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Reviewed by:
  • Drink Water, but Remember the Source: Moral Discourse in a Chinese Village
  • Ellen R. Judd
Drink Water, but Remember the Source: Moral Discourse in a Chinese Village. By Ellen Oxfeld (Berkeley, University of California Press, 2010) 312 pp. $60.00 cloth $24.95 paper

Oxfeld's newest book is a wide-ranging interdisciplinary exploration of moral discourse in a village community in southeastern China. It is ethnography in the best sense of contemporary anthropological research—a deeply grounded account of life as lived, clearly concentrated on a salient theme. Oxfeld explored this moral discourse through and around a series of fieldtrips to the community that she calls Moonshadow Pond in Guangdong Province from 1993 to 2007. The study is built on oral histories of lived experiences in the twentieth century, as heard and understood within a longitudinal ethnographic context that allows reference to more widely shared histories and to diverging voices. The result is a carefully considered exposition of numerous facets of morality as spoken and as created through the vicissitudes of everyday local life and through the locally experienced upheavals of modern Chinese history.

The book is a welcome addition to a more familiar literature on the political and moral culture of China and of East Asia more generally. While grounded in a familiarity with textual records, it approaches morality as lived experience—how people speak about and enact "doing the right thing," and how they create themselves as moral beings possessing a cultivated heart and mind (xiuxin). Oxfeld's findings are located in an understanding of how morality is rooted in enduring relationships, notably those with ancestors that underline a reality in which there can never be absolute rupture or closure and never an end to moral relationships or to the duties that they entail.

Oxfeld opens this volume with a chapter on conscience (liangxin), a quality that a properly moral person must have and be seen to have, but that scholars have not elaborated as fully as they have a number of other key concepts in Chinese culture (such as bao/repayment or guanxi/ connection). As Oxfeld develops this discussion, conscience is expressed powerfully through death rituals and through continuing obligations that express (or not) people's dependability and moral awareness. Oxfeld then proceeds substantively to discuss morality ethnographically in relation to selected key areas of questioning—gender relations, property rights, and commoditization—showing concretely how people struggle with moral action in critical areas of their lives. The presentations are informed by current scholarship in the field and are accessible to readers from a diversity of disciplines. [End Page 497]

Oxfeld leads the reader through the diverse memories of residents of Moonshadow Pond as they confront questions about how to be moral in a world being turned upside down, not only through revolution but also through commoditization. She provides an important and insightful view into how people construct and live morality in a time of fundamental change and challenge.

Ellen R. Judd
University of Manitoba


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pp. 497-498
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