Skip to Main Content
Have library access? Log in through your library
China Off Center

China Off Center: Mapping the Margins of the Middle Kingdom

Copyright Date: 2002
  • Cite this Item
  • Book Info
    China Off Center
    Book Description:

    China Off Center takes as its fundamental assumption that contemporary China can only be understood as a complex, decentralized place, where the view from above (Beijing) and from tourist buses is a skewed one. Instead of generalizing about China, it demonstrates that this diverse national terrain is better conceived as it is experienced by Chinese, as a set of many Chinas. To that end, this anthology of interpretive essays and ethnographic reports focuses on the everyday, the particular, the local, and the puzzling. Together with contextualizing introductions, the readings provide students with a compelling look at some little-known but significant aspects of China from the past decade; for those already familiar with China, they furnish an assortment of uncommon viewpoints in a single, convenient volume.

    eISBN: 978-0-8248-6183-4
    Subjects: History, Anthropology, Sociology

Table of Contents

  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-viii)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. ix-xii)
  3. Foreword Sovereignty and Citizenship in a Decentered China
    (pp. xiii-xvi)

    The editors of this volume seek to demonstrate that the enduring image of China as a homogeneous society and culture—China as a distinctly “centered” society—cannot really be sustained when we look closely at the usual indicators of cultural and social integration: language, ethnicity, region, and religion, among others. The question, then, of why this image persists has as much to do with the conditions and causes of its production in China. At the same time, our expectations of what we should find in China also doubtless feed into this image.

    In many ways, the idea of a centered...

  4. Preface
    (pp. xvii-xx)
  5. Acknowledgments
    (pp. xxi-xxii)
  6. 1 Introduction: Reconsidering the Middle Kingdom
    (pp. 1-20)

    When Americans think of China, a familiar set of images tends to come to mind: the Great Wall, chopsticks, Guilin’s dramatic stone and mist landscape, peasants toiling timelessly in rice paddies (see fig. 1.1), long silk dresses with slits up the side, mysterious writing, the Forbidden City, communism. Perhaps a set of more abstract issues also occurs to those who occupy themselves with public affairs: human rights violations; the handover of Hong Kong; toy, sneaker, and clothing manufacturing; strict birth control; trade imbalance; the violation of international copyright laws; and a lone resister standing before a tank in the terror...


    • [PART I Introduction]
      (pp. 23-24)

      Center(zhongyang) is a word used frequently in China to refer to the central administration; it also figures into the name for China (Zhonghua, Zhongguo). The sinograph or character for zhong, 中, (center, middle) has long been considered an image of an arrow piercing a target, yet this pictographic etymology makes little sense unless the viewer takes it as a cross section. According to Cecilia Lindqvist (1991, 324–325), in the earliest Chinese written texts (ca. 1200–700 B.C.E.) the graphic predecessor of zhong appears as a drum mounted on a pole in this manner: 곡. To be sure,zhong...

    • 2 How Much of China Is Ruled by Beijing?
      (pp. 25-30)

      In this brief chapter, originally posted on the Internet, Liu Binyan asks a question frequently posed throughout this book: How much of China is ruled by Beijing? His query is political and administrative; ours extends to the cultural and psychological domains. But he recounts instance after instance in which local thugs, local governments, and individuals acting in their own interest flout demands made by the center. Some of this interest is criminal—people committing acts of violence and rapacity that cannot be contained by law-enforcement personnel. Some of this interest is material selfishness—people refusing to hand over the taxes...

    • 3 Symbols of Southern Identity: Rivaling Unitary Nationalism
      (pp. 31-44)

      The political scientist Edward Friedman inquires here into the possibilities for nationalism in different moments in modern China. Inspired by Benedict Anderson’sImagined Communities([1989] 1991), in which one of the origins of nationalism is traced to the development of a common literature, an “administrative vernacular,” Friedman discusses literature, language, history, and “mythos” and the way they serve—or fail to serve—to unify the nation. He draws a contrast between the kind of nationalism that Mao-era (1949–1976) China attempted to establish (“Leninist,” anti-imperialist, closed to the outside world, unitary, focused on north China, on Mandarin, and on the...

    • 4 The Languages of China
      (pp. 45-64)

      In this very clear yet technical chapter, Robert Ramsey describes the sorts of differences that exist among the contemporary dialects of Chinese, usually divided into seven major groups, each with a large number of subdivisions not all of which are mutually intelligible. He explains the origins of some of these differences as the result of migrations, historical events, and cultural values. Readers will note a pervasive difference between the “north” and the “south,” most of the north being linguistically fairly homogeneous and the south extremely diverse. While south China has a particular character, notable for its romance and good business...


    • [PART II Introduction]
      (pp. 65-68)

      The title “Geographic Margins” conveys the impression that there is a geographic center. In fact there is: China proper, including the provinces of Shandong, Hebei, Henan, Hubei, Shanxi, Shaanxi, Anhui, Jiangsu, Zhejiang, Fujian, Guangzhou, Jiangxi, Hunan, and Sichuan. This geographically tiny fraction of the contemporary Chinese nation-state has been inhabited by people whose material cultural remains suggest continuity with Han culture since approximately 3000 B.C.E. This is the densest part of China and contains most of the well-known cities and landmarks associated with imperial Chinese history. But a glance at a map will show that a far greater portion of...

    • Northwest

      • [Introduction]
        (pp. 69-70)

        At present, China’s northwest is arguably one of the most intriguing areas of the nation, for it is here that cultural tensions have recently spilled over into violence against the Chinese government. In February 1997, the Uighur minority peoples staged a demonstration in the city of Yining in northwestern Xinjiang to protest government intervention in local religious and cultural practices; police fatally shot two Uighur men. Uighurs retaliated shortly thereafter by detonating a bomb on a crowded Beijing bus. The considerable and growing presence of Hui, Chinese Muslims, in the northwest where China abuts the Muslim countries of Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan,...

      • 5 Chinese Turkestan: Xinjiang
        (pp. 71-105)

        In this chapter, excerpted from the long bookChina’s Far West(1993), the late Doak Barnett describes his impressions of Xinjiang Uighur autonomous region from his 1988 trip and compares them to those of a similar trip undertaken in 1948—just before the establishment of the People’s Republic of China. He notes especially the substantial urbanization of the region, the increase in proportion of Han Chinese, the increase in industrialization, and improvements in education, communication, and transportation. In the course of the chapter, Barnett also mentions several uprisings in Xinjiang, most notably the 1940s Ili uprising, putting them in the...

      • 6 Ethnoreligious Resurgence in a Northwestern Sufi Community
        (pp. 106-126)
        DRU C. GLADNEY

        In this chapter, excerpted from Dru Gladney’s significant book on the Muslim Chinese known as Hui, we learn about a community in the Ningxia Hui autonomous region in which the predominant religious orientation is the Sufi sect of Islam. Ningxia is a tiny province-level area of 66,400 square kilometers where the most populous minority group is the Hui, one of China’s ten Muslim nationalities (see map 6.1). After decades of repression of religion, since the economic reforms of the late 1970s, there has been a resurgence of religious practice. Still, the state regulates and restricts religion, in part arguing that...

    • Southwest and the Diaspora

      • [Introduction]
        (pp. 127-130)

        The southwest includes the provinces of Yunnan, Guizhou, Sichuan, and Hunan, covering an area of approximately 1.1 million square kilometers. The first two provinces are known for their ethnic diversity as well as their historic poverty and marginality. Sichuan is a unique province, a central humid basin (the Red basin) with a population of 100 million (larger than that of Mexico!). Historically, it housed the Shu and Ba cultures but has often been isolated from the rest of China by its mountains. Hunan was historically part of the south, the site of ancient Chu culture (as mentioned by Friedman in...

      • 7 Town and Village Naxi Identities in the Lijiang Basin
        (pp. 131-147)

        This chapter, like the one that follows, was written specifically for this volume, as a contribution to readers’ understanding of the relation between national and local cultures. Pulling out information about the setting of her research on plural medical systems, the anthropologist Sydney White describes the seat of the Lijiang Naxi autonomous county, called Dayanzhen (in a Mandarin approximation of the local Naxi pronunciation). This remote area, historically serving as a market for people traveling between Tibet and Kunming, is more prosperous than its marginal position might imply. The Naxi are known for their political astuteness and for being a...

      • 8 Ethnic and Linguistic Diversity in Kunming
        (pp. 148-166)
        SUSAN D. BLUM

        In this chapter, Susan Blum, a cultural and linguistic anthropologist, describes some of the many types of people who live in and around Kunming, the capital of Yunnan province. Her urban ethnography fills out the linguistic and cultural complexity adumbrated by Sydney White’s (chap. 7) portrait of rural southwest China. She points out that ethnic diversity is widely mentioned in accounts of this province and is usually associated with groups that are rural, “primitive,” and colorful. The state catalogs fifty-five ethnic minorities in China; Yunnan has twenty-four, in addition to the Han majority. Yet popular consciousness of this diversity does...

      • 9 The Construction of Chinese and Non-Chinese Identities
        (pp. 167-182)

        If we wish to discuss the contemporary Chinese experience in its broadest sense, we must take into account the “overseas Chinese” (huaqiao). Not only do they account for a substantial amount of the world’s wealth—in 1992, theEconomistestimated their liquid assets to be roughly $3 trillion, equivalent to “all of the bank deposits in Japan” (“The Overseas Chinese” 1992)—but they live in a wide variety of nation-states, retaining their Chinese identity in varying ways. The following chapter addresses one of the principal areas of contention among scholars of the Chinese diaspora—what the author termsthe construction...

    • South and Southeast

      • [Introduction]
        (pp. 183-184)

        The south and southeast of China are usually considered its wealthiest, most advanced, most modern areas. This portion includes the cities of Shanghai and Nanjing, Canton (Guangzhou), and Xiamen (in Fujian); it is the area settled by Chinese first during the Song period as the north was invaded by powerful, organized “barbarians” and industrialized first in the twentieth century. Most of the foreign investments made—usually by overseas Chinese—are found in this area; with the exception, perhaps, of Beijing, per capita income is highest here, as are rates of computer usage and car ownership and adherence to contemporary fashion...

      • 10 The Secret History of the Hakkas: The Chinese Revolution as a Hakka Enterprise
        (pp. 185-214)

        The Hakka, “guest people” (kejia), are considered a “subethnic” branch of the Han, speaking a Han dialect and with little officially recognized history of their own. In this detective-story-like chapter, the linguist Mary Erbaugh shows how significant Hakka participation is and has been in Chinese political life—within China and in the Chinese diaspora as well. She pieces together bits of evidence from a variety of sources, coming to the conclusion that the Hakka have played a central role in recent political history. Nevertheless, in late imperial China, they were considered an ethnic minority in the southwest and southeast regions...


    • [PART III Introduction]
      (pp. 215-218)

      To name somethingmarginalis to claim that a center exists, which is contradictory to the aims of this book. Yet thebeliefthat a center exists is something else again. There is a psychological center in views of China’s society and culture; for Westerners, it may involve the exotic East, and, for Chinese, it may involve state-sponsored extravaganzas. It is such centers that dominate Western and Chinese representation of contemporary life and permit a facile understanding of China. The realities, however, are much more complex. It is not the case that we can generalize aboutChinese,nor can we...

    • Sexuality

      • [Introduction]
        (pp. 219-220)

        In this portion of the book readers are offered an opportunity to explore more easily the complexities of contemporary life through insight into the degree of change in sexual attitudes and practices among the Chinese. Although sex is a very private matter in the West, just as it is in China, we are very conscious of our less repressive but nonerotic sexual culture, but not inclined to regard it as a foundation for cross-cultural comparison. It is customary to credit China’s celebrated economic and political reforms that began in the early 1980s and have continued unabated to the present with...

      • 11 Sexual Behavior in Modern China
        (pp. 221-237)

        Roughly five years following the inauguration of China’s economic reform and “opening to the West,” scholarly treatments of sexuality in China began to appear. The 1980s saw the conducting of public seminars and conferences on sexuality and contemporary sexual problems as well as publication of a number of academic journals. By 1990, there were a number of centers for sex research in Shanghai, Shaoguan, Shenzhen, Beijing, and Heilongjiang. This scientific pursuit of sexual knowledge and sexual practice paralleled the liberalization of Chinese social life and the marked increase in sexual expression. This chapter is but an excerpt of a much...

      • 12 The Cut Sleeve Revisited: A Contemporary Account of Male Homosexuality
        (pp. 238-246)
        VINCENT E. GIL

        The national sex survey presented in chapter 11 provided an incomplete catalog of sexual practices, and Vincent Gil’s essay takes up one of the most glaring deficiencies in its respondent pool: male homosexuals. The article’s title is a reference to the book by Brett Hinsch,Passions of the Cut Sleeve(1990), and to the use of a “cut sleeve” as an indication of sexual preference from the Han dynasty (208 B.C.E.–220 C.E.) onward.¹ Here, Gil, a medical anthropologist and sexologist, discusses what he learned from an ethnographic interview with an acknowledged homosexual, comparing what he learned to the official...

    • Gender and Work

      • [Introduction]
        (pp. 247-248)

        It is often believed that “traditional” societies have clear-cut, timeless divisions of labor along gender lines and that, with “modernity,” such roles are called into question. We caution readers to distinguish ideology from practice, ideals from behavior. In some conflated “traditional” China—far from unitary or homogeneous throughout time, in actuality—there were said to be proper roles for men and women. Men were to be like emperors in the home; women were to follow their fathers when they were children, their husbands when they were wives, and their sons when they were widows. Women were calledneiren,“the people...

      • 13 “The Moon Reflecting the Sunlight”: The Village Woman
        (pp. 249-270)

        Rural Chinese life has little resonance with the Western reading or television-viewing public, so this chapter offers a brief, but very valuable, glimpse at the gender and labor realities of the contemporary countryside. This chapter comes from James and Ann Tyson’s innovativeChinese Awakenings(1995). In the early 1990s—a mere five years following the widespread institutionalization of China’s “capitalist” economic reforms—these two journalists traveled throughout China, living with ordinary people and speaking with them about the details of their lives. This chapter recounts some of the history of Zhao Xinlan, in many ways a typical middle-aged resident of...

    • Economic Margins

      • [Introduction]
        (pp. 271-272)

        Before the end of 2001, China was admitted into the World Trade Organization (WTO), a very long twenty months after it had been granted permanent normal trade relations with the United States. China’s admission into the WTO signaled ceremoniously what most of the world already instinctively acknowledged: China was the world’s fastest-growing economy and the globe’s chief manufacturer. In this context, it may seem willful paradox to have a section on economic margins. There is nothing at all marginal about WTO accession. It is a privilege extended to only the most exclusive economic winners, the mighty, not the marginal. However,...

      • 14 The Floating Population in the Cities: Markets, Migration, and the Prospects for Citizenship
        (pp. 273-288)

        Theliudong renkou,or “floating population,” offers one of several key windows on the adverse unintended consequences of the dismantling of China’s collectivist social system and rural household registration, coupled with the exaggerated economic advantage of urban versus rural life. China’s “migrant laborer” population has been officially estimated at about 100 million, although estimates by scholars in the field suggest that the figure is 150 million—about two-thirds the U.S. population! Many of these people are uneducated male peasants who flock to urban centers seeking the livelihood that the new economy of China promises, although increasingly entire families leave their...

    • Popular Culture:: Rock and Roll

      • [Introduction]
        (pp. 289-290)

        Popular culture takes many forms in today’s China. With the growth of a middle class and the existence of a two-day weekend for students and urban workers, people have more time and resources for the pursuit of leisure than at any time since well before 1949. The wealthy have always enjoyed hobbies and connoisseurship of many sorts, from opera to poetry to calligraphy to tea drinking, and the poor have found ways to amuse themselves at festivals, temple celebrations, markets, and various holiday celebrations. Rural teenagers sang songs from mountaintop to mountaintop; swimming in the heat of the summer was...

      • 15 The Politics of Popular Music in Post-Tiananmen China
        (pp. 291-308)

        We have included this article by Andrew Jones because it provides a glimpse into the politics and economics of popular culture in contemporary China. Jones draws a contrast between state-sponsoredtongsu yinyue(popular music) andyaogun yinyue(rock music) and shows how musical forms and musical support derive meaning largely from the social context in which they are found. While rock music in China looks to Western music for its inspiration, for its musical details, and even for its themes, it is not identical to rock music in the West because it is rebelling against a different type of oppression....

    • Spiritual Life

      • [Introduction]
        (pp. 309-310)

        Historically, the Chinese have been what Westerners would regard as a religious people. Although because such religion as they practice is inextricably intertwined with the rhythms of daily life, it is largely invisible and, consequently, not very well represented. The Chinese Revolution may have modified the character of this religiosity, but it did not eliminate it. Certainly, one of the most prominent features of the nation’s postmodern present is the wide popularity of religion.

        Owing to the international outrage over the government’s treatment of Falun Gong, the spiritual life of the Chinese people is a topic of which foreigners have...

      • 16 Magic, Science, and Qigong in Contemporary China
        (pp. 311-322)

        In this final section of the book, we consider religion and spirituality, long prominent among Chinese but since the Revolution actively discouraged by the Communist Party. Today, the government of China officially recognizes five religions: Buddhism, Islam, Daoism, Roman Catholicism (under the aegis of the “Chinese Catholic Patriotic Association”), and Protestantism. Religious freedom is explicitly defended in Article 36 of the revised state constitution of 1982. In the two decades since this last promulgation, and particularly in the 1990s, participation in officially sanctioned religion has grown substantially: there are in China today 15—20 million Muslims, 8—10 million Catholics,...

      • 17 The Spirits of Reform: The Power of Belief in Northern China
        (pp. 323-340)

        Like Eric Karchmer, the anthropologist Diane Dorfman is interested in looking at the role of beliefs about rationality, modernization, and power in the contemporary People’s Republic especially as these coalesce around complexes of faith. Her article examines the ubiquitous belief inmixin,superstition, on the part of north Chinanongmin(peasants). Although allnongminsometimes profess belief in animal spirits, they do not do so at all times. Discussing these “multiple, shifting subjectivities,” Dorfman shows the many ways in which beliefs interplay with economic and political circumstances. The village in a rural county west of Beijing where she conducted her...

  10. Afterword Centers and Peripheries, Nation and World
    (pp. 341-346)

    If we have realized the chief objective of the course from which this interpretive anthology was drawn—familiarizing students with contemporary Chinese life through a combination of critical readings and active engagement in the everyday—then the reader of these pages may be disturbed. Disgruntlement appeared early in the reactions of our students to the incongruous details of life in southwest China, yielding a range of questions that reflected an elemental confusion: Why do so many Chinese eat with spoons instead of chopsticks? Why do people live in the partially completed upper floors of high-rise construction sites? Why are many...

  11. Notes
    (pp. 347-364)
  12. Bibliography
    (pp. 365-386)
  13. Contributors
    (pp. 387-388)
  14. Index
    (pp. 389-402)