Document Type

Dissertation

Date of Degree

Fall 2014

Degree Name

PhD (Doctor of Philosophy)

Degree In

Communication Studies

First Advisor

Kristine L. Muñoz

Abstract

This dissertation offers an ethnographic account of "the world's largest annual human migration": the family reunion ritual practiced by hundreds of millions of Chinese rural-to-urban migrant workers, who work in cities and travel back to the countryside during the lunar New Year (the Spring Festival) to reunite with family members.

The formation and practice of this ritual is situated in the particular historical moment of China's modernization when rural migrants have gained the freedom to leave the countryside but are met with difficulties in settling in the city and becoming urban citizens. Although migrant workers have contributed directly to China's burgeoning economy, without an institutionalized system that provides them security and full social rights, they experience prolonged liminality between the city and the countryside. The Spring Festival reunion offers migrant workers a once-in-a-year chance to achieve family unity, to reconnect with scattered kith and kin, and to temporarily actualize a sense of normalcy and continuity in the rural community. Drawing on theories of cultural communication, ritual, and family communication, I conceptualize the reunion ritual as a form of "lifeworld re-embedment" on China's pathway to individualization--a social process that engages in cultural resources to cope with the risks of modernity, bridging the disjuncture between the individual and the community.

Built on interviews with migrant workers and participant observation of family reunions in a village in Central China, this dissertation examines the ritual forms, meanings, and functions of the reunion. I first examine the ritualization of the Spring Festival reunion at a national level, focusing on the spectacular movement of passengers during the Spring Festival travel season. I argue that the Spring Festival homecoming has transformed from a transportation issue to a pilgrimage-like national ritual, projecting an image of the collective pursuit of family cohesion and community integration. As a response to the unequal access to urban citizenship, returning to one's countryside home has also become an alternative way for migrant workers to claim their identities and to find a sense of belonging. In communicating about the family reunion, migrant workers employ culturally distinctive languages of place attachment and collectively used discourses of displacement to construct the meaning of home, separation, and unification. In addition, I explore family rituals performed during the reunion that help migrant workers reconnect with left-behind family members, fulfill family obligations, and create family unity.

This study provides a more nuanced understanding of the paradoxical process of individualization in China, in which disembedded individuals have to depend on culturally bound integration provided by the institutions from which the disembedment occurs. In this process, ritual communication not only articulates the tension between the individual and the communal, but also functions as a powerful compensatory solution to the risks of family dislocation. By analyzing the Spring Festival reunion from a micro-level with a focus on how ritualized communication constructs, maintains, repairs, and changes social reality, this study also adds to the body of literature on cultural communication and family communication.

Public Abstract

This dissertation offers an ethnographic account of “the world’s largest annual human migration”: the family reunion ritual practiced by hundreds of millions of Chinese rural-to-urban migrant workers, who work in cities and travel back to the countryside during the lunar New Year (the Spring Festival) to reunite with family members. Although migrant workers have contributed directly to China’s burgeoning economy, without an institutionalized system that provides them security and full social rights, they have to leave some family members in the countryside and visit them occasionally on short trips. The Spring Festival reunion offers migrant workers a once-in-a-year chance to achieve family unity, to reconnect with scattered kith and kin, and to temporarily actualize a sense of normalcy and continuity in the rural community. Built on interviews with migrant workers and participant observation of family reunions in a village in Central China, this dissertation examines the ritual forms, meanings, and functions of the reunion. Drawing on theories of cultural communication, ritual, and family communication, I conceptualize the reunion ritual as a form of “lifeworld re-embedment” on China’s pathway to individualization—a social process that engages in cultural resources to cope with the risks of modernity, bridging the disjuncture between the individual and the community. This study provides a more nuanced understanding of the paradoxical process of individualization in China and adds to our knowledge of family and culture in social change.

Keywords

publicabstract, China, cultural communication, family communication, migration, ritual

Pages

xii, 209 pages

Bibliography

Includes bibliographical references (pages 197-209).

Comments

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Copyright

Copyright 2014 Meng Li

Included in

Communication Commons

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