Yunxian Yan


Professor of Anthropology

Home Department: Anthropology

Areas of Interest

Social change and development, family and kinship, cultural globalization, morality, the individual and individualization




Unlike many of his academic colleagues, Yan followed a rather unusual path to become an anthropologist in the United States. He was born in Beijing, China. In 1966, like some 200,000 other people nationwide he involuntarily became an impoverished villager when his family was expelled from the city to a remote village due to his father’s political opinions. In the same year he was forced to drop out of primary school and to work as a shepherd, farmer, and seasonal manual laborer in rural China until 1978. As a young political outcast living and working in two villages during this 12-year period, he had more opportunities than many of his peers to experience the devastating economic hardships (including famine) and the brutal political oppression under radical Maoism. Regardless, he benefited a great deal from living at the very bottom rungs of society as he learned directly from everyday life what really matters to ordinary people, experiencing their struggles for subsistence and meaning in life and sharing their efforts to cope with radical and rapid social changes, while at the same time attempting to maintain, sometimes with great difficulty, a proper sense of the self.

This long-term experience in village life engendered a strong commitment to equitably represent the lives of ordinary people (especially Chinese peasants) in his academic work after he was admitted as an undergraduate in 1978. During his undergraduate and masters’ career he was trained and worked as a literary scholar at Peking University (1978-86), with a focus on folklore and mythology. However, to better study the everyday life of ordinary people and rural society, he changed his field to anthropology in 1986 and received a Ph.D. in social anthropology from Harvard University in 1993. After teaching anthropology at the Chinese University of Hong Kong (1993-94) and Johns Hopkins University (1994-96), in 1996 he joined his colleagues at the UCLA Department of Anthropology and has been happily living and working in Los Angeles ever since.

Selected Research

1. The Flow of Gifts: Reciprocity and Social Networks in a Chinese Village (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1996)                     

2. Private Life under Socialism: Love, Intimacy, and Family Change in a Chinese Village, 1949-1999 (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2003).                                

3. The Individualization of Chinese Society (Oxford: Berg, 2009)