January 18-20, 2007

Both the future and the past are very much at stake in present-day China. Political and economic change has generated historical narratives that challenge standard interpretations of events, movements, and periods. We will look at how China’s increasing participation in a global economy is producing new ways of understanding the country’s past; we will also look at how this participation is producing new ways of organizing its present. Along these lines, we will consider how urban centers like Shanghai and Hong Kong, tied to other “global cities” by networks of trade and investment, are changing the landscape of contemporary China, crucially refiguring domestic, regional, and international relations.

This seminar will also consider how China is managing this time of transition, and where it might be heading. Once the inspiration for those in the West who sought alternatives to capitalism, China has become a model of smooth passage to a market economy. Thirty years after Mao’s death, China has made this passage with remarkable success: against conventional theories of political economy and the example of other former communities economies, its transition has not precipitated economic freefall, but formidable economic growth. What are the strengths, contours, and concerns of this new China, and what do they mean for the rest of the world?

As scholars and policy analysts point out, developments in the Chinese economy have affected or been associated with changes in politics and government. As China’s leaders have reformed existing institutions and constructed new ones to cope with unruly markets, curb corrupt practices, and bring about a regulated economic order, they have forged new forms of governance that will continue to impact China’s future political development. Yet while it is frequently assumed that policies of economic reform and openness will lead to democratization, the case of China puts pressure on this assumption, suggesting a more complex relationship between economic and political transformation. Looking back at key moments in China’s recent political past (student riots in 1989 and in 1999, for example), we will ask what political, economic, or social factors might currently inhibit or promote political liberalization. Is continued economic success possible without such political change?

Finally, scholars have begun to consider the effects of rapid economic and political change on everyday life, focusing on the embodied experience of contemporary Chinese family life, gender relations, and health. Such a focus makes clear that some changes occur more gradually, unevenly, incompletely than is often depicted, revealing social transformation to be a process involving both innovation and continued or revived tradition.

Bringing together social, economic, political, and anthropological perspectives, this seminar will seek to better understand the various ways that lives are organized and experienced in contemporary China, as well as the importance of this new China for the United States and for the rest of the world. Participants will include: Prasenjit Duara (History), Judith Farquhar (Anthropology), Dali Yang (Political Science), Dingxin Zhao (Sociology).


  • Stephan Feuchtwang, “The Politics of Religion and Political Ritual,” in Popular Religion in China: The Imperial Metaphor (Richmond: Curzon 2001): 214-250. [Download]
    • In this chapter, Feuchtwang looks at the effects of political and economic transformations on popular religion in mainland China and Taiwan. He begins by considering how political rituals during the Mao period replaced, suppressed, or destroyed religious rituals, and then examines religious revival since the end of the politics of mass mobilization.
  • Judith Farquhar, “Discontinuities” and “Ars Erotica” in Appetites: Food and Sex in Post-Socialist China (Durham, NC: Duke UP, 2002) 10-17, 243-84. [Download]
    • In “Discontinuities,” Farquhar outlines one of the principal arguments of her book: that everyday life in reform China is still inhabited by the nation’s Maoist past. In the chapter on “Ars Erotica,” she looks at the continued presence of an even more remote past. This chapter focuses on a recent wave of publishing on the ancient Chinese erotic arts, which offers some of East Asia’s oldest writings, accompanied by vernacular translations and lavishly footnoted, to modern readers. Looking at the contemporary reception of a genre of literature that asserts the national character of “Chinese” sex, Farquhar explores the styles and politics of representing a national heritage and a historically specific body.
  • Haiyan Lee, “The Dialectics of Ruins in Yuanmingyuan,” presented at AAS Meeting, San Francisco, April 2006. [Download]
    • Lee’s article focuses on the two-decade long process of resurrecting a “fallen” site—the Yanmingyan (Garden of Perfect Brightness), originally built in the 17th and 18th centuries as a summer palace for Qing emperors—to a national monument. Questioning the adequacy of reading Yuanmingyuan as a site of collective memory, Lee argues that it is a spatial metaphor of contemporary China and a schooling ground for the art of socialist neoliberal citizenship.
  • Ye Luo, William L Parish and Edward O Laumann. 2005. “A Population-based Study of Body Image Concerns among Urban Chinese Adults,” Body Image 2 (4): 333-45. [Download]
    • Using a nationally representative urban sample, this study looks at the prevalence of body image concerns among urban Chinese adults. Its findings suggest that China has joined the worldwide diffusion of the thin ideal, with negative consequences for women.
  • Pankaj Mishra “Getting Rich” London Review of Books 28.23 (30 November 2006) [Download]
    • A comprehensive and thoughtful account of contemporary economic and cultural change in China, which charts developments in domains like urban architecture and cinema, and surveys opinions from supporters of a free market economy to “New Left” critiques.
  • Dali Yang, "Economic Transformation and Its Political Discontents in China: Authoritarianism, Unequal Growth, and the Dilemmas of Political Development," Annual Review of Political Science 9 (2006): 143-164. [Download]
    • Yang’s article begins by examining the institutional sources of China’s rapid economic growth, and then moves on to consider the social and political consequences and implications of this growth.
  • Dingxin Zhao, “A Brief History of the 1989 Movement” and “Conclusion” In The Power of Tiananmen: State-Society Relations and the 1989 Beijing Student Movement (Chicago: U of Chicago P, 2001) 145-207, 331-55. [Download]
    • In “A Brief History,” Zhao’s gives both a general narrative account of the movement, and an analysis of the major events, issues, and mechanisms that were important to its development. In his conclusion, he offers a series of broader reflections: first, about the period of political stability that followed the 1989 movement; second, about the relationship between state and society in contemporary China; and finally, about state-society relations theory.