China Institute

Doing Intimacy: A multi-sited ethnography of modern Chinese family life

Doing Intimacy will take a closer, fresher, critical look at the Chinese family dynamics as they are lived.

It will examine intergenerational relations as well as gender and sexual relations in the family. Through a multi-sited ethnography in mainland China, Hong Kong and Taiwan, this study will compare practices of intimacy and examine whether or how they are by-products of particular sociocultural configurations.

The Deputy Director of the SOAS China Institute (SCI), Dr Jieyu Liu, has received a grant of almost €1.5 million to lead research of Chinese families in East Asia. This project takes place over five years and is due to complete in September 2020.

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This project has received funding from the European Research Council (ERC) under the European Union’s Horizon 2020 research and innovation programme (grant agreement No. 640488).


Over the last century there have been profound changes in the Chinese family as a result of industrialisation, urbanisation, the influence of the West and political interventions carried out by the Communist Party since 1949. Existing scholarship has shown how the structure and function of Chinese families have adapted to changing political and economic circumstances but little is known about the changes in intimate spheres of Chinese families. This project will approach the subject of modern Chinese family life from an unconventional angle by analysing it as a process of practices and experiences.

By setting a new agenda that moves from structures of family relationships to the quality of relationships and through examining ‘doing intimacy’, this project takes a closer, fresher, critical look at the Chinese family dynamics as they are lived. Informed by the emerging literature on gender, intimacy and modernity, it will examine intergenerational relations as well as gender and sexual relations in the family.

Is there an intimate revolution taking place? To what extent can doing intimacy be a site of empowerment/domination for women? What will the study of Chinese families tell us about agency and local/global change? Through a multi-sited ethnography (mainland China, Hong Kong and Taiwan), this study will also compare practices of intimacy in various sites and examine whether/how they are by-products of particular socio-cultural configurations.

Research sites

The research will be rooted in case studies of Chinese communities in urban and rural China, Hong Kong and Taiwan. These sites have been selected to bring to the fore how particular socio-economic- political and cultural configurations feature in intimate family practices.

China (urban and rural sites)

While cities are developing and becoming more modernized, many rural areas are still experiencing poverty. A household registration system, Hukou, also shapes urban and rural residents’ rights: rural residents are deprived of all kinds of benefits including state pension and various welfare provisions that urban residents have been entitled to. The economic circumstance, policy background, and exposure to alternative cultures in urban and rural China will make an impact on shaping the practices of intimacy in Chinese families.


First colonized by Japan in the late nineteen century, then found itself under the control of Chiang Kai-Shek’s nationalist army. Starting from 1950, Taiwan has experienced a stable economic growth and a fast demographic transition. Some scholars argue that the heavy-handed regulations on traditional family practices in Maoist period in mainland China have made Taiwan the only place to observe traditional Chinese family features.

Hong Kong

With a long-term colonial history under British rule, Hong Kong culture is often cited as a unique blend of ‘East meets West’. The rapid economic growth in the decades after the second world war has led to highly compressed social and economic development, making Hong Kong an interesting site to study intimacy and processes of social change.

Project members

Dr Jieyu Liu is the Principal Investigator and leads a team of Postdoctoral Researchers and local Research Assistants in mainland China, Taiwan and Hong Kong.

Principal Investigator

Dr Jieyu Liu

Dr Jieyu Liu is Deputy Director at the SOAS China Institute. Her research interests include gender, sexuality, family and generation in China. She is the author of Gender and Work in Urban China (Routledge, 2007), Gender, Sexuality and Power in Chinese Companies (Palgrave, 2016), and is co-editor of East Asian Sexualities (Zed Books, 2008).

Postdoctoral Researchers 2015–2016

Dr Eona Bell

Dr Eona Bell was awarded a PhD in social anthropology from the LSE in 2012 for research on ethnic group-making and cultural transmission in the everyday lives of Hong Kong Chinese families living in Scotland.

Dr Jiayu Zhang

Dr Jiayu Zhang received her PhD in Gender Studies from the Chinese University of Hong Kong in 2013. Her research interests include gender policy and law in China, gender equality ideology, sexuality and human rights in Chinese societies.

Postdoctoral researchers 2017–2018

Dr Olive Nga Yan Cheung

Dr Olive N.Y. Cheung grew up in Hong Kong with an interdisciplinary academic background in Humanities, Intercultural Studies, Sociology, Gender Studies and Public Health. She received her PhD in Sociology from Royal Holloway, University of London. Her research interests focus on social and cultural theories of gender, identity, sexuality and body politics.

Dr Yung-Chen Yuan

Dr Yung-Chen Yuan received her PhD in Sociology from University of Bristol. Her research interests in migration, nationalism, ethnicity, and national and ethnic identity. Her research is specifically on how the ordinary people reproduce and practice identity in their everyday lives.

Project Coordinator

Yvonne Castle

Yvonne Castle is Project Coordinator of European Research Council funded projects at SOAS. She completed an MA at SOAS in 2016.

Advisory members

Doing Intimacy includes a small advisory board made up of leading scholars from around the world with experience in the fields and methodologies covered within the project. They are:


Relevant publications by project members: