Prof. Biao Xiang

Professor of Social Anthropologybiao-xiang

University of Oxford, UK



Biao Xiang is a Professor of Social Anthropology at the University of Oxford. He is the author of The Intermediary Trap (Princeton University Press, forthcoming); Global “Body Shopping” (Princeton University Press, 2007; winner of 2008 Anthony Leeds Prize; Chinese by Peking University Press 2012), Transcending Boundaries (in Chinese by Sanlian Press, 2000; English by Brill Academic Publishers, 2005; to be reprinted as a “Classic in Chinese Sociology” in 2016) and numerous articles in both English and Chinese, including the one awarded the 2012 William L. Holland Prize for outstanding article in Pacific Affairs. A number of articles were translated into French, Spanish and Italian. He is also the lead editor of Return: Nationalizing Transnational Mobility in Asia (with Brenda Yeoh and Mika Toyota, Duke University Press, 2013). Xiang’s latest article on “the End of the Educated Youth era” was so widely read in China that it made news in December 2015; his article on Hong Kong is the subject of a special issue of Taiwan-based Journal of Archaeology and Anthropology (2015, 83).

Research Project

Migrant Muslim traders and interpreters in southern China

This project investigates how foreign Muslim traders interact with internal Muslim migrants, and how local government respond to the dramatic changes in ethnic-religious relations in Yiwu (Zhejiang province) and Guangzhou (Guangdong province), southern China. Most of the foreign traders come to procure low-end light commodities gathered across China, including Muslim traders from the Middle East and South Asia. About 5,000 Chinese Muslims from the northwest migrated to the two cities to work with the foreign traders as Arabic-Chinese interpreters. The interrelated international and internal mobility affect the two pillars of the Chinese ethnicity-religion policy: the clear demarcation of autonomous regions that separate ethnic minorities from the rest in China, and the categorical divide between domestic and foreign affairs.

This ethnographic field research project will test two observations that I made during my earlier pilot study and documentary research: (1) interactions with international Muslim traders enhance the Chinese Muslims’ religious identity in a broad sense, as well as their ethnic and national awareness. Both of the foreign and the domestic Muslims in Yiwu are from diverse sects of Islam; the differences between groups are multiple but never clear cut. The influences are manifest in subtle reconfigurations of the relation between religious, ethnic, national, locality and gender identities. (2) The local government has developed multiple channels to reach out to the migrant Muslim traders but falls short in articulating formal policies. This leads to effective monitoring on a daily basis but is insufficient in developing long-term plans.

A question beneath the multifaceted processes of identity negotiation and the institutional matrix of regulation is what wealth means socially? Migrant traders are driven by desire for wealth accumulation, and the government regards economic growth as the basis for maintaining social stability and the main reason for tolerating religious pluralism. But both the traders and the government are deeply aware that economic activities are at the same time profoundly moral and political. As such, the resulted monograph of the project will be an ethnographic analysis of how instantaneous transactions and short-term wealth accumulation, characteristic to economic globalization, change socio-political institutions in China.

Selected Publications

  1. Theory as vision. Anthropological Theory, 16 (3): 213 – 220.
  1. Beyond Methodological Nationalism and Epistemological Behaviouralism: Drawing Illustrations from Migrations within and from China, Population, Space and Place, doi: 10.1002/psp.1929.
  1. “中国社会科学‘知青时代’的终结”(The End of the ‘Educated Youth Era’ in the Chinese Social Sciences)《文化纵横》December: 70-79。
  1. “直面香港:群众运动中的民主诉求与政党政治” (Understanding Hong Kong: Democracy and Party Politics in Popular Movements).《考古人類學刊》(台湾)83期(2015年12月號)(Journal of Archaeology and Anthropology, issue 83. An English summary by Li Zhiyu and Mark McConaghy is available at The China Story (Australian National University)
  1. Migration infrastructure. International Migration Review, 50th Anniversary edition: 122-148. (with Johan Lindquist)
  1. The would-be migrant: post-socialist primitive accumulation, potential transnational mobility, and the displacement of the present in northeast China. TRaNS: Trans-Regional and -National Studies of Southeast Asia, 2 (2): 183 – 199.