Biopolitical Beijing: Pleasure, Sovereignty, and Self-Cultivation in China's Capital

Peer Reviewed


In this article, life-cultivation arts (yangsheng) in Beijing are presented as a form of political practice. These technologies of the self include physical exercise, nutrition, and transforming one's attitudes and habits. Drawing on interviews and on popular health literature, these ethnographic findings suggest that China is no exception in the field of modern biopolitics, despite its indigenous political philosophies, its long history of imperial bureaucracy, and its more recent revolutionary history of Maoist socialism. Nonetheless, the particular convergence of power and life is deeply historical (i.e., nonmodern) in instructive ways. Local and historically inflected approaches to spirit, pleasure, and health define the political in relation to the achievement of the good life.

Judith Farquhar and Zhang Qicheng draw analytic attention to the 'nurturing practices' (Yangsheng) of everyday life in contemporary Beijing. The essay and its focus on Chinese 'life-cultivation arts' provides an instructive opportunity to consider the dimensions of health and fitness, sports and leisure, and the 'biopolitics' of Beijing on the eve of the 2008 Olympics, and in the face of the continuing frenetic industrialization of mainland China and the increasingly rapid urbanization of the post-socialist state. We, the editorial interns of Cultural Anthropology's list on 'Cities & Urbanism,' offer herein a series of teaching tools to provide an opportunity to examine Farquhar and Qicheng's insightful contribution to an expanding scholarly body of work on the city, the body and the spirit (qi) of contemporary Beijing.

Editors' Footnotes

Cultural Anthropology has published a number of articles that focus on disciplinarity and the practices of everyday life in contemporary Beijing, see Matthew Kohrman's, 'Authorizing a Disability Agency in Post-Mao China,' (2003), Lisa Rofel's 'Rethinking Modernity' (1992) and Judith Farquhar's early works 'Technologies of Everyday Life' (1999) and 'Eating Chinese Medicine' (1994).

Cultural Anthropology has published a number of essays on health and medicine in China. See for example, Shao Jing’s “Fluid Labor and Blood Money: The Economy of HIV/AIDS in Rural Central China” (2006), Matthew Kohrman’s “Authorizing a Disability Agency in Post-Mao China: Deng Pufang's Story as Biomythography”(2003), Mei Zhan’s “Does It Take a Miracle? Negotiating Knowledges, Identities, and Communities of Traditional Chinese Medicine” (2001), and Judith Farquhar’s “Eating Chinese Medicine” (1994).

Cultural Anthropology has also published essays on power and citizenry. See Arzoo Osanloo’s “The Measure of Mercy: Islamic Justice, Sovereign Power, and Human Rights in Iran” (2006), Sarah Pinto’s “Development without Institutions: Ersatz Medicine and the Politics of Everyday Life in Rural North India” (2004), Nickola Pazderic’s “Recovering True Selves in the Electro-Spiritual Field of Universal Love” (2004), and Lesley Gill’s “Creating Citizens, Making Men: The Military and Masculinity in Bolivia” (1997).

About the Authors

Judith Farquhar, Max Palevsky Professor of Anthropology and of Social Sciences at the University of Chicago, and Qicheng Zhang, Beijing University of Chinese Medicine, have been the recipients of a Horace W Goldsmith Fellowship from the National Humanities Center for their research on the practices of 'nurturing life' (yangsheng) in contemporary Beijing.

Additional Works by the Author

Judith Farquhar "Technologies of Everyday Life: The Economy of Impotence in Reform China." Cultural Anthropology May 1999, Vol. 14, No. 2: 155-179.

Judith Farquhar "Eating Chinese Medicine." Cultural Anthropology Nov 1994, Vol. 9, No. 4: 471-497.

Related Readings

"Ayurvedic Interiors: Person, Space, and Episteme in Three Medical Practices" Jean Langford. Cultural Anthropology Aug 1995, Vol. 10, No. 3: pp. 330-366

"Social Body and Embodied Subject: Bodiliness, Subjectivity, and Sociality among the Kayapo" Terence Turner. Cultural Anthropology May 1995, Vol. 10, No. 2, Anthropologies of the Body: 143-170

"Genre and Embodiment: From Brazilian Capoeira to the Ethnology of Human Movement" J. Lowell Lewis. Cultural Anthropology May 1995, Vol. 10, No. 2, Anthropologies of the Body: 221-243

"The Body of One Color: Indian Wrestling, the Indian State, and Utopian Somatics" Joseph S. Alter. Cultural Anthropology Feb 1993, Vol. 8, No. 1: 49-72

Zedong Mao, On Practice

Suzni, On the Art of War

Bruno Latour, Website

Related Links

New York Times Olympic Games 2008 Coverage 

Official website of the Beijing government: Beijing

Official Website of 2008 Beijing Olympics


"Taijiquan during the Cultural Revolution" (1972) - scenes from a documentary

Questions for Classroom Discussion

On Health, Pleasure & Sport

How does the Chinese practice of yangsheng differ from American practices of exercise? How do the authors, and their interviewees, distinguish between Chinese and American notions of health and self-care?

Why do the authors introduce the concept of the 'mainstream'? What is the relationship between yangsheng and the 'mainstream' that the authors wish to highlight?

Why was the interview subject, Li Wencheng, an ideal respondent for the author's study? In what ways was he not? Who would be an ideal respondent for this study if it were to consider 'life-cultivation arts' in the United States? Why?

What is the meaning and history of jingshen? How does the concept of jingshen effectively illustrate the relationship between 'exercise' and 'spirit'?

What does the practice of yangsheng inform us about the nature of civil society in urban China? What is the relationship between joy, pleasure and civility? What is the relationship between yangsheng and the city?

What is the vision of the body that this study provides? In what ways does this vision of the body differ from that on display in the practice of sports such as those central to the Olympic games? Are yangsheng, jingshen, taiji, qigongsports? In what ways might, and might not, the Olympic games be considered forms of yangsheng?

On Sovereignty, Biopolitics and Bare Life

The authors use Giorgio Agamben’s and Michel Foucault's work on sovereignty as one of their primary theoretical tools. Please explain the key theoretical concepts used in the article including: biopolitics, sovereignty, bios, zoe, and states of exception. How do the authors complicate each of these terms when considering urban Beijing?

How has the care of self shifted and changed throughout the CCP era? From early CCP policies to contemporary issues such as privatized healthcare, how has the care of self changed both at the state and personal level?

What are some of the examples the authors give of ‘bare life’ in China? How do they characterize their informants’ understandings of these events?

What is meant by the terms “generative” and “deductive” power? Use examples from the text to explain how power can be mobilized directly and indirectly by the state.

For Giorgio Agamben, “bios” and “zoe” related to the power of the state as sovereign over life. How do the authors shift the understanding of the ‘sovereign’ by the end of the text? How does this relate to their argument that yangsheng can be seen as a challenge to biopolitical projects in China?

On China and the Urban Context

In saying that yangsheng practices cultivate the"spirit," (jingshen), Farquhar notes that the Chinese understanding of spirit diverges from the Christian notion, especially in rooting it in the body and in life (312). What difference does this signal in understanding the relationship between the body and pleasure in the Chinese context?

Consider how social meaning is found in pleasure. What specific kinds of pleasure do these urban retirees find in their social relations?What kinds of urban communities are formed in the sharing of space and leisure activities?

The Chinese city is notable for its density and small apartment spaces. How does this particular condition of urban life in Beijing change way residents use their city and how they enjoy social life?

How does Chinese political history from Mao to the 1989 Tiananmen protests affect the types of contemporary practices that people participate in? How do these practices serve to define private, individual activity versus public, collective identity?

In-Class Activity

Using Farquhar and Qicheng's study as a model, conduct a survey of friends, family members, or athletes at your school about their perceptions, motivations and expectations of their hobbies for their health and pleasure. Consider asking them to describe the locations where they practice these hobbies. How does the city or town in which you live provide a unique opportunity for the practice of these hobbies?

Editors: Rodney Collins, Alison Kenner, Michelle Stewart

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