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Practicing citizenship privately: ethical self-fashioning and citizen-making in the revival of “Chinese Traditional Culture”

Liangliang Zhang (Faculty of Arts and Sciences, New York University Shanghai, Shanghai, China)

Social Transformations in Chinese Societies

ISSN: 1871-2673

Article publication date: 20 December 2022

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Abstract

Purpose

This paper aims to explore the relationship between ethical self-fashioning and citizenship practices in the ongoing revival of “Chinese Traditional Culture” pursued in tandem by the party-state and by private actors in present-day China.

Design/methodology/approach

Adopting an anthropological approach, the author draws from three sets of resources: (1) research literature on China’s political history and key texts of early Chinese thought, (2) contemporary state discourses on citizen formation, and (3) participant observation notes and interviews with organizers and followers of the Wu-Wei School (a pseudonym). The author conducts a textual analysis of primary and secondary literature and a critical discourse analysis of the ethnographic data and examines emerging themes.

Findings

Firstly, the author identifies a crucial dimension in the historical and cultural roots of Chinese citizenship practices: an enduring conception that binds individual ethical self-improvement with socio-political flourishing. Secondly, examining contemporary state discourses on “citizen quality” and “reviving China’s outstanding traditional culture”, the author showcases how party-state authorities call on individuals to self-reform for national rejuvenation. Thirdly, the author investigates how members of the Wu-Wei School construe their individual pursuits of ethical self-improvement as significant for societal progress.

Originality/value

Based on these findings, the author demonstrates the ways in which autochthonous conceptions of Chinese citizenship give a central place to private acts of self-fashioning. The author argues that the entanglement between individual ethics and citizenship practices constitutes a crucial but largely understudied dimension of Chinese citizenship.

Keywords

Acknowledgements

This article is based on doctoral research funded by Gates Cambridge Trust and University of Cambridge. For helpful comments on earlier drafts, I am indebted to James Laidlaw, Caroline Humphrey, and Canglong Wang.

Citation

Zhang, L. (2022), "Practicing citizenship privately: ethical self-fashioning and citizen-making in the revival of “Chinese Traditional Culture”", Social Transformations in Chinese Societies, Vol. ahead-of-print No. ahead-of-print. https://doi.org/10.1108/STICS-06-2022-0012

Publisher

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Emerald Publishing Limited

Copyright © 2022, Emerald Publishing Limited

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