Ruijing Wang

Social Support and childcare on the Chinese periphery: The case of the Akha of southwestern China

The project examines questions of social support by focusing on the topic of childcare, in particular the care given to children of preschool age. More generally, it will explore how uncertainties concerning people’s most basic needs, including food, shelter, health and care, are overcome (or not) in post-Mao China among a rural minority population--the Akha.
The Akha is a transnational group found in several Asian countries, including China, Myanmar, Thailand and Laos. In China, it has been identified officially as a branch of the Hani since the nationwide ethnic identification project undertaken between 1950 and 1954. I shall focus on two Akha villages located in a rural area along the Sino-Myanmar borderline in Pu’er, southern Yunnan. Since social life in these Akha villages has been heavily affected by government intervention recently (in terms of infrastructure, livelihood opportunities and family planning), the project will place the Akha in the context of more general changes in ideas and practices of social support and childcare throughout China.
Among the questions I shall address are the following: How do Akha villagers take care of children? How do Akha villagers cope with uncertainties arising in the process of childcare, and from whom do they gain support? What is the socio-cultural definition of social support among Akha group? What is the role of the local state in the field of childcare in this minority group?
The project has three major concerns. The first is to examine modes of livelihood in the two villages and the extent to which they shape villagers’ reproductive preferences and their ideals in terms of providing material resources to children. The second is to investigate the idea of childhood in these villages and local strategies, techniques, practices and taboos in this domain, which will be connected in turn to processes of knowledge transmission, marriage and kinship, and so on. The third is to develop a comprehensive analysis of the provision of support, including structural support-providers in ritual events and everyday givers of support, such as parents, grandparents, siblings, relatives, neighbors, co-villagers, and friends. In addition to these human supporters, non-human beings must also be taken into account, such as gods, ancestors, spirits, and ghosts, who are believed to be helpful in processes of care, broadly construed.
Besides yielding a description and analysis of Akha childcare practices in the context of reform China, the research aims to develop new theoretical approaches to capture how childcare practices and ritual life are enmeshed in each other, thereby challenging widespread secularist assumptions. Fieldwork between August 2012 and December 2013 will combine a questionnaire survey with participant observation, semi-structured interviews and informal interviews in the selected villages. It will be supplemented by the collection of documents concerning government policies and projects.

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