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Abstract

This dissertation investigates the semiotics of state power in rural China through an ethnographic and linguistic examination of state influence in the daily lives of rural Chinese women in Huangshan, Anhui Province, China. I examine how large-scale processes like urbanization, globalization, and economic development are reshaping the political economy of rural China and, by extension, altering social class and gender roles. Rapid social transformation has created a perceived crisis of values, particularly for rural women who feel that their place in society is increasingly devalued. My research shows how dialect-speaking rural Chinese seek to create and define new regimes of value vis-à-vis the state through what I term projects of “curation.” Twenty-two months of fieldwork has allowed me to trace sites of value curation through seemingly unconnected and multi-scalar community and individual projects such as government tourism projects, Mandarin language promotion programs, prenatal health campaigns, and women’s leisure activities. I show that it is through such projects that the state mediates daily life by redefining the conceptual and linguistic apparatuses by which people construct new value systems. It is also through such projects that ordinary Chinese work through the politics and histories of the recent past, and, by extension, negotiate visions of the future. My work contributes to studies of language variation and change, language ideologies, and the social significance of semiotic systems more generally. How regimes of value are mobilized “on the ground”—that is, how value is made legible to oneself and others through daily life—is notoriously hard to study. By bringing the methodological toolkit of sociolinguistic analysis to the ethnographic study of rural China, I show how abstract sociological categories such as social class, regional identity, political orientation, and gender are indexed in speech, behavior, and comportment, taking on local meaning and significance often at odds with scholarly or national assumptions. Secondly, identities are generally not static but vary with social context. By paying attention to individuals’ language modulation and others’ linguistic judgments in different contexts, I examine how people attempt to curate their presentation of self in the everyday, especially in domestic, putatively feminine domains that are thought to be outside the purview of the state. Finally, I show that women frequently deploy state slogans in informal conversation. This analysis of linguistic circulation and uptake allows us to move past analytic frameworks of resistance or acquiescence to show, contrary to scholarly assumptions, that the Chinese state is still deeply influential in how people construct value systems.

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