ZZT Houshan 1995

Zhang Zhentao with ritual specialists on Houshan, 1995.

In my latest book and film I try to convey the “spit and sawdust” of fieldwork. Indeed, the topic pervades this blog—see the fieldwork category in the sidebar.

For some scholars, current observation is often an embarrassed footnote to textual research, a quick foray to see if we can still detect any traces of antiquity, hastily wiping our feet afterwards. But fieldwork in the present is the very basis of what we can learn. Unless we experience Daoist ritual in performance now, with all its details and variables, it is hard to imagine how it might have been once upon a time.

Fieldwork is tremendous fun, and so it should be. It is likely to be among the most intense and rewarding experiences of our lives; it puts to the test, and elevates us from, all our drab abstract solitary academic theory—so I make no apologies for attempting to convey the pleasures and benefits of personal interaction. The importance and complexities of rapport, hardly on the agenda of Daoist ritual studies, are explored in the literature on ethnography and ethnomusicology. Apart from my own edification, fieldwork has opened up a huge, um, field—when Daoist studies, and Chinese culture, seemed like subjects that could only be studied through ancient texts in libraries. Even archival work will take on a fresh glow if you can relate it to the oral history of people’s lives over the last century, with the exhilarating sound of the percussion finale Yellow Dragon Thrice Transforms Its Body ringing in your ears.

After the budding young anthropologist Nigel Barley returned from his first gloriously chaotic fieldwork experience among the Dowayo in Cameroon, bruised and battered in body and soul, he reflected (The innocent anthropologist, p.189):

Henceforth I was to find that the monographs of which anthropology as a subject is composed would appear to me in quite different light. I would be able to feel which passages were deliberately vague, evasive, forced, where data were inadequate or irrelevant in a way that had been impossible before Dowayoland.

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Among all the erudite conceptual discussions in ethnography, anthropology and ethnomusicology, may I recommend the straight-talking, down-to-earth, and engaging

For more, see e.g. Speaking from the heart; and for a recent volume on doing fieldwork in China, click here.