Date of Award

Spring 1-1-2012

Document Type


Degree Name

Doctor of Philosophy (PhD)



First Advisor

Gerard A. Hauser

Second Advisor

Andrew Calabrese

Third Advisor

Bryan C. Taylor

Fourth Advisor

Lisa Keränen

Fifth Advisor

Timothy R. Kuhn


China had remained one of the fastest growing economies in the world, but the human costs, economic inequality, social discrimination, and political marginalization imposed upon the hundreds of millions of migrant workers had become unprecedentedly grave. In the context of such social predicaments, Grassroots Home (GH) emerged as a self-regulated association of migrant workers, who aspired to make their collective voice heard and to imagine a better society.

This research regards GH as a representative anecdote of China's emerging civil sphere, defined as an ongoing social and rhetorical accomplishment of something approaching group solidarity and civil judgment about matters of mutual interest. Theoretically, this research emphasizes the role of vernacular rhetoric in the self-production of society in which social imaginaries and abstract principles of civil sphere take concrete forms in time and place.

This research explores three fundamental questions regarding 1) GH's formation as an ongoing rhetorical project, especially in terms of maintaining autonomy in relation to the party-state authorities; 2) GH's creation of something approaching a distinctly workers' culture through vernacular rhetoric; 3) GH's visions of a better society by (re)appropriating and (re)inventing cultural resources in a way that their meanings became rhetorically salient and communally comprehensible.

In order to explore these questions, this research blends rhetoric and ethnography by conducting sustained fieldwork at GH where the researcher observed and heard naturally occurring vernacular rhetoric among the workers and participated in their cultural activities and organizational duties.

This work finds that the migrant workers had demonstrated sophisticated rhetorical competence. Their engagement in a vernacular realm helped to preserve their self-organization as a place in which to remain independent from and strategically cooperative with the party-state. They had been building an emerging culture of their unique worldview by reclaiming the productivity of labor. They envisioned a better society by (re)discovering and (re)inventing the cultural resources of the socialist legacy, traditional culture of love, and an agrarian dream.

The findings from this research have theoretical and practical implications for better understanding and potentially engaging China's emerging civil sphere. The empirical reflexive lessons learned from this research can help to further develop methods of rhetorical ethnography.