Tuesday, February 26, 2013

Invited Seminar: Sympathy, Injury, and Quackery

Dr. Trang X. TA
Lecturer, School of Archaeology and Anthropology, Australian National University, and
Fulbright Postdoctoral Fellow, University of Hong Kong

"Sympathy, Injury, and Quackery: A Political Economy of Hope in Contemporary China"
1 Feb 2013

How to understand the meanings of “hope” (and “hopelessness”) with an anthropological approach? Does it only make sense in personal life, or is it possible to examine the political economic meanings of it in a whole society? What could this special perspective teach us about the transforming China? Dr. Trang X. Ta’s talk “Sympathy, Injury, and Quackery: A Political Economy of Hope in Contemporary China” has opened some avenues for examining questions of this nature. With three ethnographic cases of “hope”, Dr. Ta illustrated how individuals struggle and suffer in their efforts to secure their health and livelihoods in contemporary China.

The first case is about “sympathy” or rather about obtaining sympathy. A family from rural Anhui came to Beijing and “lived” on the street outside a popular shopping center, with the hope of getting medical attention for their young son with leukemia. They exhibited themselves in this very public way with the hope that it would attract media attention which might result in a private donation to help cure their son’s disease. However, as Dr. Ta suggested, this story is not only a family tragedy. Rather, it is just one of numerous cases in the transformation of the Chinese health care system.

Dr. Ta’s second case is also set in Beijing and it is about “injury”. It focuses on the story of an elderly man whose leg was amputated following an agricultural accident. The farmer felt that his leg had been unnecessarily amputated as a means of cost savings by rural doctors. After failing to claim damages from the rural medical system, Dr. Ta explored how petitioners like this man put their last hope in the system “shangfang” (上访 or the system of petitioning progressively higher levels of government for assistance). She also examined how individuals caught within the complexity of the Chinese medical system suffer from (and also make use of) the moral stasis between an equivocating bureaucratic system and a nascent legal system in today’s China.

The third case is about “quackery” in Shenzhen. Dr. Ta described a community clinic healer who offers affordable Chinese medicine treatments that he learned from a beggar. In this case, the healer had been a school teacher who took in a beggar living on the streets. The beggar felt he had no way to repay the kindness of a stranger except by giving him his knowledge of Chinese medicinal therapy. The teacher found his new abilities to be miraculous and opened a business. Unfortunately, his business was accused of “quackery” even though some of his patients preferred it to the expensive medical care provided by the state.

The three different cases are interrelated when Dr. Ta highlights the “political economy of hope” in each one. That is, she critically examined how personal “hopes” are perceived, understood, challenged, and manipulated in the context of China’s large-scale political-economic transformations. It brought three quite different cases together to try to tease out the common aspects of hope, thereby adding to our understanding of the anthropology of hope.

Feng Xiangjun (M.Phil. Candidate)
Edwin Schmidt (PhD Student)

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