The Paradoxical Agora

The Social and the Political in between the People in the Marriage Corners of China

in Social Analysis
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Jean-Baptiste Pettier Principal Investigator, Institute of Social and Cultural Anthropology and Affective Societies Collaborative Research Center, Freie Universität Berlin, Germany jb.pettier@fu-berlin.de

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Abstract

Where is the political located? Since the early 2000s, the phenomenon of ‘marriage corners’ has mushroomed in city parks all over China. It consists of public gatherings attended by middle- to upper-middle-class parents attempting to find a partner for their child. The competitiveness of these gatherings and the vocabulary used by the participants when evaluating each other reflect political tensions of Chinese society without articulating them. Exploring this tension, the article argues for attending to the political ramifications of spaces where politics are silenced and denied. Hence, these marriage corners are examined as ‘paradoxical agoras’, that is, as constrained public spaces where politics are neither discussed nor decided, but rather embodied and practiced.

It is a sunny Wednesday afternoon at a public park in the heart of Chengdu, the capital of the Chinese province of Sichuan. In every corner of the park, elderly people and a few youths engage in various kinds of activities, ranging from dancing to singing, from playing mahjong to boating on a reservoir. The scenery seems one of general enjoyment, with people sharing in the collective energy of physical exercise, social games, theater plays, and the joys of friendship. Nevertheless, among all this bustle, a corner remains relatively discreet. People there do not move much; they speak quietly to one other, observe their interlocutors with a somewhat protective yet polite attitude, ask a few questions, then move on to the next person. Sometimes, they engage further, leave together the circle of participants, reciprocally display photographs, and exchange references and telephone numbers before returning and resuming their search.

Scenes like this have become common in twenty-first-century China. The place depicted is a ‘marriage corner’, a public space where people congregate in search of a match. On one side of the gathering are notices, pegged to a string suspended from a row of thin bamboo stems. The notices may be stylishly handwritten or computer typed and printed. The participants also carry placards. Each displays specific information about an unmarried person younger than the bearer, including his or her age, height, educational background, professional position, and monthly wage, and a basic description of his or her passions and temperament. These placards sometimes include a picture of the person described. On the lower side are displayed the expected conditions of the sought-after spouse: minimum level of education, approximate age, height, monthly wage, or professional position. The bearers of these notices are parents of youths of marriageable age, considered to be late bloomers on the normal path of adulthood due to their bachelor status. Virtually all the represented bachelors and bachelorettes are in their twenties and thirties, with most being within the age range of 25 to 30, the crucial age bracket in which many consider that one risks becoming indefinitely unmarriageable if one waits any longer.

I have described earlier how these corners work (Pettier 2020), their affective dimensions (Pettier 2016), and the role that romantic love plays in them (Pettier 2022). The current article is an attempt to look at them from a very different perspective: politics. Turning on its head the representation of marriages in China as being a mainly materialist and economic issue, and the existence of these ‘markets’ as a proof thereof, I question here the political dimensions of social life in a space where explicit political discourse is unwelcome. In the context of China, subversive uses of the public space have been regularly observable in recent history. The democratic movements of 1979 and 1989, or the Falun Gong demonstrations in 1999, are only the most famous examples of political use of the public space. Today, the pervasive presence of surveillance cameras and police dispositive render visible the will of the state to monitor these undesired uses. Gatherings of many kinds, including queer events (Bao 2018: 117), are prevented. By contrast, marriage corners do not seem to attract attention from the state, passing as innocuous or as contributing toward a ‘harmonious’ society and to the neo-familial politics of the state (Yan 2018) rather than threatening them. They also do not appear to be subjected to any direct form of regulation, seemingly operating on their own terms, based solely around the interactions between participants and the heteronormative reproductive familial norms that they pursue.

The parks where these marriage corners grew are traditional public spaces where people can develop unexpected uses. Previous research shows how the public and the private are often interrelated in East Asian societies, and how exclusionary fault lines turn public space into “a sharp line of demarcation” between socially differentiated publics (Frangville et al. 2021: 18). The existence of these corners demonstrates that these spaces allow a great amount of cooperation among strangers on the basis of their practical aim: maximizing their chances to find an optimal partner for their child. Yet this public practice does not include explicit political talk, which is carefully avoided. Mentions that a child is a Party member rarely appear on a notice. The participants mostly limit their criticism to two grounds: the inadequate family planning of the last decades, which is blamed for their children's difficulties to marry; and other participants’ behaviors, which are often deemed excessive and lacking cultural and civilizational credence. However, in the context of a society “where straightforward articulation of political claims often remains unthinkable” (Richaud 2021: 908) and where, as a friend from Chengdu told me, “the word ‘politics’ makes most people feel nervous,” I maintain that a lot is at stake in these interactions where moral ideals circulate through the participants’ expectations, norms, and ways of engaging with each other.

My study of the political dimensions of marriage corners takes as its objective an understanding of how power differential is distributed, maintained, or overtaken in everyday society. It rests on the idea that ordinary politics is more than explicit political discourses, activism, and institutions. It concerns how the political order is co-produced and articulated in everyday life, in particular in affective ways (Bozzini 2015; Laszczkowski and Reeves 2017; Navaro-Yashin 2009). Here, the notion of the political is used to describe the structuring of power differential in a society, and politics are understood as being the concrete ways in which differences are handled, whether through action, rhetoric, or the tactical avoidance of both. In my view, this co-production of the political order implies that politics cannot be limited to the expression of antagonism and to the contestation of the status quo (Holston 2019: 124). While Postero and Elinoff (2019: 20) argue “for a definition of politics as a practice of world-making that proceeds through critique and conflict, emphasizing that it is a product of disagreement and difference,” I underline that differences can be manipulated in order to push change as much as to prevent it, or to gain advantage from the status quo. Hence, I treat efforts to avoid and prevent the expression of antagonism and to maintain one's position in an unequal situation as a variant of politics taking part in the co-construction of a certain world order.

Situations in which antagonistic politics are avoided are not necessarily political. They can reflect the choice to suspend critique as a means to reach higher purposes (Candea 2011). This nonetheless implies participants to be acknowledged as political actors in the first place, allowing them to deliberately agree to the suspension of politics. Such a delineation of the political is impossible in the context that I describe, for the power differential is such that the acknowledgement of the participants as political actors is itself excluded from the public space. In this situation, the denial of the political—its negation and avoidance—reflects the negotiation of power relationships and resources. Analyzing these as political implies moving beyond discourses of resistance and domination.

The relevance of studying the ‘interaction order’ to produce an ethnography of the political is not new (Cefaï 2011: 575), but it seems particularly relevant in a non-democratic context in which politics are intentionally avoided. Taking this circumstance seriously, I examine the marriage corners as a ‘paradoxical agora’. In its original Greek sense, the notion of ‘agora’ primarily describes a public space. It conveys the meaning of both a marketplace and a space where citizens assemble and discuss political ideas. The market and civic components of this space are not necessarily separated: in the market space, both goods and ideas circulate. I use this concept of the agora to analyze the political dimensions of the interactions happening in the public spaces of Chinese contemporary society. I call this agora ‘paradoxical’ because while this marketplace resembles an agora in the physical sense, political ideas are obliterated by official propaganda rhetoric, and the market is inefficient for providing spouses. What marriage corners actually do is to maintain a number of norms that happen to be in line with the state's familial and economic politics. In parallel, the visible anxiousness of many parents seeking the perfect partner for their child demonstrates the political gaps, historical experiences, and moral hopes and fears of their generation, as well as their active attempts to respond to these circumstances.

In the following, I analyze first what the development of marriage corners reveals about the transformation of sociality in urban China. I then describe the political rhetoric used by the participants and the tense nature of their interactions. To solve the entanglement of social interactions and politics, I question how the social is separated from the political in social theory and Chinese vernacular vocabulary. I contrast an insight of Hannah Arendt about politics as arising ‘between men’ with the Chinese notion of the ‘non-political’, which literally translates in the same way. Returning to the field site, I then demonstrate the participants’ reflexive understanding of the competition they take part in, and the tactical, diplomatic-like dimensions of their engagement in their given circumstances.

Altogether, this implies that the political is displayed in these markets through affective, rhetorical, and tactical means. What makes them decisively political in this understanding, however, is their consolidation of a state-sanctioned normative order in which contestation and divergence from the norm are understood as ‘troublemaking’, and those who take part in it are punitively ostracized. Examining these sites as paradoxical agoras, by which I mean constrained public spaces where politics are neither discussed nor decided, but rather embodied and practiced, can help us acquire a better understanding of how ordinary politics work in a non-democratic context like China.

A Market for Relationships

The phenomenon of ‘marriage corners’ first appeared in parks in Beijing in the early 2000s. In 2005, this concept began to be mentioned in the Chinese press, and from then on it spread very fast to other large cities all over the country, before also reaching smaller ones. Seemingly touching a very sensitive nerve in the present era of Chinese society, through the issue of the marriage of the first generation of single children, it opened an opportunity for many parents to try to solve by themselves what they were visibly considering to be a very pressing issue. Both male and female children are represented in these settings, where female candidates predominate (Pettier 2022: 517). In the context of the one-child policy prevailing when they were born, high importance was given to the studies and professional careers of these young sibling-less women. Yet those who were most successful in this endeavor now find themselves being considered as overqualified and too old to be regarded as ideal spouses (Ji 2015).

While in other park activities the participants remain at the level of “knowing without really knowing others” (Richaud 2018: 576), that is, seeing each other regularly without knowing the details of their respective lives, the reverse is true in marriage corners. The participants will mostly see each other only for a short time, but they need to enter directly into the details of their backgrounds and situations in order to examine the sustainability of a potential relationship. The compatibility they search for is at the same time economic, social, and affective. A marriage is a social contract that both parties should benefit from. Here, the parties in question are not only the potential marriage partners but also their parents, who, as long as there continues to be no consistent social welfare system, will need to rely on the support of their adult children during their twilight years.

In the circumstance of the obscure undemocratic governance of the People's Republic of China, numerous social and economic characteristics enter into consideration when selecting a marriage partner. The participants are often suspicious of each other's pretensions, and they are particularly cautious to avoid people who either “make trouble [dǎoluàn],” “disturb [húnào],” or “horse around [qǐhòng],” as a participating father mentioned to me. “Distrust is omnipresent,” I wrote in my notebook at a parental gathering in Beijing's Lake of Jade park in January 2010, impressed by a number of reciprocal accusations of lying that I had observed on that day. One of these involved two mothers in their fifties who aggressively expressed to me their doubts about each other's claims. While one interrupted my conversation with the second to suspiciously question the education she pretended to have, the second paid her back later by pointing out to me that the first one's daughter was probably a prostitute. “Here, a lot of people are liars,” she whispered to me discreetly pointing her finger at the photo album of the second mother, which contained a collection of stylish pictures of her daughter that the mother had been showing a moment earlier.

In the past, China's cultural tradition delegated marriage negotiations to matchmakers. The méirén, the traditional go-betweens, were supposed to follow a number of ritual steps, which were defined as being the only correct ones. Today, the role of mediators appears in more casual and negotiable forms (Pettier 2019). A consequence of this change, however, is that the direct interactions undertaken in the marriage corners raise questions that would previously have been considered to be within the realm of the méirén. This readjustment of mate-seeking processes charges these exchanges among strangers with additional significance. Choosing a marriage partner requires reciprocal trust between the parties involved, and these gatherings do not offer that. Participants come after having exhausted the networks through which they began to search for a partner for their busy child. The general flexibilization of life in China, where moving for work or for studies has become normal, and where a large part of the population is comprised of neo-urbanites, adds to their suspiciousness about each other's claims. During the Maoist era (1949–1976), leaving one's place of birth was hard (see Yan 2009: 276–278), and only a small proportion of the population was urban. Lying about one's own situation would have been risky. By contrast, the new conditions have created uncertainty. Simply put, contemporary urban people experience difficulties in knowing whom they can trust (Bunkenborg and Sybrandt Hansen 2020).

In the Chinese context, this atmosphere of distrust is often understood as the result of the absence of previously established guānxì. Generally translated as ‘particularistic tie’, this term describes the networks of relationships on which social life is based. Yunxiang Yan (1996: 98) analyzed guānxì as “the dynamic structure of the social world,” which encompassed both affective ties and political significance. Mayfair Yang (1994: 321) saw guānxì as a cultural mode of familial and feminine ethics of relationships permitting resistance to social uniformity, as well as to the state and the market. Guānxì may also serve very instrumental purposes (Kipnis 2002) and, depending on the context, be associated with forms of bribery (Kipnis 1997: 148–149). Smart and Hsu (2007) argued that it is the tactfulness with which guānxì are handled that allows people to determine if they are appropriate or reflect abuse and corruption.

Occupying a nebulous space somewhere between nepotism, corruption, and resistance, these dynamic connections vary greatly depending on particular contexts. Today, these relational modalities can be considered as modes of negotiation of power arising under the condition of an opaque state, or, as Veena Das (2007: 169) once observed concerning the Indian state, an “illegible” one. That the absence of guānxì leads to a lack of trust between the participants is an effect of the power differential they are taking part in. That they are suspicious of each other's claims and wary of potential troublemakers attempting to gain advantage from the situation reflects the larger tensions embroidered into matchmaking.

Words of Propaganda

In marriage corners, suspiciousness is the rule rather than the exception. Although the distrust among participants is usually rather silent and observable in the way people suddenly discontinue conversations and turn their backs on one another, heated arguments also regularly occur. The matters generating acrimony reflect the doubts people have concerning the pretensions of others, but also happen to follow expressed individual opinions concerning the practice itself during conversations held in the middle of the crowd. One such incident occurred when a father claimed that the situations they were dealing with in these parks were private and that I was not welcome to ask questions—which I did, but not to him. His aggressive interruption nearly erupted into a physical fight between him and the mother I was talking with, who rejected his intervention. In several instances, hot-tempered people were asked by others to avoid arguing in front of me, seemingly ascribing significance to the image they might project as a collective. My circumstance as a visibly foreign young man of marriageable age was occasionally revealing due to the unexpected reactions it generated while I was circulating throughout the corners. These reactions were marginal, but ranged from parents expressing disapproval and annoyance about my presence, to others, assuming that I could not speak Mandarin, literally jumping at me to put—undeniably pretty—pictures of their daughters in front of my eyes, as happened several times.

The tense affectivity of these interactions was often very disturbing to me, and I have discussed more extensively cases of disputes between participants and how to interpret the many reactions to my presence—positive and negative—in a previous publication (Pettier 2016). However, in each instance where confrontations between participants happened, others kindly insisted to me immediately afterward that these confrontations were not linked to my presence, and invited me to not take them personally. Initially, I understood this as a politeness formula. Yet the repetition of this assessment from other participants led me to question if my presence was indeed the cause of the trouble, especially after I had realized that even local journalists were reporting tensions. This led me to regard the disputes themselves as less significant than the way in which these scenes were carefully avoided by the majority of participants, simply by silently stepping aside. These dominant reactions reflect the political delineation that I am focusing on here. Conflict avoidance may lie in an understandable desire to avoid trouble, but it is at the same time a behavior sanctioned by the state, which promotes a consensual, ‘harmonious’ society (Wielander 2011). Its opposite—the vague notion of ‘picking quarrels and provoking trouble’ (xúnxìn zῑshì)—is an oft-used criminal charge (Yuen 2015). Confronting the norms, and breaking the harmony of social mores by doing so, is risky. The emphasis participants put on my presence when asking each other to not argue in front of me is also significant. By censoring each other's behavior and stepping aside from potential troublemakers, the parents subscribe to a politically charged ideal of self-distinction. In other words, acting harmoniously is not the result of goodwill. It is a necessity.

“Harmony cannot be decreed,” once commented to me in a clearly politically critical tone a retired doctor. He was a widowed man whom I had befriended in a Chengdu marriage corner, and later often met with his two unmarried adult children. Coming from an elite family that had sent him to study in the United States in his youth before becoming impoverished later through the political turmoil of Maoist times, his life trajectory had provided him with a sensitive but resigned understanding of how order was enforced. Indeed, what is observable here is that the maintained ‘harmony’ is not characterized by reciprocal respect and kindliness between participants. Many of these encounters oscillate rapidly between formal politeness, distrust, and contempt. Expeditious judgment and harsh mockery are also ever-present. The account of an encounter occurring in Beijing's Lake of Jade Park in February 2010 may provide a taste of the latter. On a concrete post of an installation at the entrance of the park spot where parents habitually gather, I observed that a man had noted down his details (see fig. 1). The statement read: “37-year-old man searching for an approximately 1.60m-tall child-bearing-able 35-year-old maximum woman,” followed by a phone number. This writing on a post was rather unusual, and seemed to reflect the desperate search of someone under pressure from his family to rapidly marry and have a child, as 37 years old is considered extremely late to remain unmarried in the context of China. While I was examining the message, two older women passing by on their way to the meeting looked at the notice too, and mocked the author for his clumsy handwriting. They concluded with contempt that it was useless to contact him since his educational and personal qualities were so low.

Figure 1:
Figure 1:

Statement on a concrete post. In the background, parents are gathered in a marriage corner. Photograph © Jean-Baptiste Pettier

Citation: Social Analysis 66, 1; 10.3167/sa.2022.660102

The directness of the man's message, emphasizing age and size and the ability to bear a child as the sole criteria for his selection of a wife, is telling about the only thing at stake in his envisaged marriage: reproduction. However, just as significant are the passing women's vocabulary of criticism and the wary attitude reflected in their comments, first disqualifying and then self-reassuring. They did not criticize his request itself, nor the commodification of women it revealed. Instead, they made reference to his presumed low level of education by describing him as, textually, “lacking civilization [wénmíng chà].” In many other cases, the parents deem the potential partner to be of low, medium, or higher ‘quality’. It was thus rather the chosen mode of the author's expression that was criticized, not the content, for it was the form itself that betrayed his needy state and inferiority.

In the Chinese context, ‘civilization’ and ‘quality’ are politically charged words due to the omnipresent propaganda that places them everywhere in official discourses and banners, and paints them on walls. These tense encounters reflect a state discourse which insists that the quality of Chinese people is too low (Kipnis 2006, 2007), summing up a contrary discourse of self-disqualification and social distinction. It is a vocabulary that rejects the majority of Chinese people as being outside of the civilized world, marking them as unworthy of trust and disregardable. According to this contradictory double-binding standard, the fact that China is lagging behind is the fault of its own people. What is fundamental in this belief is the disregarding stance it knits into inter-individual relationships among Chinese people themselves.

This deceptive approach is not one-sided; it nurtures at the same time a compensatory, contradictory trend of cultural pride and nationalism. The latter does not confuse the low level attributed to present-day Chinese people with that of the imagined country of China itself. Some participants present these practices as a proof of the reawakening superiority of Eastern traditions over Western ones. Apparently suspicious of my own situation, some said to me in a rather judgmental way—while seemingly also feeling sorry for me—that “Western parents do not care about their children's marriages.” In this view, marriage corners signify progress. A Beijing father to whom I did not express any approval or disapproval of the practice told me with some insistence, “You think this is strange, but it is in fact a nice phenomenon.” To him, “it shows that we are not stuck in a certain situation and can take measures to resolve the problems we are confronted with.” By implying that I must find it strange, but that it is not, and that it actually proves the superiority of Eastern parents, this father assigned to me the role of what he perceived to be the oppositional figure of Western modernity and its supposed misunderstanding of China. By insisting on the responsibility and care Chinese parents extend to their children by helping them find a spouse, he not only expressed a half-cultural, half-nationalistic view of the phenomenon, but also insisted on its full place in modernity and its righteousness.

In other words, while the vocabulary of civilization weakens the possibility of trust between the participants at the most intimate inter-individual levels, it also functions in parallel as a process of nationalistic cultural affiliation in the project of an imagined community of distinguished Chinese people—those defined through their exceptionally civilized behavior, superior classical education, high parental standards, and compassionate and trustworthy nature. Through these contradictory uses of a similar vocabulary, China is constructed as a place where quality is lacking among a disqualified socially and morally inferior majority, but where the distinguishable Oriental superiority of the population is also constantly present as an ongoing project that its elites should take up. The dual politics of ‘civilization’ can be maintained only as long as these two arms—the flogging one and the fondling one—can work together.

In the anxious context of these gatherings, however, it is the flogging arm that seems most active. Many participants I talked with confided to me their distrust of other participants, and also suggested that I should be suspicious of what I was told. Recommendations of not being “naive,” but on the contrary “careful,” and advice to be wary of “liars” appeared as common sense. By holding this discourse, my interviewees showed that they considered me to be somewhat more reliable than other participants who were unknown to them, seemingly merely due to the fact that I was external to the situation. On several occasions, people who were reluctant to consider marrying their daughters to the sons of parents who might not be trustworthy insisted that I should meet their daughters—propositions that I had to refuse when I felt that my role as a researcher was being confused with that of a potential spouse.

This vocabulary of adhesion and rejection is blatantly ambivalent and contradictory. On the one hand, it appears as a submission to a state vocabulary that makes the Chinese people ashamed of themselves. On the other, it is the subjective expression of a fundamental distrust in the country itself, and thus in its leaders, as marriage to a foreigner clearly represents a major opportunity to leave one's own country. This tragic state of social trust dramatically evidences parents’ fears of the consequences that the misplacement of their trust could have on their family's future, if they were to be deceived. Sun Peidong (2012) insists on the generational engagement that these gatherings are based on, as the participants are the members of a generation that was sent to work in the countryside during their youth and endured the fears linked with this early political experience. Still, the absence of trust among participants is not solely a historical consequence of something that happened a few decades ago. The omnipresence of the national propaganda vocabulary in both the positive and negative descriptions of these encounters by the participants themselves rather attaches the practice to their current situation. This politically tinged character of their interactions seems particularly important to observe when both the participants in and the commentators on these meetings seem to agree that marriage corners are actually inefficient with respect to their supposed purpose—providing spouses. When I carried out this research, a common assessment circulating among participants attributed a success rate of only 2 percent to the practice. I thus infer that something more is at stake: through their participation, these ‘high-quality’ parents of ‘very good children’ demonstrate their efforts to remain within the state-approved family norms.

Politics in Non-political Spaces

In her fragmentary theoretical work published in English as The Promise of Politics, Hannah Arendt addresses politics as arising “between men [in dem Zwischen-den-Menschen],” adding that “there is therefore no real political substance. Politics arises in what lies between men and is established as relationships” (2005: 95; italics in original). She then immediately insists on this relational emergence of politics in between people as being necessarily free of material or historical contingencies; it cannot be a social space as we know it. In Arendt's (1958) view, ‘the rise of the social’ in modern societies, which she traces in The Human Condition, precisely signifies the disappearance of politics as a space of unconditional freedom. To her, this rise marks a progressive detachment from the political realm of the ancient Greeks, for whom the public realm was clearly segregated from their private lives. She insists in particular on the conformism of mass societies, where the social progressively takes over politics (ibid.: 40–43). The Greek agora was actually both a space of debates and a marketplace, and Arendt's narrow definition of the political has been previously contested by ethnographers (Berger and Gayet-Viaud 2011: 10). Yet I am interested here in making a different use of her insight that politics arises as a relationship ‘between men’. This in-between nature could fruitfully be used to explore other modalities of the political, in particular in the circumstances of non-democratic authoritarian states, where conformism seems forced upon the people. It opens up myriad possibilities for reconsidering the everyday presence of the political in a society where the word ‘politics’ itself is perceived as dangerous. It can help us to examine politics in conditions where there is no observable equivalent of the autonomous political space Arendt identifies. As the Chinese government relied on its success in economic development to justify and maintain its grip on the society, this process can reflect long-term tendencies shaped by the intensification of economic competition under the form of a non-liberal authoritarian capitalism.

Defining what the ‘political’ is in the context of China is an ambiguous issue (Chevrier 2003). Interestingly, the ‘between-men’ expression that Arendt uses to define her notion of the political has a well-known word-for-word equivalent in Mandarin: mínjiān (lit., ‘people-space’ or ‘people-in-between’). That word qualifies in China the ‘non-political’, that is, all matters arising ‘between-men’ autonomously from the control of the state. The expression can cover all non-state-monitored activities, from civil matters to non-state organization work and folk traditions. Marriage corners belong to this category. Mr. Chen, a father I met in Chengdu, described them to me as a “free platform [zìyóu píngtái]” that allows people to meet autonomously; according to him, Chinese society often lacks such spaces. The non-political meaning of mínjiān ‘free’ activities is tied to a definition of the political circumscribed to state activities, rendering possible the existence of what is paradoxically known as ‘mínjiān activism’ (see Link 2020). That activism can be non-political shows how delineations splitting the political from the non-political depend on situations that can themselves be understood as political. Arendt's delineation offers here a productive contrast to the one that dominates in current Chinese circumstances. By emphasizing the importance of this definitional gap, my attempt is to understand how non-political public social interactions within China co-produce a certain political order on an everyday basis.

In recent decades, feminist authors have emphasized the intrinsically political dimensions of private life, insisting on the fact that ‘the personal is political’, as Carol Hanisch's ([1969] 2006) famous piece puts it. Anthropologists have also emphasized the inseparability of the various layers of social life and on the importance of studying “total social facts” that “involve the totality of society and its institutions” (Mauss [1925] 1990: 100). In the concluding sentence of the Essai sur le don, Marcel Mauss declares that these layers represent the very matter of “Politics, in the Socratic sense of the word” (ibid.: 107). Indeed, choosing a marriage partner is not a political decision in the usual sense. However, the norms and constraints prevailing over this choice have political dimensions and consequences. In China, where the qualification of any act as ‘political’ could, for the actors concerned, be the equivalent of an official condemnation, the tactical avoidance of explicit politics reinforces this point. While divergence of opinions can occasionally be very vocal, political views are virtually never explicitly expressed publicly. While social networks are widely acknowledged as decisive in everyday business in China, their politics are silenced. These contradictions have led to a situation in which politics could be seen as existing nowhere and everywhere at the same time, as the ambiguous use of mínjiān reveals. In this context, the non-political platform of marriage corners is a rare occurrence of a public space in which relationships that arise ‘between-men’ can be observed.

Many people who are in the age bracket of marriage corners’ participants engage in park activities such as dancing and singing (e.g., Qian 2014; Richaud 2018, 2020; Rochot 2017; Thireau 2021). The political dimensions of these leisure activities have been previously researched. Farquhar and Zhang (2012: 19) have tracked the (bio)political in the circumstances behind practices of “life nurturance” and have demonstrated how, through them, “sovereign power merges into personal effectiveness,” while Graezer Bideau (2012) has focused on the historical appropriation and framing of popular dances by the state. Marriage corners offer one further layer to our understanding of the political dimensions of the exchanges happening in the public spaces of post-Maoist China. They concern a sociological population—middle- to upper-middle-class people—that is different from the previously described activities, and they cannot be examined as everyday forms of resistance carried out by apparently powerless social groups (Scott 1985). The participants of the marriage corners are not marginalized: their children did well in school and are starting promising professional careers. In fact, they were themselves often in rather advantageous positions, due to their residence at the center of national or provincial capital cities. Rather than being a site of resistance, the urban marriage corners of China are a place where power and economics as well as affective exchanges are delineated and negotiated to the advantage of the urban upper middle class.

Maximized Ambitions

That marriage corners enact an ongoing race for power is critically reflected in the fact that participants assume transparently to be engaged in a competition for the best partners. This time, it was a Sunday afternoon in January 2010, in the Sun Yatsen Park of Beijing at the historical center of the city. In many Chinese articles about these gatherings, one can read that it is the place where the best social profiles can be found. Every family and their children here are allegedly of the highest level in China today—and this is what the participants themselves explicitly claim. The represented youths are from the best families and were educated in the best universities of China's capital city. On that cold winter day, the place was quiet as usual, and the surrounding park was totally deserted. However, despite the freshness of the weather and the snow scattered along the walkways, hundreds of people were gathered in the calm and visibly upscale meeting. Parents either circulated through the paths while holding their notices clearly visible in their hands, or placed them in front of their feet and stood still, waiting for other people to stop and exchange tips about their respective children. A quiet meeting, then—at least, as long as the questions of a foreign anthropologist did not inadvertently disturb it. A very old woman I spoke with assured me that she had taken part in similar gatherings from their onset in 2003 for a son who was, at the time of our discussion, 37 years old. She criticized the materialistic ideals that people were now requiring when choosing a spouse. “You have to be perfect, and beautiful. This is very indecent [bù zhèngjῑng],” she said with a disapproving and somewhat revolted tone, insisting on the newness of such unacceptable demands.

Some other people observing us immediately intervened in the discussion, disputing her argument, mocking her backwardness, and insisting on her inability to understand the issues at stake in such searches in today's society. “I'll tell you the truth, because this woman is too old and naive to understand,” a younger mother told me in reaction to the older woman's words. “Most of the participants’ children here already have a companion, or are perfectly able to find one by themselves, but their families want to find them a better one. Everyone wants the best, so people gather here.” No one among the persons around us contradicted her argument; on the contrary, they confirmed it. “There is no such thing as a best possible mate, but always better ones!” stated a father nearby, laughing.

I received on other occasions testimonies of parents explicitly searching for a ‘better’ partner for a child who already had one. Several had asked their child to leave a specific partner before starting to search for someone who would be a better fit in their eyes. Although it is not true that most participants’ children already have a partner—that comment outraged the older mother—we touch here on a key point: familial ambition. What is happening is the confrontation between highly ambitious ideals and a social world where previously strictly assigned places have disappeared but inequalities are skyrocketing, and people are fighting to preserve or improve their place. While attempting to guarantee their future life conditions, the participants are afraid that others may try to take advantage of them and drag them in a downward direction. The absence of trust and the fear of deception directly reflect the wildly competitive orientation given to society. Some of the participants, at least, are in the market in order to maximize the educational investment they made on their single child. If we take them at their word, keeping in mind that they are hardly the worst off in the present social situation—which does not mean, however, that their particular situation is not difficult—we cannot reduce them to victims. The parents cooperate in the game, following its rules; in a way, they are the ones who enforce them. This participation in a social competition for the best partners, underlain by an anxious sense of the risk of falling behind and the rejection of those who apparently did so, renders visible parents’ efforts to belong to the winning side of this world order and to optimize their own positions within it.

Diplomacy

Earlier in this article, I defined the political as deployed through three dimensions: affective (the anxious normative engagement of the participants), rhetorical (their mobilization of politically divisive slogans and keywords), and tactical. How can the last association be understood? Adopting competitive behavior is not in itself a political act. Indeed, no one I encountered during my fieldwork would describe these relationships as ‘political’. Power relationships dissolve into the mundane and the practical of everyday arrangements. The self-survival choices of the participants are made out of convenience. This does not mean that we can arbitrarily downplay their agency and ignore how the competition politics that they both take part in and find themselves to be victims of are de facto implemented through their very practices. The participants are not the puppets of a totalitarian order, as demonstrated by their expressed awareness of the situation. That parents affirm being at the parks to find the best possible mate, even if their child already has a partner, indicates this. The old mother who criticized the “indecent” criteria of this market and the other parents who reflexively shared with me their vision of the competition they take part in demonstrate that participants do not regard the materialistic orientation of these encounters uncritically. In China, where a rapid transition was made from a political system with little competition but widespread deprivation to one where rivalry is the main rule of the game and levels of inequality are stratospheric, competition is a political situation.

How should one understand these apparently unframed gatherings in the political space of contemporary China? The tight control observed in recent years over many collective gatherings and social events leaves little doubt concerning the will of the party-state to maintain control over public spaces. As the specific phenomenon of marriage corners seems to have escaped close attention from authorities, the tolerance it benefits from is a noticeable privilege. It should lead us to analyze why, and the answer may simply be that—although independent of the authorities and sometimes critical of them—the participants appear to be in line with those authorities’ objectives rather than threatening them. This is particularly obvious in respect to the familial and reproductive politics of the state: the privilege of these gatherings can be contrasted with the rejection of gay events and queer prides. Persistent rumors about parents looking for a straight partner for a disagreeing queer child also reinforce this point. Instead of seeking, in this recent phenomenon, the invisible hand of national politics, the often tense interactions these gatherings generate appear as their everyday inter-individual incarnation: politics, as they inhabit the world. Indeed, the confrontations I have observed arise between participants who have as their main objective the determination of the level of ‘quality’—one could say, of social conformity—of their counterparts. The anxiousness of the participants initially indicates their quality as ‘good parents’ and their ambition to maintain themselves and their children within the borders of the social norms. Acting in a disturbed way or making trouble is the best way to disqualify oneself as a potential ally. This political analysis of the situation can also be put in perspective when one considers that the punishment of “cases where conduct threatened social order or major cultural values” (Moore 2001: 729) has always been a tool of imperial politics, from Rome to China. Indeed, these gatherings pertain to the way norms are collectively implemented and maintained. While expressing social awareness and critique, the participants demonstrate no other social project than self-survival and fantasies of individual enrichment. The predatory attitude some of them adopt is a means to achieve such down-to-earth objectives. It rests on certain common understandings that today define the modus operandi of their citizenship: normality and the quest for success. These are political directions, neither intended nor agreed upon, but put into practice.

It is noticeable that the politics among these competitors, who are also co-citizens and potential allies, are guided by criteria that virtually all of them explicitly criticize. Matchmaking practice appears to be prompted by fears of disaffiliation and social disqualification. Marriage here seemingly confers a form of civil dignity, symbolically required to qualify fully as a person. Individually resisting this social pressure, as some bachelors I have met try to do, means imposing this choice's consequences—and social shame—on one's own family. Past 30 years of age, bachelors and bachelorettes will always be perceived as at least partially failures, and this ‘quality’ falls back on their relatives too. In China, not being married threatens an individual's social standing. The cost being so high, at both individual and collective levels, many try to adapt by taking part in a very emotionally taxing competition that none of them actually seems to enjoy—to the point that recent years have seen reports concerning the development of businesses that provide ‘straw partners’ for rent (Wang 2021). In this context, those who refuse to marry and to submit to the social pressures exercised upon them should also draw our attention. Their abstention is indeed significant (Weiss 2016). In this context, resisting marriage and reproduction is already a form of dissension.

Parents’ desperate efforts to find the right spouse for their child in marriage corners can hardly pass as resistance to this normative order. Instead, their participation and the negotiations involved would be better interpreted as a form of diplomacy—the art of reaching an advantageous compromise between strangers in a context that neither side fully controls and where expressing political sensibility is unwelcome. The strategies they deploy to reach their objectives imply self-control and a subtle management of opportunity. Indeed, individual participation in these markets is not only prompted by fears, but also filled with vibrant hopes. As the young mother had explained: “Everyone wants the best, so people gather here.” In the framework of a society where “conformism” has been elevated to the rank of an official objective (Yan 2009: 275) through an omnipresent rhetoric of ‘harmony’, these settings and attitudes should not be analyzed with the vocabulary of courage or cowardice, or even through the idea of the supposedly resigned obedience of a compliant population. The actual choice is not between seeing these people as either active or passive, heroes or victims. Their participation in marriage corners rather reveals their active engagement in finding the best deal in constrained circumstances. Parents seek to guarantee their individual futures and optimize the possibilities offered to them. Their reflexivity demonstrates that these people do not ‘obey’ or simply follow rules. The entire process they pass through implies making conscious choices, elaborating strategies, discussing criteria. “The economic situation is just beginning to improve a bit,” a mother at a Beijing gathering tells me, as if she felt the need to justify herself. “No one wants to step back.” Another insists that she does not like the casualness of the search as it manifests within these markets, where sentiments seem put aside. Sighing in resignation, she concludes: “We will see [them] later.”

Understanding these practices as a consequence of the power of the state imposed upon them would be missing the point. Certainly, the participants are victims of choices made somewhere else. Yet these conservative and normative interactions are also the most tangible everyday politics one can observe in a society where dissension is considered ‘troublemaking’. Caught between survival and predation, competition and the anxiety of failing, their actions comprise a self-conscious tactical dance between shadows of forces to avoid and others to attract and use.

Paradoxical Agora

To examine the political dimension of spaces where it does not appear as such—either because it is censored (as in authoritarian states) or because competition is considered to be the only rule of the game (as in a market context)—the traditional vocabulary of resistance and domination around which the analysis of power habitually revolves is misleading. Such is not the alternative with which people in China, who face both an authoritarian state and, since the end of the Maoist era, a market-oriented society, are dealing, at least not most of the time. Limiting our understanding of the political to exceptional events of collective resistance disconnects mundane everyday practices from politics. During their lifetime, most participants of the marriage corner gatherings have had physical experience of such events, from the Cultural Revolution to the student movements of the 1980s or the repression of the Falun Gong followers at the turn of the 2000s. If it would be tempting to see the public practices I have described as a disillusioned and cynical response to adversary circumstances, the described exchanges resist this reading. Very often, participants articulated support for their government and considered the criticisms from Western media or foreign organizations to be abusive. And very often too, the same people expressed critical views of their country's administration. However, I maintain that none of these contradictory views are the main determinants of these practices.

This asks where the political lies when actors work in order to gain advantage of the status quo. By seeing these matchmaking gatherings as a ‘paradoxical agora’, my attempt is to take seriously how state norms are actively enforced into everyday life situations. In doing so, we can gain a better understanding of how ordinary politics affectively, rhetorically, and tactically arise ‘between-men’, in conditions where the political is denied or silenced. While in the ancient Greek context the agora is the physical place where politics come to life through discourse, we are confronted here with a public space where no explicit politics arise. This agora is paradoxical precisely due to the fact that it works against the emergence of explicit political exchanges, and instead functions to preserve and redistribute advantages among the participants. If these politics are informal, in comparison to those happening within the secretive institutions of the Chinese state, they nevertheless also represent a nexus where power and resources are defended, negotiated, and conquered. Marriage markets are a social institution that parents rely on in the context of a punitive normative order that places at its center issues of gender and reproduction. By doing their best to fit in and improve their circumstances, they produce a locus where conservative norms are maintained and alternative possibilities are excluded.

Although the historical conditions of contemporary China have exacerbated the tensions underlying this phenomenon, I do not view the described situation as culturally bounded. In a productive contrast to the idealized notion of the Greek agora, the idea of a paradoxical agora is useful to understand how and why a system works through conscious choices that lie beyond its participants’ opinions. It is also a counter-logical approach as opposed to the politically charged vocabulary of the ‘silent majority’, whereby people support the way a system is working simply by not raising their voices against it. In other words, these ordinary politics are determined by the context instead of individual opinions, and yet families and individuals display idiosyncratic tactics within this situation. This contradiction defines the paradoxical agora, in which everyone searches for a spouse through ultra-competitive criteria that everyone critiques at the same time. The matchmaking interactions observable in these gatherings may not satisfy those who engage in them, but the social order that guides them through anxiety and hope to solve the issues they are confronted with overrules the critical opinions they might have and express concerning it. Anxiousness and fantasy shape the parameters of their active and voluntary participation. Love and contempt, expressions of likes and dislikes, are produced and distributed spatially throughout everyday intimate choices. The space ‘between-men’—the distance at which bodies maintain themselves from each other—is a form of politics that does not say its name. It is a politics of slogans, affect, and tactics.

Perhaps this analysis of marriage corners allows us to read in them “the no longer secret political ideal of a society … entirely submerged in the routine of everyday living” (Arendt 1958: 43). But the silencing of politics should not lead us to think that the political has actually disappeared from everyday society. If such paradoxical agoras are the spaces where authoritarian and market politics find their enactment, they could as well be, in future, excellent places to observe their transformations.

Acknowledgments

This article benefited from the reading of earlier versions by Ioan Trifu (Inalco), Tijo Salverda (University of Vienna), Susanne Brandtstädter (University of Cologne), and Michael Peter Hoffman (University of Halle). In addition, Eric Sinski (UCLA) offered comprehensive and beautifully done proofreading. Finally, I would like to thank the two anonymous reviewers for their supportive interest in this work, and the editors of Social Analysis for their encouragement to push further the precision of my argument.

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Contributor Notes

Jean-Baptiste Pettier is a Principal Investigator at the Institute of Social and Cultural Anthropology, and at the Affective Societies Collaborative Research Center, Freie Universität Berlin. He is a social anthropologist with a broad interdisciplinary background in the social sciences and a specialization in Chinese society. His core research interests concern sentiments, affect, and morality, and their relationship to political and economic conditions. His current project concerns the affective and ethical dimensions of the commerce and protection of animal species used in Chinese medicine. In the context of the Research Group on China(s) of the German Anthropological Association, he also co-organizes a research network examining reflexively the co-construction of the anthropology of the Chinese worlds. His most recent articles were published in Critical Asian Studies and Comparative Studies in Society and History. ORCID-ID: 0000-0003-3263-2873. E-mail: jb.pettier@fu-berlin.de

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Social Analysis

The International Journal of Anthropology

  • Figure 1:

    Statement on a concrete post. In the background, parents are gathered in a marriage corner. Photograph © Jean-Baptiste Pettier

  • Arendt, Hannah. 1958. The Human Condition. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

  • Arendt, Hannah. 2005. The Promise of Politics. Ed. Jerome Kohn; trans. John E. Woods. New York: Schocken Books. Originally published in German in 1993 as Was ist Politik?

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Bao, Hongwei. 2018. Queer Comrades: Gay Identity and ‘Tongzhi’ Activism in Postsocialist China. Copenhagen: NIAS Press.

  • Berger, Mathieu, Daniel Cefaï, and Carole Gayet-Viaud, eds. 2011. Du civil au politique: Ethnographies du vivre-ensemble [From civic life to political life: Ethnographies of living together]. Brussels: Peter Lang.

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Berger, Mathieu, and Carole Gayet-Viaud. 2011. “Du politique comme chose au politique comme activité: Enquêter sur le devenir politique de l'expérience ordinaire” [From the political as a thing to politics as an activity: Investigating the political becoming of ordinary experience]. In Berger et al. 2011, 924.

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Bozzini, David. 2015. “The Fines and the Spies: Fears of State Surveillance in Eritrea and in the Diaspora.” Social Analysis 59 (4): 3249.

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Bunkenborg, Mikkel, and Anders Sybrandt Hansen. 2020. “Moral Economies of Food in Contemporary China.” Journal of Current Chinese Affairs 48 (3): 243261.

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Candea, Matei. 2011. “‘Our Division of the Universe’: Making a Space for the Non-Political in the Anthropology of Politics.” Current Anthropology 52 (3): 309334.

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Cefaï, Daniel. 2011. “Vers une ethnographie (du) politique: Décrire des ordres d'interaction, analyser des situations sociales” [Toward an ethnography (of the) political: Describing orders of interaction, analyzing social situations]. In Berger et al. 2011, 545598.

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Chevrier, Yves. 2003. “L'historien du politique et la Chine quelques réflexions” [The political historian and China: Some reflections]. Journal des Anthropologues 92–93: 205234.

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Das, Veena. 2007. Life and Words: Violence and the Descent into the Ordinary. Berkeley: University of California Press.

  • Farquhar, Judith, and Qicheng Zhang. 2012. Ten Thousand Things: Nurturing Life in Contemporary Beijing. New York: Zone Books.

  • Frangville, Vanessa, Pierre Petit, and Lisa Richaud. 2021. “Public Spaces in Late Socialist East Asia: Interactions, Performativity, Citizenship. Introduction.” Civilisations 69: 1131.

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Graezer Bideau, Florence. 2012. La danse du yangge: Culture et politique dans la Chine du XXe siècle [The yangge dance: Culture and politics in twentieth-century China]. Paris: La Découverte.

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Hanisch, Carol. (1969) 2006. “The Personal Is Political.” Notes from the Second Year: Women's Liberation (1970). https://www.carolhanisch.org/CHwritings/PIP.html.

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Holston, James. 2019. “Metropolitan Rebellions and the Politics of Commoning the City.” Anthropological Theory 19 (1): 120142.

  • Ji, Yingchun. 2015. “Between Tradition and Modernity: ‘Leftover’ Women in Shanghai.” Journal of Marriage and Family 77 (5): 10571073.

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Kipnis, Andrew B. 1997. Producing Guanxi: Sentiment, Self, and Subculture in a North China Village. Durham, NC: Duke University Press.

  • Kipnis, Andrew B. 2002. “Practices of ‘Guanxi’ Production and Practices of ‘Ganqing’ Avoidance.” In Social Connections in China: Institutions, Culture, and the Changing Nature of ‘Guanxi’, ed. Thomas Gold, Doug Guthrie, and David Wank, 2134. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Kipnis, Andrew B. 2006. “‘Suzhi’: A Keyword Approach.” China Quarterly 186: 295313.

  • Kipnis, Andrew B. 2007. “Neoliberalism Reified: Suzhi Discourse and Tropes of Neoliberalism in the People's Republic of China.” Journal of the Royal Anthropological Institute 13 (2): 383400.

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Laszczkowski, Mateusz, and Madeleine Reeves. 2017. “Introduction: Affect and the Anthropology of the State.” In Affective States: Entanglements, Suspensions, Suspicions, ed. Mateusz Laszczkowski and Madeleine Reeves, 114. New York: Berghahn Books.

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Link, Perry. 2020. “Subverting Mao: The Roots of Minjian Activism in China.” Los Angeles Review of Books, 18 September. https://lareviewofbooks.org/article/subverting-mao-the-roots-of-minjian-activism-in-china/.

    • Search Google Scholar
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