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The Chinese family as instituted fantasy: or, rescuing kinship imaginaries from the ‘symbolic’

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Abstract

This article revisits well-travelled ethnographic portrayals of traditional Chinese family dynamics to draw attention to desire as a product of family life and to how crucial elements of family organization and ideology can be understood, in turn, as effects of desire – that is, as instituted fantasies. Although my case in point is the Chinese family, the analysis addresses the category ‘family’ cross-culturally. In any of its variations, the ‘family’ exists at two synergistically implicated levels: first, it comprises an important part of the reality into which individuals are socialized; second, it embodies in instituted form individuals' attempts to realize – to bring into being – social arrangements as they would like them to be. In the Chinese case, at least two ironies are embedded in this synergy. First, women are primary producers and reproducers of the family in the ‘real world’, despite the fact that patriliny as ‘instituted fantasy’ downplays or veils their agency. Second, the normative subordination of the son to a patriarchal father, expressed and mediated through institutions including ancestor worship and valorization of filial piety, veils a valorizing of the son as agent or protagonist of filial action. Although ultimately unrealizable, patrilineal and familial fantasies animate Chinese family life and are thus an important constituent of Chinese realities. To these ends the analysis re-purposes ‘the symbolic’ and ‘imaginaries’, categories widely employed in contemporary gender studies and social theory, arguing that understanding kinship enjoins incorporating desire's role both in defining institutions and in motivating their creators.

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