Fighting for breath

Anna Lora-Wainwright (2013), Fighting for Breath: Living Morally and Dying of Cancer in a Chinese Village, Hawaii University Press.

Numerous reports of “cancer villages” have appeared in the past decade in both Chinese and Western media, highlighting the downside of China’s economic development. Less generally known is how people experience and understand cancer in areas where there is no agreement on its cause. Who or what do they blame? How do they cope with its onset? Fighting for Breath is the first ethnography to offer a bottom-up account of how rural families strive to make sense of cancer and care for sufferers. It addresses crucial areas of concern such as health, development, morality, and social change in an effort to understand what is at stake in the contemporary Chinese countryside.

Encounters with cancer are instances in which social and moral fault lines may become visible. Anna Lora-Wainwright combines powerful narratives and critical engagement with an array of scholarly debates in sociocultural and medical anthropology and in the anthropology of China. The result is a moving exploration of the social inequities endemic to post-1949 China and the enduring rural-urban divide that continues to challenge social justice in the People’s Republic. In-depth case studies present villagers’ “fight for breath” as both a physical and social struggle to reclaim a moral life, ensure family and neighborly support, and critique the state for its uneven welfare provision. Lora-Wainwright depicts their suffering as lived experience, but also as embedded in domestic economies and in the commodification of care that has placed the burden on families and individuals.


Part 1: Foundations

  • Chapter 1: Cancer and Contending Forms of Morality
  • Chapter 2: The Evolving Moral World of Langzhong

Part 2: Making Sense of Cancer

  • Chapter 3: Water, Hard Work, and Farm Chemicals: The Moral Economy of Cancer
  • Chapter 4: Gendered Hardship, Emotions, and the Ambiguity of Blame
  • Chapter 5: Xiguan, Consumption, and Shifting Cancer Etiologies

Part 3: Strategies of Care and Mourning

  • Chapter 6: Performing Closeness, Negotiating Family Relations, and the Cost of Cancer
  • Chapter 7: Perceived Efficacy, Social Identities, and the Rejection of Cancer Surgery
  • Chapter 8: Family Relations and Contested Religious Moralities


  • Appendix 1: Questionnaire (English Translation)
  • Appendix 2: List of Pesticides Used in Langzhong and Their Health Effects
  • Notes
  • References
  • Index


Cite this blog post
Jacqueline Nivard (2013, May 24). Fighting for breath. URBACHINA. Retrieved April 13, 2024, from

Jacqueline Nivard

Jacqueline Nivard, Centre d'études sur la Chine moderne et contemporaine

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