One aspect of respecting our local hosts, and “abiding by local customs” (ruxiang suisu 入乡随俗), is that fieldworkers should be careful not to inflict their educated vocabulary on locals. Just as you wouldn’t use poncey language in talking to Newcastle rappers, or to old-time musicians in Kentucky (so “harp” rather than “harmonica”)—even if they may understand it, or even adopt it temporarily for our benefit. Vocabulary reflects world-view (yijing 意境, as educated Chinese would say), so we should try and latch onto it.
Some terms are just a matter of basic fluency: one never “plays” (yanzou 演奏) instruments, for example, but (according to their means of sound production) one blows (chui 吹), beats (da 打), bows (la 拉), or plucks (tan 弹) them. In Yanggao, the often-used term kabulei (“fantastic”) would be kebulai in standard Chinese, but bucuo is the standard urban version. I like duohuir (“When?”, actually more like duohuor), more classically economical than the cumbersome standard shenme shihou.
Of course it’d be silly to try and go native; we can only retain our personality. But little efforts to adapt to their world-view pay dividends. Often we will seek a more idiomatic way of expressing our own scholarly vocabulary.
In the table below I give some random examples from my fieldwork experience in ritual and musical life, mainly in north China. Maybe I’ll add to it as I go along—these are just some of the terms I’ve picked up.  Of course, it relates to taxonomy. Some terms (such as those for spirit mediums) are gender-based.
But few of these terms can be applied casually across the board: precisely because they are local, one can’t even expect (for instance) to use a Shaanbei term for spirit medium in north Shanxi—still less in Guangxi or Fujian.
Guo Yuhua, in her book on Shaanbei, transcribes villagers’ accounts in their own language with rare precision. But few fieldworkers will be able to master the remarkable secret language (“black talk”) of shawm bands and ritual specialists in Yanggao, as did the sensitive ears of Hubei native Wu Fan. See also this article by a Yanggao local:
- Chen Kexiu 陈克秀, “Yanbei guchuiyue yirende heihua” 雁北鼓吹乐艺人的黑话, Zhongguo yinyuexue 2007.4.
|Educated term||English||local term|
|tuan 团||ensemble, group etc.||ban 班
|zangli 葬礼||funeral||baishi 白事|
|qushi 去世||to die||xiashi 下世|
|yishi zhixingren 仪式执行人 (!)||ritual practitioner||fashi 法师
|daoshi 道士||Daoist||laodao 老道
jia heshang 假和尚 (!)
|chuantong 传统||tradition||(lao) guiju (老)规矩|
|lingdao 领导||leader||dangjia 当家
(secular and sacred)
|keyiben 科仪本||ritual manual||jingshu 经书
shu 书 !
|yueqi 乐器||musical instruments||jiahuo 家伙
|dajiyue 打击乐||percussion||luogu 锣鼓
|suona 唢呐||shawm||weirwa ?
|suona dui 唢呐队||shawm band||guyueban 鼓乐班
|shaopian 哨片||reed||mimi 咪咪
|yinyuejia 音乐家||musician||yiren 艺人 (used sparingly)|
|spirit medium||mingren 明人
|chigai 乞丐||beggar||yaofande 要饭的
 See also my In search of the folk Daoists, pp.12–15.