"Bipolar Optimism": projects of life building, ambivalent dispositions, and emotions in Beijing at the time of the "Chinese Dream"

  • Federico Fattori

Student thesis: Phd


This thesis, based on research conducted in Beijing over a period of 18 months, ethnographically explores projects of life-building among a number of university students and early career professionals making the transition to adulthood at a privileged historical moment of political stability and steady economic growth. The thesis captures a moment of political promises of future prosperity and improved life conditions made available in the public debate through the state-sponsored discourse of the Chinese Dream. The first part of the thesis describes in particular dreams and aspirations of various urban women from relatively privileged backgrounds, exploring how they struggle to cope with precarious work and living conditions, and the doubts and conflicting emotions that accompany these struggles. I argue that the unusual combination of neoliberal uncertainty and widespread faith in a better future is what produces an ambivalent affective disposition, which I call bipolar optimism, between intensified hopefulness and despair, senses of possibility and impossibility, expansion and stagnation, excitement and fear. I argue that the conditions for the emergence of bipolar optimism are related to the growing enthusiasm within the emerging middle class and a sense of greater possibilities than past generations, combined with an increasing sense of risk. The second part of the thesis shifts the analysis from aspirational young women and the subjective experience of life-building to consider how certain hopeful ideas of future prosperity promoted in the public debate by the Chinese Dream discourse are made available, experienced and worked on in urban spaces of consumption, through architecture and the display of objects of consumer desire. This part of the thesis is a story of political promises and modernist meta-narratives of development materialised in the form of enchanting buildings, facades, luxury consumer items and standardised service practices. It is also the story of the continuous, seemingly unstoppable, construction of dream zones, that is, urban spaces built in economic regimes of anticipation that become arenas of imagination, hope and yearning, in which politically desired futures are constructed and assembled. I conclude by suggesting that the Chinese Dream is a specific modality of historical experience comprising discourses, materialities and affective dispositions that pertain to a specific post-socialist period characterised by unprecedented accumulation of a wealth, impressive improvement of living standards and a sense of a future full of promise.
Date of Award1 Aug 2017
Original languageEnglish
Awarding Institution
  • The University of Manchester
SupervisorPenelope Harvey (Supervisor) & William Schroeder Iii (Supervisor)


  • "bipolar optimism"
  • Consumption
  • Gender
  • Future-making
  • Affect
  • "Chinese Dream"
  • Urban space

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