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Romancing the vulnerable in contemporary China: Love on the assembly line and the cultural politics of inequality

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Sun, W

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© 2017, © The Author(s) 2017. Several decades of economic reform have transformed China into one of the world’s most unequal countries. However, because this inequality has been studied primarily at the structural level, we know little about how it impacts on intimate relationships and affects individuals’ experiences of love and romance. This article engages with this question through a case study of ‘Love on the Assembly Line’, a series of ‘wedding photos’ featuring Chinese rural migrant workers, and the subsequent series of television reports of the same name, dating from 2012–13. It first examines the political-economic context of this minor cultural phenomenon, then examines current contestations over the meaning of love and romance, and finally documents the responses of rural migrant individuals themselves to the project. Combining ethnographic observation, in-depth interviews, and critical discourse analysis, this discussion goes some way towards demonstrating how inequality of emotion can be fruitfully studied, thereby advancing a new and alternative approach to researching inequality in China – one that views love/romance as a cluster of contested cultural narratives and discourses; as a social practice that involves a particular form of distributive injustice; as an integral part of class politics; and as the product of the interaction of these three realms.

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