Skip to main content Skip to main navigation menu Skip to site footer

Holding Patterns: Sand and Political Time at China’s Desert Shores

By Jerry C. Zee

Cite As:
Zee, Jerry C. 2017. “Holding Patterns: Sand and Political Time at China’s Desert Shores.” Cultural Anthropology 32, no. 2: 215–241.


This article considers possibilities for posing the relationship between historical, political, and environmental time—a key provocation of what has been called the Anthropocene—by exploring how sand gives form to political time in Chinese state antidesertification and sand-control efforts. Through an ethnographic exploration of how scientists, engineers, and bureaucrats in two desertification emergency zones in northern China read landscapes through sand as a substance embroiled in multiple physical, geological, and ecological processes, this essay argues that sand emerges as a form not simply for apprehending alternative ways of accounting for and narrating the passage and texture of passing time but also for giving shape to the futures with which environmental politics in China must contend. It also constitutes a set of tactical techniques for intervening in and shaping environmental processes. As sand gives form to multiple chronological forms, it further reworks the chronopolitics of the grand futures of state-sponsored economic development into what I call holding patterns, techniques of environmental management shaped by earthly temporalities and aimed at holding the unruly time-spaces of moving sand in place. Sand’s motion and stabilization become the physical substrate for new modes of political fortune-telling, sometimes spelling out endings in the anticipatory spectacle of buried cities, but sometimes also providing the architecture for regenerative ecological futures.


China; environment; sand; temporality; futurity; Anthropocene