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positions: east asia cultures critique 9.1 (2001) 105-130

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For Your Reading Pleasure:
Self-Health (Ziwo Baojian) Information in 1990s Beijing

Judith Farquhar

One rainy Sunday in Beijing, in 1997, I went to a shopping mall bookstore in search of popular works of health advice. The shops in the complex were crowded. They were always busy on Sundays, but this day the rain had led more people to seek the warmth and stimulation of this seven-story department store with its many boutiques. In the bookstore there were two cases full of popular health books, a bonanza for me, since I had just begun an ethnographic project exploring the popular space between the institutions of Chinese medicine and the daily life of health-related practices. Planted in front of these cases were two men in their early twenties, both noticeably down-at-the-heels in an urban sort of way. Standing one at each case, and each examining his own copy of the same book, they made room for me grudgingly. As I worked my way down the shelves sampling books on everything from nutrition therapy to home care of the aged, I could see that the book they were reading was an illustrated guide to sexually transmitted [End Page 105] diseases. Though both men were careful not to display the book's cover, and thus its title, to me, the topic was not hard to discern. Page after page of color photographs exhibited horrifying skin conditions afflicting both male and female genitals. I too wanted to look at this book, for scholarly reasons of course. But they had the only two copies, and in the end I could not outwait them; when I left with my stack of health books, they were still there, fending off all browsers and intently poring over the lurid color plates in their book.

This is one of the few times I have witnessed someone in the act of reading popular health literature. Of course I wondered why these two men were reading this book in that way. Anthropologists are supposed to be able to ask people why they do things. When we do, and when people will talk to us, we tend to privilege the answers we get as if they were the authentic voice of the people. But in this situation, had I asked, even had I known these two men and established some form of (anthropologically fabled) rapport with them, what could they have told me about their reading process? With incredible luck, I might have gotten them to admit to an instrumental reading; perhaps they feared infection themselves and wanted to recognize the symptoms to protect themselves. On the other hand, maybe they told themselves that was their motive, when in fact it was some other gratification they sought in those pages. Even the most minimal form of nonfiction reading, thought of as gathering information or remedying ignorance, has its attendant pleasures or frustrations, and few readers, if asked, could or would articulate much about this aspect of reading. One wonders whether any of us know why we read, and keep reading.

In any case, one can hardly doubt that these two young men, with plenty of time to kill while rain poured down outside, had some kind of highly charged interest in the illustrations they were studying. The unsentimental exteriority of the photographs, as they clinically flattened, isolated, collected, and published body parts that are normally inner, folded, private, and continuous with the rest of the person, transgressed the ordinary limitations of vision and experience and carried, no doubt, its own thrill. It is this textual practice of both flattening and multiplying, and the rather unprecedented visibilities it achieves, on which I focus in the discussion that follows. At the same time, I examine a number of methodological problems that plague efforts to understand the popular and the everyday in any scholarly project.1 [End Page 106]

Let me begin, then, by confessing the many false starts and methodological self-doubts that assailed...


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