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Fighting for Breath

Fighting for Breath: Living Morally and Dying of Cancer in a Chinese Village

Anna Lora-Wainwright
Copyright Date: 2013
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    Fighting for Breath
    Book Description:

    Numerous reports of "cancer villages" have appeared in the past decade in both Chinese and Western media, highlighting the downside of China's economic development. Less generally known is how people experience and understand cancer in areas where there is no agreement on its cause. Who or what do they blame? How do they cope with its onset?Fighting for Breathis the first ethnography to offer a bottom-up account of how rural families strive to make sense of cancer and care for sufferers. It addresses crucial areas of concern such as health, development, morality, and social change in an effort to understand what is at stake in the contemporary Chinese countryside.Encounters with cancer are instances in which social and moral fault lines may become visible. Anna Lora-Wainwright combines powerful narratives and critical engagement with an array of scholarly debates in sociocultural and medical anthropology and in the anthropology of China. The result is a moving exploration of the social inequities endemic to post-1949 China and the enduring rural-urban divide that continues to challenge social justice in the People's Republic. In-depth case studies present villagers' "fight for breath" as both a physical and social struggle to reclaim a moral life, ensure family and neighborly support, and critique the state for its uneven welfare provision. Lora-Wainwright depicts their suffering as lived experience, but also as embedded in domestic economies and in the commodification of care that has placed the burden on families and individuals.Fighting for Breathwill be of interest to students, teachers, and researchers in Chinese studies, sociocultural and medical anthropology, human geography, development studies, and the social study of medicine.12 illus.

    eISBN: 978-0-8248-3797-6
    Subjects: Anthropology, Population Studies

Table of Contents

  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-vi)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. vii-viii)
  3. Acknowledgments
    (pp. ix-xii)
  4. Guide to Key Places and People
    (pp. xiii-xvi)
  5. Introduction
    (pp. 1-14)

    In August 2004, I first visited the only surviving courtyard house in Baoma, a village in southwestern China where I had settled three months previously.¹ Locals told me the house was three hundred years old. Over a dozen families had lived there during the Cultural Revolution, but in 2004 it accommodated only three families, and most of the former residents had since moved, either to a nearby house, to the township, or to the small county capital of Langzhong. Most of the building had fallen into a condition of irreversible disrepair. Some parts still retained wooden walls with reliefs defaced...

  6. PART 1: Foundations

    • Chapter 1 Cancer and Contending Forms of Morality
      (pp. 17-50)

      This book offers an account of how families strive to make sense of cancer and care for sufferers in one locality in contemporary rural China. Here I situate the study vis-à-vis the two broad fields of the anthropology of health and suffering and the ethnography of rural China. Villagers’ multifaceted and situationally contingent narratives about cancer causality and practices of care serve as a prism to explore what is at stake in the contemporary reform era. I argue that we might best understand these narratives and practices as embedded in a larger moral economy discourse on the part of Chinese...

    • Chapter 2 The Evolving Moral World of Langzhong
      (pp. 51-88)

      Langzhong city is located in a hilly area in the northeast of the Sichuan basin, on a meander in the middle reaches of the Jialing river. Langzhong county covers an area of 1,878 square kilometers (725 square miles), including nineteen ethnic groups, but 99 percent of the population is Han. At the start of the new millennium, the total population of the county was 860,000, of whom 200,000 were urban residents (Song 2003, 1). The county includes twenty-two towns (zhen) and forty-eight townships (xiang). Average yearly rainfall is 1,034 millimeters (40 inches), and the average temperature is 17 degrees Celsius...

  7. PART 2: Making Sense of Cancer

    • Chapter 3 Water, Hard Work, and Farm Chemicals: The Moral Economy of Cancer
      (pp. 91-116)

      Junhong was a striking and independent thirty-year-old woman who married into Baoma in 1990. She was the seventh of eight children, and her father died when she was a few years old, leaving the family in abject poverty. As a consequence, at sixteen Junhong married a man from Baoma introduced by her eldest sister who had married there ten years previously. Junhong was very unhappy with her in-laws and her husband, who was violent toward her and their twelve-year-old daughter. She delayed divorce only out of fear that her daughter would lose the support of her father and grandparents, with...

    • Chapter 4 Gendered Hardship, Emotions, and the Ambiguity of Blame
      (pp. 117-143)

      In the afternoon of November 1, 2007, I returned to Baoma. I had arrived in Langzhong the previous evening on a fleeting visit after a conference in Beijing. I had not been there since April and was keen to meet my friends andgan haizi(or “dry” children), and to see what effects the efforts to build a “new socialist countryside” had had on the village. When I visited in 2006, two of my former neighbors had died—Aunt Li of a stroke, Grandma Chen by drinking pesticides after she was diagnosed with stomach cancer—and I was hoping to...

    • Chapter 5 Xiguan, Consumption, and Shifting Cancer Etiologies
      (pp. 144-174)

      At sixty-two, Gandie was an active, healthy, and warm-hearted man. He was the father of Erjie, the thirty-six-year-old woman with whose family I lived. He liked drinking and smoking; in fact, he was “fierce” at it (xiong de hen), as his son-in-law remarked in January 2005, the month leading to his death, when his condition had dramatically deteriorated. When I was first introduced to Gandie on his birthday (October 19, 2004) by Erjie, he had been diagnosed with esophagus cancer at the beginning of the month but was himself still unaware of his illness. Around fifty people attended his birthday...

  8. PART 3: Strategies of Care and Mourning

    • Chapter 6 Performing Closeness, Negotiating Family Relations, and the Cost of Cancer
      (pp. 177-199)

      On November 24, 2004, Erjie and I set out after lunch to visit her father. As we walked up the hill, we discussed her feelings of tightness in the chest, which she experienced frequently since her father was diagnosed with cancer and she regarded as a consequence of the tension exacerbated by his illness. To ease her anxiety, she brewed lotus seed hearts in hot water, as advised by a trusted city practitioner recommended by her neighbor. They were expensive and rather bitter, but they made her feel calmer, so she bought some for her mother, who had been experiencing...

    • Chapter 7 Perceived Efficacy, Social Identities, and the Rejection of Cancer Surgery
      (pp. 200-229)

      When I met her, Grandma Chen was a lively seventy-two years old, although her life had been anything but easy. Born in 1931 in the village neighboring Baoma, in 1949 she married Grandfather Li and—as was customary—did not meet him until their wedding day. Grandma Chen gave birth to five sons and one daughter, but two sons were still-born and the daughter died in 1959 at the age of one, at the start of the Great Leap Forward Famine. She recalled that from 1959 until 1961 there was practically no food, she stopped menstruating, her pregnancies were troubled,...

    • Chapter 8 Family Relations and Contested Religious Moralities
      (pp. 230-257)

      This remains one of my favorite fieldwork moments. Two girls, ten-year-old Youhui and twelve-year-old Meimei, discussed local customs. In the case of the former, Uncle Wang’s granddaughter, her grandmother followed “traditional customs” with regard to offering paper money and incense to the kitchen god and to ancestors. For Meimei, whose grandmother was a devoted Christian (even though she rarely had the time to attend masses and refused to attend illegal family churches in the village), offering paper money and incense was a thing of the past, a “meaningless waste of money” (a frequent statement). As did all Christians I encountered,...

  9. Conclusion
    (pp. 258-266)

    When I first settled in Baoma in 2004, I was baffled and perhaps even slightly upset to be told that I was “very fat.” With a height of 167 centimeters (5 feet 6 inches) and a weight of 60 kilograms (132 pounds), I had until then happily accepted the biomedical ideology that defines me as “normal.” As the months went by, I had occasion to realize that local parameters to assess fatness were somewhat different from my own. Being fat did not mean being massively overweight, it meant being strong enough to carry loads and engage in farming activities. Anyone...

  10. Appendix 1: Questionnaire (English Translation)
    (pp. 267-268)
  11. Appendix 2: List of Pesticides Used in Langzhong and Their Health Effects
    (pp. 269-272)
  12. Notes
    (pp. 273-284)
  13. References
    (pp. 285-312)
  14. Index
    (pp. 313-327)
  15. Back Matter
    (pp. 328-329)