Performing the public man: Cultures and identities in China's grassroots leisure class

Qian, J.

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Qian, J. (2014). Performing the public man: Cultures and identities in China's grassroots leisure class. City & Community, 13(1), 26–48.

This article examines cultural practices and social life in urban public spaces of postreform China, focusing on the everyday leisure, entertainment, and cultural activities spontaneously organized by grassroots residents or groups. It examines performativity in constituting cultural meanings, reproducing everyday identities, and building up mutual engagements, and unravels the ways in which ordinary people devote resources, labor, and energy to keep alive individual or collective identities. Performances of cultural identities in public spaces entail improvised and temporary social relations which emerge from the immediate contexts of mundane spatial practices. Empirical analyses of public performativity in Guangzhou identify three scenarios, namely, the performativity of public teaching, public shows and performances, and the performative displays of cultural difference between carnivalesque dancing and “high-end culture” in public leisure.

Main finding
The author examines performative activities in two public spaces. She focuses on three grassroots cultural practices, consisting of dancing classes and theatrical performances, led by professionals, and impromptu dancing done mostly by immigrants and low-income locals. She finds that the political liberalization of post-reform China has allowed diverse cultural practices to flourish in public. Dancing classes allow public self-actualization, theatrical performances display normalized cultural practices, and impromptu dancing provides a space for self expression outside social and cultural norms. For many, the performances represent not only cultural, but class, identity. The author argues that public space is therefore used to accommodate different leisure activities and to express disparate cultural and class identities. The performative activities serve not only to support personal growth but to create public displays of culture and status.

Description of method used in the article
The author conducted nonparticipant observations and in-depth interviews over four months in 2011. The observations took place during morning, afternoon, and evening, and included taking field notes and video clips. The interviews were conducted with participants of public space activities (n = 37) and managerial staff of parks and squares (n = 5).

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