The Extraordinary in the Mundane: Family and Forms of Community in China 

(Columbia University Press)


How do individuals address serious challenges in a context where organized gatherings are subject to strict government control? This book brings together a diverse group of scholars to explore the many ways people in China self-organize and create varied forms of coordination to solve important problems.

Through compelling, detail-rich case studies, The Extraordinary in the Mundane shows that family structures and networks deeply shape these modes of association. Because the public-private dichotomy does not resonate with many people in China, they rely on informal social ties, not formal organizations or state agencies, to confront personal challenges. Chapters present vivid ethnographic portraits that consider both positive and negative aspects of community formation. A woman with an autistic child creates an organization to advocate for inclusion of neurodivergent children in public schools. A trainee in a psychological counseling course finds mutual support among other participants. A boy is taken by his father to an internet addiction treatment camp that aims to restructure family interactions. A woman in her seventies shows off the burial clothes she prepared for herself, to the admiration of a group of friends. Offering a glimpse into the unofficial realities that often remain off the record, this book provides a wide-ranging and timely examination of the varieties of civic action in contemporary China.

The Chinese Pursuit of Happiness: Anxieties, Hopes, and Moral Tensions in Everyday Life 

(University of California Press, 2019)


What defines "happiness," and how can we get it? The ways in which people in China ask and answer this universal question tell us a lot about the tensions and challenges they face during periods of remarkable political and economic change.

Based on a five-year original study conducted by a select team of China experts, The Chinese Pursuit of Happiness begins with the assumption that when Chinese citizens assess themselves as "happy," they are primarily making a judgment of their lives and social relationships. Through ethnography and in-depth interviews, the contributors to this book show how different dimensions of happiness are manifest in the moral and ethical understandings that embed individuals in specific communities and the various spheres of everyday life. Vividly describing the moral dilemmas experienced in contemporary Chinese society, the rituals of happiness performed in modern weddings, the practices of conviviality carried out in shared meals, the professional tensions confronted by social workers, and the hopes and frustrations shared by political reformers, this important study illuminates the causes of anxiety and reasons for hope in China today.


"Due to its readability and internal coherence, this collection of essays on moral quandaries and everyday anxieties in the search for a fulfilling life among China's middle-class urbanites achieves the rare feat of being valuable to scholars as well as students at both graduate and undergraduate levels."  —The China Journal

"This book is one of those rare edited volumes where all chapters are of high quality: beautifully written, theoretically thoughtful, and empirically grounded. The book is strongly recommended for anyone interested in the sociology of morality, cultural sociology, and contemporary China."—Contemporary Sociology

"The volume offers nuanced and textured moral and ethical understandings of the good life in China at individual, familial, and societal levels. . . . It sets a high bar for future mappings of happiness imaginaries."—China Quarterly

"An invaluable contribution to diversifying and complicating the study of happiness across the world."—China Review International

"Offers a highly original and excellent account of what constitutes a good life and a good society in contemporary China. A must-read!"—YUNXIANG YAN, author of The Individualization of Chinese Society

"In an era when many lament society's spiritual vacuum and loss of shared values, this book shows that there are still common threads tying together how Chinese people imagine and pursue happiness."—ANTHONY J. SPIRES, University of Melbourne

Borrowing Together: Microfinance and Cultivating Social Ties  

(Cambridge University Press, 2017)


Becky Hsu examines the social aspects of the most intriguing element of group-lending microfinance: social collateral. She investigates the details of the social relationships among fellow borrowers and between borrowers and lenders, finding that these relationships are the key that explains the outcomes in rural China. People access money through their social networks, but they also do the opposite: cultivate their social relationships by moving money. Hsu not only looks closely at what transpired in the course of a microfinance intervention, but also reverses the gaze to examine the expectations that brought the program to the site in the first place. Hsu explains why microfinance's "articles of faith" failed to comprehend the influence of longstanding relationships and the component of morality, and how they raise doubts--not only about microfinance--but also about the larger goals of development research.


"Becky Yang Hsu has written a book you want to read. It is a book about social ties that connect and bind village communities in China, revealed through an examination of where microfinance does or does not fit in village life. It is a well-written piece of ethnography. The flavour of people’s lives shines through while dealing with broad theoretical concepts such as culture, morality and personhood, money and relationships. It is a book that will appeal to sociologists of money, scholars of Chinese village life and microfinance professionals."—The British Journal of Sociology

"In focusing attention on the moral lives of borrowers and lenders, Hsu raises important observations about what repayment means, the social and moral choices obscured by high loan repayment rates, and how a pragmatist perspective might inform our understanding of development projects. The book is clearly written and offers a convincing critique of individualistic models of microcredit. " —American Journal of Sociology

"Hsu’s methodology is exciting. The descriptions of her ‘go-alongs’ where she gathered data over three years of fieldwork are told in a personal and highly readable way that compromises nothing on academic rigour....By the end of the book, Hsu persuasively demonstrates that the real ‘assets’ driving repayment and default are informal social ties, questions of morality and methods of survival already functioning in rural China, rather than contractual loan terms and formal peer social collateral sanctioning."—LSE Review of Books (London School of Economics and Political Science)

"Borrowing Together offers a completely new look at the often overly-idealized world of microfinance. Thoroughly researched among micro finance participants in rural China, elegantly written, and passionately argued, this is a major contribution to the literature in several fields, especially economic sociology and the sociology of culture."—ROBERT WUTHNOW, author of What Happens When We Practice Religion?

"Hsu brilliantly unravels the disconnect between lending institutions who believe they are investing in self-regenerating entrepreneurs with the lived realities of borrowers who often take loans in order to pay for education and healthcare."—KIMBERLY KAY HOANG, author of Dealing in Desire: Asian Ascendancy, Western Decline, and the Hidden Currencies of Global Sex Work

"Borrowing Together is an important cautionary tale about the failure of models. In elegant prose, Hsu traces the failure of economic assumptions about microlending and of the accounts of personhood that go with them, as these traverse cultural landscapes."—IDDO TAVORY, author of Summoned: Identification and Religious Life in a Jewish Neighborhood

"This is a novel study of how loans circulated in culture tying people and their worldview in innovative ways. This book will be invaluable to students of anthropology, sociology of religion, development and Asian studies."—LAMIA KARIM, author of Microfinance and Its Discontents: Women in Debt in Bangladesh