Obedient Autonomy
320 pages, 6 x 9
4 b&w illustrations
Release Date:01 Jan 2005
Release Date:11 Feb 2004
Release Date:01 Oct 2007

Obedient Autonomy

Chinese Intellectuals and the Achievement of Orderly Life

UBC Press

In the west, the idea of autonomy is often associated with a sense of freedom – a self-interested state of being unfettered by rules or obligations to others. This original anthropological study explores a type of “obedient” autonomy that thrives on setbacks, blossoms as more rules are imposed, and flourishes in adversity. Obedient Autonomy analyzes this model, and explains its precepts through examining the specialized and highly organized discipline of archaeology in China.

The book follows Chinese students on their journey to becoming full-fledged archaeologists in a bureaucracy-saturated environment. Often required to travel in teams to the countryside, archaeologists are uniquely obliged to overcome divisions among themselves, between themselves and their peasant-workers, and between themselves and bureaucratic officials. This analysis reveals how these interactions provide teachers of archaeology with stories used to foster obedient autonomy in their students. Moreover, it demonstrates how this form of autonomy enables a person to order and control their future careers in what appears to be a disorderly and uncertain world.

A masterly contextualization of archaeology in China, Obedient Autonomy shows how the discipline has accommodated itself to a Chinese social structure, and uncovers the moral, ethical, political, and economic underpinnings of that context. It will be accessible to students of anthropology even as it will provoke Euro-American archaeologists and interest social theorists of science, philosophers, gender theorists, and students of Chinese society.


  • 2004, Winner - K.D. Srivastava Award, UBC Press
The author is pioneering a new field, using politically neutral social anthropology and its theoretical constructs to examine Chinese intellectual life. This approach makes this an important work with no lack of sound observations and it should initiate further enquiry. Bruce Gordon Doar, The China Quarterly, Fall 2005
After extended research in the last nineties, Evasdottire worked out a model, or many patterns of behaviour, of archaeologists, which she illustrates with a great variety of portraits and stories. The result is of the highest interest, and very readable. The book opens new windows to understanding relationships among the Chinese, the ambitions and frustrations of the intellectuals, as well as the personal rewards of hard word and finding one’s proper place in society Chinese Cross Currents, Summer 2005
What stands out in this well-written and most interesting book is the lucidity and straightforward approach of its author. From experience gained as the result of intensive fieldwork, Erika Evadottir has become extremely well acquainted with the archaeology of China, and yet she has kept enough distance from her object of study to give us a confident picture of the field based on an analysis of the facts as well as a creative approach to theoretical speculation. That is why this book is not only worth reading by archaeologists interested in China but also an important contribution to research on intellectuals in China and their attitude towards the Chinese state and society. Susanne Weigelin-Schwiedrzik, East Asian Studies, University of Vienna, China Review International, vol.12, no.2, Fall 2006
A fresh, original, and important book that stands to make a significant contribution to China studies. Judith Shapiro, author of Cold Winds, Warm Winds: Intellectual Life in China Today
After receiving her doctorate in Social Anthropology from Harvard University, Erika E.S. Evasdottir was a Killam post-doctoral fellow at the University of British Columbia. Her research focus is now Chinese law, including issues of bureaucracy and authority within the Chinese legal community.


1 Autonomy and Autonomies

2 The Social Contract

3 The Rule of Law

4 The Separation of Powers

5 Majority Rule

6 Interest Groups

7 Minority Rights

8 The Pursuit of Happiness




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