Professor Yunxiang Yan Delivers the 2003 Malinowski Memorial Lecture
Speaking at the London School of Economics, Professor Yan (Department of Anthropology) delivers a paper on "Individualism and the Transformation of Bridewealth in Rural China"
UCLA's Professor Yunxiang Yan (Department of Anthropology) was recently honored by the London School of Economics by being invited to deliver the 2003 Malinowski Memorial Lecture.
The Malinowski Memorial Lecture Series
The Malinowski Memorial Lectures at the LSE are given by outstanding anthropologists who have fundamentally shaped the study of culture, or who have promise of doing so. The lectures are named after Bronislaw Malinowski (1884-1942), who has been described as the father of modern anthropology. Malinowski, who studied at the LSE and later taught there, pioneered the study of anthropology as a social science. In his work and teaching, he sought to marry fact with theory. His approach -- based on functionalism and culture -- exercised a wide and profound influence not just on anthropology, but on social science as a whole.
In fact, the entire department of anthropology at the LSE became very influential -- especially during the first half of the twentieth century -- in the understanding of culture and society. Its graduates during that time included such luminaries in Chinese studies as Fei Xiaotong (Fei Hsiao-t'ung) (b. 1910; Ph.D. 1938), Francis L.K. Hsu (1909-2000; Ph.D. 1940), and Maurice Freedman (1920-1975; M.A. 1948). The work of these scholars, by the way, remains a must-read for anyone who wants to understand the first thing about Chinese culture.
Yunxiang Yan: From Peasant to Professor
UCLA's own Yunxiang Yan is a leading figure in the cultural anthropology of rural China. Among his particular interests are social change and development, family and kinship, and peasant studies. Professor Yan's research interests also extend to cultural globalization. In this area, he is now working on a multiyear project on "Transforming Americana: The McDonald's Phenomenon and Cultural Globalization in Beijing." This is a continuation of his earlier work on McDonalds, which he reports in a fascinating article, "McDonald’s in Beijing: The Localization of Americana," in Golden Arches East: McDonald’s in East Asia (J. L. Watson ed., Stanford University Press, 1997). Among Professor Yan's major publications are The Flow of Gifts: Reciprocity and Social Networks in a Chinese Village (Stanford University Press, 1996) and Private Life under Socialism:Love, Intimacy, and Family Change in a Chinese Village, 1949-1999 (Stanford University Press, 2003).
Professor Yan's life itself would make a suitable -- and suitably fascinating -- subject for an anthropological study. Born and reared in Beijing, he later spent more than a decade living as a peasant in two villages in northern China. In 1966, in the early stages of the Cultural Revolution -- when the fires of "revolutionary" lunacy were begining to burn out of control -- his father was accused of being "a class enemy of the people," and as a consequence the entire family was forced to leave Beijing and settle in his father's home village, in the province of Shandong. Professor Yan was then twelve years old. To say life in the village was hard is a profound understatement. One day in 1971, when Professor Yan and his siblings returned from working in the fields, their mother told them to go to bed since there was nothing to eat for dinner. Those who have heard Professor Yan describe those days cannot forget his portrait in words of what if feels like to starve. Not willing to do nothing, Professor Yan, then seventeen years old, set out on his own for a village some 750 miles distant, in the far northern province of Heilongjiang, where he had relatives. His motive was simply to get something to eat. Professor Yan found a ready welcome in the village of Xiajia, and lived there, "as an ordinary farmer" he has said, until 1978, when with the then-recently initiated reforms in China under the leadership of Deng Xiaoping, he applied for admission to Peking University and was accepted. This undoubtedly made him a celebrity in Xiajia, since for a villager anywhere in China to attend a university is unusual, but to be admitted to the country's most prestigious university was virtually unheard of. Yan earned a bachelor's degree in Chinese literature in 1982 and a master's in Chinese folklore and mythology in 1984. He applied for admission to Harvard, where he was accepted and began to study in 1986. He graduated with a Ph.D. in anthropology in 1993, and then taught at the Chinese University of Hong Kong in 1993-93, and then at Johns Hopkins University from 1994 to 1996. He has been at UCLA since 1996.
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Although Yunxiang Yan has come a long way, so has Xiajia. The village and its people have undergone a great many changes since 1978, several of which have profoundly altered people’s thinking and daily life. These changes -- their causes, manifestations, and consequences -- are not foreign to Professor Yan, since he returns to Xiajia each year to observe, interview, and otherwise conduct research. The result has been a rich flow of publications that reveal a largely unplanned, unforeseen, and unintended but nonetheless revolutionary transformation of culture in rural China.
Professor Yan's Malinowski Memorial Lecture, which was delivered on May 22 and is available on line, discussed one facet of these changes. Since the 1980s, the regular value of bridewealth (property transferred from the groom’s family to the bride’s family) in Xiajia has increased tenfold, and moreover it is now paid directly to the bride and not to her father. This carries with it, and reinforces, a whole series of implications. A report on Professor Yan’s lecture appeared in the June 3 issue of the London newspaper The Independent, under the title “Why China’s Youth Are Selfish and Proud.” The report is available on line at www.argument.independent.co.uk/podium/story.jsp?story=411891
Published: Thursday, June 05, 2003