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Fighting for Breath

Living Morally and Dying of Cancer in a Chinese Village

Anna Lora-Wainwright

Publication Year: 2013

Numerous reports of “cancer villages” have appeared in the past decade in both Chinese and Western media, highlighting the downside of China’s economic development. Less generally known is how people experience and understand cancer in areas where there is no agreement on its cause. Who or what do they blame? How do they cope with its onset? Fighting for Breath is the first ethnography to offer a bottom-up account of how rural families strive to make sense of cancer and care for sufferers. It addresses crucial areas of concern such as health, development, morality, and social change in an effort to understand what is at stake in the contemporary Chinese countryside.

Encounters with cancer are instances in which social and moral fault lines may become visible. Anna Lora-Wainwright combines powerful narratives and critical engagement with an array of scholarly debates in sociocultural and medical anthropology and in the anthropology of China. The result is a moving exploration of the social inequities endemic to post-1949 China and the enduring rural-urban divide that continues to challenge social justice in the People’s Republic. In-depth case studies present villagers’ “fight for breath” as both a physical and social struggle to reclaim a moral life, ensure family and neighborly support, and critique the state for its uneven welfare provision. Lora-Wainwright depicts their suffering as lived experience, but also as embedded in domestic economies and in the commodification of care that has placed the burden on families and individuals.

Fighting for Breath will be of interest to students, teachers, and researchers in Chinese studies, sociocultural and medical anthropology, human geography, development studies, and the social study of medicine.

12 illus.

Published by: University of Hawai'i Press


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p. C-C

Title Page, Copyright Page

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pp. i-vi


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pp. vii-viii


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pp. ix-xii

Guide to Key Places and People

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pp. xiii-xvi

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pp. 1-14

In August 2004, I first visited the only surviving courtyard house in Baoma, a village in southwestern China where I had settled three months previously.1 Locals told me the house was three hundred years old. Over a dozen families had lived there during the Cultural Revolution, but in 2004 it accommodated only three families, and most...

Part 1: Foundations

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Chapter 1: Cancer and Contending Forms of Morality

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pp. 17-50

This book offers an account of how families strive to make sense of cancer and care for sufferers in one locality in contemporary rural China. Here I situate the study vis-à-vis the two broad fields of the anthropology of health and suffering and the ethnography of rural China. Villagers’ multifaceted and situationally contingent narratives ...

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Chapter 2: The Evolving Moral World of Langzhong

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pp. 51-88

Langzhong city is located in a hilly area in the northeast of the Sichuan basin, on a meander in the middle reaches of the Jialing river. Langzhong county covers an area of 1,878 square kilometers (725 square miles), including nineteen ethnic groups, but 99 percent of the population is Han. At the start of the new millennium, the total ...

Part 2: Making Sense of Cancer

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Chapter 3: Water, Hard Work, and Farm Chemicals: The Moral Economy of Cancer

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pp. 91-116

Junhong was a striking and independent thirty-year-old woman who married into Baoma in 1990. She was the seventh of eight children, and her father died when she was a few years old, leaving the family in abject poverty. As a consequence, at sixteen Junhong married a man from Baoma introduced by her eldest sister who had married there ten...

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Chapter 4: Gendered Hardship, Emotions, and the Ambiguity of Blame

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pp. 117-143

In the afternoon of November 1, 2007, I returned to Baoma. I had arrived in Langzhong the previous evening on a fleeting visit after a conference in Beijing. I had not been there since April and was keen to meet my friends and gan haizi (or “dry” children), and to see what effects the efforts to build a “new socialist countryside” had had on ...

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Chapter 5: Xiguan, Consumption, and Shifting Cancer Etiologies

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pp. 144-174

At sixty-two, Gandie was an active, healthy, and warm-hearted man. He was the father of Erjie, the thirty-six-year-old woman with whose family I lived. He liked drinking and smoking; in fact, he was “fierce” at it (xiong de hen), as his son-in-law remarked in January 2005, the month leading to his death, when his condition had dramatically deteriorated. When ...

Part 3: Strategies of Care and Mourning

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Chapter 6: Performing Closeness, Negotiating Family Relations, and the Cost of Cancer

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pp. 177-199

On November 24, 2004, Erjie and I set out after lunch to visit her father. As we walked up the hill, we discussed her feelings of tightness in the chest, which she experienced frequently since her father was diagnosed with cancer and she regarded as a consequence of the tension exacerbated by his illness. To ease her anxiety, she brewed lotus seed hearts in...

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Chapter 7: Perceived Efficacy, Social Identities, and the Rejection of Cancer Surgery

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pp. 200-229

When I met her, Grandma Chen was a lively seventy-two years old, although her life had been anything but easy. Born in 1931 in the village neighboring Baoma, in 1949 she married Grandfather Li and—as was customary—did not meet him until their wedding day. Grandma Chen gave birth to five sons and one daughter, but two sons were stillborn...

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Chapter 8: Family Relations and Contested Religious Moralities

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pp. 230-257

This remains one of my favorite fieldwork moments. Two girls, ten-year-old Youhui and twelve-year-old Meimei, discussed local customs. In the case of the former, Uncle Wang’s granddaughter, her grand-mother followed “traditional customs” with regard to offering paper money and incense to the kitchen god and to ancestors. For Meimei,...

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pp. 258-266

When I first settled in Baoma in 2004, I was baffled and perhaps even slightly upset to be told that I was “very fat.” With a height of 167 centimeters (5 feet 6 inches) and a weight of 60 kilograms (132 pounds), I had until then happily accepted the biomedical ideology that defines me as “normal.” As the months went by, I had occasion to realize that local parameters to assess fatness were somewhat different from my...

Appendix 1: Questionnaire (English Translation)

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pp. 267-268

Appendix 2: List of Pesticides Used in Langzhong and Their Health Effects

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pp. 269-272


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pp. 273-284


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pp. 285-312


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pp. 313-BC

E-ISBN-13: 9780824837976
Print-ISBN-13: 9780824836825

Publication Year: 2013