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UCLA's Yunxiang Yan receives Association for Asian Studies China Book Prize


Clockwise from the upper left: Yunxiang Yan leading a UCLA seminar in Shanghai, the cover of his prize-winning book, and with Hu Yanjun, an old Xiajia village friend.

Levenson prize-winning Private Life Under Socialism shows how Chinese villagers, including young women, are increasingly demanding autonomy and privacy.

The family is a harmonious whole
that is created by the universe;
containing the personal happiness of family life,
it is the origin of well-being
and the symbol of warmth.
-- Hu Hanjun, poem on the wall in the above photo

By Clayton Dube

On April 1, the Association for Asian Studies presented its Joseph Levenson Prize for the Best Book on Post-1900 China to Yunxiang Yan for his Private Life Under Socialism: Love, Intimacy, and Family Change in a Chinese Village, 1949-1999 (Stanford University Press, 2003). Elizabeth Perry, chair of the Levenson Prize committee, presented Prof. Yan with the award, noting the book is

“An outstanding rural ethnography, … explor[ing] a subject barely touched by previous scholarship: the personal and emotional dimensions of family life among Chinese villagers. Professor Yan draws upon his insider’s understanding of one village in Northeast China, where he labored as a farmer for seven years in the 1970s and where he returned as a trained anthropologist in 1989 to embark on fieldwork spanning more than a decade, to develop a richly nuanced portrait of the personal experiences and moral universe of ordinary villagers. His purview ranges from more public issues such as social networks, family property and support for the elderly, to the private arena of romance, sex, birth control, and gender dynamics. The research is exceptionally thorough, the analysis is highly illuminating, and the presentation is direct, sensitive and moving.

“While obviously sympathetic to his informants’ efforts to navigate a confusing and changing world, Yan Yunxiang also paints a sobering picture of a countryside in which unbridled individualism is growing apace, without the requisite public associations to restrain it. Attributing some of the patterns he observes to pre-revolutionary traditions, others to the policies of the socialist state, and yet others to the influence of the post-Mao market economy, Professor Yan offers a complex and dynamic view of the beliefs and behaviors of contemporary Chinese villagers.”

This assessment fits neatly with those of other reviewers deeply impressed by Prof. Yan’s careful scholarship and insights:

“This may well prove to be the finest rural ethnography of a Chinese village ever written. By focusing on the emotional domain, Yan invites his readers to engage ethnographically in a new domain of scholarly exploration and analysis. In so doing, he has made the Chinese more human. It is a wonderful study.”—William Jankowiak, University of Nevada, Las Vegas

“The best ethnography of rural China in the 1990s, this important book is about a rarely explored but central dimension of Chinese family life. Yan also places his study of private life directly in the center of classic debates about the character and importance of corporate kinship. It takes years of sharing villagers’ lives to see beneath the surface. Yan lived it, and he brings deep understanding to both the narrative and the analysis.”—Deborah Davis, Yale University

"I really felt humbled by this honor,” Prof. Yan responded when asked about the Levenson award. He went on, “To be honest with you, what I did in the book is nothing more than a presentation of the moral experiences of ordinary Chinese villagers--how they lived their lives and how they reflect on their life experiences. It would be impossible to do so, of course, had I had not been trained in the field of anthropology and been supported all along by fellow villagers even since my first field trip there in 1989. So, the first thing I did after learning about the book prize was to tell my teachers and village friends. As you can guess, they were very happy."

In Private Life Under Socialism, Prof. Yan challenges and greatly extends depictions of the Chinese family which focus on its economic functions, its hierarchies, and its role in transmitting and enforcing traditional values. Such approaches tend to emphasize the roles individuals play in satisfying family demands. Living among and listening to the villagers of Xiajia, Yunxiang Yan came to understand the demands, increasing demands, individuals placed on their families. Families are expected to be a source of happiness, an emotion produced through commitment and intimacy. Though eager for warmth from their families, Prof. Yan documents how individuals also insist on privacy within those families and expect to be able to make important decisions on their own. Ultimately, Prof. Yan contends the corporate family is giving way to a “private family,” a “haven for individuals.”

This dramatic transformation may have accelerated in the past decade, but Prof. Yan argues that it has been underway for some time, detailing how even in the 1970s villagers understood and respected a engaged couple’s desire for privacy and intimacy by affording them set times and places where they could be alone. Xiajia villagers are also asserting individual property rights within the family. This transformation has come at the expense of parents, whose prestige and influence has noticeably slipped – a trend Prof. Yan labels a “crisis of filial piety.”

State policies, most obviously in collectivizing land and regulating births, have had a pround impact on families and individuals. Prof. Yan suggests that collectivization in some ways set individuals free from many family constraints and permitted the rise of the private family. More recently, the nearly complete preoccupation with economic growth has encouraged the development of an intense consumer culture. Behaviorial norms are being jettisoned and “uncivil individuals” (villagers with no sense of obligation to others) are everywhere.

As the Levenson Prize announcement suggests, it was because of his insider status that Yunxiang Yan was able to become so familiar with the people of Xiajia village. How did this come about?

Prof. Yan’s personal story is a remarkable one. Richard Gunde shared some of it in his report on Prof. Yan’s 2003 Malinowski Memorial Lecture. In 1971, Prof. Yan was a hungry teen from distant Shandong province when he was taken in by Xiajia villagers. He’d left his family and traveled to Northeast China’s Heilongjiang province hoping to find a place where he could get enough to eat. He spent the next seven years in Xiajia, helping to till the village’s maize and convert swampland to paddy rice fields. Following the death of Mao Zedong and the end of the Cultural Revolution, China’s universities began to again admit students primarily on the basis of their academic achievements and perceived potential. In 1978 Yunxiang Yan was able to enter Beijing University, the nation’s most prestigious university. He earned a bachelor’s degree in Chinese literature and then a master’s in folklore. After teaching for a couple of years at Beijing University, he won admission to Harvard University’s doctoral program in anthropology. Working under James Watson and Arthur Kleinman, among others, he began revisiting Xiajia. His earned his Ph.D. in 1993, ultimately turning revising his dissertation into the highly regarded The Flow of Gifts: Reciprocity and Social Networks in a Chinese Village (Stanford University Press, 1996). Prof. Yan taught at Chinese University in Hong Kong and Johns Hopkins University before joining the UCLA faculty in 1996 where he steadily advanced, becoming a full professor in 2003. He is currently president-elect of the Society for East Asian Anthropology.

In addition to The Flow of Gifts and Private Life Under Socialism, Prof. Yan has published numerous articles and contributed chapters to Golden Arches East: McDonald’s in East Asia (Stanford, 1997), China Briefing, 2000: The Continuing Transformation (M.E. Sharpe, 2000), Many Globalizations: Cultural Diversity in the Contemporary World (Oxford, 2002). This research on China’s consumer culture, the Chinese “localization” of American culture, and on Chinese efforts to “manage” globalization has been widely cited by scholars and in popular media (for example, click here to read a transcript of a Radio Australia interview). Prof. Yan has also drawn upon his training in folkore and mythology as a consultant on programs produced by the History Channel and Disney.

One of UCLA’s most highly regarded teachers, Yunxiang Yan is regularly charged with teaching core undergraduate courses (“Culture and Society” and “The Study of Social Systems”), in addition to China-focused courses (“Ideology and Social Change in Contemporary China” and “Chinese Family and Kinship”) and foundation seminars for graduate students (“Sociocultural Anthropology -- Historical and Philosophical Foundations of Anthropology”). His graduate students routinely describe him as a patient, attentive, and demanding mentor. Undergraduates rave about his presentations. Some of their observations can be read at BruinWalk.com:

“His lectures are especially notable because he uses personal examples to illustrate concepts…. He tells great, and often very funny, stories about his life in China and … his research.” [GJ, 3/15/2001]

“He is always available to students …” [6/13/2001]

“If you think he is wonderful in lectures, take his seminar classes.” [12/11/2001]

“Professor Yan’s Anthro 150 class was awesome. The lectures and readings are interesting and well organized…. This was one of my favorite classes.” [4/10/2002]

“One of the best professors… [Carefully] organized lectures injected with humorous yet insightful anecdotes make the class quite interesting.” [6/25/2002]

In the Asia Institute’s 2002 summer seminar for educators, Prof. Yan shared some of the insights he was then writing about. The secondary school teachers participating in the seminar found him a remarkably effective instructor. His presentation informed and inspired them. A few quotes from their anonymous evaluations suggest the impact he has:

Prof. Yan’s presentation was “a great step by step introduction to changing conceptions of family and individual in China. What a wonderfully clear argument! … The images from his slides of wedding ceremonies will stay with me for a long time.”

“I’d never thought about how private life might have changed…. [It was] amazing to learn how technology is affecting life in rural areas.”

“It was so interesting to try to unwind the origins of family conflicts stemming from shifts in loyalty from one’s parents to one’s husband or wife.”

Prof. Yan's expertise on how China is being influenced by and is influencing global trends and his obvious ability to connect with undergraduates led the International Institute to recruit him to direct the first of its Global Studies summer programs. He spent summer 2004 guiding twenty-four students in an exploration of what is old and new in Shanghai and its surrounding countryside. In addition to lecturing and organizing field trips, Prof. Yan supervised the students’ individual research projects into Chinese consumer culture. Another two dozen students will be under his tutelage in this year’s Shanghai program.

Prof. Yan's webpage
Stanford University Press
page on Private Life Under Socialism
Daily Bruin article discussing Prof. Yan's participation in UCLA's new Global Studies program
Association for Asian Studies Levenson Prize page (note that two other UCLA faculty members have won the award: David Schaberg in 2003 and Philip Huang in 1992).
UCLA was well represented at the 2005 AAS meeting in Chicago: more than twenty faculty, students, and alumni presented papers or served as panel chairs or discussants

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Published: Saturday, April 9, 2005