This essay examines how the human body has been variously imagined and acted upon in twentieth-century China. It does so by focusing on one particularly prominent feature of Chinese discourse concerned with the calculation, measurement, and shaping of the human body and human conduct: the notion of suzhi (quality). By examining the position of suzhi in a broader discourse concerning the population and its attributes (which also intersects with key notions of nation, class, ethnicity, gender, and citizenship) I shed light on the fortunes of what I refer to as “technoscientific reasoning” in contemporary China. The essay is divided into three sections. In the first section I ground the problem of suzhi and technoscientific reasoning in the emergence of population discourse in early modern China. The second section examines suzhi and its relation to subjectivity under the auspices of a socialist planning mentality, especially as it emerges after a hiatus of several decades toward the end of the 1970s. The final section then traces the subtle but important shifts in suzhi, technoscientific reasoning, and population discourse in China's move toward a “socialist market economy” in the 1990s. I conclude by arguing that the significance of research on suzhi lies in the way it supplements our understanding of Chinese political and social life.

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