Li Zhang - Professor of Anthropology, University of California at Davis
This presentation explores how the privatization of home ownership and a rising material culture of consumerism reconfigure the intimate realm of self-worth, love, and marriage in urban China. Through several ethnographic cases, my research shows how owning a private house has gradually become the decisive factor in considering marriage and a focal point of contention in dissolving that relationship. In this context, I suggest that self-worth has become more and more individualized and materialized through the idiom of property possession. After thirty years of economic reform, the socially embedded nature of the self that was once at the heart of a moral economy is being eclipsed by an individual-centered, materialistic determinism nurtured by a market economy. This social reconfiguration however is a gendered process. While the meanings of masculinities have shifted toward one’s ability to make money, possess desirable material goods, or gain political power, the construction of self-worth among women tends to focus on the body and physical appearance, which serve as the material foundation for constructing femininities.