Asian Studies

Q&A with Harriet Evans

Evans, HarrietHarriet Evans is Emeritus Professor of Chinese Cultural Studies at the University of Westminster and Visiting Professor in Anthropology at the London School of Economics. She is the author of The Subject of Gender: Daughters and Mothers in Urban China and Women and Sexuality in China. In her newest book, Beijing from Below, she tells the history of the residents in Dashalar—now redeveloped and gentrified but once one of the Beijing’s poorest neighborhoods—to show how their experiences complicate official state narratives of Chinese economic development and progress.

Beijing from Below explores the lives of the urban working class in Dashalar, a neighborhood that borders Tiananmen Square in Beijing. What is the historical importance of the neighborhood, both in the context of your research and in the history development in Beijing?

First, Dashalar is known in Beijing as being a very particular kind of neighbourhood with unique social, demographic and cultural characteristics going back in time that make it “unrepresentative” of anywhere else in the capital. I don’t think this is a very helpful way of thinking about what the study of a neighbourhood—or anywhere for that matter —can tell us. Every place has its own singular characteristics. As a kind of inter-disciplinary historian-cum-anthropologist my intention is never to look for what is representative but rather to think about the kinds of issues and questions that are shared across historical and spatial boundaries. So what does the very specific history and contemporaneity of Dashalar tell us? What issues are highlighted by its history through to the present that prompt reflections on other places and people across time elsewhere?

Dashalar is a small neighborhood of about 1.26 square kilometers just outside the former inner-city walls, southwest of Qianmen, the gate at the southern end of Tian’anmen Square. Its main street runs westward from Qianmen Avenue and is intersected by Meishi Street on the north-south axis. Historically part of the outer city, it has long been known as ‘South City’ (nancheng), To this day, reference to South City is shorthand for the vibrant liminal world of street vendors, rickshaw pullers, street entertainers, gamblers, prostitutes and vagrants of the capital’s “traditional” popular culture immortalized in Lao She’s famous novel Rickshaw Boy, first published in 1937. Dashalar is also often referred as the “eight big lanes” (ba da hutong). Being able to name the “eight big lanes” is a mark of your familiarity with “old Beijing”, as I discovered once when I was wandering about and fell into a conversation with a local man who questioned me about my understanding of the neighborhood’s history. The term itself refers to the eight main lanes of the neighborhood’s red light district before 1949.

I have not studied the early history of the neighborhood but between the late Qing and early Republican eras (roughly between the 1870s and the 1930s) Dashalar was known for its opera singers, teahouses, eateries and prostitutes. It was where court personnel from the Imperial palace (the Forbidden City) at the northern end of the Square went to indulge their pleasures, where aspiring literati travelling from other parts of the country stayed as they prepared for the imperial examinations, and where many Han officials lived, barred from living in the inner city by the Manchu government’s segregationist laws. It was also a place where itinerant merchants from outside the capital crossed paths with beggars and the down-and-out hoping to make a living from the vibrant melée of people traversing the neighborhood.

In the context of the history of Beijing, Dashalar has long been one of the central Beijing’s most densely populated and poorest neighborhoods, with a mixed and mobile population of Han, Manchu and Muslim people. During the Mao years (1949-1976), but particularly during the famine years of 1959-1961, Dashalar was the destination of large numbers of near destitute people from the rural areas attempting to find a means of making a livelihood in the capital. It was also a neighborhood affected by the massive demolition and relocation projects underway from the mid-1950s to enlarge Tian’anmen Square and build the Great Hall of the People and the National History Museum as part of the capital’s construction of its famous “ten great buildings.” By 1965, it was reported that the amount of “old and dangerous housing” had doubled that of 1949. A combination of scarcity, population density, inadequate investment in housing and services, and an overwhelming policy emphasis on productivity repeatedly undermined the designs, intentions and plans formulated for Beijing’s older districts between the 1950s and the late 1970s.The 1976 earthquake further exacerbated the situation, and subsidies to enable people to undertake repairs were woefully inadequate. In all, under a policy of “not letting the roof fall in, not letting the walls collapse, but repairing serious leaks,” the area suffered from extreme neglect.

Between the early 1980s and 2000, the date when the government initially hoped to stage the Olympics, various plans for the old city’s development marked Dashalar for regeneration to “transform [its] old and dilapidated housing”. Dashalar then appeared in another protection plan in 2002 as one of the “twenty-five historical areas of Old Beijing city,” two thirds of the housing of which was graded as dilapidated. Demolition of parts of the neighborhood finally got underway in late 2004 with the widening of its main north-south road axis and the relocation of large numbers of local residents, powerfully recorded in Ou Ning’s documentary film, “Meishi Jie” (2006) While pedestrians had to pick their way through piles of rubble, debris and litter, posters appeared on courtyard doors and walls explaining the government’s concern for local residents. Evacuation orders were put up, and notices appeared urging inhabitants to “say farewell to dangerous housing” (gaobie weifang) in return for monetary incentives offered for voluntary relocation. Enormous billboards displaying computer-generated images of the reconstructed neighborhood celebrated the commercial splendors of Dashalar’s history, and in preparation for the 2008 Olympics, shop owners were ordered to re-furbish their shop fronts with new signage and grey paint, at their own expense. Street vendors and pedicab cyclists were cleared from the lanes as the local government implemented a policy of physical, spatial and social cleansing of the neighborhood. Full scale reconstruction of the neighborhood’s main West Street where I worked only began in the winter of 2008-9, with migrant workers laboring alongside bulldozers late into the night to lay new pipes and wiring in excavated street, leaving a tangle of open wires and piles of rubble in the tiny pedestrian margins left at the sides of the street.

Despite policy intentions of the local Xuanwu government, lack of funds and the demographic density of the neighborhood effectively scuppered plans for infrastructural improvements, and until very recently, no significant infrastructural changes were made there. Local residents continued to live in cramped and damp dwellings, with no sanitation, or even hot water. An official 2005 survey of Beijing’s “urban corners” noted that it had a population of nearly 60,000, with a density of 45,000 people per square kilometer, more than double that of other inner-city areas, with many families living in rooms of less than ten square meters. It was also noted that some 90 per cent of the nearly 3000 “big cluttered courtyards” (dazayuan) in the ten single-story communities (shequ) of Dashalar were “dilapidated housing” (weijiu fangwu).  30 per cent of the local population were classified as “masses in difficulties” (kunnan qunzhong). Nearly a fifth of the population were a “migrant population” (liudong renkou). Until it was administratively merged with the inner city’s Xicheng (West City) in July 2010, the Xuanwu District government responsible for Dashalar was also known as the poorest of the capital’s districts.

Linking my research interests with this brief outline of the historical development of Beijing prompts a number of thoughts:

  • First, the story of China’s massive internal migration from rural to urban areas is a well-known aspect of China’s engagement with global capitalism. In mainstream media and academic terms it is largely seen as an effect of the marketization of China’s economy, the relaxation of controls on mobility, and the privatization of employment and property ownership, and as such is one of the best known features of China’s spectacular urban growth in recent decades. The specific characteristics and size of this recent migration are, of course specific to recent decades. However, the longer historical perspective outlined above reveals migration from the rural areas as a recurring feature of the neighborhood’s history, begging questions—to which I will return below—about the shifting constitution since the early days of the People’s Republic of the hierarchies defining urban-rural relations and the significance of local Dashalar people’s self-identification as “authentic” “old Beijingers.

Second, my focus on a group of people I call urban subalterns in preference to the value-laden category of the “underclass” (zui diceng) widely used in Chinese sociological analyses reveals a lengthy and inherited experience of urban poverty not revealed in dominant accounts of the urban working class of the Mao era as recipients of state accommodation, education and health benefits.

Third, the recent commercial “heritagization” of Dashalar after decades of what the local residents experienced as neglect by the state contributes to a new characterization of “old Beijing” which basically ignores the ethnic, religious, regional and social diversity of Dashalar’s past. The emergence of a “nostalgia industry” accompanying this “re-invention” of an “old Beijing” tradition, and apparent in the quantities of coffee table books of photographs of “old Beijing” is part of a heritage discourse that ignores long-term local residents’ claims to belonging to the neighborhood. In their terms, it basically denies them human and social recognition as people worthy of consideration, and replaces this with what they consider to be a “fake” old Beijing. Nevertheless, local people are not averse to using this heritage version of “old Beijing” as a way of making money as well as an ironic assertion of their historical claims to their own neighborhood. Their collective self-referencing as the real “old Beijingers” emerges as an implicit and ethical demand for recognition.

All this underlines the place of Dashalar as a central site of local self-identifications. It was literally the the only site of social and emotional experience for a number of the people I got to know there, some of whom had rarely, if ever, left the neighborhood. And even though over the years I was working there it was physically and spatially transformed, effectively excluding its long-term subaltern residents from the gentrified delights appearing on their doorsteps, Dashalar remained in people’s memories and narratives as a centre of belonging. The place then is remade, but in its remaking it remains a site of attachment and rootedness. And not only for the people who continued to live there. The only person I knew there who had made it good as a successful local restauranteur and photographer lived with his wife and family in a gated community to the south of the neighbourhood, but Dashalar, the place where he was born and had grown up, centred his everyday activities and his photographic passions.

Finally, I want to say something about the party-state. One familiar trope about the Chinese state gives it a kind of monolithic control over ordinary people’s lives. Historically, the Chinese state has reached into neighborhood life in many distinctive ways sustaining the state’s extension of control under the new communist government in 1949. However, despite the fact that local life in Dashalar was ultimately framed by the policies and structures of the new government, the latter’s attempts to mould its subjects into good socialist citizens whose primary loyalities were to the collective good met with uneven success. On the contrary, my study shows how despite such attempts, the family remained the dominant focus of local people’s efforts and passions.

The book has a unique structure: longer, narrative chapters with direct quotations from residents of Dashalar, followed by brief, analytic interludes. How did you choose that structure, rather than following a more standard monographic format?

I had been thinking about how to structure this book for a long time and consulted various ethnographies (not about China) as inspiration but none really worked. What I wanted was to find a structure that combined a flavor of local life, including its spatial, material and sensory qualities, and the personalities and voices of the people I knew, with detached attention to conceptual analysis. Accordingly, my first nearly final draft was largely structured around the individual families I knew best, and was narrated as much as was possible in the voices of those people. For their narratives, I drew on the recordings of conversations I had made over the years, together with my copious fieldnotes. The narrative structure of the main chapters of the book was, of course, the result of my editorial decisions to find a way to convey their voices in a form that I hope does justice to them and their concerns.

At this point, I was invited to discuss some of the chapters with a bunch of history graduate students, who had read a couple of the chapters in advance. In the discussion we then had, they made it clear that while they enjoyed reading these people’s stories, they would benefit from a bit more guidance about how to interpret them. What were the main themes that emerged from these stories?

My response was to retain the main chapters, more or less as they were, and follow them up with what I call brief analytical interludes discussing what for me were the main themes and questions raised by their stories. The final concluding chapter then collates these themes under other, broader ones, which to different degrees link the specific experiences and stories together.

Is there a story, or chapter, in particular that resonates with you?

This is a difficult one, for they all have their part to play in my analysis.

But I guess, on a human level, the story that touched me the most was the migrant couple’s, whose resilience, determination, dignity and deep commitment to each other as well as their children enabled them to endure unspeakable suffering and social discrimination. The violent abuse they were subjected to by the law enforcement officers and the police constituted a clear violation of their most basic human rights. What kept them going was the desire to see their children, and particularly their son, through higher education. They expected that eventually they would return home to Shaanxi when they could no longer work and would be cared for by their son who they anticipated would marry and have a child there. The tragedy of their story played out, for them, in the mismatch between their expectations and what they saw as their daughter-in-law’s rejection of them. Their son was a deeply loving young man, who on numerous occasions, in front of me, had demonstrated his affectionate respect of his parents. He was torn between his attachment to his parents and his desire to lead a different kind of life, and to bring up his child together with his wife in ways that could not respond to his parents’ expectations in their terms. While therefore, the tragedy was the effect of destroyed hopes and expectations of filial support on the part of the older generation, this story also reveals the tragedy of unanticipated generational shifts in conditions of extreme scarcity and precarity, in which, to paraphrase Lauren Berlant, hope and optimism can produce cruel effects.

The other really moving thing about this couple is that in contrast with others I knew I Dashalar, they never asked anything of me, in either financial or other terms. Their depleted resources left them with virtually nothing, except anguished grief, which they did not hide from me.  For Li Fuying and his wife, my presence and support signified not a source of material support but of recognition of their difficulties and their pain, at a moment when no-one else seemed to be around to offer any comfort. Ultimately, I think they saw my attempts to understand them and my recognition of their grief as offering the hope of repair.

On the level of methodology, your work uses oral history to center the lives of the urban working class, whose experiences are usually not incorporated into the dominant historical narrative. Could you say more about how you think of the relationship between histories from “below”—which often rely on memory, or non-archival sources of information—and “official” histories?

My book combines conventional archival research, ethnographic research conducted in short spurts over a period of years, with an unorthodox kind of oral history. Unorthodox in that I did not sit down to record individuals’ life histories, nor do I refer to their real names. In methodological terms, one section of the introductory chapter sets out how I see the relationship between these three methods.

In brief, I think of them as corresponding with, contrasting and even challenging each other in ways that shed light on the multiple character of history. We all know that the local archival collections available (then) to researchers, and which I was fortunate enough to be able to access, were/are highly selective in that huge chunks of the recent past are simply omitted from the available record. Hence the extent of the famine’s (1959-1962) effects in the neighborhood only emerges obliquely in references, for example, to child health and food shortages in nurseries and kindergartens. The extent of the Red Guards’ violence in the neighborhood is simply absent from the local archive. Nevertheless, numerous other details were telling, particularly when interpreted within the context of my familiarity with the spaces and people of the neighborhood. So for example, one account of “social ills” in the late 1950s, referred to a local woman, formerly a prostitute, who complained about the inadequacy of the cotton rations, and was reported as saying that she didn’t even have enough to cover her behind. I laughed out loud when I read this, so appropriately did it seem to conjure up what could have been the response of Meiling, a woman who had spent three years in detention for prostitution during the anti-spiritual pollution campaign in the early 1980s. So, in this and other instances, the archival sources revealed all sorts of detail that I could make sense of because of my knowledge of the neighborhood. Far from confirming what I had anticipated, namely the limits of lacunae of the official archive, they often surprised me because of their reference to local narrated experiences.

Another point I want to make about doing this kind of “old school” archival research is that the documents themselves were often painstakingly written by hand, with crossings out and spelling mistakes galore….In instances where the document in question was a plea to the authorities for support to do things like finance the building of an extra toilet for nursery children, when the terms of address had to be carefully chosen so as to avoid outright refusal, the materiality of the document gives evidence of the blood, sweat and tears that produced it.

Memories are always slippery, and there is a whole body of literature out there called memory studies. For me, in this book, the value of the memory with all its selectivity lies not in a comparison with, legitimation or contestation of the documented archive, but rather in what it conveys about the remembering and forgetting subject. The flip side of a memory is what is forgotten or silenced, and of course, what is remembered or not does not stay still. Rather the past that is remembered today may well say as much about today as it does about the past. So memory becomes a vector of how people bring together their pasts in a way that makes sense of their presents, and even their hopes for or desires for the future. So memory is tied up with multiple temporalities that in turn unevenly converge with and depart from the discursive narratives of “official” or “mainstream” history.

The final point here I want to make is that claims are often made for oral histories that seem to be imbued with a sense of the moral high ground—that because the oral history can reveal the downside of history that is often excluded from the official or dominant record, that therefore it is more truthful. I think this is highly dubious, as is the whole notion of “historical truth.” The poor and marginalized do not have a prerogative over the oral. Indeed, as many have argued, the quality of the spoken that emerges in oral histories may be far from revealing the interior experience of the speaking subject, particularly the female subaltern subject. Much depends on the historian’s purpose and positionality.

The situation in Dashalar, and Beijing in general, continues to rapidly change. What, in your opinion, do you think the future of Dashalar is?

The future of Dashalar is already there, in the form of its cool coffee bars and restaurants, and its sparklingly modern architecture. But this process of gentrification is still patchy and the new spaces frequented by hip young global professionals obscure the messy alleys and “big cluttered courtyards” behind them. The other aspect of Dashalar’s situation is its appropriation by the commercial heritage industry as part of the “brand” of “old Beijing” that dominates tourist websites of the capital.

978-1-4780-0815-6What do you hope readers will take away from Beijing from Below?

That is a difficult question…because there are too many things I want the reader to take away, but in a nutshell, I think the first thing is the understanding that history is multiple, it doesn’t simply follow a neat or progressive path, any more than change does. While certain aspects of what we understand as mainstream history and change are clearly beneficial to some people, this depends on and is constitutive of the disadvantaging of others. So our responsibility as historians and anthropologists is to try to articulate how and why these often inconsistent but concurrent processes take place.

Beyond giving voice to the experiences of people left out of the dominant historical record, this study challenges a number of familiar arguments beyond my general comments about oral history. Some of these are shared by commentators and academics of China studies. Others make anthropological points that have maybe universal value.

  • Rural-urban labor migration in China in the past few decades is a new stage in a longer history of rural-urban migration. At one extreme there are large numbers of successful migrant labourers who manage to explore the entrepreneurial opportunities offered by the market to gain access to urban services, property ownership and family security. At the other are those who are pushed into migration by desperation, poverty and a determination to give their children a better future than their own. The documented evidence of the violent abuse and violation of basic human rights experienced by these (remember the so-called “low-end migrants” forcibly removed from Beijing in 2018) demands greater publicity.
  • Historical narratives and received knowledge.

Published narratives of experiences of the Mao era, and particularly the Cultural Revolution, focus on the educated urban elite of cadres, intellectuals, professionals and students, those for whom there are archival and biographical records of persecution and death, years spent in cadre schools and labor camps, and in the countryside as “sent down youth.” It is through the so-called “victim literature” and its concerns with the suffering perpetrated on the nation’s educated elite, that the Mao era is best known both to Western audiences and to younger generations in China. In this, moreover, there is a frequent slippage between the Mao era and the Cultural Revolution, such that the Cultural Revolution effectively becomes synonymous with the Mao era as a whole. The forgetting and simplification of the different stages and experiences of the Mao era in official historiography reproduces this slippage.

The urban subalterns such as those whose stories I have narrated here —the street vendor of Buddhist trinkets, the garbage collector, the public lavatory cleaner, the illiterate “housewife” and member of the household-based production group—made no claims to a privileged victimhood. They did not have any noticeable social or political stakes in debates about the legacy of the Mao era, nor did they have the educational skills or social capital to record their own, or their families’ experiences.

This contextualization of the Mao era and the Cultural Revolution reminds us that dominant media and academic narratives of both Mao and the Cultural Revolution reveal appalling suffering and brutality, yet which is ideologically framed to correspond with ongoing political priorities articulated by the urban educated elite. The moments which were most prominent in my interlocutors’ stories focused on the famine years more than the Cultural Revolution. Nor did their memories correspond with the rupture between the Mao and post-Mao years which structures the dominant official versions of the recent past, and exercises overwhelming discursive weight in the Western media. Rather, their narratives urge us to remember that the received knowledge endlessly reproduced by our media corresponds—unevenly—with the agendas, explicit or otherwise of the media barons and their governments, and these agendas correspond with ideological and political interests. However the temporalities structuring the memories of the past narrated in my book suggest other priorities, sometimes converging with, sometimes departing from those of official discourse.

  • In contrast with much public commentary on the Chinese state’s efforts to establish an effective legal system, the experience of many including those whose stories appear in this book is that state policy oriented to improving the legal system through the enactment of laws does not in itself lead to greater regularization of social and economic practices. On the contrary, corruption and the arbitrary abuse of power emerge as such predictable aspects of the legal structure as it is practiced at the local level, that in the eyes of those affected by it, such as many of those who appear in this book, they have become associated with the legal system itself. This of course, has more general applicability as a critical corrective to dominant media and political assertions about the efficacy of the rule of law in many societies, including our own.
  • The Chinese state

One of the most salient paradoxes of this study concerns the contrast between a state which was instrumental in shaping the conditions of existence of the people of Dashalar and its apparent absence in their everyday language and activities. The agencies representing the state in the experience of my interocutors appeared in the form of occasional benevolence to obscurity, negligence and apparent absence, and even worse to out and out physical violence and psychological abuse, mostly perpetrated by the local patrol officers and policemen. However, imagining the state as a portentous agent “above” (shangmian), as local people generally referred to it, did not make it external to the embodied concerns of daily life. It penetrated the interiority of people’s homes in the form of the ordering (or disordering) of space, in the anxieties, struggles and family disputes over residential security, in fundamental concerns about health and hunger, in despairing anger, and in abject resignation to “fate,” and very occasionally, in explicit protest. In extreme, but by no means exceptional cases, as we have seen, it attacked the bodies as well as minds of its subjects. In this sense, the state was a profoundly constitutive force at the heart of local people’s social, bodily and affective lives. It was thus intimately terrifying in the extent of its powers.

At the same time, this should not be interpreted as a concurrence with the view of the “totalitarian” state, which I do not think is a useful term. If anything, this study reveals how, even in conditions of close everyday supervision by state agencies, the people targeted for control by those agencies manifest a stubborn recalcitrance, if not outright refusal, to go along with the state’s demands…The image that comes to mind is of someone silently digging in their heels in refusal to go along with the demands of others. What also comes to mind are Scott’s famous “hidden transcripts” as “weapons of the weak.”

  • Exchange, recognition and agency

An anthropological issue. This study has given me a profound lesson in how to understand ethnographic research as a process of exchange. While one’s interlocutors may have a range of instrumental interests in tolerating or even welcoming the researcher’s presence, including gifts, monetary loans, the acquisition of cultural capital and so on, such concerns should not be seen as antithetical to ethical concerns. If I was seen and treated by some of my interlocutors as a source of material advantage, I was also treated as witness to attempts to define an ethical way of living in the ordinary everyday.

This connects with what I understand as the desire for recognition. A major reason explaining my acquaintances’ willingness to share their stories with me was in my view because my interest in their lives signified a recognition of them as human subjects in a world which consistently withheld from them all that the desire for recognition implies: respect, consideration and justice. Long years of having been denied even the basics of human respect occasionally exploded in rage and despair: in Meiling’s vociferous claims to virtue, in Zhao Yong’s loud accusations against the police for infringing his human rights after a minor traffic offence, or in Li Fuying’s tortured memories of police brutality, forcible separation from his wife, and finally his despair when having to face his son’s decision to lead his life in ways that clashed with his own sense of self, as apparent in his hopes and expectations.

Interpreted through the lens of agency, my Dashalar acquaintances’ narrations of their experiences, memories and longings can be thought of as expressions of desires to assert a kind of authority in their lives. Agency here appears not as a “synonym for resistance to relations of domination,” as the late Saba Mahmood put it, but rather a form of struggle on the part of disadvantaged people to claim a dignity in an environment which, objectively, denied it to them. Understood in these terms, the expression of agency can be conceptualized as a search for recognition, not in the sense of identity politics, but, following Nancy Fraser, in a way that contrasts with the customary depreciation experienced by the subject, subordinating her to the impossibility of participating in social life as an equal of others. This is a kind of ethical recognition that acknowledges the subject’s performance of personhood as that of a full partner in social interaction,

Read the introduction to Beijing from Below free online and save 50% on the paperback edition with the coupon EVANS50 until June 30, 2020.

New Books in June

Summer is just around the corner. As this new season begins, we’re releasing some exciting titles in history, art, anthropology, and more. Check out these brand new books arriving in June!

A Primer for Teaching Pacific Histories is a guide for college and high school teachers who are teaching Pacific histories for the first time or for experienced teachers who want to reinvigorate their courses. It can also serve those who are training future teachers to prepare their own syllabi, as well as teachers who want to incorporate Pacific histories into their world history courses.

In Disordering the Establishment, Lily Woodruff examines the development of artistic strategies of political resistance in France in the decades following World War II, showing how artists countered establishment ideology, challenged traditional art institutions, appealed to direct political engagement, and grappled with French intellectuals’ modeling of society.

Pointing out that presumptions of solidarity, antagonism, or incommensurability between Black and Native communities are insufficient to understand the relationships between both groups, the scholars, artists, and activists contributing to Otherwise Worlds investigate the complex relationships between settler colonialism and anti-Blackness to explore the political possibilities that emerge from such inquiries. This volume is edited by Tiffany Lethabo King, Jenell Navarro, and Andrea Smith.

In Trafficking, Hector Amaya examines how the dramatic escalation of drug violence in Mexico in 2008 transformed how people discussed violence and the rules of participation in the public sphere.

Sa’ed Atshan and Katharina Galor draw on ethnographic fieldwork and interviews in The Moral Triangle to explore the asymmetric relationships between Germans and Israeli and Palestinian immigrants in the context of official German policies, public discourse, and the impact of coming to terms with the past. You can watch Assistant Editor Sandra Korn interview Atshan and Galor here.

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New Titles in Women’s and Gender Studies

We regret that in the ongoing efforts to mitigate the spread of the COVID-19 virus, we will be unable to meet with you during the Berkshire Conference of Women, Genders, and Sexualities, which has been cancelled. Check out the virtual conference to listen to pre-recorded plenaries.

We know that many of you look forward to stocking up on new books at special discounts at our conferences, so we are pleased to extend a 30% discount on all in-stock books and journal issues. Use coupon code BERKS20 to save 30% when ordering online. Journal subscriptions and society memberships don’t qualify for the 30% discount.

Check out some of the exciting titles we would have featured in our booth at the Berks. 

In I Never Left Home, poet and revolutionary Margaret Randall tells the moving, captivating, and astonishing story of her life, from her childhood in New York to joining the Sandanista movement in Nicaragua, from escaping political repression in Mexico to raising a family and teaching college. Watch a video of Margaret Randall discussing her memoir here.

In Second World, Second Sex, Kristen Ghodsee recuperates the lost history of feminist activism from the so-called Second World, showing how women from state socialist Bulgaria and socialist-leaning Zambia created networks and alliances that challenged American women’s leadership of the global women’s movement. Listen to an interview with Kristen Ghodsee here.

Jennifer C. Nash reframes black feminism’s engagement with intersectionality in Black Feminism Reimagined, contending that black feminists should let go of their possession and policing of the concept in order to better unleash black feminist theory’s visionary and world-making possibilities. Read an interview with Jennifer Nash here

Lynn M. Thomas constructs a transnational history of skin lighteners in South Africa and beyond in Beneath the Surface, theorizing skin and skin color as a site for antiracist struggle and lighteners as a technology of visibility that both challenges and entrenches racial and gender hierarchies. Watch an interview with Lynn Thomas on South African TV here.

From The Guiding Light to Passions, Elana Levine traces the history of daytime television soap operas as an innovative and highly gendered mass cultural form in Her Stories. Read an interview with Elana Levine in Jezebel here.

In Mafalda, Isabella Cosse examines the history, political commentary, and influence of the world-famous comic character Mafalda from her Argentine origins in 1964 to her global reach in the 1990s. Recently, the Argentinan goverment has been using Mafalda to educate citizens about wearing face masks during the pandemic. Read Cosse’s blog post on the campaign here.

The contributors to Spirit on the Move examine Pentecostalism’s appeal to black women worldwide and the ways it provides them with a source of community, access to power, and way to challenge social inequalities. This volume is edited by Judith Casselberry and Elizabeth A. Pritchard.

Ana María Reyes examines how the polarizing art of Beatriz González disrupted Cold War aesthetic discourses and the politics of class and modernization in 1960s Colombia in The Politics of Taste.

In Vexy Thing, Imani Perry recenters patriarchy to contemporary discussions of feminism through a social and literary analysis of cultural artifacts—ranging from nineteenth-century slavery court cases and historical vignettes to literature and contemporary art—from the Enlightenment to the present. Read an interview with Imani Perry here.

If you were hoping to connect with one of our editors about your book project at the Berks, please reach out to them by email. See our editors’ specialties and contact information here and our submissions guidelines here. We are now accepting submissions online!

Our journal issues in women’s and gender studies are also included in our 30%-off sale.

In “(En)gendering: Chinese Women’s Art in the Making,” new from positions, contributors—including artists, art historians, critics, and curators—consider how the work of contemporary women artists has generated new approaches to and perspectives on the Chinese art canon.

Radical Transnationalism: Reimagining Solidarities, Violence, Empires,” an issue of Meridians, looks at the expansive domains of transnational feminism, considering its relationship to different regions, historical periods, fields, and methodologies.

As you prepare for your fall classes, be they virtual or in-person, we invite you to check out our Feminist Politics and Women’s Rights syllabus and our Revisiting Queer Studies syllabus. Both feature journal articles that are freely available until September 30, 2020 as well as suggested books you might want to teach. 

Once again, we’re sorry to miss you in person but hope the 30% discount will make it possible for you to pick up some new books and journal issues. Use coupon BERKS20 at checkout.

New Books in May

SPRING50_SaleApril20_Blog_ExtendedMay25

We’re pleased to announce that we’ve extended our Spring Sale through  May 25, which will allow you to pick up some new titles at 50% off this month. Use coupon SPRING50 to save.

In the beautifully illustrated, full-color book  AFRICOBRA, painter, photographer, and cofounder of Chicago arts collective AFRICOBRA Wadsworth A. Jarrell tells the definitive history of the group’s creation, history, and artistic and political principles and the ways it captured the rhythmic dynamism of black culture and social life to create uplifting art for all black people.

Eric Zolov presents a revisionist account of Mexican domestic politics and international relations during the long 1960s in The Last Good Neighbor, tracing how Mexico emerged from the shadow of FDR’s Good Neighbor policy to become a geopolitical player in its own right during the Cold War. Look for a Q&A with Zolov on our blog later this month.

Through innovative readings of gay and lesbian films, Lee Wallace offers a provocative argument in Reattachment Theory that queer experiments in domesticity have profoundly reshaped heterosexual marriage to such an extent that now all marriage is gay marriage.

François Ewald’s The Birth of Solidarity—first published in French in 1986 and appearing here in English for the first time—is one of the most important historical and philosophical studies of the rise of the welfare state. This edition is edited by Melinda Cooper.

Louise Amoore examines how machine learning algorithms are transforming the ethics and politics of contemporary society in Cloud Ethics, proposing what she calls cloud ethics as a way to hold algorithms accountable by engaging with the social and technical conditions under which they emerge and operate.

In Re-enchanting Modernity, Mayfair Yang examines the reemergence of religious life and ritual after decades of enforced secularized life in the coastal city of Wenzhou, showing how local practices of popular religion, Daoism, and Buddhism influence economic development and the structure of civil society.

In Writing Anthropology, fifty-two anthropologists reflect on scholarly writing as both craft and commitment, offering insights into the myriad roles of anthropological writing, the beauty and the function of language, the joys and pains of writing, and encouragement to stay at it. This collection is edited by Carole McGranahan.

In Beijing from Below, Harriet Evans tells the history of the residents in Dashalar—now redeveloped and gentrified but once one of the Beijing’s poorest neighborhoods—to show how their experiences complicate official state narratives of Chinese economic development and progress. 

Alex Blanchette explores how the daily lives of a Midwestern town that is home to a massive pork complex were reorganized around the life and death cycles of pigs while using the factory farm as a way to detail the state of contemporary American industrial capitalism in Porkopolis. As the coronavirus tears through meatpacking plants around the U.S., Blanchette’s analysis is highly relevant. We’ll feature a Q&A with him on our blog later in the month.

Drawing on examples of things that happen to us but are nonetheless excluded from experience, as well as critical phenomenology, genealogy, and feminist theory, Cressida J. Heyes shows how and why experience has edges, and analyzes phenomena that press against them in Anaesthetics of Existence.

In The Government of Beans, Kregg Hetherington uses Paraguay’s turn of the twenty-first century adoption of massive soybean production and the regulatory attempts to mitigate the resulting environmental degradation as a way to show how the tools used to drive economic growth exacerbate the very environmental challenges they were designed to solve.

Never miss a new book! Sign up for our e-mail newsletters, and get notifications of new titles in your preferred disciplines as well as discounts and other news.

 

Q&A with Frédéric Keck, Author of Avian Reservoirs

Keck, FredericFrédéric Keck is Senior Researcher at CNRS, director of the Laboratory for Social Anthropology in Paris, coeditor of The Anthropology of Epidemics, and author of several books in French. His newest book is Avian Reservoirs: Virus Hunters and Birdwatchers in Chinese Sentinel Posts, which is freely available until June 1, 2020 in our Navigating the Threat of Pandemic syllabus. The following interview originally ran in French in Philosophie Magazine and was translated by Dan Hicks.

A coronavirus transmitted from a bat to a pangolin at a wet market in Wuhan, and then to humans all over the world: what does this mean to you?

We are living in a changed world, but Europe has only just realized this with COVID-19. China and what I call its “sentinel posts”—Hong Kong, Taiwan and Singapore—have known this for some time. After the SARS outbreak in 2003, which was also caused by a coronavirus, these countries invested massively in virology research and in technologies to detect, screen and monitor populations to prepare for a crisis like this one. Chinese researchers were expecting a virus causing a respiratory disease to be transmitted from bats. After the initial three weeks at the end of December and up to mid-January, the Wuhan authorities controlled the epidemic, and they did what they had to do, according to the WHO report of 28 February. In Europe we simply refused to imagine this could happen to us. Little affected by SARS, Europe just didn’t understand the global shift that it caused—the fact that China has controlled pandemics not only on its own territory but also at the global level, and the fact that the Chinese authorities have influenced the nomination of the head of the World Health Organization after 2006. Europe doesn’t just lack the equipment to deal with the pandemic: we lack the imagination to understand what’s happening to us.

Can you say more about what you mean when you say that Europe lacks the imagination needed to prepare for pandemics ?

Avian ReservoirsIn Europe, public health is based on prevention not preparation. It’s led by nation states within defined territories, as with vaccination against tuberculosis or smallpox. But viral infectious diseases require global preparedness, swift detection, and containment. In the 1990s with avian flu, Chinese societies learned that this is about preparing for a catastrophic outbreak, with “sentinel” chickens in poultry farms, simulations of pandemics in hospitals, and stockpiling masks, vaccines and antivirals by national states and multinational companies. Back then, American strategies for anticipating nuclear attack was one model, but there are others: Japan has the frame of earthquakes; France has that of industrial action—preparing for a strike. The point is that industrial strike, an epidemic outbreak, an earthquake are catastrophic events which halt economic activity—they requires different forms of preparedness.

Can you tell me about the analogies you make between Chinese preparedness and hunter-gatherer societies, andbetween European “prevention” strategies with the world of pastoralism?

We can see virologists as “hunters” of microbes or viruses. That’s why they get along well with ornithologists, who also operate by tracking. The anthropology of hunter-gatherer societies allows us to reassess this figure of the hunter-tracker. The virologist isn’t just someone who observes invisible wild entities under the microscope: more than that, they seek to adopt the point of view of birds, bats, and monkeys. The virus is a warning signal that affects animals; the “hunter” follows its transmission from birds to pigs to humans, or bats to pangolins to humans. This tracking is a kind of “hunting,” and it sees uncertainty in relationships with animals. That which is hunted can also kill.

So, the hunting relationship is reversible. But pastoralism relies on what Foucault called biopolitics. Shepherds control their flocks, decide which animals are cared for, which killed or sacrificed to protect the herd. Biopolitics is the power to ‘make live’ and to let die. Now, this was Boris Johnson’s initial approach in the UK—on which he’s now reneging because it was of course an indefensible plan: to let the virus spread and to have 400,000 deaths among the old, the weak and the poor while city traders survive, with it all costing the smallest possible sum of money! Pastoralism made the modern state possible. That state is based on what I’m calling “prevention.” So today epidemiology and public health is on the side of the pastoralists.

Are we not obliged to use ‘pastoralist’ techniques when the pandemic is here ?

There is a middle ground between hunting and pastoral care, preparation and prevention: which I call “precaution.” Taken to its logical conclusion, pastoral care requires acts of sacrifice. It assumes that people must die since the most important thing is to maintain the health of the population as a whole – the so-called “herd.” But in contrast, Taiwan and Singapore quickly tracked down the virus and confined it, like hunters. Now of course if a “hunting” approach is applied badly or too late it becomes just precaution: it identifies maximum risk and shuts everything down. With “mad cows” and chickens with avian flu, all of a farm’s livestock were slaughtered if one animal was infected. Now we are the ones who are collectively confined.

What does this pandemic reveal about our relationships with animals ?

Since the 1970s, the ecology of infectious diseases, with major thinkers such as René Dubos and Frank Macfarlane Burnet, has been warning us that nature can “strike back.” Virologists have tracked Ebola (in 1976, from bats in Central Africa), AIDS (1981, from monkeys), mad cow disease (1996, cattle), avian flu (1997, chickens/migratory birds), SARS (2003, bats) and Middle East Respiratory Syndrome-CoV in Saudi Arabia (2012, camels). Then there’s what’s in store from the world of insects: Dengue fever, transmitted by mosquitoes, is at the gates of Europe; in 5 years we may have to adopt containment measures against that! Every four or five years a new disease emerges which comes from animals, against which we have no immunity, no vaccine.

So this is a kind of “revenge” of nature ?

Not quite. In my work, I reframe Jared Diamond’s idea of diseases of domestication. In my view, the 1970s witnessed a revolution as profound as the Neolithic revolution: industrial animal husbandry and its corollary, globalization of trade, have produced new diseases  because the relationship between humans and animals has been totally overturned.

But bats and pangolins are wild animals.

The geographies of diseases today no longer just involve places where humans and animals live together, as in the case of domestication, but to the unpredictable movements that come with industrial livestock farming, deforestation, loss of biodiversity and climate change. The “wild” has been dislodged and is forced to find other niches, including in urban areas. We Europeans have been “good shepherds,” and pastoralism has enabled us to deal with the diseases of the Neolithic period. But now we have to become hunter-gatherers again.

What kind of world is emerging out of COVID-19 ?

In the middle of a deeply unpredictable crisis, what’s certain is that China is ahead of Europe. Not because of a dictatorship capable of confining its population authoritatively and without resistance, but because of the experience of health disasters in China and in East Asia more generally. My argument is anthropological. We find it difficult to face our fear of disease-transmitting animals because we believe in a firm divide between nature and culture. Our “naturalist liberalism,” which has already done such a lot of harm to the planet, now needs to learn some humility.

Avian Reservoirs can be read or downloaded for free until June 1, 2020, and you can get a print copy for 50% off through May 1 with coupon SPRING50.

New Titles in Asian American Studies

We regret to announce that in the ongoing efforts to mitigate the spread of the COVID-19 virus, we will be unable to meet with you during the Association of Asian American Studies (AAAS) conference, which has been cancelled.

We know that many of you look forward to stocking up on new books at special discounts at our conferences, so we are pleased to extend a 50% discount on all in-stock books and journal issues through May 1. Use coupon code SPRING50 to save 50% when ordering online. In addition, if you spend $100 or more, we are offering free shipping to U.S. addresses. Journal subscriptions and society memberships don’t qualify for the 50% discount, but they do count toward the $100 threshold.

Across Oceans of LawBig congratulations to Renisa Mawani, whose book Across Oceans of Law is the winner of the AAAS Book Award for Outstanding Achievement in History. The prize committee wrote, “Grappling with the interconnectedness of the Pacific, Atlantic, and Indian oceans—and the ways in which Asian Indians navigated the reach of the British empire—Mawani shifts our perspectives not only from U.S.-centric histories, but also from terrestrially-bound histories. . . . Mawani is able to ground her conceptual insights, transforming what could have remained an abstract, legal history of maritime law into a richly materialized narrative of mobility, empire, and race.” 

Check out some of the other great titles we would have featured in our booth at AAAS. 

Nandita Sharma traces the development of the categories of migrants and natives from the nineteenth century to the present in Home Rule: National Sovereignty and the Separation of Natives and Migrants to theorize how the idea of people’s rights being tied to geographical notions of belonging came to be.

In a brilliant reinvention of the travel guide, Detours: A Decolonial Guide to Hawai’i, artists, activists, and scholars redirect readers from the fantasy of Hawai‘i as a tropical paradise and tourist destination toward a multilayered and holistic engagement with Hawai‘i’s culture, complex history, and the effects of colonialism. This volume is edited by Hokulani K. Aikau and Vernadette Vicuña Gonzalez.

Rick Bonus tells the stories of Pacific Islander students at the University of Washington as they and their allies struggled to transform a university they believed did not value their presence into a space based on meaningfulness, respect, and multiple notions of student success in The Ocean in the School: Pacific Islander Students Transforming Their University.

In Possessing Polynesians: The Science of Settler Colonial Whiteness in Hawai`i and Oceania, Maile Arvin analyzes the history of racialization of Polynesians within the context of settler colonialism across Polynesia, especially in Hawai‘i, arguing that a logic of possession through whiteness animates European and Hawaiian settler colonialism.

Drawing on Marxist phenomenology, geography, and aesthetics and film from China, Hong Kong, and Taiwan made between the 1990s and the present, Erin Y. Huang theorizes the economic, cultural, and political conditions of neoliberal postsocialist China in Urban Horror: Neoliberal Post-Socialism and the Limits of Visibility.

In Surrogate Humanity: Race, Robots, and the Politics of Technological Futures, Neda Atanasoski and Kalindi Vora trace the ways in which robots, artificial intelligence, and other technologies serve as surrogates for human workers within a labor system that is entrenched in and reinforces racial capitalism and patriarchy.

Weaving U.S. history into the larger fabric of world history, the contributors to Crossing Empires: Taking U.S. History into Transimperial Terrain de-exceptionalize the American empire, placing it in a global transimperial context as a way to grasp the power relations that shape imperial formations. This collection is edited by Kristin L. Hoganson and Jay Sexton.

Examining the work of writers and artists including Carrie Mae Weems, Langston Hughes, Toni Morrison, and Allan deSouza, Kandice Chuh advocates for what she calls “illiberal humanism” as a way to counter the Eurocentric liberal humanism that perpetuates structures of social inequality in The Difference Aesthetics Makes: On the Humanities “After Man.”

If you were hoping to connect with one of our editors about your book project at AAAS, please reach out to them by email. See our editors’ specialties and contact information here and our submissions guidelines here. We are now accepting submissions online!

Once again, we’re sorry to miss you in person but hope the 50% discount with free U.S. shipping on orders over $100 will make it possible for you to pick up some new books and journal issues. Use coupon SPRING50 at checkout and see the fine print on the sale here.

Care in Translation: Care-ful Research in Medical Settings

Especially relevant in these challenging times, “Care in Translation: Care-ful Research in Medical Settings,” the newest issue of East Asian Science, Technology and Society, is available now.

This issue is the latest addition to our Care in Uncertain Times Syllabus, whose content is all free to read online through June 30.

In “Care in Translation,” contributors investigate what care is, becomes, and brings in its wake in health care settings across Asia—and what stories we might tell about this. Essays highlight different styles of care-ful research relevant to STS, anthropology, and feminist studies. The production and the consequences of care are traced through techno-scientific mediations, situated ways of sense-making, political economies, historical trajectories, and public imaginaries of care.

Start reading “Care in Translation” or learn more about the journal, including how to subscribe.

New Books in April

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Curling up on the couch with a great book is an excellent way to practice social distancing this month. All these titles will deliver before our sale ends on May 1, so check our website regularly. You can save 50% on all in-stock titles with coupon SPRING50

Tyler Bickford traces the dramatic rise of the “tween” pop music industry in Tween Pop, showing how it marshaled childishness as a key element in legitimizing children’s participation in public culture.

The contributors to Playing for Keeps examine the ways in which musical improvisation can serve as a way to negotiate violence, trauma, systemic inequality, and the aftermaths of war and colonialism. This volume is edited by Daniel Fischlin and Eric Porter.

John F. Szwed’s Space is the Place is the definitive biography of Sun Ra—composer, keyboardist, bandleader, philosopher, entrepreneur, poet, self-proclaimed extraterrestrial from Saturn, and a founder of Afrofuturism. We are pleased to be bringing this classic back into print with a new preface.

In Vital Decomposition, Kristina M. Lyons presents an ethnography of human-soil relations in which she follows state soil scientists and peasant farmers in Colombia’s Putumayo region, showing how their relationship with soil is key to caring for the forest and growing non-illicit crops in the face of violence, militarism, and environmental destruction.

Micha Rahder explores how multiple ways of knowing the forest of Guatemala’s Maya Biosphere Reserve shape conservation practice, local livelihoods, and landscapes in An Ecology of Knowledges.

In Relations, Marilyn Strathern provides a critical account of anthropology’s key concept of relation and its usage and significance in the English-speaking world, showing how its evolving use over the last three centuries reflects changing thinking about knowledge-making and kin-making.

In Virtual Pedophilia, Gillian Harkins traces the genealogy of the transformation of cultural construction of the pedophile as a social outcast into the image of normative white masculinity from the 1980s to the present, showing how his “normalcy” makes him hard to identify and stop.

In A People’s History of Detroit, Mark Jay and Philip Conklin use a Marxist framework to tell a sweeping story of Detroit from 1913 to the present, outlining the complex socio-political dynamics underlying major events in Detroit’s past, from the rise of Fordism and the formation of labor unions to deindustrialization and the city’s recent bankruptcy.

In Revolution and Disenchantment, Fadi A. Bardawil explores the hopes for and disenchantments with Marxism-Leninism in the writings and actions of revolutionary intellectuals within the 1960s Arab New Left.

In Tehrangeles Dreaming, Farzaneh Hemmasi draws on ethnographic fieldwork in Los Angeles and musical and textual analysis to examine how the pop music, music videos, and television made by Iranian expatriates express modes of Iranianness not possible in Iran.

The Lonely Letters is an epistolary blackqueer critique of the normative world in which Ashon T. Crawley meditates on the interrelation of blackqueer life, sounds of the black church, theology, mysticism, and the potential for platonic and erotic connection in a world that conspires against blackqueer life.

Drawing on Whitman and Adorno, Morton Schoolman proposes aesthetic education through film as a way to redress the political violence inflicted on difference society constructs as its racialized, gendered, Semitic, and sexualized other in A Democratic Enlightenment.

In Kwaito Bodies, Xavier Livermon examines the cultural politics of the youthful black body in South Africa through the performance, representation, and consumption of Kwaito—a style of electronic dance music that emerged following the end of apartheid.

Reflecting on the experience, philosophy, and practice of Latin American indigenous and Afro-descendant activist-intellectuals who mobilize to defend their territories from large-scale extraction, Arturo Escobar shows in Pluriversal Politics how the key to addressing planetary crises is the creation of the pluriverse—a world of many epistemological and ontological worlds.

The contributors to AIDS and the Distribution of Crises outline the myriad ways that the AIDS pandemic exists within a network of varied historical, overlapping, and ongoing crises borne of global capitalism and colonial, racialized, and gendered violence. This collection is edited by Jih-Fei Cheng, Alexandra Juhasz, and Nishant Shahani. It is currently available to read free online as part of our Navigating the Threat of Pandemic syllabus.

Never miss a new book! Sign up for our e-mail newsletters, and get notifications of new titles in your preferred disciplines as well as discounts and other news.

New Titles in Asian Studies

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Every year we look forward to connecting with scholars at the Association for Asian Studies conference. We will miss meeting with authors and editors and selling books at this year’s conference, which has been cancelled due to the coronavirus pandemic.

We know that many of you look forward to stocking up on new books at special discounts at our conferences, so we are pleased to extend a 50% discount on all in-stock books and journal issues through May 1. In addition, if you spend $100 or more, we are offering free shipping to U.S. addresses. Journal subscriptions and society memberships don’t qualify for the 50% discount, but they do count toward the $100 threshold.

Here are some of the great titles in Asian Studies that we were planning to feature in our booth at AAS.

Experimental BeijingCongratulations to Sasha Su-Ling Welland, whose book Experimental Beijing: Gender and Globalization in Chinese Contemporary Art is the winner of the AAS’s 2020 Joseph Levenson Post-1900 Book Prize.

We also congratulate Juno Salazar Parreñas, whose book Decolonizing Extinction: The Work of Care in Orangutan Rehabilitation received honorable mention for the Harry J. Benda Prize, presented by the Southeast Asia Council (SEAC) of the AAS.

Margaret Hillenbrand’s Negative Exposures: Knowing What Not to Know in Contemporary China is new this month. She explores how artistic appropriations of historical images effectively articulate the openly unsayable and counter the public secrecy that erases traumatic episodes from China’s past.

Harry Harootunian is best known as a scholar of Japanese history, but recently he turned his pen to memoir, writing about his parents’ escape from the Armenian genocide in the early 20th century in The Unspoken as Heritage: The Armenian Genocide and Its Unaccounted Lives.

UnderglobalizationIn Underglobalization: Beijing’s Media Urbanism and the Chimera of Legitimacy, Joshua Neves examines the cultural politics of the “fake” and how frictions between legality and legitimacy propel dominant models of economic development and political life in contemporary China. See his recent blog post on the coronavirus.

In Invisibility by Design Women and Labor in Japan’s Digital Economy, Gabriella Lukács traces how young Japanese women’s unpaid labor as bloggers, net idols, “girly” photographers, online traders, and cell phone novelists was central to the development of Japan’s digital economy in the 1990s and 2000s.

Avian Reservoirs: Virus Hunters and Birdwatchers in Chinese Sentinel Posts by Frédéric Keck is unfortunately very timely right now. Keck Avian Reservoirstraces how the anticipation of bird flu pandemics has changed relations between birds and humans in Hong Kong, Singapore, and Taiwan, showing that humans’ reliance on birds is key to mitigating future pandemics. Check out his posts on the coronavirus’s impact in Wuhan in The Conversation and Somatosphere.

In his experimental work Ethnography #9, Alan Klima examines moneylending, gambling, funeral casinos, and the consultations of spirits and mediums to predict winning lottery numbers to illustrate the relationship between contemporary Thai spiritual and financial practices and global capitalism’s abstraction of monetary value.

Please check out all the titles we were planning on featuring in our program ad for the meeting. And see a complete list of our Asian Studies titles here.

EAS_new_prWe’re always excited to share our great Asian studies journals: Archives of Asian ArtComparative Studies of South Asia, Africa and the Middle EastEast Asian Science, Technology and Society, the Journal of Chinese Literature and Culture, the Journal of Korean Studies, positions: asia critique, and Prism: Theory and Modern Chinese Literature. Special issues are included in our 50%-off sale, and subscriptions are always available.

We also offer an Asian Studies e-book collection, which moves beyond traditional area studies to include titles addressing individual Asian countries as well as regional and transnational issues. Ask your librarian to learn more.

If you were hoping to connect with one of our editors about your book project at AAS, please reach out to them by email. See our editors’ specialties and contact information here and our submissions guidelines here.

Once again, we’re sorry to miss you in person but hope the 50% discount with free U.S. shipping on orders over $100 will make it possible for you to pick up some new books and journal issues. Use coupon SPRING50 at checkout and see the fine print on the sale here.

Joshua Neves on the Coronavirus (COVID-19), Anti-Chinese Racism, and the Politics of Underglobalization

Neves, Joshua photoJoshua Neves, author of Underglobalization:
Beijing’s Media Urbanism and the Chimera of Legitimacy
, is Associate Professor and Canada Research Chair, Film Studies at Concordia University and coeditor of Asian Video Cultures, also published by Duke University Press. He wrote this post on February 21, 2020 and updated the statistics today, March 11.

In the 2018-19 flu season, the United States’ Center for Disease Control (CDC) estimated that 16.5 million Americans saw a health care provider for their illness, 490,600 people were hospitalized, and 34,200 people died from influenza. Such data helps us to temper recent panic about the coronavirus, contagion narratives, and the repressive Chinese state. 

To be sure, the strict management of information and party-state bureaucracy have plagued China’s response to the virus. My aim here is not to downplay what are very grave challenges to public health, but rather to turn attention to the ways the viral outbreak has also been swollen by frenzied news and social media around the world. Among the many responses in North America and Europe, for example, is a resurgent anti-Chinese racism. This includes suspicions about exotic animals and racialized ideas about sickness and disease, as well as alarm about surgical mask shortages, government cover ups, and entire cities under quarantine. As a recent US headline puts it, “First the media sold you overblown fears. Now it’s selling false comfort.”

But there is little new in this hysteria over China as a breeding ground for pandemics. From counterfeit medicine to authoritarian capitalism, China plays a complicated role in stories about the world system. On the one hand, it’s laboring population serves as factory to the world and has sustained the global economy through stagnation and crisis. It both produces the world’s best known things and is derided as a menial laborer or copycat—and not, that is, a designer. A major theme in recent news coverage centers on profits lost to factory closures. In many such stories, concerns about the well-being of migrant workers, among others, seems limited to their inability to get to work. On the other hand, even while China co-creates what we have come to know as globalization, its ambition and the challenges it poses to the Washington Consensus have led many to see the country as a global villain. Alongside Russia, Iran, etc., the PRC increasingly fills an imaginary void in post-Cold War geopolitics. It is the “other” that “we” organize our anger or fear around. 

What interests me about the tensions framing the COVID-19 outbreak is that China is at once understood to be inside and outside of the world or proper society of nations. It is both a prime mover and sickly underminer. This contradiction—including mistrust, intolerance, fear—must be tied to a history of anti-Chinese racism in North America and elsewhere. Not surprisingly, the current “yellow peril” is once again linked to the exploitation of Chinese workers, as well as a deep suspicion of these same people’s motives and lifeworlds. It highlights the inequality of global supply chains—a current logic of racialized capitalism—which seek to move things in specific directions and keep everyone in their place. It is this sense of global order that the virus ignores with its potential to spread where it should not. Contagion thus not only refers to the unruliness of new flu strains, but to the new mobilities of Chinese people, products, and technologies. The latter includes US attempts to block the Chinese company, Huawei, from building 5G infrastructure around the world. Officials claim that Chinese built networks will allow Beijing to infiltrate critical telecom infrastructure, making them insecure and threatening. These same reports rely on language that could just as well describe panic about the infectivity of influenza. Per Vice President Mike Pence, “We cannot ensure the defense of the West if our allies grow dependent on the East.”

The point of highlighting such tensions is not to bracket the very real problems posed by the People’s Republic of China or its vision of the future. But it is to refuse sweeping and prejudicial assessments of China and the Chinese, which inform insidious racisms by tethering ideas about counterfeits, censorship, exotic animals, the flu, and much more, to particular bodies. Put simply, these critiques are widespread, confused, epidemic—and demand more nuanced attention from journalists, scholars, and publics. What remains undigested by routine critiques of China, and is once again brought into relief by the recent outbreak of the outbreak narrative, is how smug dismissals buttress troubling ideas about the munificent “West” and the “free world.” This is one of the most menacing and normalized aspects of anti-Chinese racism in the North Atlantic. It locates viral contagion in Asian cities and populations, naming them as external threats, thereby consolidating a violent clash of civilization understanding of the earth. Here is safe; there is toxic.

It is important to add that, contrary to Euro-American assumptions about Chinese repression and citizen compliance, political dissent is endemic and visible across the PRC. For example, in Social Protests and Contentious Authoritarianism in China, political scientist Xi Chen describes both the dramatic rise and routinization of social protest in China and also how, “beneath the surface of noise and anxiety,” China’s political system remains stable. This is a complex political formation and no doubt differs from the imagination of protest in places like the US. But these differences notwithstanding, it is important to understand that protest and dissensus are frequent responses to life in contemporary China—and many Chinese citizens are “more than ready to blame the Communist Party for suppressing public health information and closing ranks against the people.” What is distinct, and marks an increasingly global condition, is that such protests are not made within formal civil society. Instead they are quasi- or il-legal, and suggest new modes of political society. Consider the January 2020 essay, “When Fury Becomes Fear,” from the outspoken former academic and critic, Xu Zhangrun. In searing prose, Xu argues that the current epidemic sounds a “viral alarm” and “has revealed the rotten core of Chinese governance.” See Geremie R. Barmé’s translation of Xu’s essay here, a Wuhan diary here, a typical report about netizen responses here, or the Sinophobia tracker here. What matters about such examples, is that they refuse the self-righteous politics of pity—where, for example, Americans are free and Chinese are controlled—and instead demands that we re-examine the workings of popular politics under globalization, which includes China and the so-called “West.”

Screen Shot 2020-02-21 at 12.42.46 PMAs I write, 4,379 people have died from the coronavirus and nearly 119,108 cases have been confirmed. Currently over 1000 deaths have been reported outside of China, with Wuhan, Hubei Province, still the most affected area. While details vary, reports indicate that lockdowns and curfews affect hundreds of millions Chinese citizens. The strictest rules, per the South China Morning Post, keep 60 million Hubei residents from leaving their homes. Further coverage suggests that the epidemic may now have peaked, as its spread slows in China, though others note that Japan is now a hotbed for the virus, with new cases also confirmed in the Philippines, South Korea, Iran, Egypt, and others. I linger on the current flu epidemic, stories about its (mis)management, and its Asian hosts and itineraries because they bring into relief a range of issues that are critical to what I call underglobalization

978-1-4780-0805-7When writing Underglobalization, I struggled to make sense of the contradictory and often racist understandings of China that co-exist in much official and popular discourse. As above, I was struck by the way that China is both dismissed as a fake, parasite or outlier nation and, at the same time, is critical to both the global economy and institutions, and to the everyday experience of the world. This paradox brings into relief deep structural conflicts over what constitutes political, economic, and social legitimacy in the present and future. Against such antagonisms, Underglobalization charts how a wide range of social actors underperform or refuse to implement the specific procedures and protocols required by globalization at different scales. Put differently, what international law (like the TRIPS Agreement) identifies as illegal must also be understood, in many contexts, to be locally valid. One important ramification of this claim is the recognition that contemporary global dynamics are shaped by increasing tensions between (il)legality and (il)legitimacy. Most simply the book asks: what happens when legal contracts around the world—including rights, civil society and citizenship—fail or become dangerous, and on what ground are political relationships reclaimed and sustained? 

Save 30% on the paperback edition of Joshua Neves’ Underglobalization using the coupon code E20NEVES and download the introduction here.