Interview with the 2013 Hsu Book Award Recipient Judith Farquhar


Ten Thousand Things (Book Cover)

Ten Thousand Things (Book Cover)

Ten Thousand Things: Nurturing Life in Contemporary Beijing written by Professor Judith Farquhar (U of Chicago) and Professor Zhang Qicheng (Beijing University of Chinese Medicine) won the 2013 Hsu book prize. Yi Zhou (U of California, Davis) interviewed Prof. Farquhar about her cross-cultural collaboration with Prof. Zhang on Beijing residents’ daily practice of yangsheng (nurturing life), the concept of seeking pleasure and cultivating life through a variety of activities such as qigong, dancing, meditation, and connoisseurship of tea and medicinal cuisine.

YZ: How did you become interested in yangsheng?

JF: My interest in everyday pleasures stems from conversations over many years with friends – few of them rich, few of them really poor – in various parts of China. Always more interested in health and life than in suffering, I have been content to work mostly with people whose lives are pretty stable and minimally provided for. Many of my acquaintances have recounted to me the good things in their lives: plentiful boiled water, a warm quilt, fresh vegetables… Perhaps they just wanted to persuade a foreigner, in patriotic mode, that China’s public provision of basic goods is at least as worthwhile as the consumer frenzy of American capitalism. Zhang Qicheng’s motives for seeking out wholesome Chinese lives is perhaps different from this. He comes from a medical family and works in a university of traditional medicine. He’s deeply interested in interventions that improve life. He looks for insights in the philosophical classics, in public health research, and – with our project – in the everyday lives of people who seem to be doing something right. Though he would perhaps be mortified for me to say this, he has adopted an old Maoist principle: “If you would seek to lead the people, you must first humbly learn from the people.”

YZ: How do the two of you, one trained as an ethnographer and the other as a philological historian, work together for this project?

JF: Nowadays, with the book out in English, we just meet to talk about the process of getting to a Chinese translation, and to keep up with each other’s recent work. When we were doing the fieldwork and drafting the book, we relied on frequent meetings in Beijing and Chicago, talking and translating. In doing the fieldwork, we scheduled most of our long interviews so that we could both be there, often with a few graduate student colleagues. The interviews often turned into long relaxed conversations. Afterward we researchers enjoyed “debriefing” together. I recall these discussions especially fondly; we pushed each other toward deeper perceptions of a life and forged wider linkages of that life to matters of anthropological concern. Prof. Zhang and his group were especially able to hear, in the language of our interviewees, allusions to recent tropes and ancient themes in Chinese discourses; I was sometimes able to draw an anthropological notion out of our experience and explain it to the group. The collaborative writing of the English book, in a way, continued the fieldwork, in that we wanted to share the activities (in the parks, in the library, in classrooms, in the media) in which we had separately participated while thinking about the problems of the study.

YZ: In Ten Thousand Things, you gave a lot space to Chinese indigenous theories/thoughts such as Daoism and the philosophies embedded in the Chinese medical canon. Could you share with us your particular considerations for formulating this theoretical framework for your book?

JF: In a way, the “indigenous” ideas that play through the book are not so much a theoretical framework as a promising theoretical resource. The most basic commitment of the project is to conventional ethnography, with its long-standing habits of realism and comparison. Prof. Zhang’s early enthusiasm for ethnographic method and anthropological writing (which he had not really encountered before) was one of our fundamental bonds as authors. It was my decision not to cite a lot of the theoretical writing that has influenced me as a teacher and writer. It seemed unethical, somehow, to frame this co-authored book with arguments that remain unknown to one of the authors. Meanwhile, Prof. Zhang gave me wonderful textual materials to think with – both classic writings and his own – as we worked. The ideas in Zhang’s essay on “life” (Chapter 4) could inspire very creative new anthropological orientations. Some of this material might turn up as “theory” – even theoretical framework – in my next book, which I’m writing with Lili Lai.

YZ:You suggested in the book that the deeper motivation for Beijing residents to seek pleasure and the meaning of life through yangsheng is a result of a particular feeling of lack, an absence left in the collective desires by the receding socialist utopian imagination. Does this mean that China’s post-utopian condition may differentiate yangsheng from the concept of “self-care” in America?

JF:Yes, yangsheng is (almost by semiotic definition) a different phenomenon than self-care or wellness movements in the U.S. The local specificity of a social movement like the yangsheng “fad” is only made comprehensible by reading it in historical context. After all, the older people we knew in Beijing all remembered more ascetic times, a different configuration of work and leisure, and a very different list of party-state promises, guarantees, and disciplinary techniques. So not even Shanghai’s yangsheng world would be quite the same as Beijing’s. That said, as I talk with Americans and other non-Chinese citizens about yangsheng, again and again I am impressed with the easy mobility of certain principles and practices, the fluent translation of wellness advice into a variety of contemporary lives. Zhang Qicheng and I wanted to study bodies in action in everyday life, and though we were not looking for human or bodily universals, we were always delighted to find patches of experiential common ground.

Judith Farqhar is a Professor of Anthropology at the University of Chicago. She researches traditional medicine, popular culture, and everyday life in contemporary China. Her anthropological interests include medical anthropology; the anthropology of knowledge and of embodiment; critical theory and cultural studies; and theories of reading, writing, and translation.