DFG Network at Heidelberg: Anthropology of China and Area Studies – Human and More-than-Human

Members of the DFG network at Heidelberg University, August 3, 2022. Photo: Wilfried Hinsch

Last November in Cologne , the DFG Network “Anthropology and China(s)” was launched. Back then we started our collective work on the first theme that we continued at the second network conference that we held in Heidelberg on 3-4 August, 2022 .

A conference report by Christof Lammer, Department of Science and Technology Studies, University of Klagenfurt.

Our network theme for the first year was the relation between regional anthropologies and area studies (including both philological-historical as well as social scientific ones). Reflecting on how area studies shape regional anthropologies and their position within anthropology at large, Rena Lederman (2008) has suggested that, in the case of the Pacific Islands, the non-existence of area studies (and thus the lack of a ready-made audience) pushed anthropologists to write about these islands in ways that made their work also relevant for anthropologists of other regions. In the case of China multiple, there has certainly been no lack of area studies. We thus believe that establishing an anthropology of China(s) in the German-speaking academic world benefits from a reflection on the role of sinology, Chinese studies, and other relevant area studies.

As the two lectures by our invited guests and the three chapters co-authored and presented by network members demonstrated, anthropologists’ relations with different area studies produced multiple – partly overlapping, partly competing – versions of China.

The first presented chapter, “Disjuncture and Continuity in ‘Chinese Education’: Risky and Useful Reifications in Sinological Anthropology and History”, co-authored by Gil Hizi, Robert LaFleur, Ivy Ming Lu and Ziyuan Shi, examined anthropological and historical studies of the national college entrance examination (gaokao) and the imperial examinations (keju). They showed how, in anthropological studies of gaokao, sinologist-inspired culturalist approaches, on the one hand, and Foucauldian approaches to neoliberal governmentality, on the other, produced seemingly competing versions of contemporary Chinese education as either deeply-rooted in society as a cultural value or as a state project of social engineering. They argued that this apparent opposition can be reconciled if one listens to the “echoes” of sinological historians‘ accounts of keju.

Yet, anthropological versions of China are not only shaped in the interaction with sinology (more concerned with particularity and history) and Chinese studies (more committed to the comparative study of contemporary modernities). As the chapter “Studying People and Peoples in the Contemporary People’s Republic of China” by Amtul Shaheen and Marhaba Wufuer makes clear, some anthropologists of China have long-standing relations with Tibetan, Uyghur, Mongol or Manchu studies. While they have produced versions of China as multi-ethnic, others have continued – probably due to embodied language skills and the considerable effort needed to build or expand them – to produce versions of China as single-ethnic, as Han, even if not explicitly policing the boundaries of China anthropology “proper” as vehemently as Morton Fried (1954) did in the 1950s.

In a timely contribution that takes into account current infrastructure projects, land grabs and other forms of resource extraction, the chapter project “Re-Inventing China(s) in Regional Studies: An Anthropological Approach” breaks new ground. Pablo Ampuero-Ruiz, Cheryl Schmitz, Lena Kaufmann and Susanne Brandtstädter explore how anthropologists’ versions of China are also shaped in their relation with scholars from yet other area studies such as Africanist studies or Latin Americanist studies. In collaborative projects, colleagues from other area studies come with their own versions of China. Anthropologists trying to challenge reifications of a unitary authoritarian China may thus be confronted with accusations of being the handmaiden of a new colonialism.

Which versions of China are enacted and compete in academia affect scholars’ career trajectories. At a time, when a productive and creative sino-ethnology had existed in the German Democratic Republic (sadly later effectively erased with German-German unification as we know from Mareile Flitsch’s lecture at our first network conference), China was not yet acknowledged as a “proper” region for anthropological research. In a fascinating biographic lecture, Thomas Heberer (Senior Professor of Chinese Politics & Society) recounted what caused “The Mutation of a Social Anthropologist to a Political Scientist”. In the 1980s, he approached a professor in Cologne with the suggestion to write his habilitation in social anthropology. However, the professor argued that China as a literate society did not belong to anthropology concerned with pre- or illiterate cultures. Political science was thus suggested as a proper discipline for doing a habilitation on China. And while this was the career trajectory he thus followed, he continued to do (almost) annual fieldwork in China and to study ethnic minorities, in particular the Yi, not so much unlike – but not knowing about them – the sino-ethnologists in the other Germany.

While these three chapters and the first lecture focused on human area studies (ranging from sinology to minority studies to area studies on other continents), the provocative second lecture by our guest Dan Smyer Yü (Kuige Professor of Ethnology, School of Ethnology & Sociology, Yunnan University and Global Faculty Member, The Global South Studies Center, the University of Cologne) reminds us that there are also non-human area studies that cut across both international borders and ethnic differences. In his lecture about “Inter-Asian Geographies of China 1200-1900” he draws on the work of ecological geographers to demonstrate that the Little Ice Age was among the “Nonhuman Authorities Shaping Human Empires and Republics”. Producing different versions of China is not only a question of different conceptions, representation and discursive constructions, but involves material elements such as available evidence. Sensing climate change requires technologies, measurements and longitudinal data. If climate change research enters the interdisciplinary mix of area studies, regional anthropologies can produce very different and surprising versions of China – Rather than being conquerors, have the Mongols that established the Yuan dynasty been “climate refugees” after all?

DFG Scientific Network Anthropology and China(s):
+ initiated by the DGSKA Regionalgruppe China
+ organized by Christof Lammer, Marco Lazzarotti, and Jean-Baptiste Pettier
+ based at the University of Cologne, at the chair for the anthropology of globalization, Prof. Susanne Brandtstädter

2nd Network Conference „Anthropology and the Study of China(s): Area Studies and Regional Anthropologies„:
+ hosted by Prof. Guido Sprenger, Institute of Anthropology, Heidelberg University
+ organized by Marco Lazzarotti, supported by Damianus Pawlak and Luc Weihermueller, Institute of Ethnology, Heidelberg University

1st Network Conference: Cologne, November 2021. (report)
2nd Network Conference: Heidelberg, August 2022. (preview | report )
3rd Network Conference: Zurich, December 2022.
4th Network Conference: Cologne, summer 2023.
5th Network Conference: tba, autumn/winter 2023.
6th Network Conference: Berlin, summer 2024.

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