When Yunxiang Yan's first book, The Flow of Gifts, was published in 1996 it was immediately clear that a new leading scholar of contemporary Chinese society had entered the scene. Yan's second book Private Life under Socialism richly delivers on the promise of his first. This new book is, in fact, very much a companion volume to The Flow of Gifts. Together, they constitute a uniquely rich ethnography of the intimate details of social life as lived and experienced in the village where Yan himself spent 15 years of his life before becoming an anthropologist. Both books draw on the same strengths of the author. The first and most obvious is his unprecedented access to and intimate understanding of his former village of residence. However, what makes for truly great ethnography here is Yan's almost uncanny ability to present often quite complex and challenging arguments in a deceptively simple and understated fashion, making the book both a major contribution to scholarship and an ideal reading assignment for students.
The subject matter of the book is adequately covered by the title Private Life under Socialism. Broadly speaking, the book asks how the ways Chinese villagers perceive sexuality and romance, find their partners, marry, exercise rights over family property, establish independent families and care for the aged have changed during the reform period. In this context, other crucial issues in contemporary China are discussed: the increased wealth and consumerism, the emergence of a youth culture and employment opportunities outside the village, changes in gender roles, and the impact of government policies on private life, all of which already are the subject of a rich literature. It is a therefore a testimony to Yan's skills as an anthropologist and a writer that he manages to shed fresh light on all of these topics in almost every paragraph of this book.