This dissertation examines ritual feasting in the small city of Luzhou, China, as a medium for making social relationships and marking class distinctions within a political economy of state-led marketization and cultural modernity embodied in individual consumption. Ritual feasting is analyzed as a linguistic register stereotypically linking speech and non-speech signs, social identities, and contexts. This study outlines three main modes as the formal, expressive, and playful modes, named after their operative styles. While the formal and playful modes have deep historical roots pre-dating the reform era, this study identifies the expressive mode as a cultural re-tooling of the ritual register to suit the needs of relationally-based market formation after 1978.
Therefore, this mode, which performatively literalizes social ideals such as ganqing (feeling) and gaoxing (happiness), has come to be associated with those classes and state institutions most involved in forming commercial relationships: the New Rich.-This widely perceived (and stigmatized) association between mode and class demonstrates non-elite resistance to expressive feastings innovations. This dissertation delves into some consequences of this elite failure to gain outright cultural legitimacy.
With the early expressive style widely mocked as false, this study shows that the search for an authentic sociality has led Luzhous elites either to temper expressive performativity with formal-mode restraint or playful-mode coercive play. Even as many residents long for authentic ways of being and interacting---often imaginatively located in the rural hinterlands---the dominant new habitus, called consumer modernity, demands a high level of ironic detachment vis a vis ideals and models of behavior.
Therefore, this study concludes that Luzhou elites fascination with people supposedly beyond the reach of the market and fully absorbed in real ritual is a corollary of their own subjection to conditions of market exchange: inevitably split between appearance and inner state, ends and means, language and materiality. Ritual feasting functions in this complex cultural politics as class icon, market parable, and medium for social exchange.