Standing in neat rows in a room at a hillside Taoist monastery in China’s Shandong province are 558 memorial tablets bearing the names and hometowns of people who died due to the coronavirus pandemic.
Some, like Li Wenliang, are household names in China. Others, like Liu Hewei, are not.
“A person’s true death is when the whole world has forgotten them,” said Taoist priest Liang Xingyang, who started the collection on January 29, shortly after Chinese authorities announced that the virus could pass between humans.
“No matter what religion or beliefs they hold, their spirit deserves to be passed on. In fact, they live on in our hearts,” adding that Taoists use memorial tablets to give souls a place to rest after death.
Taoism, or Daoism, is a philosophy-turned-religion that has tens of millions of followers in China and is one of the country’s five officially sanctioned religions.
The monastery complex, where a small community of priests lives, sleeps, eats and worships, is spread across a rocky hill. In a hall perched high up, reached by a steep flight of stairs, the ornate gold and blue slabs stand in neat rows.
An act of remembrance on such a scale is unusual in China – Liang believes his is the only such collection linked either to Taoism or Buddhism.
China, where the coronavirus was first recorded in the city of Wuhan late last year, has held remembrance events arranged by the government, and some museums have asked the public to donate items to commemorate the country’s fight against COVID-19.
As of September 8, there have been 85,146 confirmed COVID-19 cases in mainland China, of whom 4,634 have died. Globally, more than 27 million people have been infected, more than 18 million recovered, and at least 897,000 people have died from COVID-19.
Of those honoured by the tablets, only a minority died of COVID-19. Most died from other causes, like exhaustion from overwork, Liang said, adding that he compiled his list of “heroes” based on state media reports or government notices.
Liu, for instance, was a 42-year-old government official from Inner Mongolia who died in February of a heart attack after working 20 days consecutively as a deputy director of a large local market.
“I think that enabling them to see each other in this way, enabling relatives to discover that after one of their family had lost their life, someone else remembers them, I think this is the greatest comfort to me,” Liang explained.