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Chapter 3 Water, Hard Work, and Farm Chemicals The Moral Economy of Cancer 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 years previously. Junhong was very unhappy with her in-laws and her husband, who was violent toward her and their twelve-year-old daughter . She delayed divorce only out of fear that her daughter would lose the support of her father and grandparents, with whom she was living in Junhong’s absence. By the time Junhong and her youngest sister, Lili, returned to Baoma in January 2005 to celebrate Chinese New Year, I had become close to both of their daughters. On January 29, 2005, I joined Junhong and Lili to visit their mother and brothers in their natal village of Meishan, roughly fifteen kilometers from Baoma and twelve kilometers from the county town of Langzhong. After a steaming hot bowl of noodle soup, we took a walk around Meishan. We were stopped by a group of locals working to build a better village road. Among them was Junhong and Lili’s eldest brother, Baohua. These farmers/workers explained that one day of work earned them 10 yuan, but they would never see this money.1 Rather, the credit earned would gradually offset their debt to local officials for overdue agricultural and other taxes. While they initially focused their animated discussion on the low pay for such physically demanding labor, these workers soon turned to a rather more disturbing issue. As they briefed the sisters on the latest news in Meishan, a narrative of widespread 92     Making Sense of Cancer illness began to unfold. Quickly joined by others and spurred by his younger sisters, Baohua told me that Meishan residents were plagued by stomach problems and numerous cases of stomach and esophagus cancer in particular: “It’s only our hamlet; so many people have cancer, especially of the esophagus, or stomach problems. The village officials know, but what can they do (tamen guandedao ge sha)? It has been at most four years. We are not sure why this is happening. But it’s not the air, because that’s not specific to here. It has to be the water. We need a reporter to investigate it and to tell our situation. Very many people are sick.” “Maybe three or four in our hamlet [of 80–90 residents],” interrupted one villager. Another corrected him: “No, more like over ten. They are all men, all over forty, but it’s hard to say exactly how many; people don’t want to say, because others get scared and won’t go to see them—they are scared that they may catch it” ( January 29, 2005). Where do Langzhong villagers lay the blame for cancer? This and the following two chapters examine the main factors to which cancer is attributed and what implications they carry. This chapter in particular focuses on how Langzhong villagers attempted to make sense of why cancer seems widespread and why it affects particular individuals. While it focuses on the specific case of farm chemicals and cancer, it also raises broader questions surrounding rising forms of “biosociality” (Rabinow 1996)—the ways in which citizens engage with the local state, with the market-oriented economy, and with the type of development it entails. Overall, this chapter illustrates that disputes about cancer causality and attitudes toward farm chemicals articulate diverse sociologies and “geographies of blame” (Farmer 1992). Competing cancer etiologies offer insights into how villagers view collectivism, modernization, consumerism, and development at large, whether they think the local and central state are making sufficient efforts to provide for their welfare , or whether they believe the government is able to do so at all. The chapter is divided into three parts, each of which traces cancer etiology within the intersecting contexts of the state, the family and local community, and the moral economy of the market. The first part outlines cancer etiology vis-à-vis the state. It provides a brief overview of farm chemicals in use in China and locally and their effects as potential contaminants in the local well. It examines Baohua’s attempts to craft a “biological citizenship” (Petryna 2002) around which villagers would Water, Hard Work...


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