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Abstract

This article examines the uptake of suzhi—roughly glossed as “quality”—in China's recent curriculum reform called suzhi jiaoyu (Education for Quality) in the rural ethnic context of Qiandongnan. It engages with three layers of analysis. First is a brief etymological overview of suzhi to map out its cultural politics in contemporary China. Agamben's theorization of People/people is invoked to elucidate how the keyword embeds the differentiation of bodies and the fabrication of the “others” through a civilizing mission. Second, the article surveys the genealogy of suzhi ideas-practices as the historical project of making the ideal personhood. It examines how suzhi's entanglement in Chinese historiography constitutes the moving target for the formation of educational subjects. Third, the article draws from my ethnographic research in southwest China to investigate suzhi's enactment in compulsory schooling and current curriculum reform. It provides nuanced empirical accounts to illuminate how suzhi/quality is understood, contested, and reappropriated in everyday pedagogical practices; how the bifurcated front- and backstage maneuvering in two village schools trouble the salvationary overtone of the suzhi-oriented curriculum reform. The lens of performativity is harnessed to move beyond the “loose coupling” theory and suggest undecidable interstices in the production of pedagogical subjectivity. Furthermore, this section explores how suzhi jiaoyu sits in a jarring relationship with indigenous cosmology to produce epistemic dissonance and disenchantment towards schooling. The article concludes with a call for provincializing the “universal” notion of quality and for a productive aporia in thinking about the limit-points of schooling.