This paper explores the relationship between death and the urban through a case study of the management and representation of sudden, suspicious, and unexpected deaths in early twentieth-century Beijing. What makes a death appear suspicious or out of place is a product of historically-specific institutions, practices, and expectations. In Republican Beijing (1912-1949), a city undergoing profound transformation amidst the rapid decline of the late imperial order and establishment of modern governing institutions, such expectations were shaped by distinctly urban spaces, institutions, and practices.
The Metropolitan Police Board, a newly established modern police force that governed all aspects of life in the city defined administratively “normal” deaths as those that were reported and certified through specific registration procedures. The subject of this paper is the subset of deaths that were not or could not be reported through those channels. These deaths – which included homicides and suicides, unclaimed bodies of the indigent, and victims of fatal accidents – were managed through a procedural trajectory that culminated in a highly public examination of the body by city prosecutors and their forensic examiners. These deaths also emerged as an object of public concern through daily coverage in the sensationalistic print media. This coverage, I argue, brought these deaths to the center of a perception of city life and its perils and the sustained supervision of municipal authorities that kept urban disorder at bay.
As an alternate history of death and the urban, the management of sudden and suspicious deaths can reveal much about the cultural and social histories of death under modernity, conceptions of urban order and disorder, and the experience of living and dying in modern cities.
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