Awarded by the AAS to authors of high-quality dissertations, the Australian Anthropological Society (AAS) Post-Doctoral Fellowship consists of an honorarium of AUD$4,000, awarded to a PhD graduate to support the writing up of research already conducted. We sat down with this year’s recipient, Anthropologist Gil Hizi to find about his research into personhood and self-development in China, and some of the surprises and challenges he encountered along the way.
I am an anthropologist who studies contemporary Chinese society. I have been looking at social change in urban China, in particular at new ideas on what it means to be a moral and competent person. My work focuses on practices of self-improvement, namely workshops for interpersonal ‘soft’ skills through which young adults aspire to become more individualistic and emotionally expressive. These practices reveal prevalent ideals of personhood in China and how they are conceived by participants in relation to the wider society.
China is unique in its combination of immense socioeconomic transformations and local cultural influences. While China embraces the global economy and aspires to ‘modernity’, the Chinese party-state continues to set the tone in social institutions, nowadays also promoting longstanding cultural traditions (Confucianism, Chinese medicine, Taoism).
As a result, citizens experience a dynamic and fragmented social reality that is laden with both hope and uncertainty. This reality makes China a fascinating case study for many timely social phenomena.
As a PhD student your mind is often impatient and tries to reach conclusions prematurely. This attitude goes against a key principle in anthropology of collecting evidence over a long period while suspending analysis until later. As an anthropologist I also had to learn to accept inconsistencies, contradictions and ambiguities in my findings rather than try to gloss over them. It took me a while until I could achieve this, allowing inconsistencies to inform my analysis and how I interpret social life in China.
I have an ambivalent attitude towards many contemporary activities of ‘self-improvement’, which are often associated in my mind (and in many social scientists’ minds) with self-indulgence, social competition and consumption. I was surprised to see that although self-improvement in China is a market-driven practice it is also a site where people discuss non-worldly affairs. In fact, many young adults pursue self-improvement in an attempt to envision and promote a more moral social reality. Through conversations with them I learned about their worldviews as well as about wider social debates in China.
I have visited China in the past and of course studied Chinese language for many years. In my PhD studies I spent thirteen months in a city called Jinan in northeastern China and attended workshops for self-improvement as a participant observer. Spending a long period of time in the field also allowed me to cultivate friendships with my informants and follow developments in their lives.
I plan to write about self-improvement in China as a practice through which young adults can express themselves in new ways and in turn experience themselves as exceeding their everyday social responsibilities. Self-improvement increasingly prioritises short-lived moments of emotional excitement and hope rather than skills for the actual social reality. This process reveals (and reinforces) contradictions in the experience of social change in China, as well as paradoxes in the ideologies of self-improvement and social development more broadly.