Between speaking and enduring: The ineffable life of bitterness among rural migrants in Shanghai

Xiao He


  • In the Maoist period, the Chinese socialist state encouraged the genre of “speaking bitterness” in order to give expression to past sufferings and cultivate a class consciousness. In the post-Mao era, scholars have noted how marginalized figures express discontent through public displays of bitterness and how state agents use “speaking bitterness” as a governing strategy for diffusing class antagonism and ensuring stability. The communication of bitterness, however, does not necessarily have an intrinsic or performative relationship with political action; it has a social life beyond political governance. Based on my ethnographic research with rural-urban migrants in Shanghai, this article explores the communication of bitterness as an affective and ethical force situated between speaking and enduring. The ineffable gap between speaking and enduring does not mark passivity, but decenters the speaking subject and opens up a social space for criticism, recognition and hope for a different future.

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DOI: https://doi.org/10.1086/717327