Monthly Archives: June 2013

Doing Fieldwork in China: Chapter 3 “Fieldwork as Coping and Learning”

Chapter 3: “Fieldwork as Coping and Learning” by Elin Saether

This chapter is about the process a young researcher goes through when being introduced into the world of fieldwork. He mentions “most students who decide to work on a topic related to China will try to locate China scholars locally, nationally, and maybe also internationally. The first approach is often an email where the student presents the project and asks for advice. This can be seen as the first meeting with the insider/outsider dichotomy.” I admit I did this exact thing when I moved to Kunming, Yunnan Province, China. I was planning on doing my first fieldwork trip, but I was nervous because I did not know anyone at Lugu Lake. I emailed top Mosuo experts and got a couple replies back. Most giving similar advice:

  • Recommended a town to start off at—Lige or Luoshui Village
  • Not interested in sharing informants, but supportive that you will find your own (broadening knowledge about the place)
  • “Good luck!”

To be honest, I hit the ground running, but at least I had a destination in mind, Lige Village. When I visited the town, I tried to keep myself very available and friendly, talking with as many people as I could. This came to an advantage because I coincidentally befriended the informant of an anthropologist. Because she liked me, the anthropologist trusted me to join them to do fieldwork in a remote village.

Upon entering the field, the “insider/outsider” dichotomy suddenly shifted from me vs. Mosuo experts, to me vs. locals. I was not one bit a part of their society. With my pale skin, blue eyes, and light brown hair, I stuck out like a sore thumb. Though I was so physically different from them, I took advantage of my language abilities to connect with them on personal levels and immediately started studying the Mosuo language. Even though I was aware I would always be an outsider in Lugu Lake, I wanted to at least lessen the gap and build a positive reputation. This feeling of being different is hard to cope with at first, but the moment the locals start treating you like a friend or someone that lives in the community; somehow you forget all that hard work. It was worth it:

I remember the documentary team and I were filming boat rowers on one of the beaches of Lugu Lake when a gaggle of Shanghai tourists fluttered by with their flashing Canon cameras. They pointed their lens in different angles to capture the local women. A Mosuo woman spoke up: “Leave! We don’t like it when you do this.” One of the Shanghai women gave a fake smile, “Oh, then why can they [us] film you and we can’t?” Without any hesitation, she responded, “because they are Mosuo and they are using a Mosuo camera!”

I felt proud that we had earned the trust of some of the villagers, to the point that they treated us like “insiders” and not “outsiders.” This was accomplished by interacting with these woman many times a week, playing with their children, and simply just being visible in the community. When you befriend someone, be sure to keep up with it. Say “hello,” “have you eaten yet?” and join them to eat or to drink at a bar. It’s all a part of the process. Who knows, maybe that one person you befriended will become your most trusted informant and best friend?

How do you start fieldwork? For everyone it is different. My tactic was to build rapport with the local community and learn the language before diving into the theoretical aspect of my research. I can say I was really fortunate in befriending the French anthropologist who introduced me to fieldwork in the Lugu Lake area and then joining a documentary team sponsored by National Geographic. Because of these two coincidences, they helped me build a foundation for my place in their society, as well for my research design. From these experiences, I have built strong relationships with the people of Lige village, which is integral in the next phase of my research that I will be conducting in July 2013.

The author makes a good point to say, “during fieldwork, the learning process is often hidden, which means it is difficult to identify progress.” I agree with this statement. Fieldwork is an accumulation of different methods: observations, interviews, “tacit learning,” and learning through failures. With these methods, it’s normally difficult to recognize what you have gained in knowledge or progress each day. I mean, you do not get any physical evidence of your achievement, like a recorded tape with the day’s interviews. Instead, you have sights, smells, interactions, feelings all jumbled up in your memory. This is why writing at least every night about observations and conversations is important because even if you did not notice anything interesting in these encounters, at least in the future you can analyze your notes to find deeper meaning. Also be perceptive of newspapers, the news, what you hear people saying on the streets, restaurants, and bars. All of these minor interactions also can contribute to your research. Even though your research may have a very focused topic, but recognizing big news and social issues in the major society can help give you a much broader understanding of how its affecting the community you’re studying (i.e. modernity, globalization, politics, etc.)

Fieldwork, especially in the beginning, is a coping and learning process, but each step you make, it begins to make sense and you get better at it. A good first step is to look for guidance among your peers, advisors, and experts in the field. This will take away the mental block that’s tearing away at your confidence. This will take you away from the “dipping your toes in first” technique to just “diving” right into the new waters that is Anthropology.

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“Doing Fieldwork in China”–Chapter 2: Discovery, Research (Redesign) and Theory

“Discovery, Research (Redesign) and Theory Building” by Kevin J. O’Brien
My Thoughts:

Kevin O’Brien brings up the importance of serendipitous meetings or unexpected turn of events while in the field. He believes being flexible (like forming a research design or conducting interviews, etc.) is imperative in making an in-depth, well thought out product at the end of one’s research. Many researchers go in with a rigid project design with a well-constructed theory to base their future results on…but sometimes that well thought out plan can backfire. Though it may at first feel like you have failed, in actuality, this also brings about a whole new set of opportunities. Your informants may not be interested or even know much about your previous topic, but they seem very enthusiastic to answer about something else important within their society. Explore that, and who knows, maybe it will connect to the previous project design?

I have encountered a handful of serendipitous events during my four trips to Lugu Lake:

The first being meeting a French anthropologist, PM, who took me under her wing and introduced me to a remote Mosuo village that still continues traditional customs, like matrilineal families and “walking marriage.” Through her, I learned more about conducting fieldwork and traditional Mosuo culture. During that stay, a local told us there would be a village celebration in a month after the building of a house. They invited us to the event.

A month later, I visited the same remote village by myself, only to find out that the house had already been built and that I had missed the event. I was disappointed, but decided to stay in the remote area to study the Mosuo language and understand more about their traditional culture. During that time, I often played with the kids in the home. They loved to watch me draw, so I would draw whatever they asked. One night the uncle, a local priest, noticed my drawing abilities. He mumbled something in the local dialect and suddenly walked out of the living area. He brought back a bag that contained over 100 year old religious tablets that were painted by his grandfather. They were falling apart as he handed them to me. He asked if I could redraw them for him on new tablets.

This opened up an unexpected turn in my research aim. I did not expect to utilize my artistic abilities to learn about Daba religious culture and the history of the small village. I accepted. That night I also learned that Tibetan Buddhist monks would come to the village in 11 days to read scriptures to bless all the villagers. At the end of the reading, there would be a bonfire party celebration. However, I had already decided I’d be back in Kunming to take classes.

When I went back to Lugu Lake from the village, I then ran into a group of filmmakers sponsored by National Geographic who wanted to go to the same remote village. They asked if I wanted to help them and join their crew. I’m not much for believing in fate, but I did feel this meeting to be serendipitous to the point that I accepted. When would I ever have another chance to join a film crew also interested in modern Mosuo society and associated with National Geographic? I joined them a week later to that festival and spent an entire month with them filming around the lake.

Through these coincidental events, I have a clearer understanding of what my research aim is, what I want to write (ethnographic articles), and have built close relationships with the local people. When I begin in-depth research in July, I now have a well-established  group of informants, as well as close friends. Like O’Brien mentioned in his chapter, when conducting research, make your fieldwork visits as flexible as possible because these uncanny encounters and random circumstances can improve your research.

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“Doing Fieldwork in China”–Chapter 1: My Thoughts on the Introduction

I’m currently reading “Doing Fieldwork in China,” edited by Maria Heimer and Stig Thogersen. Even though I’ve already thrown myself into the field, I still have a lot of reading, learning, and experiencing to do before calling myself an expert. I decided to read this book to get a broader understanding of how expert researchers manage to conduct fieldwork on the Mainland. For each chapter, I’m going to write my own response and relate it to my own experiences.

This book was written by experienced China researchers, this blog will be from the perspective of an amateur anthropologist:


Doing Fieldwork in China–“Introduction” by Stig Thogerson and Maria Heimer

My Thoughts:

The introduction gave a brief summary of the history of foreigners conducting fieldwork in China. Before the CCP was established, there was a vivacious social science community conducting fieldwork on “finding ways to convert the Chinese population [to Christianity],” “living conditions in Beijing,” “comprehensive field study in Hebei,” and “measuring the bodies and skulls of east Asian ethnic groups.” The topics seem outdated when we compare it to contemporary studies. However, “racial stereotypes and generalizations,” as well as Eurocentric research goals were common practice during this era.

When the CCP was established, fieldwork became nearly non-existent on the mainland, except among the refugee communities in Hong Kong, Taiwan, and United States. Only until after the Mao period did fieldwork reenter Chinese society–however, this time it came with ambiguous restrictions that are still present today. This is where the modern China researcher comes in.

The introduction brings up two important themes that are highlighted in the book:

1) The Presence of the Party-State
The presence of the party is self-imposing while conducting fieldwork in the countryside, especially when it touches on a sensitive topic, like ethnic tourism, ecological justice, water resources, or ethnic tensions, etc. For me, I tried to stay under the radar of the local government at first to build close relationships with the local community and rich outside investors around Lugu Lake. I wanted to develop “guanxi” in the area, which I hoped to later utilize when contacting the local government. For me, this strategy was successful because I was able to meet the local tourism bureau members at a fancy dinner, hosted by the town’s richest man and now my close friend. The members were enthusiastic to hear about my research after my friend introduced me in a positive light.

2) Collaboration
This theme highlights building a close relationship with a local who will assist you with translation and/or research. My university required me to find an assistant immediately before I could conduct fieldwork in Lugu Lake. I treated this as an obstacle. I want to first form a close and trusting relationship with someone before sharing my research. This requirement could mean I would need to trust a stranger to join me, as well as need to pay this assistant everywhere I go. This problem occurred right before the Spring Festival break. I once again slid under the radar and just started going to the field by myself to familiarize myself with the area. I’m still keeping my eyes out for someone I trust to collaborate with. I already have a few locals who are willing to teach me the language and help me translate.
An experienced China researcher I met mentioned that my university required that I find an “assistant” because they wanted to keep a close eye on me and my research–basically, to make sure it fits in line with the party’s interests. I’m not sure what’s true, but I thought it was an interesting comment.

I’m looking forward to reading the next chapters! To those experienced, not experienced, or currently learning, like me, I’d really appreciate reading your own perspectives and experiences doing fieldwork around the world. Let’s share the obstacles we’ve encountered and triumphs we have conquered while doing research.

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China’s Ultimate Frisbee Community: The Shanghai Open 2013

I’ve been playing Ultimate Frisbee in China ever since I moved to Kunming and learned about the pick-up group here. Only a few weeks into playing with them, one of the leaders asked if I wanted to join him and his team to a tournament in the future. I had never participated in an Ultimate Frisbee tournament before, so I was a bit nervous, but also excited to be invited. Months later the Shanghai Open finally happened! Five people from Kunming, including me, would be a part of the team, as well as other players around Southern China (Chengdu, Wuhan, Tianjin, Hong Kong, etc.). We are called the “Southern Spirits.”

The month before, my team and I trained (though I was absent because of fieldwork purposes) for Shanghai. We wanted to be good. Our team won B Pool last year, and we wanted to win it again!

The day came to head out to Shanghai. I was so excited…I had never gone to the “New York” of China before! Upon arriving, I joined another Kunming Fulbrighter, Jake, as we found other teammates and went out to eat traditional xiaolongbao at a famous restaurant (that I of course can’t remember). You would put the small  soup dumpling in a spoon, tear a sliver of the skin to let the tasty juices out, drink the soup and then eat the meat dumpling. It was so good!

We then went next door to where the Communist Party had their first national meeting. The museum was not too bad for being a highly propagandaed exhibition in honor of the CCP. They showed a lot of the intellectual community that created the philosophies and community that became the new government. The exhibit had rows of old magazines, newspapers, books, journals, and pictures of China back in the 1920’s-30’s. Some of the pictures looked similar to those you see of old New York…China was developing just as fast as the western countries during that time. That changed when the CCP halted the intellectual and economic development of the country with reforms and discrimination against the educated community. If the Nationalist Party had won, would China really be what Taiwan is now? Hard to say. A China led by Chiang Kai-shek would also be disturbing…look into Taiwan’s modern history and you will see that Chiang Kai-shek was a very tyrannical leader.

Afterwards, we ate some delicious western food at a Belgium bar and then took a cab to our hotel all the way in Pudong (a district separate from the city). We would play tomorrow!


Day #1: Women’s and Men’s Tournament


Men’s Tournament–Tianjin Speed Wins!

Since there were not enough women, we just played a round robin, easy-going three-game series. While, on the other hand, the men were going at it next door. The last game was pretty intense and Tianjin Speed, an all Chinese national team, won!

Day #2: First Day of Mixed Tournament–Pool Selection


Representing Souther Spirits!

Since most of my teammates met that first day, our chemistry was not very good for our first few games. We lost two, but won the last one. We stayed in B Pool. Wooh!


Go Mother Duck! (Erin was our coach for the weekend)

That night, there was a tournament party, themed “Sexy Zoo.” I bought a bear pajama suit, not very sexy, as my other (male) teammates dressed up as a sexy tiger, rooster, and leopard. It was a good time! My calves were killing me though from the two days of intense playing. There were few girls on our team, so I played A LOT.

Day #3: Semi-Finals and Finals–Who will win the bracket?

From the past two days, my Frisbee skills got better exponentially. I began to master all the different kind of strategies (ho stack, vert stack, zone offense and defense). I was also having a lot of fun too! We lost all (?) the games this day, but it didn’t really put me down. It was all for fun anyway. I got to make some cool friends on my team and learn a lot about ultimate. I want to participate in another tournament in the future. I am addicted!


Kunming Southern Spirits Unite!

We watched finals afterward. It was Huwa (Shanghai A Team) versus Chairman XiaongMao (All-star team). I was cheering for XiongMao because two of the girls were from Kunming. It was a really, really close game. In the end, Huwa won. What a great weekend!

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