Doing Personhood in Chinese Culture

The Desiring Individual, Moralist Self and Relational Person

in The Cambridge Journal of Anthropology
Restricted access

Abstract

This article starts with a brief ethnography of the social actions in which Chinese personhood is constructed and then proposes a tripartite approach to help make sense of personhood as both a state of being and the action of doing. In the process of doing personhood, the reflective and ethical self is consistently mobilized and employed to fight against embodied, individuated desires for the purpose of making a proper relational person who is both social and agentive. This interactive cycle among the individual, self and person in the construction of Chinese personhood manifests itself repeatedly in a lifelong process of becoming, marked by earned recognitions, instead of a clearly defined structure of being that is endorsed by a set of natural rights. Chinese personhood, therefore, is inherently dynamic.

Contributor Notes

Yunxiang Yan is Professor of Anthropology at the University of California, Los Angeles, and Adjunct Professor in the School of Public Policy and Social Development, Fudan University, China. He is the author of The Flow of Gifts: Reciprocity and Social Networks in a Chinese Village (Stanford University Press, 1996), Private Life under Socialism: Love, Intimacy, and Family Change in a Chinese Village, 1949–1999 (Stanford University Press, 2003) and The Individualization of Chinese Society (Berg, 2009). His research interests include family and kinship, social change, the individual and individualization, and moral changes in post-Mao China.

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