on all sides by skyscrapers. It’s filled with locals playing mah jong, performing tai chi or basking in the soft, syrupy heat that coats Shanghai in a mist of sweat, even when it rains. They are likely oblivious to the 60 or so British army and navy officers for whom, until 1951, Jinga’an (or Bubbling Brook cemetery, as it had then been called) had been a resting place. Their original gravestones were chiseled down to nothing save a name, and now lie dotted amongst identical plaques for Vietnamese, Thais, Romanians, Russian Jews and others in the international section of the Soong Ching-ling Memorial Gardens, another sprawling, exquisitely kept memorial, this time to the wife of Sun Yat-Sen, co-founder of the Chinese People’s Republic.

The International Cemetary, Soong Ching-ling Memorial Gardens

The International Cemetery at Soong Ching-ling Memorial Gardens

The austere, stark gravestones marking the foreigners’ burial places are dwarfed by the statues dedicated to various titans of industry, politics and art that populate the ‘Celebrity Cemetery’ on the same grounds and who, according to, a state run travel site, made “great contributions during the democratic revolution period and socialist construction period”.

A paradox (one of many in modern China) emerges here. The architects of the communist state are given florid and ornate commemoration, and are celebrated in songs that unselfconsciously imply an afterlife. And yet the world they brought about allowed (and, for different reasons, still allows) for neither.

The British, of course, were not the only foreigners that carved a groove of their own into Shanghai’s streets. The murmurs of foreign (and not always colonial) influence can still be heard in the religious and commemorative spots of the city – the Ohel Moishe synagogue is a remnant of the large Jewish population that arrived in the 1920s and 30s, fleeing first the Russian Pogroms and then Nazism. The synagogue is no longer active; it now functions as a memorial, both to those who came and lived in Shanghai, and those who died because they did not.

The Ohel Moishe Synagogue

The Ohel Moishe Synagogue

But while it makes for a stirring image – the deep rose of the Chinese flag fluttering against a glowing azure sky above a crumbling testament to the city’s diversity – it is, as far as commemoration goes, misleading. As Professor Chu Xiaoquan of Fudan University says: “It’s interesting to notice that Chinese are open to foreign influence in different fields, for example marriage. But funerals are very traditional. In this, I can’t see much foreign influence.”

Death, it seems, is something the Chinese still do their way.

Professor Sun Jian, also of Fudan University, talks me through a traditional Chinese funeral. “The house will become a ‘mourning house’,” he says. “There will be the urn, burning incense and a picture of the deceased. The family will burn paper money so the deceased will have money in the afterlife. They will burn incense for seven days and during that week they won’t sing, or listen to music or engage in any recreation.”

But in a city of 24 million people, is there the time and space to commemorate the ancestors the Chinese culture is supposed to venerate?

“The burial issue is a huge one for a city as big as Shanghai, because we have such a huge population,” says Professor Chu.

Across much of China, it is now mandatory to cremate your dead, simply for the sake of efficiency. And for modern Shanghainese, the prices of even modest plots are skyrocketing. In April of this year, Wang Hongyi, writing in China Daily, reported that the average price of a one square metre plot in Shanghai is at least 35,000 yuan (more than 7500 Australian Dollars) and a prime plot can cost more than 100,000 yuan. This greatly exceeds, per square metre, the cost of a luxury apartment.

'Celebrity Cemetery', Soong Ching-Ling Memorial Gardens

The ‘Celebrity Cemetery’ at Soong Ching-Ling Memorial Gardens

Yiming Li, a 19-year-old Shanghai native whose family moved to Perth five years ago, confirms this commercialisation has bled into every aspect of commemoration.

“It’s getting more and more expensive,” he says. “My mother leans more toward the Buddhist tradition, where you hire the monks to do the ceremony for the dead. There are different packages you can get; so higher levels are more expensive. It’s a product now.”

And what exactly are people paying for?

“I guess to get into heaven,” he laughs.

Not only is the cost of burial increasing, but so too the regulation surrounding it.

“About 10 years ago it was possible to buy a small plot of land before you die,” Professor Chu tells me. “Now it is forbidden. You can only buy a plot for a specific person who has died, because of the lack of land. Before, a family could choose to be buried together. Now, and it causes people a lot of angst, it isn’t possible. Everyone is buried separately.”

Professor Jian says: “It’s an economic as well as practical decision. Shanghai is growing fast – too fast – and the land around the city will have to be developed”.

Confucian ideals of filial piety and ancestor worship again rear their head; the government of a country with such virtues woven through its psyche can hardly gut soil sown with the remains of those glorious ancestors.


And yet, for all of its emphasis on the dearly departed, Confucianism has very little to say about their ultimate destination. It cares a great deal more about how people conduct themselves while they are here than where they shall find themselves when they are not. And perhaps this has an influence.

Professor Chu says the approach to the afterlife in Confucianism is “very vague”.

All he says is: “I will say nothing about that, because I know nothing about it”.

“This is the one sentence you will find about it,” Professor Chu says, before breaking into a subtle smile. “But we are a pretty cautious people. We live as if: ‘… Maybe …’, you know?”

In the maze of modern Shanghai, funerals act as an Ariadnian thread; they guide us past every major point in the city’s culture and history and lead us, eventually, to the intersection of pragmatism and tradition, history and economics that characterises much of modern Chinese thought.

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