SOAS University of London

Department of Anthropology and Sociology

Culture and Society of China

Module Code:
Module Not Running 2021/2022
FHEQ Level:
Year of study:
Year 1 or Year 2
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’

The module is one of several regional ethnography modules offered by the Department of Anthropology (currently Culture and Society of: 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. Masters students in the Department of Anthropology are encouraged to study more than one regional ethnography module (albeit not normally two modules taught in the same term), to explore synergies across regions and gain a broader comparative understanding of the discipline.


  • Students enrol via the online Module Sign-Up system.
  • Knowledge of Chinese language is not required. MA Area Studies students wishing to take this module as their ‘major’ will normally hold a degree or substantial part-degree in social anthropology or a closely related discipline. Area Studies students wishing to take this module as their ‘major’ must contact the module convenor for approval.

Objectives and learning outcomes of the module

By the end of the course students will:

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

This will form a base which will enable MA Anthropology students to write their dissertations (10,000 words) on a topic relating to China should they so wish. Skills in reading and contextualizing works on China are readily transferable to other regional studies.

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