SOAS University of London

Department of Anthropology and Sociology

Ethnography of China

Module Code:
Module Not Running 2020/2021
FHEQ Level:
Year of study:
Year 2 or Year 3
Taught in:
Term 2

China is experiencing dynamic changes, and is frequently described as a nation in transition. Yet at the same time, China is often represented as being shackled by its deep-rooted traditions and long history. This course critically engages with both of these characterizations. It explores the continuities, shifts and reinventions, unities and diversities, of Chinese culture and society, in areas ranging from family and kinship to rural/urban relations to popular religion to food and health. In so doing, the course introduces students to a wide range of classic and emerging themes in the anthropology of China, providing them with a strong foundation for further study and research. The course focuses on the People’s Republic of China, but does so in relation to global processes and transnational connections, including to Taiwan and the Chinese diaspora.

Topics covered include:

  • popular religion
  • family and kinship
  • social relations / guanxi
  • dietary knowledge, health and food safety
  • the urban-rural divide
  • agricultural modernization and the future of the peasantry
  • ethnicity, native place and ‘Chineseness’
  • heritage and ‘local foods’

This module is one of several regional ethnography modules offered by the Department of Anthropology (currently China, Japan, South Asia, South East Asia, Near & Middle East, West Africa, and East Africa). Each of these focuses on major cultural and social aspects, but varies in detail according to the characteristics of and scholarship on the region. These 0.5 unit regional ethnography modules are designed (in the second year) to be combined - according to student interest and module availability - with a second regional ethnography module taught in a different term to form a compulsory full unit of ethnography modules (e.g., Japan and China; South Asia and Southeast Asia; South Asia and East Africa), or (in the third year) to be taken as a free-standing option. 

The grasp of theory, method and problem achieved in this module builds on the foundational skills in anthropology attained in the first year, and will enable students' progression, in their following year of study, to an Advanced Ethnographic Study with a focus on China or connections between China and other regions, and/or to an Independent Study Project.


  • Students enrol via the online Module Sign-Up system.

Objectives and learning outcomes of the module

On successful completion of this module, a student will be able to: 

  • critically evaluate a range of theories and ethnographic source material relating to Chinese society
  • locate and use secondary sources relevant to selected topics
  • have a grasp of the key debates in the anthropology of China     

Developing regional expertise is a key component of the study of anthropology, and central to programmes across the school. The learning outcomes are designed to ensure that students develop a solid grounding in the anthropology of East Africa, refine their ability to critically engage diverse literatures and communicate their knowledge in a variety of ways. These processes of comprehension, analysis and communication are central to all anthropology programmes, as well as to the broader humanities and social sciences at SOAS.

Method of assessment

  • Essay (2,000 words) (40%)
  • Exam (2 hours) (50%)
  • Seminar participation (10%)

Suggested reading

This course will assume a basic knowledge of Chinese history, especially since the late-nineteenth century. The following readings will be helpful both to fill in historical knowledge and to offer an overview of contemporary Chinese society and culture:

  • Spence, Jonathan (2013) The Search for Modern China (3rd revised edition). New York: W. W. Norton & Company.
  • Mitter, Rana (2016) Modern China: A Very Short Introduction (2nd edition). Oxford: Oxford University Press.
  • Zang, Xiaowei (ed.) (2016) Understanding Chinese Society (2nd edition). Abingdon, Oxon: Routledge.
  • Perry, Elizabeth and Mark Selden (eds) (2010) Chinese Society: Change, Conflict, and Resistance (3rd edition). Abingdon, Oxon: Routledge.

Additionally, you may wish to familiarize yourself with one or two ethnographies, for example:

  • Yan, Yunxiang (2003) Private Life Under Socialism: Love, Intimacy, and Family Change in a Chinese Village, 1949-1999. Stanford: Stanford University Press.
  • Wolf, Margery (1968) The House of Lim: A study of a Chinese Family Farm. New York: Appleton-Century Crofts.
  • Farquhar, Judith (2002) Appetites: Food and Sex in Postsocialist China. Durham, NC and London: Duke University Press.
  • Zhang, Li and Ong, Aihwa (eds) (2008) Privatizing China: Socialism from Afar. Ithaca/London: Cornell University Press.
  • Gladney, Dru C. (1996) Muslim Chinese: Ethnic Nationalism in the People’s Republic (2nd edition). Cambridge, Mass.: Council on East Asian Studies and Harvard University Press.


Important notice regarding changes to programmes and modules