Book review of Nicholas Bartlett's Recovering Histories: Life and Labor After Heroin in Reform-era China (2020)
Recovering Histories: Life and Labor After Heroin in Reform-era China, by Nicholas Bartlett (2020). Oakland, CA: University of California Press.
In Recovering Histories, Nicholas Bartlett tells the stories of recovering heroin users in the Chinese tin city of Gejiu, in southern Yunnan Province (near the border with Vietnam). Bartlett intended to study “drug use practices and state policing,” but ended up exploring the “lived experiences of recovery” (p. 7). This was in part because he was “late” to arrive, as the “epidemic” that started in the early 1980s and peaked in 90s had ebbed by the time he arrived in 2009. But Bartlett’s approach also stemmed from his perceptions about addiction and recovery being challenged; as he notes, “drug users – and in particular those consuming heroin – have often been depicted as lacking an awareness of history” (p. 4). However, this book’s interlocutors are deeply aware of history. Using a phenomenological approach, Bartlett narrates how, in their strivings to recover, drug users look back at their past and link it to the “fraught historical times of the nation” (p. 5).
Since the late 1940s, China has experienced three broad politico-economic regimes: one during the Mao years (1949-76), a second during the rule of Deng Xiaoping (1978-1989), and lastly the post-Deng era (1989-present). Each of the above transitions came with a different labor regime, which can be seen in the life-histories that are interspersed throughout Bartlett’s book. These men and women struggling with addiction spoke of two distinct registers of recovery, using the Chinese phrases jiedu (“quitting drugs”) and huigui shehui (“returning to society”). Even as they spoke of abstaining from drug use (jiedu), they often found themselves in tension with the idea of “returning to society” (huigui shehui). Recovering drug users explain this experience of powerlessness in relation to a bygone era of history as well as nostalgia for more collective modes of life. Each of the chapters include ethnographic snapshots of how the author’s interlocutors have been at odds with the temporality of their lives and that of greater Chinese society. In foregrounding such tensions, Bartlett captures the challenges these men and women face and the ways in which they struggle to make sense of, and reintegrate into, society at large.
Chapter 1 tells the story of three men who each had distinct working lives amid the transition from the “iron rice bowl” era to one featuring a party-led yet liberalizing economy. It was during these years – the late 1980s and early 90s – that the three encountered heroin, and which coincides with Gejiu’s tin-mining boom. These are what Bartlett calls the “Rush years.” Alongside the book’s introduction, this chapter explains how heroin came to pervade Gejiu; it was, at that time, “as easy to buy as vegetables” (p. 42). Bartlett also highlights the multiple meanings attached to the opiate by the “Heroin Generation,” a cohort of Chinese formed with “a shared set of early adulthood experiences… based on shared projects and experiences of social time” (p. 45).
In Chapter 2, Bartlett introduces two middle-aged men who struggle “to find a place in contemporary Gejiu” owing to their temporally estranged bodily dispositions (p. 48). This chapter examines the present psychological disorientation of those in the Heroin Generation still in the city. Furthermore, Bartlett discusses the often-ill-fated ways in which his interlocuters have attempted to adapt to the changing times, mostly in relation to finding and retaining employment – as the life skills and competencies that they acquired during the rush years have since become obsolete.
Chapter 3 describes how many recovering drug users find themselves living without hope, or as his chapter title suggests, with an “absence of future” (p. 68). They refer to themselves as “sacrificial offering[s] of the Reform era” (gaige Kaifeng de xishengpin) – just as, in the 1980s, those workers condemned during the Mao years referred to themselves as “sacrificial offerings of the Cultural Revolution” (p. 71). Chapter 4 describes a government-affiliated drop-in center for recovering drug users, called Green Orchards. Analyzing the discussions that take place in the center, Bartlett explains the patrons’ nostalgia for the “socialist laboring” tradition of the Mao era, which the author comes to learn is very distinct from the labor regime of the reform period (p. 96). In the former era, as Green Orchards’ patrons emphasized, China’s state-owned enterprises’ policy of “employee care” meant that far more attention and assistance was given to those workers who were also addicted to opium. In the reform period, in contrast, “treatment for addiction proved to be short-lived” (p. 94).
Chapter 5 follows the life of a couple in their early forties who met at a compulsory detoxification center. The two saw their union as a way to revert to “normal” lives, as well as a means by which to reconnect and “return to society” (huigui shehui). After the wedding, Su, the wife, busied herself with various forms of care work, which she perceived to be “labor related to recovery” (p. 116). Her history of heroin use eventually complicates this pursuit, however, as local people come to question her motives.
In the sixth and final chapter, Bartlett takes an approach different from those of preceding chapters. Here, he analyzes the life of a recovering and controversial NGO leader, by incorporating multiple observers’ narratives about the former’s triumphant claims of “serving the community” (fuwushequ) (p. 129). These counter narratives, instead of projecting stereotypical understandings of addicts, emphasized the leader’s complicated place in China’s historical present. This includes his tendency to be calculative, and oftentimes manipulative, but also vulnerable and “in need of state care and protection” (p. 139) – a diagnosis that underscores the wider shared anxieties within reform-era Chinese society.
Recovering Histories ends with an epilogue in which Bartlett reflects on his field site upon returning after a decade-long absence. While the author mentions the profound socio-ecological transformations that have taken place since Xi Jinping’s rise to power, he does not expound on their possible implications for Gejiu’s Heroin Generation. Instead, he ends the book on an open-ended note. China’s new historical moment has ushered in some grim realities, yet many locals remain hopeful for their collective future. In all, Recovering Histories is an engaging read; Bartlett is a good storyteller, and his ethnography offers a novel way of looking at recovery, one grounded in experiences of labor and history. Readers interested in addiction studies, questions of memory and nostalgia, and social change in China will no doubt find this book insightful.
Roderick Wijunamai is a PhD student in the Department of Anthropology at Cornell University. His research focuses on the changing livelihood strategies of the upland Naga people in India’s Northeast.