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‘Action through non-action’: self-transformation and social transformation at the PRC grassroots



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This dissertation is situated at the intersection of the anthropology of ethics and politics in the context of the People’s Republic of China (PRC). I ground my analysis in a long-standing ethical-political tradition, dating from the Warring States Period (475-221 BCE), which sees societal political progress as predicated on prior individual self-transformation. My overarching argument is that in contemporary China, discourses and practices of self-improvement have mediated, and continue to mediate, the relations between the political subject and the state. This dynamic is manifested in party-state-led projects of citizenry reform as well as in grassroots social initiatives centred on xiuxing – a polyvalent term denoting processes of self-amelioration, whose significance must be unpacked through a situated ethnographic exploration.

To this end, I examine the social life that unfolds via the ‘Wu-Wei School’, a private organisation that provides educative xiuxing retreats. The school claims to use an areligious rendering of Daoist ascetic techniques to help citizens live healthier, more fulfilling lives, thereby contributing to the national rejuvenation project inaugurated by the Xi government (since 2012). My primary interlocutors are organisers and participants of the school, the majority of whom are urban professional householders belonging to relatively privileged social groups. They embark on xiuxing projects via grassroots organisations such as this school to address tangible problems in their lives, especially in areas of health, child rearing, and relationships. Notably, many hold that by undertaking xiuxing, they are reshaping not only themselves, but also their families and their situated socio-natural environment. I trace how my interlocutors engage with esoteric forms of self-transformation knowledge-practice, adopt forms of Daoist autogenetic healing, and intersect with other alternative education schemas such as Steiner Education. While ostensibly retreating into their bodies and interiorities, I argue that these Chinese citizens articulate a historically-sedimented mode of influence which connects human interiorities and sociohistorical transformations through the avenue of reflexive self-improvement. I further demonstrate how this mode of influence is integral to diverse components of the PRC political-cum-moral project, delineating the surprising ways in which my interlocutors operating ‘outside the system’ (ti zhi wai) coalesce with injunctions and techniques issued from ‘within the system’ (ti zhi nei).

Through a historically-situated consideration of grassroots initiatives centred on xiuxing in the PRC, this dissertation contributes to anthropological studies of ethics, personhood, education, health, and governance. My theoretical contributions are fourfold: Firstly, I deploy indigenous Chinese concepts as analytical tools on a par with social theories constructed in Euro-American academia, enriching the conceptual repertoire of anthropological analysis. Secondly, I explore new ways of engaging with the ‘affective’ domain of social life by analysing how actors deploy indigenous theories of influence and potentiality in their situated articulations of socio-political belonging. Thirdly, I propose a theory of citizen-state interrelation in the PRC: ‘coopetition’, a framework borrowed from management studies that underscores practical interdependence and creative coalescence, eschewing notions of a reified structural divide. Finally, I develop an analytic of ‘recreational asceticism’ to elucidate the ethical life found at the Wu-Wei School, which differs significantly from what has been described as ‘self-cultivation’ in the anthropology of ethics.





Laidlaw, James


Social Anthropology, Ethical Life, Political Life, China, Citizen-State Relationship, Traditional Culture Revival, Self-Transformation (Xiuxing), Daoism, Education, Indigenous Medicine


Doctor of Philosophy (PhD)

Awarding Institution

University of Cambridge
Gates Cambridge Scholarship, Cambridge University Fieldwork Fund