Driving toward Modernity: Cars and the Lives of the Middle Class in Contemporary China

Driving toward Modernity: Cars and the Lives of the Middle Class in Contemporary China


Reviewed by Pengfei Li

First Published:

15 Apr 2020, 12:57 pm


Driving toward Modernity: Cars and the Lives of the Middle Class in Contemporary China

Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 2019; 240 pp: 978-1501738395, US$23.95 (pbk)


Jun Zhang’s Driving toward Modernity provides an ethnographically rich analysis of Chinese middle-class identity and daily practices centred on the family car. Though there are extensive studies on China’s middle classes from social science disciplines such as anthropology, political science and sociology, Zhang’s ethnography is perhaps the first monograph to discuss the relationship between car ownership and Chinese middle-class identity and daily lives from an anthropological perspective. While giving the Chinese car-ownership reality a more theoretical concept/name, ‘the automotive regime’ (p. 2), Zhang seems to follow the old, dichotomous, intellectual habit of rendering a deterministic or structural account about the interaction of ‘objective’ political economy on the one hand and ‘subjective’ daily lives on the other hand. Yet, by skilfully examining the entanglement of the automotive regime and the emergence of the Chinese middle class, Zhang addresses, resonates and yet challenges a few existing theses and/or myths on the Chinese middle class.


A classic thesis/myth on modernity in anthropology and sociology is that of the individualisation of modern society. Zhang contests and challenges both the grand theory of the (negative) consequence of modernity and its application in China. To Zhang, middle-class daily practices centred on the family car, from buying a more spacious car when a new child is born, to driving parents or parents-in-law around town, or even using the family car to run errands for extended family members (Chapters 1 and 2), are more about ‘being’ and ‘becoming’ modern subjects in a family than being isolated and self-driven atomised modern individuals. While emphasising family and family roles among Chinese middle-class subjects, Zhang is also cautious about making a cultural essentialist account of equating fulfilling family roles with practising ‘Confucian’ values.


In addition to challenging the master thesis of modernity, Zhang dissects the predominant ‘neoliberal’ analysis of the Chinese middle class, criticising existing accounts offered both by the left and by the right. While the predominant ‘neoliberal’ analysis or paradigm is increasingly becoming a convenient lens to eschew more nuanced examinations of the actually existing Chinese regime and Chinese subjects, Zhang provides a two-fold argument to challenge the ‘neoliberal’ lens. Since the ‘neoliberalisation’ of China’s political economy is not merely a ‘natural’ event or process but also a multi-faceted socio-politico-economic project, or ‘multiple projects’ (p. 8) in Zhang’s phrasing, a ‘neoliberal’ analysis or depiction of the Chinese transformation since the late 1970s necessarily touches on both a factual and a normative framework. But to Zhang, ‘the ethical component of neoliberal projects seems absent in the China context’ (p. 180), both through the left lens and the right.


First, on the left, scholars such as David Harvey (2005) harshly criticise China’s neoliberal turn and the increasing socioeconomic inequality as its devastating consequence. Zhang contests such a structural understanding of China’s transformations. To her, the transformation of China’s political economy structure does not determine, or create, a neoliberal class-subject as the self-disciplined and self-governing consumer or entrepreneur, or with self-development and self-governing as core values. More important, there may not be a paradigmatic ‘neoliberal’ transformation in China as argued by Harvey and the left in general. In the actually existing Chinese regime in post-Mao China, the socialist legacy of the danwei system and the already abolished welfare housing regime still play a significant role in the class-making process of middle-class subjects in Guangzhou and the Pearl River Delta region in South China, as Zhang argues in Chapters 1 and 2 of the book.


Second, on the right, neoliberal advocates such as Friedrich von Hayek (1980) argue for implementing more neoliberal policies – a freer market; more liberalised, deregulated social institutions and individual lives, etc. – to further advance the economy and economic subjects’ life choices and chances. Hayek’s followers, the market advocates in China, appear to believe that a more liberal economic structure automatically generates a more liberal lifestyle, with more freedom, promise and ultimately upward life chances. Yet, this is another mistaken understanding of China’s political economic transformation and middle-class subjects. Zhang argues that China’s central government did not have such clear ‘neoliberal’ economic strategies.


Beside the master thesis of modernity and the master paradigm of ‘neoliberalism’, Zhang’s work is more about emerging middle-class subjectivities in China. Through examining how middle-class subjects identify themselves and distinguish themselves from other social groups, in Chapters 3, 4 and 5 Zhang argues that middle-class Chinese are less certain about their independent class status and consciousness than about their differences from other social groups. That is, rather than being certain about who they are and what they desire, they are more aware of who they are not, that is, the ultrarich and high-level officials at the top and the recent graduates and migrant workers at the bottom. In other words, Jun Zhang challenges an existing account of Chinese middle-class subjectivity argued for by a more prominent anthropologist and urban scholar, Li Zhang. Zhang (2010), in her well-received ethnography In Search of Paradise: Middle-class Living in a Chinese Metropolis, argues that a clear middle-class consciousness, ‘a cultural and a class milieu’ based on certain tastes and judgements, that is, ‘privacy’ in a gated community and ‘decent’ consumption, has already been created in the contemporary Chinese city. Jun Zhang’s account of middle-class urbanites in Guangzhou contests and challenges the argument of ‘a cultural and class milieu’ in China. Middle-class subjectivity, in Jun Zhang’s account, is more about how middle-class social trajectories proceed and how their family-oriented daily lives take place than how a dubious, unstable ‘cultural and class milieu’ unfolds.


In the last two chapters of the book, Zhang discusses another important theme of the Chinese middle class that may influence both China’s future political trajectory and that of the world at large; that is, their political tendency or potentiality. Here again, Zhang attempts to avoid an overly dogmatic understanding of the middle class, that is, middle-class subjects’ active engagements in civil society and democratisation of the political regime. To her, middle-class subjects in Guangzhou are a deeply insecure and anxious group, since they feel they are ‘being trapped’ or ‘stuck’ in the middle. On the one hand, they feel fortunate about their life chances, which established their middle-class status, thanks to the more ‘liberal’ environment in China, both from the state and from the market in the first 30 years of post-Mao China. On the other hand, they have already started to worry about the sustainability or replicability of middle-class status in China, since they are witnessing the fiercely competitive job environment for new graduates and possibly their children in the future.


In sum, Zhang’s ethnography introduces a rare but important new work on China studies and middle-class studies in general. As the world has been becoming more uncertain from the latter half of the 2010s onwards, will Chinese middle-class subjects really become a stabilising force for a future China? In a broader sense, will a larger Chinese middle-class cohort, by uplifting more new graduates and migrant workers to middle-class status, bring more stability and prosperity to the world at large, or result in the reverse outcome? Studying Chinese middle-class subjectivities, at this crucial historical moment, is by no means to investigate a ‘low stakes’ cultural issue, but a socio-cultural topic that may result in profound socio-political repercussions both in China and in the world.




Harvey, D (2005) A Brief History of Neoliberalism. New York: Oxford University Press.
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Von Hayek, F (1980) The Road to Serfdom. Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press.
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Zhang, L (2010) In Search of Paradise: Middle-class Living in a Chinese Metropolis. New Haven, CT: Cornell University Press.
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