Love’s Uncertainty: The Politics and Ethics of Child Rearing in Contemporary China by Teresa Kuan (review)
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Reviewed by
Teresa Kuan, Love’s Uncertainty: The Politics and Ethics of Child Rearing in Contemporary China, Oakland, CA: University of California Press, 2015, 272pages.

Love’s Uncertainty is about child rearing in the context of a major historical transformation in China, which has been, and continues to be, engineered by the state – the economic and human modernisation of the nation. The book takes as a central question the problem of moral agency in contemporary life and argues that Chinese social reality is tremendously contradictory and inconsistent, thus requiring the reconciliation of conflicting moral goods and the location of opportunities for exercising personal efficacy (8). Teresa Kuan presents her book as a critique of the ideological mystification argument, commonly found in studies of motherhood under capitalism (13). A focus on moral agency and experience provides, she argues, a remedy for structural or political-economic reductionism without reverting back to the kind of humanism that assumes a rationally and morally autonomous subject. Moral experience refers to the intermediate space between the force of social norms and moral codes, on the one hand, and the capacity of actors to deliberate about their situation and make the effort to respond accordingly, on the other (15). Moral agency then relates to what Kuan calls an ethics of trying, a kind of practical philosophy that takes causation and efficacy, responsibility and blame, as its central concerns (18). The moral problem for middle-class mothers in modern China consists of whether one has tried everything possible to secure the good life for one’s child in the face of intense social competition. [End Page 306]

Kuan claims that imbalances of various kinds (between population size and available resources, between overproduction of college graduates and an economy unable to absorb the surplus of white collar labour, between new norms for good parenting and the realities of social competition) challenge middle-class family life, generating a kind of anxiety and insecurity that is uniquely Chinese, as they are the scripts for action in turn mobilised (8). To interpret China’s population and middle-class rearing projects, Kuan uses the notion of affectivity, broadly understood as the power and susceptibility that humans, things, and circumstances have to influence and be influenced by (9). Following François Jullien (1992), Kuan argues that what differentiates human from non-human activity is that human actors have the capacity to manipulate reality by artfully disposing and arranging things in a strategic way. In this framework, discerning the relationship between existing constraints and the scope of human agency becomes an ethical question (9). Both running a country and raising a child in contemporary China are spheres of government that involve what Kuan refers to as the art of disposition: a moral practice that simultaneously recognises the embeddedness of human activity while locating opportunities for strategic manipulation (21) (Foucault 1977). It is a notion that insists on the active side of affectivity, the capacity humans have to assemble things and to create conditioning external circumstances (115). As the primary caregivers, mothers experience themselves as agents in managing the uncertainty of their children’s future, which represents a moral burden fraught with the fear of potential or actual regret.

Methodologically speaking, the book is based on textual and ethnographic research. The former includes the analysis of official state documents pertaining to children and education as well as popular magazines, television shows, newspapers, and advice books intended for parents. The ethnography consists of following ten “new” urban middle-class families and interviewing psychological health counsellors, popular experts, and schoolteachers in Kunming, the capital of Yunnan Province. Kuan selected her research participants based on their “middle-class” consumption power, and she justifies restricting her “extremely small” sample size so as to get to know individuals and families at a more intimate level (Zhang 2010). Yet this remains very challenging not only because these people are particularly busy but also due to the researcher’s own position as a young American woman with limited command of the local Kunming dialect (28). Families in the book are portrayed as living double-income households that devote enormous amounts of energy and income to the education of their only child...