The changing nature of fieldwork in China

Further to various comments (collected here), over my three decades doing fieldwork in China the nature of the equipment we use, and fieldworkers themselves, have changed just as much as our objects of study and the rest of the population—of course just like anywhere else, and over earlier periods of ethnographic history.

Never mind all those wonderful fieldtrips of the 1950s; through the 1990s, when my trusty fieldwork companion Xue Yibing and I went on long fieldtrips together (Hebei, Shanxi, Liaoning, Fujian, Guangdong), I used to show up at Beijing train station with a heavy bag full of audio and video tapes, dozens of films for my camera, a bulky array of batteries and chargers, and even a few spare clothes; besides my heavy equipment bag with camera, camcorder, tape recorder, leads, and so on. As you do… And even that was very modest compared with the lists advised by some earnest ethnomusicologists, giving an inventory that would be the envy of British troops invading a third-world country—even Bruce Jackson gives a daunting list. All that is fine if you have an army of docile sherpas, but per-leez

Meanwhile Xue Yibing just brought a slim shoulder-bag containing only his little notebook, a biro, and a toothbrush. Out of all our combined equipment, it was his notebook that would turn out to be most precious.

Sometimes—not always—we managed to hire a clapped-out old minivan. To find ritual activity, we just had to “go down” to the villages and hope; not only were there no smartphones, very few villages even had a landline. As soon as we “went down”, we were cut off from all contact with the outside world.

Fast-forward to the last few years, and young Chinese fieldworkers take an array of high-class audio and video equipment, laptops, and smartphones, with which few foreign scholars of their age can now compete. Smartphones give fieldworkers instant access to all kinds of information—one could virtually do everything (including photos and recordings) with just a phone. They often drive fancy and robust cars, with GPS to help them navigate and find the villages. The road network is vastly improved; local tracks may still be pretty crap, but motorways have expanded a lot.

And among these young scholars, women are now in a clear majority—bright people like Qi Kun, Wu Fan, and Chen Yu were trained by female scholars of senior generations, like Yuan Jingfang in Beijing and now the brilliant Xiao Mei at Shanghai, ethnographer par excellence. Chinese students also now have some grounding in international ethnomusicology. Of course, one always seeks to do diachronic as well as synchronic work, and our own changing experiences are part of that.

8 thoughts on “The changing nature of fieldwork in China

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