Asian Studies

New OA Journals in 2021: Demography, liquid blackness, Sungkyun Journal of East Asian Studies

This spring, we are thrilled to welcome three journals to our publishing program, all of which are open access: Demography, liquid blackness: journal of aesthetics and black studies, and the Sungkyun Journal of East Asian Studies.

Demography, the flagship journal of the Population Association of America, will become platinum open access in 2021 as it joins Duke University Press. Since its founding in 1964, Demography has mirrored the vitality, diversity, high intellectual standard, and wide impact of population studies. It is the most cited journal in its field and reaches the membership of one of the largest professional demographic associations in the world. Libraries and institutions, learn how you can support Demography’s conversion to open access.

“In moving Demography from a traditional paid subscription model to open access, we’re thrilled that the worldwide community of population researchers will have access to its content, especially at this moment when access to reliable, peer-reviewed information is critically important,” said Dean Smith, Director of Duke University Press.

liquid blackness: journal of aesthetics and black studies carves out a place for aesthetic theory and the most radical agenda of Black studies to come together in productive ways, with the goal of attending to the aesthetic work of blackness and the political work of form. In this way, the journal develops innovative approaches to address points of convergence between the exigencies of black life and the many slippery ways in which blackness is encountered in contemporary sonic and visual culture. The journal showcases a variety of scholarly modes, including audio-visual work and experimental and traditional essays. Read an interview with founding editors Alessandra Raengo and Lauren McLeod Cramer.

The Sungkyun Journal of East Asian Studies is an international, multidisciplinary publication dedicated to research on pre-1945 East Asian humanities. The journal presents new research related to the Sinographic Cosmopolis/Sphere of pre-1945 East Asia, publishing both articles that stay within traditional disciplinary or regional boundaries and works that explore the commonalities and contrasts found in countries of the Sinographic Sphere. SJEAS joins our rich list of Asian studies journals, which include Archives of Asian Art, Comparative Studies of South Asia, Africa and the Middle East, the Journal of Chinese Literature and Culture, the Journal of Korean Studies, Prism: Theory and Modern Chinese Literature, and positions: asia critique.

Check out our full list of journals here.

New Books in January

If you made a New Year’s resolution to read more, this month we have some great new books to help achieve your goals. Happy New Year!

The future of FalloutJoseph Masco examines the psychosocial, material, and affective consequences of the advent of nuclear weapons, the Cold War security state, climate change on contemporary US democratic practices and public imaginaries in The Future of Fallout, and Other Episodes in Radioactive World-Making.

Andrew Bickford analyzes the US military’s attempts to design performance enhancement technologies and create pharmacological “supersoldiers” capable of becoming ever more lethal while withstanding various forms of extreme trauma in Chemical Heroes.

Drawing on ethnographic research in the Palestinian city of Ramallah, Christopher Harker in Spacing Debt examines how Israel’s use of debt to keep Palestinians economically unstable is a form of slow colonial violence embedded into the everyday lives of citizens.

Whites are the Enemies of Heaven With The Whites are the Enemies of Heaven, Mark W. Driscoll examines Western imperialism in East Asia throughout the nineteenth century and the devastating effects of what he calls climate caucasianism—the West’s racialized pursuit of capital at the expense of people of color, women, and the environment.

In Dear Science and Other Stories Katherine McKittrick presents a creative and rigorous study of black and anticolonial methodologies, exploring how narratives of imprecision and relationality interrupt knowledge systems that seek to observe, index, know, and discipline blackness.

Christopher Freeburg’s Counterlife challenges the imperative to study black social life and slavery and its aftereffects through the lenses of freedom, agency, and domination and instead examines how enslaved Africans created meaning through spirituality, thought, and artistic creativity separate and alongside concerns about freedom.

emancipations daughtersRiché Richardson in Emancipation’s Daughters examines how five iconic black women—Mary McLeod Bethune, Rosa Parks, Condoleezza Rice, Michelle Obama, and Beyoncé—defy racial stereotypes and construct new national narratives of black womanhood in the United States.

Lingzhen Wang examines the work of Chinese women filmmakers of the Mao and post-Mao eras in Revisiting Women’s Cinema to theorize socialist and postsocialist feminism, mainstream culture, and women’s cinema in modern China.

Kaiama L. Glover examines Francophone and Anglophone Caribbean literature whose female protagonists enact practices of freedom that privilege the self, challenge the prioritization of the community over the individual, and refuse masculinist discourses of postcolonial nation building in A Regarded Self.

The Small Book of Hip ChecksErica Rand uses multiple meanings of hip check—an athlete using their hip to throw an opponent off balance and the inspection of racialized gender—to consider the workings of queer gender, race, and writing in the The Small Book of Hip Checks.

Drawing from ethnographic work with queer activist groups in contemporary Turkey, Evren Savcı’s Queer in Translation explores how Western LGBT politics are translated and reworked there in ways that generate new spaces for resistance and solidarity.

Anthony Reed takes the recorded collaborations between African American poets and musicians such as Amiri Baraka, Jayne Cortez, Cecil Taylor, and Charles Mingus to trace the overlaps between experimental music and poetry and the ways in which intellectuals, poets, and musicians define black sound as a radical aesthetic practice in Soundworks.

The Bruce B. Lawrence Reader assembles over two dozen selections of writing by leading scholar of Islam Bruce B. Lawrence which range from analyses of premodern and modern Islamic discourses, practices, and institutions to methodological and theoretical reflections on the study of religion.

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In Conversation: Bakirathi Mani and Patricia White

Check out our newest “In Conversation” video featuring Bakirathi Mani, author of the new book Unseeing Empire: Photography, Representation, South Asian America, and Patricia White, editor of the Camera Obscura journal and book series, discussing what it means for South Asian Americans to identify with visual representations of themselves and the entanglements of photography with longer histories of empire. Unseeing Empire is available now for 30% off with discount code E30EMPR.

New Books in December

As we close out 2020, check out our new December titles.

interimperialityWeaving together feminist, decolonial, and dialectical theory, Laura Doyle theorizes the co-emergence of empires, institutions, language regimes, stratified economies, and literary cultures over the longue durée in Inter-imperiality.

Prathama Banerjee moves beyond postcolonial and decolonial critiques of European political philosophy in Elementary Aspects of the Political to rethink modern conceptions of “the political” from the perspective of Indian and Bengali practices and philosophies from the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.

the colonizing self

Hagar Kotef in The Colonizing Self explores the cultural, political, spatial, and theoretical mechanisms that enable people and nations to settle on the ruins of other people’s homes, showing how settler-colonial violence becomes inseparable from one’s sense of self.

Bakirathi Mani examines the visual and affective relationships between South Asian diasporic viewers, artists, and photographic representations of immigrant subjects in Unseeing Empire, showing how empire continues to haunt South Asian American visual cultures.

Claiming Union WidowhoodBrandi Clay Brimmer analyzes the US pension system from the perspective of poor black women in the period before, during, and after the Civil War in Claiming Union Widowhood; outlining the struggles of mothers, wives, and widows of black Union soldiers to claim rights in the face of unjust legislation.

Weaving together the black radical tradition with Caribbean and Latinx performance, cinema, music, and literature, Ren Ellis Neyra in The Cry of the Senses highlights the ways Latinx and Caribbean sonic practices challenge antiblack, colonial, post-Enlightenment, and humanist epistemologies.

In Utopian Ruins, Jie Li traces the creation, preservation, and elision of memories about China’s Mao era by envisioning a virtual museum that reckons with both its utopian yearnings and cataclysmic reverberations.

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New Books in September

With summer quickly coming to an end and the new academic year upon us, now is the perfect time to replenish your reading list! A great place to start is with our diverse array of new titles arriving this month.

Diary of a Detour is film scholar and author Lesley Stern’s memoir of living with cancer, where she chronicles the fears and daily experience of coming to grips with an incurable disease and turns to alternative obsessions and pleasures, from travel and friendships to her four chickens.

In Traffic in Asian Women, Laura Hyun Yi Kang demonstrates that the figure of “Asian women” functions as an analytic with which to understand the emergence, decline, and permutation of US power and knowledge at the nexus of capitalism, state power, global governance, and knowledge production throughout the twentieth century.

Abstract Barrios by Johana Londoño examines how the barrio has become a cultural force that has been manipulated in order to create Latinized urban landscapes that are palatable for white Americans who view concentrated areas of Latinx populations as a threat.

In Keith Haring’s Line, Ricardo Montez traces the drawn and painted line that was at the center of Keith Haring’s artistic practice, engaging with Haring’s messy relationships to race-making and racial imaginaries.

In Youth Power in Precarious Times, Melissa Brough explores how youth-centered forms of civic and cultural engagement in Medellín, Colombia, create networks of change that have the possibility to transform and democratize cities around the world.

Abigail A. Dumes offers an ethnographic exploration of the Lyme disease controversy to shed light on the relationship between contested illness and evidence-based medicine in the United States in Divided Bodies.

Examining theater, performance art, music, sports, dance, and photography, the contributors to Race and Performance after Repetition explore how theater and performance studies account for the complex relationship between race and time. The collection is edited by Soyica Diggs Colbert, Douglas A. Jones Jr., and Shane Voge.

Beyond the World’s End by T. J. Demos explores a range of artistic, activist, and cultural practices that provide compelling and radical propositions for building a just, decolonial, and environmentally sustainable future.

The contributors to Indigenous Textual Cultures examined the ways in which indigenous peoples created textual cultures to navigate, shape, and contest empire, colonialism, and modernity. The collection is edited by
Tony Ballantyne, Lachy Paterson, and Angela Wanhalla.

In Cultural Revolution and Revolutionary Culture, Alessandro Russo rethinks the history of China’s Cultural Revolution, arguing that it must be understood as a mass political experiment aimed at thoroughly reexamining the tenets of communism itself.

Animal Traffic by Rosemary-Claire Collard investigates the multibillion-dollar global exotic pet trade economy and the largely hidden processes through which exotic pets are produced and traded as lively capital.

Monica Popescu traces the development of African literature during the second half of the twentieth century in At Penpoint. She shows how the United States and the Soviet Union’s efforts to further their geopolitical and ideological goals influenced literary practices and knowledge production on the African continent.

Bolivia in the Age of Gas by Bret Gustafson examines the centrality of natural gas and oil to the making of modern Bolivia and the contradictory convergence of fossil-fueled capitalism, Indigenous politics, and revolutionary nationalism.

In this genealogy of Hindu right-wing nationalism, Hindutva as Political Monotheism, Anustup Basu connects Carl Schmitt’s notion of political theology to traditional theorems of Hindu sovereignty and nationhood, illustrating how Western and Indian theorists imagined a single Hindu political and religious people.

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Online Events in September

Although you can’t see them in person, there are many opportunities to catch our authors at online events in September.

manufactuing-celebritySeptember 4, 12 pm EDT: Vanessa Díaz, author of  Manufacturing Celebrity,  will be joined in conversation by Jonathan Rosa at an event sponsored by Harvard Bookstore.

September 4, 9 pm EDT: Margaret Randall and Cedar Sigo discuss Randall’s recent memoir I Never Left Home in an event sponsored by Elliott Bay Book Company

September 16, 4 pm CDT: Katina Rogers will participate in an online conversation about her book Putting the Humanities PhD to Work. This event is sponsored by the Obermann Center for Advanced Studies with support from Humanities for the Public Good; Prairie Lights Bookstore; and The Futures Initiative, and The Graduate Center, CUNY.

978-1-4780-0945-0September 17, 12 pm EDT: Arlene Dávila discusses her new book Latinx Art in an online talk sponsored by CARGC UPenn

September 21, 6:30 pm EDT: Intellectual Publics sponsors an online conversation between Arlene Dávila and Patricia Banks.

September 22, 2 pm EDT:  Difficult Objects: A Transnational Feminist Book Conversation. Moderated by Samantha Pinto, author of Infamous Bodies, this conversation features Simidele Dosekun, Durba Mitra, and Laura Hyun Yi Kang, author of Traffic in Asian Women, talking about their recent books and transnational feminist methodologies.

We hope you can tune in to some of these great talks. Keep up with all our author events on our Twitter feed.

New Books in August

It’s hard to believe that summer is coming to an end but there’s still time to purchase new books to complete your summer reading list. Check out these exciting new titles coming out hot off the press this August!

978-1-4780-0828-6In Information Activism, Cait McKinney traces how lesbian feminist activists in the United States and Canada between the 1970s and the present developed communication networks, databases, and digital archives to use as a foundation for their feminist, antiracist, and trans-inclusive work.

Resource Radicals by Thea Riofrancos explores the politics of extraction, energy, and infrastructure in contemporary Ecuador in order to understand how resource dependency becomes a dilemma for leftist governments and movements alike.

In Japonisme and the Birth of Cinema, Daisuke Miyao reveals the undetected influence that Japanese art and aesthetics had on early cinema and the pioneering films of the Lumiére brothers.

978-1-4780-0943-6Drawing on ethnographic fieldwork, her experience reporting for People magazine, and dozens of interviews with photographers, journalists, publicists, magazine editors, and celebrities, in Manufacturing Celebrity Vanessa Díaz traces the complex power dynamics of the reporting and paparazzi work that fuel contemporary Hollywood and American celebrity culture.

In American Blockbuster, Charles R. Acland charts the origins, impact, and dynamics of the blockbuster, showing how it became a complex economic and cultural machine designed to advance popular support for technological advances.

Conceiving of sovereign space as volume rather than area, the contributors to Voluminous States, edited by Franck Billé, explore how such a conception reveals and underscores the three-dimensional nature of modern territorial governance. 

978-1-4780-0839-2In History 4° Celsius, Ian Baucom puts black studies into conversation with climate change, outlining how the ongoing concerns of critical race, diaspora, and postcolonial studies are crucial to understanding the Anthropocene and vice versa.

In Peripheral Nerve, the contributors to this volume reframe the history of the Cold War by focusing on how Latin America used the rivalry between superpowers to create alternative sociomedical pathways. The collection is edited by Anne-Emanuelle Birn and Raúl Necochea López.

In his posthumous book Sexual Hegemony, Christopher Chitty traces the 500 year history of capitalist sexual relations, showing how sexuality became a crucial dimension of the accumulation of capital and a technique of bourgeois rule. The book is edited by Max Fox and features an introduction by Christopher Nealon.

In Infamous Bodies, Samantha Pinto explores how histories of and the ongoing fame of Phillis Wheatley, Sally Hemings, Sarah Baartman, Mary Seacole, and Sarah Forbes Bonetta generate new ways of imagining black feminist futures.

978-1-4780-0959-7Examining the work of Aretha Franklin, Nina Simone, Solange Knowles, Flying Lotus, and others, in The Meaning of Soul Emily J. Lordi proposes a new understanding of soul, showing how it came to signify a belief in black resilience enacted through musical practices.

In Afterlives of Affect, Matthew C. Watson considers the life and work of artist and Mayanist scholar Linda Schele (1942–1998) as an entry point to discuss the nature of cultural inquiry, decipherment in anthropology, and the social conditions of knowledge production.

In Enduring Cancer, Dwaipayan Banerjee explores the efforts of Delhi’s urban poor to create a livable life with cancer as they negotiate an over-extended health system unequipped to respond to the disease.

In Gestures of Concern, Chris Ingraham shows that gestures of concern, such as sharing or liking a post on social media, are central to establishing the necessary conditions for larger social or political change because they help to build the affective communities that orient us to one another with an imaginable future in mind.

978-1-4780-1083-8The contributors to We Are Not Dreamers—who are themselves currently or formerly undocumented—call for the elimination of the Dreamer narrative, showing how it establishes high expectations for who deserves citizenship and marginalizes large numbers of undocumented youth. The collection is edited by Leisy J. Abrego and Genevieve Negrón-Gonzales.

The contributors to Gramsci in the World, edited by Roberto M. Dainotto and Fredric Jameson, examine the varying receptions and uses of Antonio Gramsci’s thought in diverse geographical, historical, and political contexts, highlighting its possibilities and limits for understanding and changing the social world.

As vast infrastructure projects transform the Mekong River, in Mekong Dreaming Andrew Alan Johnson explores of how rapid environmental change affects how people live, believe, and dream.

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Cold War Feminisms in East Asia

pos_28_3_coverCold War Feminisms in East Asia,” a new issue of positions: asia critique, unpacks three contested and varied concepts: the Cold War, feminism, and East Asia. Contributors challenge conventional understandings of these terms, discussing the temporality of the Cold War as “victoriously ended,” the spatialization of East Asia as an Orientalist category “over there,” and the myopia of Western feminism.

The issue, edited by Suzy Kim, asks how the Cold War shaped feminist movements and cultures in their critical analyses and possibilities for organization; how the women’s movements before the Cold War destabilize Cold War paradigms; and what challenges remain for contemporary theory and praxes for women, sexual minorities, and other dispossessed communities as a result of Cold War feminisms in East Asia.

Read the free introduction, as well as Kozue Akibayashi’s “Cold War Shadows of Japan’s Imperial Legacies for Women in East Asia,” which is free through the end of October. The full table of contents is available here.

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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