Market Reform and the Expansion of China’s Moral Horizon

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Publication Date

Winter 2004

Publication Title

Journal of Urban Anthropology and Studies of Cultural Systems and World Economic Development





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In this paper, I will examine the transformation of the Chinese moral universe as it is reflected in their changing evaluation of occupational prestige. The first study took place, in 1983, during the height of Chinese socialism in Hohhot, the capital of Inner Mongolian Autonomous Region (IMAR). A follow-up study was conducted in 1987 at the beginning of the urban China's market reforms. The third and substantially larger survey (n= 844) was conducted in 2000 in two separate cities (e. g., Hohhot and Chengdu, the capital of Sichuan, in Southwest China) when the work unit system was a secondary, albeit still significant, player in the urban economy. In all the studies I was not interested in understanding the Chinese perception of occupational prestige per se. Rather I wanted to know which cultural principles shaped their perception in ranking an occupation as having more or less esteem. Special attention has been given to analyzing the way Chinese place themselves conceptually into hierarchies of social standing, which is the basis for ascribing social prestige. By exploring the cultural principles that frame the urban Chinese perception of social hierarchy, I will show that the Chinese conceptual order expanded from one2 organized in 1983 around four distinct cultural principles: (extraordinary administrative authority/no administrative authority, academic knowledge/ignorance and the genteel /the crude) had incorporated, by 1987, a new principle: money/no money. The 2000 occupational survey added one additional cultural principle: beneficial /not beneficial for national well being. The emergence of this new principle did not, however, eliminate or undermine the importance of the others. Yet it did add an additional criterion to the mix of the evaluative continuum. The emergence of these new principles constitutes a fundamental shift in our understanding of how present-day Chinese regard their place in society and in the world. The implications of this finding for understanding contemporary China as well as debates over the meaning of social hierarchy, nationalism, and altruistic behavior (Uzelac 2001) will be further explored. The shift in cultural logic altered the way urbanités perceive their relative social standing. In probing the motivation for the new rankings, what is revealed is a profound transformation in Chinese social and moral consciousness.


Anthropology | Social and Behavioral Sciences | Social and Cultural Anthropology




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