Anxious Wealth: Money and Morality among China's New Rich

Anxious Wealth: Money and Morality among China's New Rich

Anxious Wealth: Money and Morality among China's New Rich

Anxious Wealth: Money and Morality among China's New Rich


Who exactly are China's new rich? This pioneering investigation introduces readers to the private lives-and the nightlives-of the powerful entrepreneurs and managers redefining success and status in the city of Chengdu. Over the course of more than three years, anthropologist John Osburg accompanied, and in some instances assisted, wealthy Chinese businessmen as they courted clients, partners, and government officials.

Drawing on his immersive experiences, Osburg invites readers to join him as he journeys through the new, highly gendered entertainment sites for Chinese businessmen, including karaoke clubs, saunas, and massage parlors-places specifically designed to cater to the desires and enjoyment of elite men. Within these spaces, a masculinization of business is taking place. Osburg details the complex code of behavior that governs businessmen as they go about banqueting, drinking, gambling, bribing, exchanging gifts, and obtaining sexual services.

These intricate social networks play a key role in generating business, performing social status, and reconfiguring gender roles. But many entrepreneurs feel trapped by their obligations and moral compromises in this evolving environment. Ultimately, Osburg examines their deep ambivalence about China's future and their own complicity in the major issues of post-Mao Chinese society-corruption, inequality, materialism, and loss of trust.


In 1997, I arrived in Guangzhou, the booming capital city of Guangdong province, to begin teaching English at a provincial education college. Like many casual observers of China, I was captivated by the irony of a wealthy, entrepreneurial class in an ostensibly socialist country and the social tensions and contradictions brought by China’s market reforms. My students were primarily high school English teachers in their twenties from small towns in rural Guangdong. They were attending two years of professional training in Guangzhou before being sent back to their schools. Over late-night snacks and beers in outdoor sidewalk restaurants, they talked about their hopes for the future and anxieties about the present. I quickly learned that the broader social and economic transformations of the previous two decades, while improving their standard of living, had overturned many of their certainties about Chinese society and their place within it. They felt both threatened by and drawn to the expanding world of business, angry about its injustices but seduced by its promises of excitement, status, and riches.

While the new rich were a common topic of discussion, many of the conversations we had about this group quickly evolved into discussions of marriage, romance, and sexual morality. In many ways, among my students it seemed that anxiety about growing social inequality in China manifested in moral discussions about men and women.

My male students frequently complained that in their hometowns uneducated entrepreneurs and nouveau-riche peasants were taking “their women.”

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