Becky Yang Hsu

Associate Professor, Sociology

Affiliate, Asian Studies Program

Senior Fellow, Berkley Center for Religion, Peace & World Affairs


Location: Car Barn 209

Office Hours: By Appointment


Ph.D., Princeton University, 2011

M.A., Princeton University, 2004

B.A., Yale University, 1997


Becky Yang Hsu was born in Taiwan, came to the U.S. at the age of four, and grew up in California, New York, and Iowa, among other places. Now, she makes her home in northern Virginia on the lands of the Patawomek, Tauxenent, and others. She studies the social relationships that people understand as natural and ordinary, with a particular interest in moral understandings, social practices, and religion. This interest has been shaped by experiences as an immigrant in America who has seen different sides of what is taken for granted. This perspective underpins Hsu’s work as a sociologist studying happiness and mourning in China, and as she teaches classes in the sociology of religion and senior thesis research at Georgetown University’s College of Arts and Sciences, and as a Senior Fellow at the Berkley Center for the Religion, Peace & World Affairs.


I study the social relationships that people take for granted as natural and ordinary. I am interested in questions about institutions, culture, and practices, and how these influence everyday rituals, social interactions, and social ties.

My first book, Borrowing Together: Microfinance and Cultivating Social Ties (Cambridge University Press, 2017), examines microfinance programs in rural China by focusing on how people thought about their debts in relation to their social ties and social standing. In the program designs, people were expected to repay debts when they had financial incentives. In short, I found that people repaid their debts to close family and friends, especially when they knew they needed the money. I also found that those with higher economic and political status were able to avoid repaying debts to the state because local administrators needed their help.

My second book, The Chinese Pursuit of Happiness: Anxieties, Hopes, and Moral Tensions in Everyday Life (University of California Press, 2019), a contributed volume that I edited with Richard Madsen, is about definitions of happiness in urban China and the ways that people go about pursuing it. In the introduction, I bring up questions about how culture and social context influence definitions of happiness. I examine young adults in chapter 2, finding that they tie their assessment of their own happiness to their parents. The other five authors examine the history of xingfu, weddings, food, social workers, and activists.

My third book, The Extraordinary in the Mundane: Family and Forms of Community China (Columbia University Press, forthcoming), a contributed volume I edited that is on schedule to be out in spring 2025, examines acts of association and self-organizing in Chinese society. In a context where organized gatherings are subject to strict government control, those emerging from family structures are given some leeway. I discuss in the introduction how examples in China show how civic action may not make sense when attempting to understand it in terms of a public-private divide. In chapter 7, I examine the preparation of burial clothes as a form of coordination at a challenging moment that is important for a well-lived life. The other chapters look at advocacy organizations, the social imaginary of political economy, psychological counseling courses, social media, and medical decision making.  

My current research project seeks to understand how people relate to those who have passed by studying grave sweeping in China from various angles—canonical social science, early Chinese texts, participant observation, interviews, survey data, and through the lens of its recent history. Grave sweeping, the annual visiting at the grave of deceased family, is popular again in urban and rural areas, and, according to my studies over the past decade, it is a routine gesture that expresses one’s love for departed parents. I ask questions about what it means to mourn well. I argue that the ritual of visiting the grave is a bereavement strategy that provides an opportunity to adjust one’s relationship to the departed, allowing individuals to process a death with other members of the family over the years. It is also a massive amount of coordinated activity that, for one, causes tremendous traffic jams as April 4 or 5 comes around every year.