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Self-cultivation and Sociality Among Retired Women in Urban China


In recent decades, an estimated 100 million middle-aged and elderly Chinese women have organized or joined public dance groups after leaving the work force. My dissertation uses this strikingly popular collective dancing phenomenon to explain how new models of productive aging have emerged as a result of China’s post-reform social transformation. It seeks to uncover the ways in which personal cultivation, kinship dynamics, and state influence can work in concert to redefine what it means to grow old in the modern world.

With roughly one-third of retirees and seven percent of the entire Chinese population participating, the collective dancing phenomenon offers an incisive view of the Chinese social landscape. On the surface, the phenomenon appears to be a direct product of economic reforms: collective dance groups exploded on the scene in the late 1990s when millions of women were laid off during the country’s transition into a consumer economy. However, I argue that collective dancing must also be understood within the context of a seismic shift in how old age is perceived and treated in urban China. My dissertation


explains how this generation of Chinese women copes with diminishing social welfare programs and related changes in family structure while at the same time investing in an activity that brings them personal fulfillment. I focus particularly on the emergence of self- reliance and self-care as core guiding principles for China’s recent retirees as they assume near-total responsibility for themselves for the first time in their lives. Drawing from observation and interview data collected from two dance groups as well as community leaders and government officials over an 18-month period, my dissertation breaks down the apparent contradiction between the rise of self-reliance in Chinese society and the critical importance of collective social enterprises for personal cultivation.

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