Windfall wealth and envy in three Chinese mining villages.

by Hui Zhang

Institution: London School of Economics and Political Science (United Kingdom)
Year: 2010
Record ID: 1392561
Full text PDF: http://etheses.lse.ac.uk/3018/


The sudden arrival of wealth in China - more specifically, the arrival of wealth for some people but not for others- offers anthropologists a good opportunity to revisit and modify their theories of envy. While most anthropological studies of envy have focused on slow-changing societies and/or on the question of reducing inequality as a way of reducing envy, in the Chinese case we find rapidly growing inequality and, it seems, a striking increase in the prevalence of envy. Certainly, the arrival of windfall wealth due to mining activity in the three villages in North-east China where I conducted fieldwork for this dissertation generated a wide and rich range of envy-related discussions and practices. However, unlike other ethnographic contexts where witchcraft, sorcery, the "evil eye", etc. are well-known ways of articulating and dealing with the problem of envy, no such cultural forms have up to now been identified and analysed for the case of China. Three key findings are presented in this thesis. First, at the conceptual level I argue that red-eye (yanhong), a Chinese term/concept related to malicious envy (relevant to cases where people feel: "I strongly wish you did not have what you have"), is a unique cultural product in that it expresses a desire to destroy what others have, in that it implies an orientation towards acting upon this desire and in that it is intertwined with particular forms of political and discursive power. Second, in contrast with cultures where strategies to control envy focus primarily on the enviers (i.e. on those who envy others), in China the people who are themselves envied appear to bear a high degree of moral responsibility for this situation. That is, they may be held responsible for the improper actions of others that result from them having provoked envy in these other parties. Third, Foster's (1972) theory of envy argues that it is the perceived scarcity of desirable goods that makes the deprived most envious. In my study, I argue that what breeds envy in situations of windfall wealth is not the scarcity of desirable goods, as such, but rather the perceived scarcity of opportunities for upward mobility.