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On Intimate Choices and Troubles in Rural South China*

  • GONÇALO SANTOS (a1)
Abstract

This article explores how marriage practices and intimate relations are being refashioned in reform-era China in the context of increasingly entangled intersections between private negotiations and public dialogues in law, state policy, science, and the media. Based on long-term field research in impoverished rural areas, the article focuses on the intersections between intimate practices of the everyday and large-scale projects of social engineering aimed at turning ordinary ‘peasants’ into ‘modern civilized citizens’. The article draws particular attention to the important role played by the Birth Planning Policy in shaping local reproductive practices and intimate structures, but the approach developed here to make sense of the impact of globalized neo-Malthusian state interventions on local realities considers also the perspective and the agency of ordinary individuals and communities. Instead of assuming that changes in local practices follow primarily from the impact of external forces such as state policies and technologies of birth planning, the article suggests that local practices and global forces co-produce each other through ‘frictions’ of various kinds. This focus on the micro-macro intersections of what I call here the ‘techno-politics of intimacy’ joins recent efforts in the humanities and social sciences to move beyond conventional top-down approaches to global intimate transformations.

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Funding for this research article was provided by the Max Planck Institute for Social Anthropology in Halle. I am very grateful for this support. I am also indebted to the Portuguese Foundation for Science and Technology for the support provided between 2008 and 2011 (SFRH/BPD/40396/2007). Thanks are also due to the University of Hong Kong for the support provided between 2015 and 2016 (Seed Funding Project 201411159201 ‘Intimate Modernities. Love, Money, and Everyday Ethics in the Hills of Guangdong, 1976–2014’). Earlier versions of this article were presented at the Centre for Modern Indian Studies, Georg-August Universität Göttingen, and at the Twelfth Biennial Conference of the European Association for Social Anthropology. I am grateful for all the comments and suggestions received on these different occasions.

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1 This expression is partly inspired in the work of the sociologist Ken Plummer. See Plummer, Ken (2003). Intimate citizenship. Private decisions and public dialogues. Seattle: University of Washington Press, pp. 47.

2 See for example, Goode, William (1970 [1963]). World revolution and family patterns. New York: Free Press; Giddens, Anthony (1992). The transformation of intimacy. Sexuality, love, and eroticism in modern societies. Oxford: Polity Press; Jamieson, Lynn. (1998). Intimacy. Personal relationships in modern societies. London: Polity; Povinelli, Elizabeth (2006). The empire of love. Toward a theory of intimacy, genealogy, and carnality. Durham: Duke University Press; and Godelier, Maurice (2011 [2004]). The metamorphoses of kinship. London: Verso.

3 See Ahearn, Laura M. (2001). Invitations to love: Literacy, love letters, and social change in Nepal. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press; Cole, Jennifer (2010). Sex and salvation: Imagining the future in Madagascar. Chicago: University of Chicago Press; Donner, Henrike (2012). Domestic goddesses. Maternity, globalization, and middle-class identiy in contemporary India. London: Ashgate; Yan, Yunxiang (2003). Private life under socialism. Love, intimacy and social change in a Chinese village 1949–1999. Stanford: Stanford University Press; Lee, Haiyan (2007). Revolution of the heart: A genealogy of love in China 1900–1950. Stanford: Stanford University Press. See also the following edited volumes: Hirsch, Jennifer S. and Wardlow, Holly (eds) (2006). Modern loves. The anthropology of romantic courtship and companionate marriage. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press; Padilla, Mark B., Hirsch, Jennifer S., Muñoz-Laboy, Miguel, Sember, Robert E., and Parker, Richard G. (eds) (2008). Love and globalization: Transformations of intimacy in the contemporary world. Nashville: Vanderbilt University Press; Cole, Jennifer and Thomas, Lynn (eds) (2009). Love in Africa. Chicago: University of Chicago Press; and Brandtstädter, Susanne, and Santos, Gonçalo (eds) (2009). Chinese Kinship. Contemporary Anthropological Perspectives. London: Routledge; and Santos, Gonçalo and Stevan Harrell (eds) (Forthcoming). Transforming Patriarchy. Chinese families in the 21st century. Seattle: University of Washington Press.

4 Early studies that deconstruct this romantic and sex-focused definition of intimacy include: Barthes, Roland (1979 [1977]). A lover's discourse: fragments. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux; and Luhmann, Niklas (1986 [1982]). Love as passion. The codification of intimacy. Cambridge, Massachusetts: Harvard University Press.

5 On the private–public crossings of ‘doing intimacies’, see Plummer, Intimate citizenship, pp. 3–16; Warner, Michael (2002). ‘Publics and counterpublicsPublic Culture 14 (1), pp. 4990; and Berlant, Lauren and Warner, Michael (1998). ‘Sex in publicCritical Inquiry 24 (2), pp. 547566.

6 Santos, Gonçalo and Donzelli, Aurora (2010). ‘Rice intimacies. Reflections on the “house” in Upland Sulawesi and South ChinaArchiv für Völkerkunde 57–58, p. 37.

7 Cf. Brandtstädter, Susanne, and Gonçalo Santos (2009). ‘Introduction. Chinese kinship metamorphoses’ in S. Brandtstädter and G. Santos (eds). Chinese kinship. Contemporary anthropological perspectives. London: Routledge, pp. 9–13.

8 Bourdieu, Pierre (1977). Outline of a theory of practice. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, pp. 164169.

9 Stacey, Judith (1992). Patriarchy and socialist revolution in China. Berkeley: University of California Press; and Wolf, Margery (1985). Revolution postponed: Women in contemporary China. Stanford: Stanford University Press. See also Croll, Elisabeth (1981). The politics of marriage in contemporary China. Cambridge; New York: Cambridge University Press; and Hershatter, Gail (2011). The gender of memory. Rural women and China's collective past. Berkeley: University of California Press.

10 See for example Murphy, Rachel (2002). How migrant labor in changing rural China. Cambridge; New York: Cambridge University Press; Yunxiang, Yan (2003). Private life under socialism. Love, intimacy and family change in a Chinese village 1949–1999. Stanford: Stanford University Press; Pun, Ngai (2005). Made in China: Women factory workers in a global workplace. Durham: Duke University Press; Hairong, Yan (2008). New masters, new servants: Migration, development, and women workers in China. Durham: Duke University Press; and Yunxiang, Yan (2009). The individualization of Chinese society. London: Berg. For a recent overview of literature on the global transformation of intimate relations see, for example, Constable, Nicole (2009). ‘The commodification of intimacy. Marriage, sex and reproductive laborAnnual Review of Anthropology 38, pp. 4964.

11 This policy is usually referred to in the Western media as the ‘One-child Policy’, but I prefer to use the expression ‘Birth Planning Policy’ because it is closer to the official designation in Chinese. The term ‘one-child policy’ has created the widespread misperception that everyone in China is subject to a one-child restriction, but this has never been the case. Ever since its launch in 1979, the policy has allowed many exceptions to the one-child model.

12 For an interesting critique of the micro-/macro- opposition which takes into account the significance of technical processes and non-human actors, see Callon, Michel and Latour, Bruno (1981). ‘Unscrewing the big leviathan: How actors macrostructure reality and how sociologists help them to do so’ in Cicourel, A. and Knorr-Cetina, K. D. (eds). Advances in social theory and methodology: Towards an integration of micro- and macro-sociologies. Boston: Routledge & Kegan Paul, pp. 277303.

13 Tsing, Anna L. (2004). Friction. An ethnography of global connection. Princeton, New Jersey: Princeton University Press.

14 Tsing, Friction, p. 4

15 All names of places and persons relating to my field site area in northern Guangdong are English pseudonyms that were designed to protect the privacy of my informants. My choice of pseudonyms (for example, Harmony Cave) has tried to retain the semantic richness of local naming practices without giving away the identity of persons and places.

16 All Chinese expressions quoted in this text refer to the Cantonese language as spoken in northern Guangdong. Cantonese is transcribed with the Yale system of Romanization, without any tone marks, in order to facilitate reading. All expressions quoted in Mandarin [M] are transcribed with the standard Pinyin system of Romanization.

17 See Stacey, Patriarchy and socialist revolution; Wolf, Revolution postponed; Croll, The politics of marriage; and Hershatter, The gender of memory. For an account of earlier reform efforts going back to the first decades of the twentieth century see, for example, Glosser, Susan (2003). Chinese Visions of Family and State, 1915–1953. Berkeley: University of California Press, Berkeley.

18 See Davis, Deborah (2014). ‘The privatization of marriage in post-socialist China’ Modern China 1–27.

19 See Connelly, Matthew (2006). ‘Seeing beyond the state: The population control movement and the problem of sovereigntyPast and Present 193 (1), pp. 197233.

20 See Connelly, ‘Seeing beyond the state’; and Connelly, Matthew (2008). Fatal misconception: The struggle to control world population. Cambridge, Massachusetts: Harvard University Press.

21 See Greenhalgh, Susan and Winckler, Edwin (2005). Governing China's population. From Leninist to neoliberal biopolitics. Stanford: Stanford University Press; Greenhalgh, Susan (2008). Just one child: Science and policy in Deng's China. Berkeley: University of California Press; and Greenhalgh, Susan (2010). Cultivating global citizens. Population in the rise of China. Cambridge, Massachusetts: Harvard University Press. See also White, Tyrenne (2006). China's longest campaign: Birth planning in the People's Republic, 1949–2005. Ithaca: Cornell University Press; Scharping, Thomas (2002). Birth control in China 1949–2000: Population policy and demographic development. London: Routledge.

22 See for example Ferguson, James, and Akhil Gupta (2002). ‘Spatializing states. Towards an ethnography of neoliberal governmentalityAmerican Ethnologist 29 (4), pp. 9811002.

23 Full Elder Sister told me in January 2000 that divorce was not really an option for her. Early twentieth-century century marriage practices included the possibility of nullifying a marriage agreement, but this usually took place at a very early stage of the marriage. The modern practice of divorce was effectively introduced in rural China with the New Marriage Law of 1950, but it only started to become more common in the 1980s and 1990s under the influence of the Marriage Law of 1980. In the late 1990s, divorce was still very rare in the Harmony Cave area, and today it still carries very negative connotations, especially for women. If Full Elder Sister filed for divorce, she would probably have to return to her natal village, where she would feel very out of place. A better alternative would be to marry again (and move into her new husband's community), but the prospects of finding a suitable marriage partner at her age were not very high. And there was also the question of their four children—who would keep them?

24 For more details, see Harrell, Stevan, Wang, Yuesheng, Han, Hua, Santos, Gonçalo, and Yingying, Zhou (2011). ‘Fertility decline in rural China: A comparative analysisJournal of Family History 36 (1), pp. 1536.

25 For more details see Harrell et al. ‘Fertility decline in rural China’; and Santos, Gonçalo (Forthcoming). ‘Multiple mothering and labor migration in rural South China’ in Santos and Harrell (eds), Transforming Patriarchy.

26 Vasectomy is a surgical procedure for sterilization in which the vasa deferentia of a man are severed and then tied or sealed in a manner such as to prevent sperm from entering into the seminal stream. Vasectomy is considered a minor surgery and is performed under local anaesthestic. See, for example, Porter, Robert, Justin L. Kaplan, and Barbara P. Homeier (eds) (2009). The Merck Manual Home Health Handbook. Hoboken, New Jersey: John Wiley and Sons, Inc., p. 1604.

27 A surgical procedure for sterilization in which a woman's fallopian tubes are clamped and blocked, or severed and sealed, preventing eggs from reaching the uterus for fertilization. Tubal ligation is considered a major surgery requiring a general anaesthetic. See, for example, Porter, Kaplan, and Homeier (eds), The Merck Manual, pp. 1604–1605.

28 This analysis suggests that women's bodies and well-being are here at higher risk than men's—see also Greenhalgh, Susan (1994). ‘Controlling births and bodies in village ChinaAmerican Ethnologist 21 (1), pp. 130.

29 For most villagers born in the 1960s or before, the minimum acceptable offspring set is two sons and one daughter. Many of those born in the 1970s or after often say that they would be content with fewer children, but they note that their parents and grandparents put a lot of pressure on them to have many children. Very few had fewer than two children.

30 See, for example, Porter, Kaplan, and Homeier (eds), The Merck Manual, pp. 1604–1605.

31 For more details on early Chinese birth control technologies, see Orleans, Leo A. (1979). Chinese approaches to family planning. White Plains, New York: M. E. Sharpe.

32 For more details on Cantonese popular medical traditions, see Topley, Marjorie (2011). Cantonese society in Hong Kong and Singapore. Gender, religion, medicine, and money. Hong Kong: Hong Kong University Press, Part V.

33 This submission of eros to family and reproduction remains an important ethical dimension of Chinese contemporary society and female gender roles, not just in rural areas. See, for example, Evans, Harriet (1997). Women and sexuality in China. Dominant discourses of female sexuality and gender since 1949. London: Polity Press. For an interesting historical account of the linkages between this ethical regime and the ascendancy of neo-Confucianism in the fifteenth century, see Furth, Charlotte (1994). ‘Rethinking Van Gulik. Sexuality and reproduction in traditional Chinese medicine’ in Gilmartin, Christina K., Hershatter, Gail, Rofel, Lisa, and White, Tyrene (eds). Engendering China. Women, culture, and the state. Cambridge, Massachusetts: Harvard University Press, pp. 125146.

34 See Santos, ‘Multiple mothering and labor migration’.

35 On ‘individualization’, see Yan, The individualization of Chinese society.

36 See Harrell, Stevan and Gonçalo Santos (Forthcoming) ‘Introduction’ in Santos and Harrell (eds), Transforming Patriarchy.

37 See Davis, ‘The privatization of marriage’.

38 See Yan, Private life under socialism, Chapter 3. See also Jankowiak, William (1995). ‘Romantic passion in the People's Republic of China’ in Romantic passion: A universal experience. New York: Columbia University Press.

39 See Davis, Deborah (2014). ‘On the limits of personal autonomy. PRC law and the institution of marriage’ in Davis, Deborah S. and Friedman, Sara L. (eds). Wives, husbands, and lovers: Marriage and sexuality in Hong Kong, Taiwan, and urban China. Stanford: Stanford University Press, p. 54; and Palmer, Michael (2007). ‘The transformation of family law in post-Deng China: Marriage, divorce and reproductionThe China Quarterly 191, p. 686.

40 See especially Davis, ‘On the limits of personal autonomy’, pp. 41–61.

41 See Engebretsen, Elizabeth (Forthcoming). ‘Under pressure: Chinese lesbian-gay contract marriages and their patriarchal bargains’ in Santos and Harrell (eds), Transforming patriarchy; and Jun, Zhang and Dong, Pei (2014). “When are you going to get married?” Parental matchmaking and middle-class women in contemporary urban China’ in Davis and Friedman (eds), Wives, husbands, and lovers.

42 Greenhalgh, Just one child. See also White, China's longest campaign; and Scharping, Thomas (2002). Birth Control in China 1949–2000. London: Routledge.

43 See especially Davis, ‘On the limits of personal autonomy’, p. 54.

44 Palmer, ‘The transformation of family law’, p. 686.

45 In Harmony Cave, the birth of a third and fourth child cost no more than 3,000RMB (approximately €300) and 4,000RMB respectively in 1993, but reached 6,000RMB (around €600) and 10,000RMB (around €1,000) respectively in 1999.

46 Friedman, Sara (2006). Intimate politics. Marriage, the market and state power in southeastern China. Cambridge, Massachusetts: Harvard University Press.

47 Harrell, Stevan (1995). ‘Introduction. Civilizing projects and the reaction to them’ in Harrell, Stevan (ed.). Cultural encounters on China's ethnic frontiers. Seattle: University of Washington Press. See also Muggler, Eric (2001). The age of wild ghosts: Memory, violence and place in southwest China. Berkeley: University of California Press.

48 Greenhalgh, Cultivating global citizens, p. 88. For an account of intrauterine devices in China as ‘disciplinary technologies’ or ‘agents of the state’ see, for example, Greenhalgh, Controlling births and bodies; and Takeshita, Chikako (2011). The global biopolitics of the IUD. How science constructs contraceptive users and women’s bodies. Cambridge, Massachusetts: The MIT Press, p. 26.

49 Greenhalgh, Cultivating global citizens, p. 2.

50 See Harrell et al., ‘Fertility decline in rural China’.

51 See especially Foucault, Michel (2009). Security, territory, population: Lectures at the Collège de France 1977–1978. New York: Picador.

52 I use here the concept of ‘translation’ as developed in the field of science and technology studies, especially among proponents of actor–network theory. Used in the study of social/technical change, the term ‘translation’ refers to the process through which innovators attempt to create a forum, a central network in which all actors (including human actors such as birth planning officials and non-human actors such as intrauterine devices) agree in practice that the network is worth building and defending. See for example Callon, Michel (1986). ‘Some elements of a sociology of translation: domestication of the scallops and fishermen of St. Brieuc Bay’ in Law, J. (ed.), Power, action and belief: A new sociology of knowledge? London: Routledge, pp. 196233; Latour, Bruno (1986). ‘The powers of association’ in Law (ed.), Power, action and belief, pp. 264–280; and Law, John (1992). ‘Notes on the theory of the actor-network: Ordering, strategy, and heterogeneitySystems Practice 5 (4), pp. 379393.

* Funding for this research article was provided by the Max Planck Institute for Social Anthropology in Halle. I am very grateful for this support. I am also indebted to the Portuguese Foundation for Science and Technology for the support provided between 2008 and 2011 (SFRH/BPD/40396/2007). Thanks are also due to the University of Hong Kong for the support provided between 2015 and 2016 (Seed Funding Project 201411159201 ‘Intimate Modernities. Love, Money, and Everyday Ethics in the Hills of Guangdong, 1976–2014’). Earlier versions of this article were presented at the Centre for Modern Indian Studies, Georg-August Universität Göttingen, and at the Twelfth Biennial Conference of the European Association for Social Anthropology. I am grateful for all the comments and suggestions received on these different occasions.

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