From Shanghai to Milan, a 21st-century ‘Silk Road’

Transnational cultural encounters in China have become the “21st-century Silk Road,” contends a leading anthropologist scheduled to speak at CU-Boulder on Feb. 7.

Professor Lisa Rofel

Lisa Rofel, professor of anthropology at the University of California, Santa Cruz, is CU-Boulder’s 2014 Distinguished Lecturer in Cultural Anthropology. She will address “The Transnational Business of Cultural Encounters in China: The Twenty-first Century Silk Road” at 4 p.m. on Feb. 7 in Hale 230 on the University of Colorado Boulder Campus.

“In anthropology, we have long paid attention to what the discipline calls ‘origin stories,’” Rofel said. “This talk offers some origin stories told by people engaged in transnational commodity chains in the fashion industry between Italy and China, which my collaborator Sylvia Yanagisako and I call the 21st- century Silk Road.”

Today’s Silk Road runs from Shanghai to Milan and transports cultural and business practices to the rapidly emerging economy of Chine, Rofel states.

“When you think about what Italy is good at exporting, it’s mainly taste,” she told the UC Santa Cruz Currents publication in 2006. “Whether it’s clothes, shoes, cars, or furniture, Italy is known for taste.”

China has become a source of relatively inexpensive labor. After 2001, many of the world’s top fashion houses moved production to China, she told the publication.

When you think about what Italy is good at exporting, it’s mainly taste.”

That trend raises questions into which cultural anthropologists readily sink their teeth:

How do people think about social inequality, hierarchy and class in China today? Or more precisely, how do people justify social inequality in China today?

To what extent and in what ways do they justify the enormous gap between the wealthy and the poor that has arisen after the end of Maoist socialism?

And how do people in China today become affectively engaged in these recent, striking transformations?

Rofel is a renowned scholar of culture and political economy in post-socialist China. She has written widely on popular culture, feminist theory, sexuality and modernity.

In addition to “Desiring China,” Rofel is the author of “Other Modernities: Gendered Yearnings in China after Socialism,” and “Engendering China: Women, Culture and the State,” with Christina Gilmartin, et al.

Rofel’s presentation is sponsored by the CU-Boulder Department of Anthropology. For more  information, email Associate Professor Carla Jones at

January 2014

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