Chinese Studies, Scholars, and the Post-Pandemic Turn: Relating Filial Piety and Liminality, Facemasks and Stigma

Maria Jaschok, University of Oxford

Chinese students are afraid to take public transport in Oxford, asking that supervision is shifted to a time outside rush hour; an email by a student recounts conflicted feelings over wearing a facemask because of fear of stigmatisation; a taxi driver refuses to enter into the spacious, empty forecourt of the China Centre (Oxford), preferring to receive his fare outside the Centre’s main-gate; Chinese students search for cheapest fares to China as their sense of safety is further undermined by perceived lack of ‘guardianship’ over vulnerable populations as the UK government’s initial response to Covid-19 favours a “herd immunity” model; newspapers, social media, and chat rooms bring anecdotes of increase in racist remarks and behaviour in public spaces, of which, it is felt, too little notice is taken by educational and political authorities. Local events unfold against a volatile international background, a manifest, corrosive mutual distrust is expressed in increasingly strident un/diplomatic exchanges and accusatory statements that clamour for China to shoulder the blame for the global consequences of a virus which may have originated in a Wuhan wet market. Moving from initial silence to selective reporting, China’s perceptions are hardening: the unfair scapegoating and attacks (mohei) on the country’s reputation by a conspiracy of Western powers mis/led by the USA. In the absence of respected intermediary agencies, unchecked accusations, misapprehensions, and insinuations are hardening authoritarian rule under Xi Jinping; undergirded by nationalistic noise, exceptionalism, and a sharpened sense of national victimhood.

Has Chinese studies ever been of greater use than in this pandemic moment, when the undergirding intellectual, academic, and personal relationships are pressuring it to become more than an academic discipline? Has it ever been more politicised?

My thoughts come out of conversations and relationships that form the sociality of Chinese studies, mostly with academic friends and colleagues in China, close observers of the changing standing of Chinese studies. My standpoint is informed by socio-political history of modern China, women’s/gender studies, and the sociology and social anthropology of Islam, with a preference for feminist-grounded theorising and methodologies that question epistemic privileges at the intersection of power and knowledge re/production. I entered Chinese studies at a time when many of my teachers were invested in the study of “China” as a matter of personal identity and ideological conviction. I was drawn to Chinese studies because it allowed this feminist the vicarious experience of an apparent gender-centred cultural revolution from the safe distance of a Western university campus. Chinese studies – that is, the responsibility carried by its teachers, researchers, communicators – has ever been both personal and political, with this responsibility the greater now that it inhabits a field of force loaded with overpowering imageries of contaminating sickness, panic, secrecy, misinformation, even danger.

Mechthild Leutner, a German sinologist, frames her analysis of China’s interactions with the global community in relation to two principles which, she argues, structure collaboration between German (read: European) and Chinese scholars in the time period broadly defined as spanning colonial to contemporary times: principles of hierarchy and equality. Intersections of power, privilege, and knowledge production and its reception, she holds, are rooted in the micro-levels of working relations that play into “knowledge about China as well as … conceptualization of China” (Leutner, 2007: 2). Intersubjectivity as a site of mutual intellectual discovery (Hastrup, 1992) deserves more sustained academic attention to theory and practice of collaboration in Chinese studies, necessitating opportunities for scrutiny of political and ideological obstructions of collaborative cross-cultural work, such as conventions of knowledge production legitimated by individual authorial voice and sole authorship. Newly reinvigorated, funded and academically valued forms of intellectual collaboration and dialogic research are required on many issues. Moreover, in the words of a Chinese colleague, Chinese studies might best come to serve as a “two-way mirror” allowing for Chinese “to understand oneself better.” This means, she says, although Chinese studies traditionally is the study of China from the point of view of “Western scholars,” there is an epistemological case for expanding fields of investigation which embrace and problematise common issues that cut across geographical borders and lingering East–West binaries. That the pandemic, an incipient “Chinese problem,” has so quickly become global in scope and impact, highlights a need for Chinese studies to respond with suitable agility, facilitating study of global interconnectedness through multi/interdisciplinarity of collaboration-based research, teaching, and dissemination.

Possible Areas for Collaborative Research That Stood Out for Me

There have been plentiful critiques of both the Chinese and UK governments, whether relative to transparency and consultation over emergency measures and the scale of public health challenge or the impact on populations. Heavily dominated by masculinist approaches to epidemiological modelling, a gender-emphatic multi-disciplinary project might study women-led governments (Germany, Taiwan, New Zealand) which compare favourably with their holistic containment strategies and attention to transparency and accountability. Although they diverge in public health policy trajectories and coping strategies, neither China nor the UK have so far displayed openness at home or abroad, and this has had, for example, troubling consequences for effective health protection of members of ethnic groups in either country. Differing in the degree of deliberative cruelty (internment and persecution of ethno-religious minorities in China have no equivalent in the UK), there are nevertheless questions to be asked over how different political systems and models of leadership have quietly allowed for “collateral damage” to arise from an unimaginative and technocratic crisis-management style. Deep systemic inequalities, might they be gendered, religious, ethnic, or generational, are accordingly further exacerbated.

Constructions of “the elderly” as “vulnerable” and “to be protected” through stringent measures of “self-isolation” have been the one consistent and enduring thematic thread of an otherwise inconsistent, conflicted, unpredictable, and haphazard UK government policy. From the early “herd immunity” model of a volatile trajectory that evolved to stem the Covid-19 pandemic to current containment policies through lockdown, a conception emerged of a homogenised, undifferentiated population, excluded from public discourses over “ways forward,” and indeed “harvested” to serve as acceptable sacrifice for “defeat of the invisible enemy.” What about China? What can government policies, healthcare provisions, limitations on emergency treatments and popularly supported values tell us about generational segregation, inter-generational responsibilities, and continued relevance of xiaoshun 孝顺? Conversations with colleagues in China suggest ample questions for investigation of a contrastive concept of care (rather than separation) and a concept of filial piety that kept elderly in families rather than enforce their isolation. To what extent is often reiterated “warmth” of inter-generational relationships in China, which served as contrast with depictions of “coldness” in news coverage on high incidence of fatalities in British care and nursing homes, held up by evidence?

The relationship of technology, society, and human rights repeatedly comes up in conversations. The pandemic both facilitates and legitimates unprecedented incursions into private spheres, and Chinese studies can provide crucial insights into a future of seemingly unlimited government use of technology in the administration and surveillance of citizens. China is ahead of other countries in its use of advance surveillance techniques. As Chinese colleagues suggest, unless citizens in the rest of the world consider themselves immune “to such thing,” does this not offer a justification for more collaborative research?

Finally, taking both a gender perspective as well as an anthropological take on language of (religious) dress cross-culturally, a fascinating artefact of contestation has become the kouzhao 口罩, the facemask, as a most visible visual demonstration of Chinese state repression and individual compliance, appearing in news footage and popular images in the course of a drawn-out debate among British politicians and scientists. Like the face-covering of many Muslim women, it has created discursive insider/outsider binaries and drawn the ire of those who would rather “face the enemy” on the open battlefield. Facemasks engender racial prejudice, particularly the case in the early days, when UK-based Chinese students and ethnic Chinese residents started to wear masks – and felt stigmatised. As a colleague from Beijing remarked, “wearing a facemask for us is a way of protection, not a metaphor of sickness of the Chinese nation.” A comparative treatment of racism (treatment of African residents in Guangzhou) under conditions of crisis and their scapegoating, and government handling of racism, or lack thereof, requires study.

“China” has come to be at the beginning, and at the centre, of the short but cruel history of Covid-19. Interrogation of the early phase of the pandemic in Wuhan, Hubei, is imperative, as is its handling by the Chinese government that gave rise to belated communications with the WHO and the international community. But the identification of the virus as “China virus” and as racialised and convenient ammunition in international relations, treatment by public and social media and stigmatisation of everything Asian in many countries where particularly populist governments’ scapegoating gave permission for often the most personal attacks on Chinese, have weaponised the pandemic to a degree that those of us in the field of Chinese studies are left with significant concerns and troubling issues that invite urgent (research) action. The times in which we live make our responsibility the more pressing. We must become more publicly accessible, more attuned to the need to listen into varied conduits of mis/communication that inform so much of our nations’ mutual prejudice and judgement. Can we, however, have a discussion over the future of Chinese studies without problematising transformative modes of transnational collaboration and its range of outcomes, for “Them” and for “Us”?


Hastrup, Kirsten (1992), “Writing ethnography: State of the art,” in Anthropology and Autobiography, Judith Okely and Helen Callaway, eds., 116–133, London: Routledge.

Leutner, Mechthild (2007), “Interaction as hierarchy or equality? Patterns of working relationships between German and Chinese scholars, 1887–2004,” Zhongguo yu shijiede hudong: Guojihua, neihua yu waihua 中国与世界的互动:国际化,内化于外化 (China and the World: Internationalization, Internalization, Externalization), William Kirby and Niu Dayong, eds., 1–18, Beijing: Hebei Renmin Chubanshe.