Subjectivities of Russian Traders at the Border with China

  • Caroline Humphrey University of Cambridge
Keywords: shuttle-trade, materiality, qualia, imagination, self-reflection


This paper draws attention to a relatively understudied aspect of cross-border trade: the relation between the subjectivities of traders and the geo-political situation they find themselves in. Among Russian traders at the border with China, discourses on comparative civilisation, memories of mid-twentieth century Soviet dominance and ambivalent appreciation of China’s present riches are integral to everyday practices. It is argued that a theoretical concept of melancholia is helpful to understand the traders’ self-reflective and diverse reactions. At this highly securitised border, in the absence of deep social relations with Chinese partners, the goods purchased, consumed and traded appear as vivid alternative foci for emotions. The article suggests that an anthropological approach to qualia (experiential feelings aroused by material objects) provide a useful heuristic for discussion in this situation.

Author Biography

Caroline Humphrey, University of Cambridge
CAROLINE HUMPHREY is Emeritus Sigrid Rausing Professor of Anthropology at the University of Cambridge and a Research Director of the Mongolia and Inner Asia Studies Unit in the Department of Social Anthropology. Recent publications include: Trust and Mistrust in the Economies of the China-Russia Borderlands, Amsterdam University Press, 2018. Email: 


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