Society for East Asian Anthropology
Volunteered - Oral Presentation Session
Alcohol consumption is imbued with ethical tension in contemporary China. On the one hand, anthropologists have long recognized the role that alcohol plays in cementing social and business relationships; on the other hand, merrymaking, especially in professional settings, is associated with corruption, wastefulness, and toxic masculinity (Osburg 2013). Merrymaking culture is sometimes used as an example to illustrate how ethical agency is compromised in contemporary China: Drinking is not moral, but many young professionals feel that they do not have the option not to take part if they want to be successful (Mason 2013).
Drawing from ethnographic research in Guangzhou city in the early 2010s, this paper analyzes how elite college students reclaim ethical agency in the question of “to drink or not to drink.” In extracurricular activities, students drink not so much for present enjoyment but for educational purposes. Students evoke the language of self-discipline—focusing not on controlling one’s appetite but the ability to perform intoxication—to reframe merrymaking as a performance of adulthood and a cultural capital that aspiring elites ought to master. In this sense, alcohol consumption is a site where elite college students negotiate new understandings of morality and sociability. The emphasis on instrumental performance allows young people to distance themselves from immoral aspects of drinking, making it possible for the ethical agent to be simultaneously moral and successful in a corrupt society. The logic of faking intoxication, however, suggests a disjuncture between authenticity and moral personhood. Ethical tension is displaced but remains unresolved.