Breathless in Beijing: Aerial Attunements and China’s New Respiratory Publics

  • Victoria Nguyen University of Chicago
Keywords: air pollution, publics, China


For all of its protean and ephemeral qualities, air exerts a remarkably muscular influence on urban form and contemporary life in China. In recent years, as the breakneck speed of China’s development has altered the very chemistry of the atmosphere, the boundaries between breathing subjects and their toxic environments have become increasingly blurred. In this climate, Beijing inhabitants have sought out various modes of respiratory refuge, reorganizing the city into new spaces of atmospheric fortification. As deadly air divides Beijing into a series of protected insides and precarious outsides, life is increasingly being reoriented toward the dangers and imperatives of breathing in the Chinese city. Yet alongside the growing stratification of breathing experiences in the capital, shared exposure is also reconfiguring public life and landscapes through new solidarities and entwined fates. Engaging Beijing’s emergent respiratory publics online, behind face masks, and inside conditioned air spaces, I explore how collective exposure is galvanizing new modes of atmospheric recognition in China. Specifically, I suggest that respiratory publics make invisible threats visible by mobilizing everyday objects, practices, and social life to render air both an object of concern and a site of intervention. Ultimately, by attending to how attunements to air pollution emerge through everyday practices and quotidian habits, this article expands upon a growing body of STS scholarship investigating how social life is increasingly constituted in and through atmospheric entanglements.

Author Biography

Victoria Nguyen, University of Chicago

Victoria Nguyen is a postdoctoral teaching fellow at the University of Chicago where she holds a joint appointment with the Department of Anthropology and the Center for the Study of Race, Politics, and Culture. Situated at the intersection of urban anthropology, environmental studies, and social theory, her research explores the material, conceptual and social effects of mass urbanization. Focusing on China and its translocal connections, her scholarship tracks how ideals of the city are both “lived” and articulated in projects of environmental management, urban design, and modern development.


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