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Doing Intimacy: A Multi-sited Ethnography of Modern Chinese Family Life

Periodic Reporting for period 4 - Intimacy (Doing Intimacy: A Multi-sited Ethnography of Modern Chinese Family Life)

Reporting period: 2021-02-01 to 2022-07-31

Over the last century industrialisation, urbanisation, the influence of the West and political interventions carried out by the Communist Party since 1949, have all contributed to profound changes in the Chinese family. Existing scholarship has shown how the structure and function of Chinese families 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.

The project will seek to answer the following questions: 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 or how they are by-products of particular socio-cultural configurations.
From October 2015 to September 2016, the PI, Dr Jieyu Liu, and two Postdoctoral Researchers, Dr Eona Bell and Dr Jiayu Zhang, carried out literature reviews of existing studies on Chinese families in Chinese and English, reviewed and analysed policy and institutional environments in East Asia, and analysed large survey datasets on Chinese families in mainland China, Hong Kong and Taiwan. Two articles have been produced as a result of the first twelve months’ work.

From October 2016, the project entered its fieldwork stage. The PI visited the fieldwork sites in China, Taiwan and Hong Kong and gained useful information on the local context and research ethics from local researchers, and identified potential local users for the project’s findings. Two Postdoctoral Researchers began fieldwork in Hong Kong and Taiwan. The PI together with local Research Assistants started fieldwork in China.

A small team of experts have been appointed to the project’s advisory board: Professor Deborah Davis, Yale University, USA; Professor John Holmwood, University of Nottingham, UK; Professor Stevi Jackson, University of York, UK; Professor William Jankowiak, University of Nevada, USA; Professor Ellen Judd, University of Manitoba, Canada; Professor Brenda Yeoh, National University of Singapore, Singapore; and Professor Yan Yunxiang, University of California, Los Angeles, USA.

The PI was the keynote speaker at the International Symposium ‘Asian Intimacies in Comparative Perspective’ on 12th November 2015 at the Sussex Asia Centre, University of Sussex. The PI was also invited to speak at the seminar series ‘Family Dynamics, Health and Ageing in Contemporary China’ on 10th March 2016 held at the Oxford Institute of Ageing, University of Oxford.
The project will make a significant contribution to understanding the continuities and changes in Chinese family life through a new focus on ‘relationships’. This will represent an important step forward in our current understanding of Chinese family structure and function.

Population ageing now characterises many societies in the West as well as in the East; and by emphasising the intergenerational dimension of intimate relationships, this project will show how ‘doing intimacy’ is becoming increasingly important to individuals’ wellbeing in later life. This project will be of relevance to scholars in sociology, social policy and social gerontology studying families.

In addition to scientific impact, the research findings will be of considerable interest and value to audiences in East Asia and in Europe who are concerned about the implications of population ageing and family transitions. These include policy-makers, practitioners, media organisations and the general public.
City in China. CC0 License.
Village in China. CC0 License.
Hong Kong. CC0 License.
Taiwan. CC0 License.
Village. CC0 License.
Village. CC0 License.