- New Reflections on Anthropological Studies of (greater) China
It is useful for academics to reflect periodically on the nature of their practice, their field, their goals, and their trajectories. Most fields likely have conversations and publications of this sort. In anthropology, perhaps the most influential of these conversations in recent years is enshrined in the book Writing Culture, edited by James Clifford and George Marcus (1984), which is often credited or blamed for engendering a two-decade-long crisis and paralysis, from which we are now emerging. One of the strengths of that book is the clear focus on a central topic: how ethnographic experience is represented in writing. Many of that book's contributions are considered classics now.
The book under review here is of a different, though related, type. It, too, emerges from what is considered a problem, but the problem is much less focused and is seen differently by different contributors. Many see the problem as the marginalization of the field—China anthropology—within the larger discipline. Some see the problem as one of disciplinary relations (e.g., anthropology with history, or anthropology with political science or other social sciences). Some see the problem as one of situating the current field within the context of the recent past. Some see the problem as locating China studies within the changing context of China. Some see mostly an opportunity for new research topics. The diffuseness of the authors' visions may be a strength or a weakness, but it comes across very clearly in this very free collection. Editorial intervention at the conference and in the book appears minimal. What we have is a fairly accurate portrayal of the field of China anthropology in the words of many of its current practitioners. The essays, or reflections, are not intended to offer scholarly or philosophical analyses, but rather to spark conversation (at the original symposium) and reflection (in the book version). With such an understanding of the project's goals, we may regard it as a potential success. We will not be certain of that until the effects are known in the future. Still, it is laudable to take stock from time to time and to do so in an interactive way.
New Reflections on Anthropological Studies of (greater) China grew out of an annual symposium in Chinese studies held at the University of California, Berkeley, in 2002. The original title, "Anthropology in and of China—A Cross-Generation Conversation," was attacked on multiple grounds: the notion of generation suggests hierarchy; "China" suggests the very unfashionable area studies orientation; and "China" makes boundaries appear too fixed. This was obviously a hard [End Page 161] crowd to please. The book's title is an attempt to placate critics of various types. Despite the erasure of "generation," a generational feel remains in terms of the vocabulary used, the ways questions are framed, and the responses each author makes to the perceived task.
The layout of the book suggests postmodernism and casualness—parentheses in the title, lower-case names in the table of contents (myron l. cohen, jerry eades, judith farquhar, etc.). The short fragments delivered at a conference suggest a certain nonchalance of preparation, rather than intense scholarly effort. All in all there is a sense of a breezy romp through some ideas. Only the longer contemplations have references or footnotes. The shorter ones are off-the-cuff musings. The long ones are often reflections on the anthropologist's own training and experience, sometimes failures and disappointments. Many of the entries are quite honest— not what you would write to get a grant ("All is well," "I am confident") but more like what you would hear over a beer following the formal paper presentation. Editor Xin Liu mentions that the chapters retain their oral character.
The contributions do not have titles; they are labeled with the authors' names:
For those who are familiar with this...