Eliminating spiritual pollution: A genealogy of closed political thought in China’s era of opening

Research output: Contribution to journalArticleResearchpeer-review


Most histories have analyzed China’s 1983 Campaign to Eliminate Spiritual Pollution through the lens of elite politics. This article proposes a new interpretation of “spiritual pollution,” drawing upon anthropological theories of taboo and pollution to reinterpret the campaign’s role in reform-era culture and identity construction. The early reform era was a time of collapsing social borders that erased the obsessively delineated identities of the previous decades. Within this context, I reinterpret the struggle against spiritual pollution as an attempt to employ taboos to reinstate schematic boundaries in a world suddenly in flux. This process of post-Maoist boundary building particularly focused upon the distinction between “East” and “West,” as well as the distinction between the economic and political realms. The results of the campaign can still be seen today: the construction of a pure official identity based in overcoming Mao-era economic taboos alongside the perpetuation of political and cultural taboos.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)100-119
Number of pages20
JournalThe China Journal
Publication statusPublished - 2017
Externally publishedYes

Cite this