Donkey Friends: Travel, Voluntary Associations and the New Public Sphere in Contemporary Urban China

Ning Zhang

PhD Thesis 2008

This research examines the rise of voluntary associations of ¡°donkey friends,¡± accompanied by the emergence of new types of cultural identities, interpersonal relationships, and social networks in contemporary urban China. At the end of the 1990s, the native term ¡°donkey friend¡± (l¨¹you ¿ÓÑ) became a popular self-identifier for Chinese backpackers who formed voluntary communities to facilitate group travels and many collective activities. My research is based on three months of preliminary field research in 2003 and 2004, and a year of fieldwork in 2005 in Beijing, Yunnan Province and Inner Mongolia. I carried out participant observation in three voluntary donkey friend communities, and conducted anthropological interviews with donkey friends, journalists, tourist guides, professors, and publishers.

My field research was multisited, including face-to-face interaction in different locations and Internet research. The Internet phase is important because backpacker travel has co-evolved with the Internet forums in China. Both online interaction and offline travel experience served to cultivate a sense of fellowship among travelers. Donkey friend communities have not only provided social and emotional support for their members, but also allowed individuals to engage in various voluntary projects based on free association, self regulation, and practices of many democratic values. By contextualizing this phenomenon with the retreat of the state from many public realms of Chinese society, I argue that donkey friend community demonstrates the rise of the new public sphere of middle class in post-socialist urban China. Participants in this sphere no longer pose a direct threat to the state, but aim to promote cultural change, challenge cultural values, and raise public consciousness. They seek to practice democratic values and resolve specific social problems.

This research not only offers an ethnographically-based study of new cultural forms that accompany the development of backpacker tourism in China, but also contributes to the anthropology of China by providing a detailed analysis of the formation of new urban communities and public spheres in which neoliberal values of production and consumption can be challenged by the emergence of new forms of cultural identities, horizontal ties, and collective actions.