Canadian Anthropology Society (CASCA)
Oral Presentation Session
This paper draws on long-term ethnographic and archival research in one of Beijing’s most deprived inner-city neighbourhoods, now facing its final death throes of demolition. Just a stone’s throw from the power and monumentality of the capital’s Tian’anmen Square, Dashalar was long home to a mixed class and religious population, many of whom lived in crowded unsanitary dazayuan(big, cluttered courtyards). Post 1980s studies of the living and infrastructural conditions in the neighbourhood argued that little had changed since the early 1950s. Indeed, local people’s memories project an experience of everyday life in which 1949 and 1978, the key threshold events of social and political rupture around which the official historiography of the PRC is structured, did not really feature. Rather, separation from family and dislocation from place/home became the core experiences of rupture shaping local people’s efforts to secure basic material survival in conditions of scarcity and precarity.
While their everyday efforts concentrated on "getting by" in the material everyday, and evading the predations of local law enforcement officers, they were given meaning by a commitment to living ethical lives, articulated differently depending on the singularities of family and individual circumstance. This paper draws on Fraser's conceptualisations of recognition and Mahmoud's of agency to explore urban subalterns' desire for recognition as dignified social subjects attempting to live good lives in conditions of deprivation and hardship, exacerbated by what they considered to be the state's neglectful disregard of their needs.