Refusing to Inherit “China”

How to Cite

Steffen, M. (2021). Refusing to Inherit “China”: The Troubled Histories and Continuities of an Anthropological Object. Transnational Asia, 4(1).


When reading the field known as the anthropology of China in English, the past is not necessarily a foreign country, but it often takes place in a different country. In a 2001 Annual Review article on the anthropology of China, Stevan Harrell makes an historical argument about the state of the field and argues that “the opening up of China’s societies and communities” in 1978 corresponds to an opening in anthropology as a discipline in general.[1] Of course, not every Chinese-speaking society and community opened up in 1978. In a footnote on the first page, Harrell clarifies that he uses “‘China’ to refer to the People’s Republic of China. Taiwan is called Taiwan and Hong Kong is called Hong Kong.”[2] This strikes me as exceedingly sensible, and yet it begs the question: Why not jettison the source of confusion altogether? Why use the term “China” in anthropology at all?

Throughout this essay, I will—by closely analyzing a few revealing examples—show how the anthropology of the territories now referred to as the PRC, Hong Kong, and Taiwan[3] is plagued by past scholarship that uses the terms “China” and “Chinese” in confusing, less-than-sensible ways. While current anthropologists can do nothing to change the naming conventions of their predecessors, there is no reason anthropologists working in the PRC now need to identify their work as taking place in “China” as opposed to “the PRC” or, better yet, in a more specific place within the larger political entity known as the PRC. As it stands now, the field known as “the anthropology of China” runs the risk of completely erasing the work of ethnographers with field sites in Taiwan and Hong Kong from scholarly conversations the way Harrell’s Annual Review piece does when he admits he has to cut Taiwanese and Hong Kong cases out of his review because they don’t fit.

That ethnographic scholarship about these two Sinophone places wouldn’t fit into a larger narrative built around ethnographies of the PRC should come as no surprise, given the region’s history.[4] In the 20th century, anthropologists who conducted research in the territory that would eventually become the People’s Republic of China (PRC) worked under several different colonial, imperial, republican, or communist regimes. After the founding of the PRC by the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) in 1949, anthropologists trained in anglophone countries found themselves largely shut out of field sites and unable to conduct in-person fieldwork. Instead, anthropologists from the UK and USA went to British Hong Kong’s New Territories or to Kuomintang (KMT)-ruled Taiwan, respectively. These were places where—like Vincent S.R. Brandt in South Korea—anthropologists had experience or connections because of their home countries’ past and present military commitments.[5] As Alex Jong-Seok Lee argues in the introduction to this issue, anglophone anthropologists working in East Asia after World War II maintained a “relative silence” about the military conditions and alliances that shaped their production.[6] The primary political considerations preventing ethnographers from working in the PRC are present only as subtext in these monographs produced between the 1950s and the 1980s; most research conducted in Sinophone places at the time identified itself as part of the “anthropology of China.” By closely reading ethnographic works that claim to be about “China” from the past hundred years,[7] this article makes five main observations: 1) that in the 1950s, 1960s, 1970s, and even some of the 1980s, anglophone anthropologists deliberately shaped their fieldwork in Hong Kong and Taiwan so that these places could stand in for a shared scholarly object called “China”; 2) that scholars who currently do fieldwork in the PRC often unquestioningly cite that body of work, which reifies “China” as a scholarly object; 3) that uncritically inheriting the anthropology of “China” plays into contemporary nationalist and imperialist political agendas; 4) that history, both as a discipline lurking at the edges of Chinese anthropology and as a series of chronological events experienced by a group of people, has been crucial in defining “China” for both people who study it and the people who think of themselves as Chinese; and 5) that in the PRC, the effects of historical events have created most of the continuities that justify the discipline’s assumption that “China” should be treated as a unified object and field of study. In other words, in the anthropology of “China,” history has often eclipsed culture.

Even now, anthropologists writing in English about the PRC lump past studies of Hong Kong and Taiwan into the anthropology of China. One recent monograph cites a handful of ethnographies conducted in Taiwan in the 1950s, 1960s, and 1970s to describe what “debates on Chinese religion” focused on “[i]n the past.”[8] The statement and its accompanying citations are true; anthropologists doing fieldwork in Taiwan did structure their English-language work around debates about “Chinese religion.” Inheriting these works at their word erases the political implications of calling studies of religious practices on the island of Taiwan representative of China just a decade after Japanese researchers—in the same place, but under a Japanese colonial administration—described the island on which they took place, along with Korea, Manchuria, and other occupied territories, as part of Japan.[9] To mitigate this troubled inheritance, I argue that anthropologists working in the PRC today should stop treating past work done in Hong Kong and Taiwan as historical predecessors and instead think of them as comparative studies. In other words, rather than participating in a compulsory citational practice drawing a straight line from work done in the territory that would become the PRC before 1949 to work done in Hong Kong and Taiwan during the 1950s, 1960s, 1970s, and 1980s, as well as to work done in the contemporary PRC post-1978, anthropologists should instead think of the anthropology of China’s past as work done in another country, if only because much of the field’s past research was indeed conducted in other countries.

This is not to suggest that, until now, “China” has been an uncontested category.[10] My arguments are particularly indebted to Rey Chow’s repudiation of Chinese nationalism in Hong Kong in Writing Diaspora[11] and to Keelung Hong and Stephen Murray’s Looking through Taiwan, the latter work arguing that the appropriation of Taiwanese ethnographic material for the anthropology of “China” “naturalize[s] Chinese rule [of Taiwan]…and is actually more political than any recognition of an autonomous ‘Taiwanese’ culture.”[12] In many ways, the works that I analyze here are consequences of a larger trend in postwar historical studies of China, where the rise of North American nation-states at the same time that “culture became an object of intellectual contemplation” allowed scholars to naturalize and define China as an eternal, unified object.[13] In a 2014 Annual Review piece on the anthropology of China, Frank N. Pieke summarizes the work of his predecessors in Taiwan and Hong Kong as trying “to distill the essence of unspoiled Chinese culture.”[14] This is a broad, but historically accurate summary of many scholars’ intentions, but what anthropologists who want to study “China” need to do now is qualify that literature and distinguish their work from it rather than unquestionably inheriting it.


[1] Stevan Harrell, “The Anthropology of Reform and the Reform of Anthropology: Anthropological Narratives of Recovery and Progress in China” in Annual Review of Anthropology, Vol. 30 (2001): 139.

[2] Ibid.

[3] The official name of the territory I refer to as Taiwan in this essay is the Republic of China, but—as I’ll argue—the implied continuity between that name and the island of Taiwan erases the history of the island itself.

[4] Throughout this essay, I use the term “Sinophone” to repudiate diasporic and imperial logics. See Shu-Mei Shih, “What is Sinophone Studies?” in Sinophone Studies: A Critical Reader, eds. Shu-Mei Shih, Chien-hsin Tsai, and Brian Bernards, (New York: Columbia University Press, 2013).

[5] Robert Oppenheim, “Historicizing Mid-Century American Anthropology of Korea: Vincent S.R. Brandt, Stereoscopically,” in this issue.

[6] Alex Jong-Seok Lee, “East Asian Savage: Untouched Orientalism and Imperial Anthropology, Introduction to the Special Issue: Anthropology and East Asia,” in this issue.

[7] Although this essay follows the anthropology of “China” in English linearly through time, it does not attempt to cover all or even a very representative sample of ethnographies; instead, I have chosen works that I felt revealed something specific or dangerous about creating (or inheriting) “China” as an anthropological object.

[8] Emily Ng, A Time of Lost Gods: Mediumship, Madness, and the Ghost after Mao (Berkeley, CA: University of California Press, 2020), 69 N13. NB: I chose this manuscript because it was the newest monograph on the PRC I happened to have on hand. This connection between historical work in Taiwan and the contemporary PRC is sometimes a relic of general exams that demand students master a field and its history, so many first ethnographic monographs set in the PRC include citations similar to this one, especially if they touch on kinship, religion, or ritual.

[9] Sonia Ryang, “Toward a New Anthropology of Japan: A National Frame of Study and Its Potential Use in the Study of Japan as Biopower—with the Focus on the Figure of the Korean,” in this issue.

[10] See, for example, Allen Chun, “Fuck Chinese Chineseness: On the Ambiguities of Ethnicity as Culture as Identity,” boundary 2, Vol. 23, No. 2 (1996).

[11] Rey Chow, Writing Diaspora: Tactics of Intervention in Contemporary Cultural Studies (Bloomington, IN: Indiana University Press, 1993).

[12] Keelung Hong and Stephen O. Murray, Looking through Taiwan: American Anthropologists' Collusion with Ethnic Domination (Lincoln, NE: University of Nebraska Press, 2008): 7-8.

[13] Judith B. Farquhar and James L. Hevia, “Culture and Postwar American Historiography of China,” positions, Vol. 1, No. 2 (1993): 486.

[14] Frank N. Pieke, “Anthropology, China, and the Chinese Century,” Annual Review of Anthropology, Vol. 43 (2014): 125.
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