Wu Shan, Henan
Photograph by Lois Conner
Since the late 1970s the lives of Chinese people have changed in fundamental ways. The effects of reforms in economics and, to a lesser extent, politics have been well documented; in the former often quantitatively, in the latter, often through the lens of debates in the social sciences. Less well understood are how the Chinese people imagined their lives could be, how they created new matrices of significance, and how they responded to and manifested the increased autonomy that the 'reform era' has brought. The new ways in which life was imagined in China in the 1980s and 1990s did not take place in rarefied realms of ideation: new ways of thinking about, and acting in, the world were made possible only by innovations in the dissemination of information - in particular reforms in the world of publishing - and new modes of society.
Although the 'reform period' of recent Chinese history (1978 on) has tended to be calibrated (at least internationally) in terms of political liberalisation or repression, of protest and reform, of 'advance' (fang 放) or 'retreat' (shou 收), it is arguable that for most Chinese people, it has been a period when politics as they have known it could be set to one side. Studies of this period have not taken sufficiently into account the enthusiasms, obligations and practices of the quotidian, both in cities and in the country. Often regarded as epiphenomenal and ephemeral, it has been in activities as diverse as qigong, death ritual, fashion, ufology, local opera, cuisine, sport, online gaming and religious observance that people made meaning in their lives. Typically not overtly political, it has been in these assertions of individual interest that new sociable communities have been formed, communities in which a politics of practice is implicit if generally not acknowledged.
The call to a singular, centralised, national vision has been a fundamental and structuring feature of Chinese states throughout China's history and across the Chinese world. Unity, orthodoxy, genealogical legitimacy, rallying around a cause and adhering to a single vision have been discursively and administratively powerful, and the fear of challenges to orthodoxy has been no less prevalent. Yet, despite the insistence on 'One China', undercurrents of 'heterodoxy' and competing interest groups continue to assert themselves in fields of thought as varied as religion, ethnicity, education, sexuality and nationality. This may erupt in spectacular ways as in the efflorescence and suppression of Falun Gong or the demands of non-Han peoples for autonomy. Or it may manifest as a gentler assertion of a regional identity based on local traditions, religious practices or dialects.
This research stream is, therfore, concerned with the new potentialities of thought and practice that have opened up for Chinese people since 1978, how these potentialities have been made possible, and how their expression, in some cases and sometimes in subtle ways, pose a challenge to the unitary vision of Chinese nationhood, culture, language and history.