The purpose of fieldwork is not simply to answer questions that have been incubated elsewhere. By learning what is important to people, fieldwork can be the source of the questions themselves. Talking to people, visiting a site, or experiencing a ritual are all irreplaceable ways of personally and viscerally understanding the processes that others have described in texts.
The new volume
contains a wealth of stimulating articles on doing fieldwork in China—covering both urban and rural sites, with synchronic and diachronic approaches, and encompassing unofficial, oral history and local archives.
The editors provide a thoughtful preface, citing many further sources. As they observe, the articles have in common
first, a belief that ordinary people and distinct local cultures are worth understanding, both for their own sake, and as representing an important important perspective on sweeping trends of historical change; and second, a research method that prizes deep familiarity with a place, its physical contours, remnants from the past, and most notably its people, who often preserve not only memories, but also textual scripts, material objects, and oral and performative traditions.
The twenty-four chapters are grouped under four sections:
History and fieldwork in historical perspective
This section includes
- David Faure on the field research of Chinese intellectuals in the 1920s and 1930s, setting forth from their early work on the Miaofengshan temple fair, showing the problems they faced—and created;
- Linda Grove on the rich 1940s’ Japanese field material on China (an important source for later studies of religious life in rural Hebei); and
- Myron L. Cohen with pertinent thoughts on historical anthropology, focusing on the “traditionalist” phase in fieldwork on Taiwan from 1960 to 1980.
Work reflections: fieldwork in the mirror,
Contributors here are
- Michael Szonyi with lucid reflections on the importance of fieldwork for Ming historians;
- Guan Yuxia on conducting fieldwork as a “local” in the multi-ethnic society of Hulunbuir, Inner Mongolia;
- Kang Xiaofei, also pondering the complex tensions between emic and etic perspectives as she explores gender and ethnicity in the Sino-Tibetan borderland (“Who are they, and who am I?”);
- Ma Jianxiong crosses disciplinary borders with fieldwork among the Lahu in Yunnan;
- and in my own chapter I reflect on working with the ritual association of Gaoluo and the Li family Daoists, with vignettes that will be familiar to readers of this blog.
Walking the ground, talking to people.
The first group of chapters here mainly concerns religion and ritual:
- John Lagerwey on basic questions for fieldwork on pre-1949 Chinese society;
- Paul R. Katz with a social-historical perspective on festivals in Taiwan;
- Vincent Goossaert on doing historical-anthropological fieldwork in Jiangnan (“gazetteers, newspapers, and real life”); and
- Ken Dean (see also here) on incorporating historical GIS in fieldwork on the ritual culture of the Putian diaspora.
This section continues with
- Ching May Bo and Liu Zhiwei taking an engaging walk through urban Guangzhou to reflect on doing historical anthropology;
- He Xi on contextualizing ethnic classification among the Li of Hainan;
- Micah S. Muscolino on the 1950s’ social and environmental history of conservation in a Shaanxi county;
- Fang Xiaoping on medicine, health, and disease among the barefoot doctors of Hangzhou;
- Dong Guoqiang on discovering the Cultural Revolution through oral history in Jiangsu; and
- Thomas DuBois with an interdisciplinary approach to the “history of things”—production, commerce, and consumption.
Finding and working with grassroots documents.
While I focus on contemporary fieldwork, participant observation, and personal oral history, I’m always keen to find local written sources too. So I find these chapters insightful, showing the potential for delving in local archives. This section includes
- Du Zhengzhen on legal archives of Longquan (Zhejiang) for the late Qing and early Republican eras;
- Liu Yonghua on account books as sources for the local history of Huizhou;
- Huang Sujuan on land and property deeds and urban studies for Guangzhou;
- Rao Weixin on genealogies and revolution in the Jiangxi Soviet;
- Liu Shigu on using local and Public Security Bureau archives for a Jiangxi county in the 1950s; and
- Jan Kiely exploring the limitations and potential of an Intangible Cultural Heritage archive from a county in north Jiangsu.
In all, the contributors to this new volume offer thoughtful reflections on diverse approaches to doing fieldwork in China.
For a recent article on the ethical challenges of doing social science research in China, click here.