Emotions in China

Locating Negative Affects in Post-Reform China
9:00 am – 10:45 am
Room 6

  • Organised by Lisa Richaud
  • Lisa Richaud, Chair
  • Kailing Xie, “The National Public Memorial Day for the Nanjing Massacres: Displays of Collective Pain and Shame and Their Importance in Governing Contemporary China”
  • Julian Mohr, “The Great Leap Forward Trauma in Stranger Sociability”
  • Xuefei Ma, “Speaking Bitterness and Misery Lamentation: Translating between Gender and Class in Rural Women’s Biographical Stories”
  • Gil Hizi, Discussant

If there is such thing as a dominant public sphere in post-reform China, its emotional tonality has often been described as overwhelmingly positive, as evidenced by the recent “happiness” campaigns or state-promoted “positive energy”. This panel takes this prevalence of positivity as an invitation to investigate its opposites: the expression and performativity of negative affects and emotions in everyday life and public culture. Here, negative affects are not only defined by their attendant dysphoric or unpleasant quality. Crucially, negativity derives from state-shaped emotional regimes, produced through explicit definitional acts or staged atmospheres that promote certain affects and dismiss or condemn others. What kind of cultural repertoires are available and appropriated for people to make sense of their emotional experiences? How do cultural artefacts contribute to shaping social imaginaries of stranger sociability centred around collective emotional experiences? How are affective publics formed, sustained, and (de)politicised in the Chinese authoritarian context? Beyond obvious forms of control over technologies of social connections, are there any mechanisms through which the Party-state may restrict the possibility to identify oneself as member of larger (counter) affective publics? Despite its pervasive use of positivity, does the party-state capitalise on negative affects to reproduce its legitimacy? The panel will attend to a variety of contexts, ranging from the negative affects ensuing from state-induced “situations of restricted agency”, the lingering traumas and fears of the Mao era, to the ways in which the party-state continues to govern (through) negative affects.

Kailing Xie, “The National Public Memorial Day for the Nanjing Massacres: Displays of Collective Pain and Shame and Their Importance in Governing Contemporary China”

Under the current Xi’s administration, the party-state has marked the 13th of December as the national public Memorial Day for the Nanjing massacres. Since 2014, this entails holding a series of public events accompanied by wide official media coverage to remind the public of the shame and pain of China’s weak past. Simultaneously, there has been a widespread state-promoted ‘positive energy’ and ‘happiness campaigns’ permeating in Chinese society, together with the state’s frequent announcement that China has achieved its national rejuvenation and entered ‘a new era’. This paper focuses on discourse circulated by China’s official media coverage to show how certain negative emotions such as pain and shame are publicly displayed and expressed to serve an instrumental function in China’s contemporary governance. In particular, the paper argues that state-endorsed negative emotions enhance its promotion of positivity in post-reform China. Similar to previous campaigns, like the ‘yi ku si tian’ (remembering bitterness and knowing sweetness) movement during the Cultural Revolution, it encourages the public to actively appreciate and internalise the ‘feeling of being fortunate enough’ to live under China’s ‘tai ping sheng shi’ (the time of peace and prosperity). It further extends the party-state’s disciplinary power to the public’s affective realm, with the aim to promote national unity and legitimise its rule. Instilling such collective negative emotions in the public restrict the transformative agency of other negative affects experienced by individuals facing rapid social and economic changes.

Julian Mohr, “The Great Leap Forward Trauma in Stranger Sociability

According to Maurice Halbwachs, the construction of memory is not purely individual but embedded in the current social framework. As Weigelin-Schwiedrzik points out in her work, the traumatic experiences of the Great Leap Forward (GLF) and thus the negative feelings continue to be present in the communicative memory of the Chinese population in post-Mao China. It turns out, however, that the Communist Party’s repressive handling of the very discourse prevents it not only to be communicated as the failed policy in public spheres as it appears to be described in the certain historiography, especially in the West, but also from becoming part of cultural memory. What about the feelings of the transgenerational traumatised of the GLF in various public spheres? Being traumatised can mean, among other things, suffering from the contradiction of the feeling of unfeelingness: The avoidance of re-experiencing trauma-induced feelings. Lazar and Litvak-Hirsch emphasise that Jewish identity ultimately draws on a framing of the Holocaust that transcends internal ethnic, national, and generational differences. In this regard, I aim to examine, how these negative feelings of transgenerational transmitted trauma appear to be communicated outside the Chinese authoritarian context in newly formed stranger environments. Is it possible for the descendants of the eyewitnesses of the GLF to articulate the feelings in a public space with like-minded in a newly created stranger sociality? In addition, there is the question of the possibility of forming an affective “we” with reference to the GLF.

Xuefei Ma, “Speaking Bitterness and Misery Lamentation: Translating between Gender and Class in Rural Women’s Biographical Stories

Misery Lamentation is a conventional genre in the culture of nüshu—a women-invented writing system in rural Jiangyong of south China. Its writing and related performative events facilitate a gendered community of sentiments. In the CCP-led Speaking Bitterness campaign that generates class-centred feelings in the socialist era, Misery Lamentation is never curated. This paper investigates the historical encounters between Speaking Bitterness and Misery Lamentation, as a lens to explore the tensions and (un)translatability between China’s gender and class politics from the socialist past to the post-reform present. I analyse the textual, contextual, and intertextual relations of nüshu’s historical archives and the production of what I call Neo-misery Lamentation through my ethnography on The He Jiyu Lamentation (2018) and The Zhu Liurui Lamentation (2019). I make the following arguments. First, while Speaking Bitterness translates gender issues into class struggles, Misery Lamentation draws upon women’s empathetic bonding and refuses to be appropriated in the Maoist “class” vocabulary, thus becoming the unrecognised and unrecognisable bitterness. Second, in the Neo-misery Lamentation, the formulation of Speaking Bitterness (Gail Hershatter, 2013) is passed down, regulates women’s perception of their life courses, mediates the expression of the left-behind rural women, and paradoxically produces positive feelings from women’s marginalised positions. Third, in the formation of neoliberal subjects in post-reform China, the historical tensions between gender and class are distributed as “middle-class norms” (Hai Ren, 2013) in the multiple-layered governance of the nation-state, patriarchal institutions of family and workplace, and the regulated sphere for women’s homosociality.

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Room 6
Locating Negative Affects in Post-Reform China