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The crisscrossed agency of a toast: Personhood, individuation and de-individuation in Luzhou, China

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Abstract

This article addresses debates over individuation in China through consideration of guanxi-relational feasting in Luzhou, Sichuan. I draw on Ortner's theorisation of subjectivity and agency to probe the often taken-for-granted question of cultural personhood which informs social action. Although the social imaginary in Luzhou is increasingly colonised by symbolic individualism, I propose that dominant local notions of personhood and agency, operating within feast practice, continue to define this process. By attending to three aspects of Yan's ‘individualisation thesis’, I demonstrate how local models of person and agency are indispensible to a fuller understanding of social life. Considering the important role ritual speech habits (largely trained in de-individuating feasting) continue to play in socialising actors to economic institutions and power relationships more generally, individuation in China today remains a largely nominal and aspirational, if symbolically potent and potentially transformative, project.

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