Cosmologies of Credit

Transnational Mobility and the Politics of Destination in China

Cosmologies of Credit

Book Pages: 360 Illustrations: 20 illustrations, 1 figure Published: December 2010

Author: Julie Y. Chu

Anthropology > Cultural Anthropology, Asian Studies > East Asia, Sociology > Migration Studies

Year after year a woman sits in her bare living quarters with her bags packed. She is waiting for a phone call from her snakehead, or human smuggler. That longed-for call will send her out her door, away from Fuzhou, China, on a perilous, illicit journey to the United States. Nothing diffuses the promise of an overseas destiny: neither the ever-increasing smuggling fee for successful travel nor her knowledge of the deadly risks in transit and the exploitative labor conditions abroad. The sense of imminent departure enchants her every move and overshadows the banalities of her present life. In this engrossing ethnographic account of how the Fuzhounese translate their desires for mobility into projects worth pursuing, Julie Y. Chu focuses on Fuzhounese efforts to recast their social horizons beyond the limitations of “peasant life” in China. Transcending utilitarian questions of risks and rewards, she considers the overflow of aspirations in the Fuzhounese pursuit of transnational destinations. Chu attends not just to the migration of bodies, but also to flows of shipping containers, planes, luggage, immigration papers, money, food, prayers, and gods. By analyzing the intersections and disjunctures of these various flows, she explains how mobility operates as a sign embodied through everyday encounters and in the transactions of persons and things.


“. . . [A] remarkably rich, sensitive ethnographic account. . . . Chu convincingly challenges conventional conceptions of place and displacement in the social analysis of migration and diaspora.” — Jing Shao, Asian Anthropology

“Julie Chu's ambitious ethnography provides a captivating description of contemporary Chinese people's desire for mobility. . . . Cosmologies of Credit is daunting in scope and provides numerous insights for scholars interested in contemporary Chinese migration practice. . . . It is a major contribution to the fields both of migration and of China studies, and demonstrates the continued relevance of anthropological approaches to China's place in a globalized era.” — Jamie Coates, The China Journal

“The contradiction between the desired modern persona and the classically superstitious practices that are deployed to attain it has been noted by other researchers, but its ethnographic elaboration is one of the most interesting aspects of Chu’s book. Cosmologies of Credit enriches our understanding of the meshing between private and state desires of modernity that are so characteristic of today’s China.” — Nyíri Pál, The China Quarterly

“This is a fine example of how a modern ethnography can be written in a way that informs about people’s lives without attempting to describe everything in a research site. It is also an example of how to write a transnational ethnography that transcends geographical boundaries. Unlike most anthropological works on China or on Chinese overseas which treat each as rather separate, this work links the study of China with the study of Chinese overseas very well.” — Tan Chee­Beng, Journal of Asian Studies

“The study reveals a great deal about the conditions, motivations, and perceptions of the residents of the village with respect to their identities, opportunities, and how movement (especially economic and transnational) fits into their worlds…an important book for social scientists who study immigration, human smuggling, transnational movement, or nonurban society in contemporary China.”  — Brian J. Nichols, Religious Studies Review

Cosmologies of Credit invites a new perspective on the religious dimension of Chinese migration and greatly contributes to our understanding of the diversity and complexity of the Chinese diaspora.” — Nanlai Cao, Journal of Chinese Religions

“[A] significant book on the subject of emigrants from Fuzhou…. Chu’s ethnography is a timely addition to existing scholarly works on the Fuzhounese diaspora.  It illuminates the worldviews of the emigrant villagers and the desires of the aspiring potential migrants.” — Ann Shu Ju Chiu, Asian Studies Review

“This is an extremely interesting and useful book…. [It] has contributed much to the migration literature.” — Yuk Wah Chan, The Australian Journal of Anthropology

Cosmologies of Credit is a rich ethnography of migration that describes departures rather than arrivals, debts to gods that loom as large as debts to humans, and the lived experience of mobility without movement. Julie Y. Chu provides wonderfully subtle renderings of passionate and painful longings not to be left behind. One of the most astute and beautifully written ethnographies about China, Cosmologies of Credit is a pleasure to read.” — Lisa Rofel, author of Desiring China: Experiments in Neoliberalism, Sexuality, and Public Culture

“In this vivid account of Fuzhounese villagers’ strenuous efforts to realize their own cosmopolitan mobility as undocumented, smuggled persons, Julie Y. Chu connects architecture, spirit money, the politics of destination, and the cosmology of value. As she convincingly argues, mobility is the modern feature of modernity, and the real is always in motion.” — Tani Barlow, Rice University


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Author/Editor Bios Back to Top

Julie Y. Chu is Assistant Professor of Anthropology at the University of Chicago.

Table of Contents Back to Top
Acknowledgments ix

Notes on Orthography and Names xiii

Introduction 1

Part I. Edgy Dispositions 23

1. To Be Emplaced: Fuzhounese Migration and the Geography of Desire 31

2. Stepping Out: Contesting the Moral Career from Peasant to Overseas Chinese 59

Part II. Exits and Entrances 101

3. Snakeheads and Paper Trails: The Making of Exits 107

4. Bad Subjects: Human Smuggling, Legality, and the Problem of Entrance 141

Part III. Debts and Diversions 165

5. For Use in Heaven or Hell: The Circulation of the U.S. Dollar among Gods, Ghosts, and Ancestors 171

6. Partings and Returns: Gender, Kinship, and the Mediation of Renqing 217

Conclusion: When Fortune Flows 257

Notes 269

Bibliography 295

Index 321
Sales/Territorial Rights: World

Rights and licensing

Co-winner, 2011 Sharon Stephens Book Prize, presented by the American Ethnological Society

Honorable Mention, 2011 Gregory Bateson Prize, presented by the Society for Cultural Anthropology

Winner, 2012 Clifford Geertz Prize, presented by the Society for the Anthropology of Religion

Additional InformationBack to Top
Paper ISBN: 978-0-8223-4806-1 / Cloth ISBN: 978-0-8223-4792-7
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