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
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 The topics seem outdated when we compare it to contemporary studies.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.
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.