On the Edge: Feeling Precarious in China

On the Edge: Feeling Precarious in China
By Margaret Hillenbrand
Columbia University Press, 2023
$35.00/£30.00 paper    $140/£117.00 hardcover   $34.99/£30.00 ebook
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Charismatic artists recruit desperate migrants for site-specific performance art pieces, often without compensation. Construction workers threaten on camera to jump from the top of a high-rise building if their back wages are not paid. Users of a video and livestreaming app hustle for views by eating excrement or setting off firecrackers on their genitals. In these and many other recent cultural moments, China’s suppressed social strife simmers—or threatens to boil over.

On the Edge probes precarity in contemporary China through the lens of the dark and angry cultural forms that chronic uncertainty has generated. Margaret Hillenbrand argues that a vast underclass of Chinese workers exist in “zombie citizenship,” a state of dehumanizing exile from the law and its safeguards. Many others also feel precarious—sensing that they live on a precipice, with the constant fear of falling into this abyss of dispossession, disenfranchisement, and dislocation. Examining the volatile aesthetic forms that embody stifled social tensions and surging anxiety over zombie citizenship, Hillenbrand traces how people use culture to vent taboo feelings of rage, resentment, distrust, and disdain in scenarios rife with cross-class antagonism.

On the Edge is highly interdisciplinary, fusing digital media, art history, literary criticism, and performance studies with citizenship, protest, and labor studies. It makes both the distinctive Chinese experience and the vital role of culture central to global understandings of how entrenched insecurity and civic jeopardy fray the bonds of the social contract.


Preface: Trial by Fire
Introduction: Grasping the Precarious
1. The Delegators
2. The Ragpickers
3. The Vocalists and the Ventriloquists
4. The Cliffhangers
5. The Microcelebrities
Conclusion: Viral Precarity


Margaret Hillenbrand is professor of modern Chinese literature and culture at the University of Oxford. Her previous books include Negative Exposures: Knowing What Not to Know in Contemporary China (Duke University Press, 2020).

Posted by: Margaret Hillenbrand margaret.hillenbrand@chinese.ox.ac.uk

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