Review Essay: Change and Continuity in China

The grand narrative social scientists tell of twenty-first century China is one of rapid, drastic change. While sociocultural anthropologists have helped to produce this narrative, they also caution that, even amidst all this change, Chinese society still maintains continuities with the Maoist era, and with older prerevolutionary eras, albeit in tense and contradictory ways.

Urbanization is one of the most widely transformative processes affecting contemporary Chinese society today. Anthropologists have been at the forefront of efforts to capture the complexities and nuances of urbanization processes. Much of the previous research on urbanization within China has been focused either on rural migration to large urban centers (Gaetano and Jacka 2004; Jacka 2005; Zavoretti 2017; Zhang 2001) or the gradual, in situ urbanization observed in rural areas (Carrillo 2011; Zavoretti 2017). Urbanization processes in China’s county-level cities, however, have been largely overlooked prior to Andrew Kipnis’ ethnography, From Village to City (2016), which sheds light on people’s lived experiences in a county-level Chinese city in which the pattern of urbanization sits in between the extremes of rural migration to large urban centers and gradual urbanization of rural areas that previous studies focused on.

Kipnis draws from fieldwork he conducted between 1988 and 2012 in Zouping, a small eastern Chinese county-level city in Shandong Province, to explore continuities and changes in Chinese urbanization. The bulk of his research for this book is based on 13 months of intensive participant observation he conducted between 2005 and 2012, during which he conducted over 200 interviews with Zouping residents from all walks of life and analyzed Chinese government documents and statistics. When Kipnis first visited Zouping county in 1988, it was a relatively impoverished agricultural town with a population of about 30,000 people. During his regular visits to Zouping in the 1990s and 2000s, he witnessed the rapid urbanization, industrialization, economic growth, and social transformation of Zouping. By 2013, he found that Zouping has transformed to a relatively well-off city that was home to more than 300,000. The city had developed a great deal of urban infrastructure, including new roads, schools, parks, public recreation areas, a public bus system, high rise residential buildings, shopping malls, supermarkets, hotels, and restaurants, all which have been continually upgraded or rebuilt. The growth of large factories like Weiqiao Group and Xiwang Group have become the economic basis of Zouping’s infrastructural development and steady source of employment. Starting in 2000, Zouping also incorporated rural villages at its borders to build a Development Zone for industry and a New City for government, education, and cultural activities. Together with the Old City, which was planned and rebuilt for commercial services, Zouping expanded to form a tripartite structure, with different zones planned for serving different functions.

The transformation of Zouping brought big changes to the lives of people who live there. The expansion of the city’s territory transformed many formerly rural people into urban residents. The expansion of Weiqiao and Xiwang in the Development Zone created numerous employment opportunities for migrant workers from nearby and distant villages. Road building reduced the spaces and time needed for travel between different parts of Zouping. Parks, plazas, shopping malls and recreation centers created spaces for social interaction with strangers and new forms of consumption. The expansion of schooling, job opportunities outside of family land, non-arrangement marriage, and the emergence of socializing spaces weakened the importance of kinship ties and enabled youth to exercise greater agency.

Although Zouping’s urbanization can be considered a major transformation, Kipnis argues that it should not be simply interpreted as a break from its past. Kipnis observes that the transformations of built space and private lives in Zouping are closely intertwined with the city’s prior social and historical contexts. For instance, the physical layout of the city reflects the continuous negotiation between planning ideals of different eras and parties. The development of its industry is shaped by the global and national markets, but also by local social embeddedness. Even after privatization, the enterprises’ links with the local contexts are still tight. Their main business focus involves the processing of local agricultural products, and they collaborate with local government to offer employees with housing and benefits that in many ways resemble the work unit system that employed most urban Chinese workers prior to the 1980s.

To illustrate both the significance of social transformation and relevance of prior histories, Kipnis developed a new theory of urbanization to capture the “recombinant” nature of Zouping’s modernity. The concept of recombinant urbanization implies “the simultaneous recycling of the old and the absorption of the new in the process of social transformation” (Kipnis 2016:225). It suggests that practices, ideas, and ideals are not simply eliminated during social transformation, but rather displaced, recreated, shifted and combined with new ones to form a new pattern. It also suggests that transformation can take place in various forms depending on variation in contexts. This perspective is helpful in understanding the various forms of family life, styles of social interactions, and patterns of hopes and dreams of becoming that exist among Zouping’s residents.

Kipnis found that Zouping’s modernization has led to an overall decline in values and practices considered defining characteristics of rural Chinese life, such as patrilineal patterns of family relations, subordination of women and youth, arranged marriage, and ties with extended families and local communities (Wolf 1985; Yan 1996). However, these values and practices are not declining in a straightforward or linear manner, but rather transformed to intermingle with new contexts in a recombinant pattern. Taking viricentric kinship practice as an example, Kipnis illustrates the considerable variation in this practice across different demographic groups. Viricentric arrangements are common among households of nearby migrants (migrants workers from nearby counties) and villagers-in-the-city (villagers who become urbanities as their land is absorbed by the expanding city), largely due to Zouping’s virilocal allocation of land rights and pattern of inheritance. For instance, migrant couples regularly help with the farm chores of the husband’s parents but not wife’s parents; intergenerational coresidence, childcare and elder care involve paternal but not maternal grandparents; villagers-in-the-city who have lucrative returns from settlement of the confiscated land often pass the benefits down to their sons, and these material resources benefit sons’ marriage prospects more than daughters’. By contrast, distant migrants who move away from kinship networks to Zouping do not form viricentric kinship bonds. They maintain the structure of nuclear families, living in their crowded rental homes at the fringes of the Development Zone to save money for their retirement, and potentially the purchase of better housing in the future. The viricentric tendency in middle class families is weaker than that of nearby migrants or villagers-in-the-city but more regular than that of distant migrants. Through a series of compelling case studies, Kipnis shows that many kinds of values and practices, such as those associated with viricentricity, have been transformed and reinvented to adapt to new economic and household circumstances.

As China’s urbanization and marketization increased, Chinese sex lives have also transformed (Jankowiak 1992; Zhang 2015; Zheng 2015). Yet there is still much continuity in relationships between power and sexuality in China. Elanah Uretsky’s Occupational Hazards (Uretsky 2016) explores how continuity and change play a role in shaping social transformations of the sex lives, and thus the consequent risk of HIV infection, among Chinese businessmen and government officials between 2003 and 2011. Uretsky argues that the rise of HIV infection in China may be due partly to the rise of yingchou, which involves rituals such as banqueting, drinking, smoking, and entertainment that can include the service of commercial sex workers. Though yingchou has been practiced by male Chinese elites since the Song dynasty (960-1279), it was mostly suppressed during the austerity of the Maoist years (1949-1976), but increasingly flourished as a result of the post-Mao economic reforms that began in the 1980s (Osburg 2013; Yang 1994).

Uretsky’s interest in China’s HIV epidemic led her to conduct 18 months of participant observation and interviews in entertainment establishments as well as the social networks of Chinese government and business elites. She conducted most of this research between 2003 and 2006, with shorter visits between 2008 and 2011. Though she spent a few months conducting comparative research in Beijing (which confirmed how widespread the practice of yingchou was throughout China), most of her research was conducted in Ruili, a remote rural region on the Burmese border in Yunnan province, known for the occurrence of one of the earliest and largest HIV epidemics in China.

Though Chinese and international public health discourses focus on how Ruili’s HIV epidemic was fueled by drug trafficking and injection drug users, Uretsky argues that Ruili’s HIV epidemic may also be due to sociocultural expectations that elite men have sex with sex workers and mistresses. Her ethnography challenges the global HIV epidemiological narrative which associates HIV infection with individually motivated risky behaviors practiced by marginalized populations of injection drug users, female commercial sex workers, and men who have sex with men. While Uretsky admits that she has no direct evidence of how large a role elite men’s sexual practices play in China’s HIV epidemic, it is evident based on her ethnography and the work of others (Zheng 2009a; Zheng 2009b) that elite men’s sexual practices must at least be contributing to that epidemic, and that discourses that blame sex workers for the HIV epidemic without blaming their clients are missing half the story. But Uretsky goes beyond blaming male elites’ individual desires for risky sex, and focuses her critique on the sociocultural norms that place great pressure on male elites to frequent sex workers in order to maintain the social networking vital to their economic and political success. Uretsky considers these networking behaviors as “an occupational hazard rather than simply a group of individual behaviors” (Uretsky 2016:47), offering social, political, and economical benefits while exposing individuals to health risks and causing serious public health problems.

Uretsky contrasts Chinese men’s yingchou with the kind of corporate entertainment at clubs and bar after work that Japanese sarariiman (white collar workers) patronized in Anne Allison’s ethnography (1994). For Japanese sarariiman, this is an after-work leisure that sets them apart from pressure at work and helps to rekindle the humaneness of their work relations. But for many Chinese men, eating, drinking, massage, a trip to a sauna or karaoke bar, followed by the service of sex workers are a logical extension of the work in the office, with the aim of establishing and maintaining social relationships (guanxi) that are necessary for political and economic success.

Uretsky points out that guanxi is essential for success under China’s virtuocratic system, in which loyalty and political virtues are the basis for being entrusted with the state resources required for production. Loyalty, respect, and trust are the central characteristics of good relationships of guanxi. Business people’s success depends on building guanxi with government officials to show the respect and loyalty that demonstrate that they are deserving of access to state-controlled resources. Government officials’ power and success is also gained more on the basis of guanxi built through yingchou than the intellectual and technical merit demonstrated at work. Yingchou, thus, has become a standard form for establishing and reinforcing guanxi through food, drink, and (often sexual) entertainment, as well as a process through which trust, respect, and loyalty are demonstrated. Uretsky shows that men who refuse the invitation to engage in yingchou risk being considered “insulting,” “disrespectful,” “not willing to engage in mutual exchange,” and “not trustworthy in their endeavors.” Men who refuse to join other men in patronizing sex workers run the risk of having their masculinity questioned, and jeopardizing the prestige associated with performing accepted social roles.

Uretsky stresses that the rise of the sexual component of yingchou cannot be simply interpreted as a “sexual revolution” towards Western values of sexuality over the course of China’s reform and opening up. She argues that the practices of having commercial sex and multiple wives and lovers belong to a traditional sexual culture of elite men in China. Over the years of social and economic reforms, the relaxation of the political discourse about sex opened up a space for men to revive the male sexual culture that once entitled them to extramarital relations. Having the social flexibility to establish sexual relations with various women outside the boundaries of marriage thus signifies a man’s masculinity and elite status in contemporary China.

Uretsky tells stories about how elite masculine networking practices can pose serious risks to the individuals involved in the practices. Men in the stories, despite differences in professions, social positions, and ethnic identities, engage in sexual relations with commercial sex workers, second wives, and mistresses, not simply for the sake of physical satisfaction, but as a means to social and political recognition. There is a story about Xiao Mei, who was born to a rural ethnic minority family and occupied a relatively low social standing, but strove to identify with dominant Han Chinese masculinity. He sought opportunities to raise his social and political status by participating frequently in yingchou, which included late-night meals and the patronage of sex workers necessary for accessing a network that could promote his economic and career advancement. There is another story about Wang Yantao and his wife, both of whom were middle-class people working in stable government jobs and were diagnosed with HIV. Like many rising government officials in China, Wang engaged in guanxi-building and yingchou – which included having unprotected sex with sex workers – as part of the process of climbing the political and economic ladders of success. Wang was unaware of the potential biological risks his behavior could place on himself, his wife, and other partners, partly because a powerful, wealthy man like him, despite his behavior, is not considered at-risk in public health discourses. Global research and interventions associate HIV vulnerability with marginalized members of society such as injection drug users, commercial sex workers, and homosexual males. Elite members of society such as government officials and businessmen do not fit into the definition of an at-risk population. The role of elites in HIV transmission is also neglected in the discourse of the prevention of heterosexual infection, which targets the women who sell sex but not the men who fuel the demand for the commercial sex industry. Uretsky’s stories reveals that these powerful and wealthy men in China can also spread HIV, but are rarely recognized for their association with serious public health risks.

While Uretsky found that this culture of yingchou had become unofficially mandatory for elite men’s success in government and business, she also found that the excesses of yingchou were paradoxically considered officially illicit and immoral. This paradox further increased risks of infection for the elite men who participate in sexual networking. Conflicts between informal governance and formal governmentality in post-Mao China often drives the sexual component of yingchou further underground. The informal everyday practices of governing the distribution of state-resources encourage Chinese businessmen and government officials to engage in casual sex. At the same time, such action is officially prohibited by the Chinese government. As a result, men who were unofficially obligated to solicit commercial sex as part of the process of achieving political and social success had to simultaneously cover up such activities because they were illegal and against Communist Party ideals. Uretsky points out that the official public discourses also avoid discussing the potential vulnerability of the men involved in governing China to the risk of HIV infection because of the threat it poses to party ideals. Such competing discourses create challenges for HIV prevention. Businessmen and government officials who were at risk for infection were not willing to approach any government-sponsored or quasi-government medical institutions for diagnosis or treatment for the fear of risking their positions and status. Instead, many sought internet information and AIDS hotlines for self-diagnosis and left themselves and their partners vulnerable to infection.

Uretsky’s fieldwork ended in 2011, right before Xi Jinping became China’s paramount leader in 2012 and began an anti-corruption drive that has probably greatly reduced the banqueting and sexual entertainment that prevailed prior to Xi’s ascent. Even prior to Xi’s anti-corruption drive, opposition had emerged to the excesses of yingchou, especially among the increasing proportion of elites who were female, well-educated, and identified with less guanxi-based approaches promoted by international standards of modernity (Mason 2016; 2013). It remains to be seen whether and how the cultures of guanxi and yingchou are resilient enough to outlast these social and political changes.

Processes of globalization, marketization, and demographic change have also transformed China’s educational system as well as the educational desires of Chinese students and parents (Bregnbaek 2016; Woronov 2011; Xu 2017). Lily Chumley’s Creativity Class (Chumley 2016) attends to the rising individualism characteristic of China’s transition to a market economy (Kim, et al. 2016; Yan 2010) by examining how creativity is practiced and how creative individuals are produced in contemporary China. While creativity has become a key resource crucial for national economic transformation, global markets, and geopolitical competition, China has been viewed both domestically and internationally as relatively weak with regards to creativity and innovation, partly due to its test-oriented education system (Kuan 2015). The idea that China’s exam system reduces individual creativity has propelled Chinese parents, teachers, and officials to push for educational reforms aimed at developing a “creativity economy” founded on the work of “creative individuals.”

Chumley spent 2006 and 2008 in the Chinese cities of Jinan and Beijing, and parts of 2009, 2010, and 2011 in Beijing, observing art classes, conducting interviews with students and faculty, and engaging in participant observation among people who participated in the arts in those cities. Based on this research, Chumley explores how creation and creativity are cultivated in art schools in China. She argues that art schools provide a particularly valuable lens through which to view Chinese efforts to teach creativity, as art schools are central to the incubation of creative human capital and the development of China’s creative industries. The drastic transformations of the art schools over the course of past twenty years also reflect an evolving marketized economic system in China. The fine arts gradually became less prestigious than industrial arts and new disciplines of design that are oriented to market practice, even as pedagogy in state institutions became less valued than practice in the market and pursuit of moneymaking. The expansion of higher education and the suburbanization of colleges also weakened the intimacy and strong networks between mentors and students in art schools. By examining the Central Academy of Fine Arts as an exemplary case, Chumley explores how the reconstruction of art schools and the shift in institutional pedagogy impacted students’ creativity.

Chumley discovered in her fieldwork that although the number of students taking art school entrance tests has increased rapidly since the expansion of higher education, most of these students were characterized by art teachers as “blind,” “aimless,” and lacking in “interest and passion” for the arts (Chumley 2016:72). Chumley explains that studying art was a way for students with unsatisfactory grades to overcome the increased competition and pressure of college admissions, because the scores required for art schools were lower than the scores for academic schools. Consequently, art test fever was not an outcome of passion for art and design, or desire for aesthetic pursuits, but rather a pragmatic strategy by which students and families sought an edge in the competition for college admissions.

Driven by parents’ powerful and pervasive desire to get their children into college (Fong 2004; Kipnis 2011), a booming profit-motivated test prep industry emerged, offering students years of pretest training in the Soviet-style realistic painting that forms the basis of the tests. Chumley points out that the test prep industries function as a mediator of the conflicts between families’ college aspirations and the exam system, rather than a state project responsible for the cultivation of creativity and individualism. Chumley notices that the test prep industry has reduced training in socialist realist genres to merely the standardized manual-technical skills to be tested. Neither the aesthetic significance, nor the political and historical meanings (e.g. “labor theory of value”) of these realist drawings were taught. Skills learned for the art test were exclusively test-oriented and had little relevance to students’ potential future careers in creative industries. Chumley’s careful observation and analyses of art test fever reveal the contradiction between the values reproduced through the exam system and the values emphasized by the Chinese educational and economic reforms.

As an art school directly preparing students for careers in the arts, the Central Academy of Fine Arts taught students skills that more closely matched what careers in the arts might entail. One of those skills involved the cultivation of individualism, which has become increasingly valorized in China. Investigating how creative individualism is cultivated through the central institutions of the Chinese state, Chumley provides detailed narratives of the “creativity classes” that were introduced to the sophomore students as a core course of the art school curriculum. Creativity classes serve as radical departures from the students’ prior education framework and practices that focused on standardized technical training. In creativity classes, students engage in group critique to learn marketing skills of discursively participating in the meaning making of their art object and developing a recognizable personal style. Chumley identifies the tensions of developing a self, personality, and creativity, which form “liberal self-determination,” in a central institution of an illiberal state. She observes that political art themes and discourses were discouraged in these creativity classes. The instructing professors made clear that the art pieces produced should not be political but personal. Chumley tells stories about how an art professor criticized students’ use of Marx’s image and Mao’s writings in their work and questioned the work’s relevance to the students’ personal experiences –“what does this have to do with you?” (2016:154). In another incidence, the professor disapproved of a girl’s choice of the Statue of Liberty as a subject and suggested that she consider the “religiously, ethnonationally and geographically more proximate Guanyin” instead (2016:146). Chumley uses these examples to show that the project of creativity and self-styling is pedagogically translated as a form of introspective self-awareness: “finding themselves” in their own bodies, memories, feelings, and cultural backgrounds. In addition to the pursuit of self, Chumley finds that identifying an individual artist’s style also required the capability of linking oneself to a particular aesthetic community by making the recognizable style of others personally meaningful. The creative practices in China, according to Chumley, involve “a highly complex set of multimodal discursive practice” adaptive to market socialism, a form of “private, apolitical, individualist self-satisfaction” and a contribution to ethnonational status and influence (2016:18).

Through a series of examples from education policy, art pedagogy and various aesthetic communities in China, Chumley illustrates the contradictions of creativity cultivation and practices in China. Tensions between families, art institutions, and test prep industries give rise to an art test system that reinforced the skills of memorization and reproduction that are counterproductive to the value of creativity that the education system intends to cultivate. Teachers who grew up in a monologic cultural system were responsible for teaching creativity to students whom they simply regarded as uncreative and impassionate for creative cultural work. Chinese art students were instructed to find themselves in order to socialize into diverse aesthetic communities and produce values for others. Chumley’s argument is not that the Chinese education system suppresses individual creativity, but rather that the opposing forces, such as state ideologies, market socialism, and neoliberalism, all work to complicate the process of cultivating creativity and individualism in China. Despite these forces, Chumley argues that many students in her study were able to overcome years of potential creativity-suppressing training and succeed in producing radically different forms of artwork.

By exploring the interplay between change and continuity, ethnographies of contemporary Chinese society highlight the contradictions that have emerged as Chinese citizens negotiate between globalization, national policies, market competition, historical continuities, local cultures, and emerging individual identities. The ethnographies discussed in this essay illustrate the value of sociocultural anthropologists’ attention to nuance for understanding the complexities of China’s continuing transformation.

Cong Zhang, Fudan University & Vanessa L. Fong, Amherst College

Reviewed in this Essay

Chumley, Lily. Creativity Class: Art School and Culture Work in Postsocialist China. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2016.

Kipnis, Andrew B. From Village to City: Social Transformation in a Chinese County Seat. Berkeley, CA: University of California Press, 2016.

Uretsky, Elanah. Occupational Hazards: Sex, Business, and HIV in Post-Mao China. Palo Alto, CA: Stanford University Press, 2016.

Works Cited

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Bregnbaek, Susanne. Fragile Elite: The Dilemmas of China’s Top University Students: Stanford University Press, 2016.

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Jacka, Tamara. Rural Women in Urban China: Gender, Migration, and Social Change: M.E. Sharpe, 2005.

Jankowiak, William. Sex, Death, and Hierarchy in a Chinese City. New York: Columbia University Press, 1992.

Kim, Sung Won, Kari-Elle Brown, and Vanessa L. Fong. Credentialism and career aspirations: How urban Chinese youth chose high school and college majors. Comparative Education Review 60(2):271-292, 2016.

Kipnis, Andrew. Governing Educational Desire: Culture, Politics, and Schooling in China. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2011.

Kuan, Teresa. Love’s Uncertainty: The Politics and Ethics of Child Rearing in Contemporary China: University of California Press, 2015.

Mason, Katherine. Infectious Change: Reinventing Chinese Public Health After an Epidemic. Stanford, California: Stanford University Press, 2016.

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Osburg, John. Anxious Wealth: Money and Morality Among China’s New Rich. Palo Alto: Stanford University Press, 2013.

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Woronov, T. E. Learning to Serve: Urban Youth, Vocational Schools, and New Class Formations in China. China Journal (2011):77-99.

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Zavoretti, Roberta. Rural Origins, City Lives: Class and Place in Contemporary China: University of Washington Press, 2017.

Zhang, Everett Yuehong. The Impotence Epidemic: Men’s Medicine and Sexual Desire in Contemporary China. Durham: Duke University Press, 2015.

Zhang, Li. Strangers in the City: Reconfigurations of Space, Power, and Social Networks Within China’s Floating Population. Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2001.

Zheng, Tiantian. Ethnographies of Prostitution in Contemporary China: Gender Relations, HIV/AIDS, and Nationalism: Palgrave Macmillan, 2009a.

—. Red Lights: The Lives of Sex Workers in Postsocialist China: University of Minnesota Press, 2009b.

—. Tongzhi Living: Men Attracted to Men in Postsocialist China. Minneapolis: University Of Minnesota Press, 2015.


About Matthew Wolf-Meyer

Matthew Wolf-Meyer is an anthropologist and historian of science and medicine in the United States. He is author of The Slumbering Masses: Sleep, Medicine & Modern American Life (UMN Press, 2012), Theory for the World to Come: Speculative Fiction and Apocalyptic Anthropology (UMN Press, 2019), and Unraveling: Remaking Personhood in a Neurodiverse Age (UMN Press, 2020). He blogs at and

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