Xinyan Peng

BA, University of Virginia, December 2013


Linguistic anthropology, anthropology of Christianity, Protestantism, transnational migration, U.S., China

Me and My Huoban: New Modes of Friendship and Individualism in Urban China

This is a historical moment in China when the scope of family ties is contracting, kinship ties are loosening, and systems of meaning are shifting. When confronting such rapid changes in social structure and ethical frameworks, urban Chinese have turned to affinity groups, such as calligraphy clubs, Confucian classics reading clubs, dance groups, Christian Bible study groups, and Buddhist devotional groups, as sources for companionship and intimacy. Formed for the purposes of life-nurturing, meaning-seeking, and cultivation of the self, these groups have catalyzed a new, distinctively Chinese form of friendship, huoban, outside of the bounds of family and work that have long-shaped Chinese social life. Huoban transforms the relationship between friends from the least important of the five core traditional relations, to a relationship that is considered by today's Chinese to be as important as family or even challenging the primary loyalty to the family. In the West, interpersonal relationships such as “friendship” are grounded in individualist premises: voluntary connections made by free, equal, and independent individuals. In contrast, traditional Chinese friendship emerges from a hierarchical social system of differentiated relations, a ranked series of dyads representing unequal relations in the family above an equal relation between friends. Recent changes in the ranking of friendship not only reorganize core relations in the everyday lives of contemporary Chinese people, but also produce a qualitatively different kind of Chinese personhood, which this proposed research investigates through the lens of middle-class, urban huoban relations in affinity groups in Shanghai. Given the pervasiveness and historical depth of group-based social relations in China, I hypothesize that people respond to the moral and social changes taking place in China today not as autonomous beings independent of their social ties, or as conditional individuals solely supported by private, nuclear families, but as persons who are developing new, distinctively Chinese individuality as they are enmeshed in the social life of groups and huoban relations that supplement or replace traditional kin networks. Through 12 months of ethnographic fieldwork in Shanghai, this research intends to investigate the ways huoban is shaped by the nature of the Chinese person, and has become integrated quickly and deeply into lives that were traditionally dominated by family ties or organized primarily by institutions of work.