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  • Being Modern in China by Paul Willis
  • Jing Xu (bio)
Paul Willis. Being Modern in China. Cambridge, UK: Polity Press, 2019. xii, 196 pp. Softcover $24.95, isbn 978-1-5095-3831-7.

"In China's quite special relationship with modernity a future-obsessed society is simultaneously structured by and in continuous dialogue with the past, its forms and grammars, and in particular with its ultra-high-stakes exam system and culture stretching back millennia. Mesmerized modernity meets the Gaokao" (p. viii), argues the British sociologist Paul Willis in his new book Being Modern in China. This book offers a fascinating record of his first encounter with China—through teaching at Beijing Normal University (2014–2017). It weaves together a diverse range of materials: his personal experiences living in Beijing, popular culture representations and government [End Page 161] propaganda materials (e.g., China Global Television Network, English newspaper articles, Internet sources, etc.), his three ethnographic trips (to a Beijing migrant school, an NGO on the edge of Beijing, and a remote mountain village far from Beijing), and his Chinese students'"retro-ethnographies" (as part of their course assignment). Experimenting to break the boundary between academic and popular writing, Willis' account of his China experience, with its poetic and forceful prose, is a great pleasure to read. Deliberately framing this book as "a Western cultural analysis," Willis aims at turning the strange into familiar. China not only excites Willis, but also puzzles him: "You are always a foreigner, taken as a foreigner" (p. vii). As an anthropologist who grew up in post-reform China and had my destiny and identity profoundly shaped by the ruthless Gaokao regime, Willis' cultural commentary inspires me to turn the familiar into strange; it also opens up or reframes interesting questions for China specialists to grapple with, to debate, and to answer.

Willis' theoretical entry point is "symbolic order," defined as "a wide pool of resources and symbols which provide material and context for local and situated practices of 'meaning-making'" (p. 2). According to Willis, scholars have focused less on systematically understanding changes in ordinary people's symbolic order, compared to changes in the material order of contemporary China. To what extent this diagnosis is true is up for debate among China specialists. For example, in anthropology within the past decade or so, there has been a surging interest in the transformations of Chinese psychological, emotional, and moral life, the cultural, symbolic resources, and their entanglement with history (Kleinman et al. 2011; Siu 2006; Zhang 2008;to name just a few).

In part 1, he argues that contemporary China has a new symbolic order "radically different and more autonomous than what has gone previously" (p. 3). This new symbolic order consists of "three arrows of modernity" (p. 4): (1) the glorified city, a central narrative and symbol of modernity, that instills a longing for urban life in ordinary people's deepest imaginations; this future-oriented, forward-looking attitude is in synergy with physical movement, large-scale rural-to-urban migration structured by ruthless inequalities under the hukou system; (2) a super-charged consumerism that is itself glorified as a symbol for modernity, a medium for a better future in a still developing country, and therefore a paradox: too poor to actually purchase, the majority of Chinese consumers are doing "spectral consumption" (p. 39), a "consumerism of symbolic optimism" (p. 45); and (3) the powerfully invested Internet (especially smartphones): for the state it opens up new powers of surveillance and control, for ordinary people it is a magic means to access new worlds and engage in symbolic self-production. Moreover, all three arrows are operating under a powerful party-state that is tightening its grip while leading the nation to its rightful place on its own terms. [End Page 162]

Across these chapters, he intentionally refers to his experience in and expertise on England to compare and contrast. While such a comparison offers fresh, penetrating insights, in each of these three domains, the comparison may simplify important questions. (1)On "the glorified city": how do we understand this central imagery in post-reform era from a longer historical perspective, for example, the symbolic significance...


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