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Communities of Complicity

Everyday Ethics in Rural China

Hans Steinmüller

290 pages, 19 illus., 6 figs & tables, 3 maps, bibliog., index

ISBN  978-0-85745-890-2 $120.00/£75.00 Hb Published (March 2013)

ISBN  978-1-78238-914-9 $34.95/£22.00 Pb Published (March 2015)

eISBN 978-0-85745-891-9 eBook

Hb Pb
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“…what makes the book really interesting beyond the disciplinary boundaries of anthropology is its dialogue with one of the most challenging and thought provoking topics in the study of Confucian ethics. Steinmüller’s take on productive embarrassment makes a very important contribution to the study of li in contemporary rural China.” · Journal of Royal Anthropological Institute

Communities of Complicity does an admirable job presenting everyday life in a Chinese rural community. Its great strength is that it introduces us to many people and detailed accounts of everyday life, testifying to the author’s unswerving commitment to anthropological fieldwork. We meet people from all walks of life and learn how they and their social groups fare in China’s dramatic transition process, in which nobody and nowhere are unaffected.… [It is] a hugely valuable contribution to the anthropology of China, which obviously is struggling against many odds. It is highly recommended to students and researchers trying to comprehend the immense changes now taking place in Chinese rural areas.” · China Information

“Hans Steinmüller’s ‘Communities of Complicity’ is a shining example of ethnography’s relevance to contemporary understandings of China… [His] careful combination of rich ethnographic writing, eloquent theory, and clearly outlined methodology also makes it an excellent reading for students. His ethnography stands testament to the depth of insight possible through a more classical anthropological project. With the anthropology of China increasingly engaging with urbanization, mobility, and wider macro forces, Steinmüller’s village ethnography is a refreshing reminder of the importance of the rural in understanding contemporary China.” · Anthropos

“…an ethnographically rich and theoretically innovative book. Innovative because the theory is very much developed out of the ethnography, rather than imposed on it.” · Asian Anthropology

“This rich ethnography… is a very valuable and unique contribution to the growing body of literature concerned with morality and moral uncertainties within a rapidly changing contemporary China.” · The China Journal

“…a fascinating and vivid ethnography which examines the ethical reflexivity of the everyday lives of ordinary people in rural China. It… provides a rich and nuanced account of the rapid social change faced by villagers there. Steinmüller’s work is theoretically extremely rich.” · LSE Review of Books

“This book is both strong on ethnographic detail as well as theoretical ambition. Its unique contribution is to see the relationship between postsocialist state and rural communities, and therefore the development of everyday ethics in contemporary China, in a new light – namely through the lenses of irony and cultural intimacy.” · Susanne Brandtstädter, University of Oslo

“The author does an excellent job of providing a theoretical context or frame in which some material that might seem ‘mundane’ becomes seen as having very important stakes about the contested moralities of everyday life in contemporary China. The examination of the everyday ironies that people use in talking about social expectations is particularly exciting… He engages some very relevant arguments both within anthropology and beyond it in philosophy and literature.” · Alan Smart, University of Calgary

Everyday life in contemporary rural China is characterized by an increased sense of moral challenge and uncertainty. Ordinary people often find themselves caught between the moral frameworks of capitalism, Maoism and the Chinese tradition. This ethnographic study of the village of Zhongba (in Hubei Province, central China) is an attempt to grasp the ethical reflexivity of everyday life in rural China. Drawing on descriptions of village life, interspersed with targeted theoretical analyses, the author examines how ordinary people construct their own senses of their lives and their futures in everyday activities: building houses, working, celebrating marriages and funerals, gambling and dealing with local government. The villagers confront moral uncertainty; they creatively harmonize public discourse and local practice; and sometimes they resolve incoherence and unease through the use of irony. In so doing, they perform everyday ethics and re-create transient moral communities at a time of massive social dislocation.

Hans Steinmüller is Lecturer in the Department of Anthropology and convenor of the MSc China in Comparative Perspective at the London School of Economics.

Related Link: Listen to Hans Steinmuller's interview with Voice of America's Jim Stevenson here...

Series: Volume 10, Dislocations

LC: HN740.Z46S74 2013

BISAC: SOC002010 SOCIAL SCIENCE/Anthropology/Cultural; SOC053000 SOCIAL SCIENCE/Regional Studies; SOC000000 SOCIAL SCIENCE/General

BIC: JHM Anthropology


Notes on the Text


Chapter 1. A Remote Place from Three Angles
Chapter 2. Gabled Roofs and Concrete Ceilings
Chapter 3. Work Through the Food Basket
Chapter 4. Channelling Along a Centering Path
Chapter 5. The Embarrassment of Li
Chapter 6. Gambling and the Moving Boundaries of Social Heat
Chapter 7. Face Projects in Rural Construction

Conclusion: Everyday Ethics, Cultural Intimacy, and Irony

Appendix A: Newspaper Report
Appendix B: Expenses for the Construction of a House
Appendix C: List of Money Gifts and Tasks
Appendix D: Subsidies Given to Three Households


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